Grave Stories

Come with me into the graveyard, all human life is here

No One Does Death Like The Habsburgs Do Death

From an obscure castle in Switzerland in the eleventh century the Habsburg tentacles reached out across Europe and across the centuries perpetually grasping more territories. By dint of war, election, inheritance, skilful politicking, but most of all through judicious marriage, and  shored up by  the almost continuous presence of a member of the House of Habsburg as Holy Roman Emperor from 1438-1806, they expanded their holdings. In 1272 the Germans elected Rudolf I as their king, and his sons became Dukes of Austria in battle. In the fifteenth century Maximilian I acquired the Netherlands through marriage to Mary of Burgundy. A particularly auspicious marriage with Joanna of Castile, combined with his sister’s marriage to Joanna’s brother, enabled Philip I to claim Spain and its colonies for his son Charles V. Under the latter Habsburg power reached its apogee in the sixteenth century. In 1521 Charles’s brother Ferdinand had married Anna, the daughter of Vladislav II , King of Bohemia and Hungary, and his sister Mary had married Vladimir’s son Louis II. The marriage contract had stipulated that Ferdinand would succeed to the Hungarian and Bohemian lands if Louis died leaving no legitimate male heir. When Louis died at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526 the territories duly passed to Habsburg rule.

To preclude rival dynasties from emulating their tactics and to secure their position the Habsburgs, when not marrying into new possessions, intermarried. But this successful strategy came at a price and their consanguineous unions brought a range of physical and mental disabilities, miscarriages, still births, neonatal deaths, and the famous  Habsburg Jaw, a protruding lower jaw with a bulbous lip,  and Hapsburg Nose, long  with a hump and hanging tip. Between 1516 and 1700  88% of marriages in the Spanish branch of the Habsburg family were consanguineous: where most people have sixteen great great grandparents, Charles II of Spain had only nine. His mother was the niece of his father, his grandmother was also his aunt. Known as el Hechizado (the Bewitched) the poor man was short, lame, had congenital heart disease and epilepsy, suffered from depression, was impotent, and so developed was his Hapsburg Jaw  that he struggled to eat and speak. Extended periods of ill health dogged his life and when he died in 1700 leaving no heirs Habsburg rule ended in Spain with a Bourbon victory in the War of Spanish Succession.

In the Austro-Hungarian territories of central and eastern Europe however the Habsburgs clung to power into the twentieth century. Maria Theresa survived potential disaster,  despite the loss of Silesia to Prussia, and defended her right to inherit the rest of the Habsburg lands  in the War of Austrian Succession. In 1804 Francis I, although forced to accept the demise of the Holy Roman Empire under pressure from Napoleon, declared himself instead Emperor of Austria and in 1867 established the Dual Monarchy  of the Austro-Hungarian Empire  with Hungary as a nominal co-equal in response to Hungarian nationalism and growing Austrian weakness. Franz Joseph’s attempt to reverse declining fortunes and increase Habsburg territory with the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 however proved disastrous. Serbia, closely related geographically and ethnically to these territories, was outraged. Serbian nationalism was inflamed and in 1914 a Serbian nationalist movement the Black Hand  sought the removal of Austria-Hungary from Bosnia Herzegovina and the formation of a southern Slavic state. Under their influence a group of Bosnian Serbs assassinated the Archduke Ferdinand, nephew and heir of the Emperor Franz-Joseph. Austria-Hungary responded by declaring war on Serbia and through systems of alliances Germany, France, and Britain were drawn into war. By 1918 the Empire had collapsed in defeat: the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, and Slavs all declared their political independence; Austria and Hungary sought to determine their own future. Karl I of Austria, IV of Hungary, the grandnephew of Franz-Joseph who had succeeded him in 1916, refused to abdicate, still believing himself the rightful Emperor, but Austria and Hungary became  republics, and the Habsburg Law of 1919 banished the Habsburgs until they renounced all claims to the throne. Karl went into exile in Madeira and spent his remaining years trying to restore the monarchy, making two unsuccessful attempts to regain the Hungarian throne in 1921 . At his death in 1922 his son Otto, raised by his mother to see himself as the rightful heir, became the pretender to the throne, making several attempts to promote Habsburg restoration in the 1930s. Not until 1961 did he reluctantly renounce his claim.

Given such tenacious seeking and clinging to power in life, the Hapsburg way of  death did not  surprise  me. In the stygian gloom of the Kaisergruft, the Imperial crypt beneath the Capuchin church in Vienna, scions of the House of Habsburg lie entombed. Established under the terms of the will of Anna of Tyrol in 1617, she and her husband the Emperor Matthias were the first incumbents. Since then, they have been joined by the bones of almost 150 other Habsburgs. Before entry into this grandiose burial chamber the Habsburg organs are removed as part of the embalming process for display before the funeral. Between 1654-1878 the mortal remains were then dispersed between three separate crypts: the heart placed in a silver urn went to the Herzgruft, a burial chamber in the Augustinian church in Vienna; entrails in copper urns went to the Duke’s crypt in the catacombs of Saint Stephen’s cathedral; and the bones were first placed  in a wooden coffin lined with silk, black with gold trim for rulers and red with silver trim for others, which was then enclosed in a metal coffin with two locks. One key  was kept by the Capuchin guardian of the crypt and the other in the Treasury of the Hofberg Palace. The baroque metal sarcophagi in the sprawling crypt are embellished with secular emblems of power, and although there is a tradition of battering the face of the corpse to make it appear more humble in the sight of god and an elaborate ritual whereby the funeral cortege abases itself before being granted entry to the church, these bombastic tombs speak of a dynasty unwilling  surrender  power even in the face of death.

Anna of Tyrol and Emperor Matthais, founders of the Kaisergruft
Leopold I with a toothy Death’s Head
Detail – Joseph I
Joseph I
Detail: Death’s head with Imperial Crown – Charles VI
Charles VI
Detail: woman in mourning veil – Elisabeth Christine, wife of Charles VI
Elisabeth Christine, wife of CharlesVI
Maria Theresa, the only woman to rule the Habsburg dominions in her own right, and her husband Francis
They appear to be sitting up in an enormous bed
with a plump putti holding a starry wreath above them
Franz Joseph
Elisabeth of Bavaria, aka Sisi, wife of Franz Joseph, famous for her extreme dieting and two hours of hair care per day; any hairs that fell out during this operation had to be presented for her inspection in a silver bowl. Assassinated by an Italian anarchist in Geneva. Her body was returned to Vienna.
Maximilian of Mexico: younger brother of Franz Joseph I , he was placed on the Mexican throne with the backing of Napoleon III and Mexican conservatives who sought to overthrow the liberal republican government of Benito Juarez. When Napoleon III withdrew his support and abandoned his Imperialist designs in Mexico under pressure from the American government Maximilian’s troops were defeated in the civil war and he was sentenced to death by court martial. His body was returned to Vienna.
Crown Prince Rudolph, son of Franz Joseph and Elisabeth of Bavaria. Died in a murder/suicide pact with his mistress Mary Vetsera at his hunting lodge in Meyerling. Declared mentally unbalanced in order to be allowed a church burial. Mary was not the first mistress to whom Rudolf had proposed a suicide pact. Her body was discreetly whisked away.
Franz Ferdinand, assassinated at Sarajevo. There is only a plaque in the Kaisergruft as he is buried with his morganatic wife at Artstetten Castle. Marriage to a lady-in-waiting was out of line with standard Habsburg policy.
Karl I, again there is only a memorial in the Kaisergruft. Exiled to Madeira, he is buried there.
Not The Kaisergruft. Karl I is buried in the Pilgrimage Church of Nossa Senhora do Monte in Madeira.

And after a morning in the company of the Austrian Habsburgs it’s time for coffee and cake in the Cafe Central.

The Fair Maids, the Knight Templar, the Diarist and his Wife

The church at Norton Saint Philip boasts a clock by Vulliamy and Frodsham dating from 1848. It is not the oldest church clock in Somerset, but it is one of the few still wound by hand. Twice a week clock winders  winch up three weights in a pulley system and as they descend the clock strikes the hour, the half, and the quarters. Every sixth week we take our turn on the clock winding rota, climbing the narrow spiral staircase up the tower to a point where we look down on the bell ringers but up to those charged with care of the flagpole.

The clock winders eyrie
The winding mechanism
A clock winder
The weights
The minutes are the easiest wind

The base of the tower at the west end of the church is not its most attractive feature: here behind closed doors spare chairs are stacked, vases and watering cans jumble together, notice boards superfluous to current requirements lean drunkenly against the walls, plastic boxes spill electrical odds and ends, and what looks suspiciously like a hostess-trolley lurks in one corner. It has in truth a desolate air, the  few memorials lining the walls  have known better times and  they look down disconsolately on the dusty impedimenta. But these memorials  are the survivors: they were moved from the floors of the nave, chancel, and aisles to the tower walls during Gilbert Scott’s reconstruction of the church in the 1840s,  when others disappeared entirely. And high on the north wall are the  sisters whom I always greet: two small female heads, crudely sculpted with  flicked up hairdos reminiscent of Millicent Martin on TW3 in the mid-sixties, they are roughly attached to the wall.

They have no words of their own but beneath, in a shabby frame, a faded notice recalls a quotation from the diary of Samuel Pepys:

At Philip’s Norton I walked to the

Church, and there saw the Tombstone

whereon there were two heads cut,

which the story goes and creditably,

 were two sisters, called the Fair Maids

of Foscott, that had two bodies upward

and one stomach and there lie buried.

Pepys and his wife visited Philip’s Norton in June 1668. Foscott, now Foxcote, is a hamlet a few miles from Norton and when Pepys saw the tomb the effigy of the conjoined twins was cut in stone in the floor of the nave. Later the Somerset Historian John Collinson recorded in the third volume of his History and Antiquities of the County of Somerset  published in 1791 that “In the floor of the nave…are the mutilated portraitures, in stone, of two females, close to each other, and called, by the inhabitants, the Fair Maids of Foscott, or Fosstoke, a neighbouring hamlet, now depopulated. There is a tradition that the persons they represented were twins, whose bodies were at their birth conjoined together” and, he adds gruesomely, “that they arrived at a state of maturity; and that one of them dying the survivor was compelled to drag about her lifeless companion, till death released her of the horrid burden.” Today nothing  remains of the tombstone  save for the heads, the rest probably destroyed during Gilbert Scott’s restoration.

Pepys also noted that while in the church  he “there saw a very ancient tomb of some Knight Templar, I think.” The latter still lies in the south aisle but is now identified as a lawyer of the fifteenth century wearing a barrister’s gown. More loved than the Maids he is often in receipt of tribute, near disappearing beneath greenery at Christmas and well supplied with apples at harvest.

The Lawyer
His feet resting on his dog

Just a year after this visit Pepys himself had cause to erect a memorial: his wife, Elisabeth, died and he had a marble bust of her installed at Saint Olave’s in the City of London where he was a regular worshipper calling it “our own church,” and which was later described by Betjeman as “a country church in the world of Seething Lane.” Elisabeth’s bust was positioned on the north wall of the sanctuary so that Pepys could see her from his pew in the gallery, and in 1703 he was buried next to her in the nave. His own memorial  on the wall of the south aisle faces hers, and from their elevated positions they receive their many admirers.

Elisabeth Pepys
Samuel Pepys

Not so the Fair Maids, a little lonely these days in their tower with only the clock winders, flower arrangers, bell ringers, and flag hoisters passing busily beneath them as they go about their business. So, if you are in Somerset, follow Pepys’ example: come to this country church in Norton Saint Philip and visit my friends the Maids, say hello to the lawyer too, and listen to the hand wound clock striking the quarters.

Daniel Defoe

A year on from the first Covid lockdown I turned to Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year to compare notes. His plague year was very much like ours: the first signs in Holland and  rumours  regarding the possible origins in Italy or the Levant, mirrored our own experiences watching Italy and Wuhan. The gradual spread from St. Giles and the West End  to Cripplegate, Clerkenwell, and the City reflected our monitoring of Covid hotspots. The flight of the court and the well-heeled to their second homes was  familiar; likewise, the first deaths and the sudden desolation in the streets with shops closed, Inns of Court shut up, theatres, alehouses, and diners all dark. Attempts to control wandering beggars resembled our own government’s sudden concern to house the homeless. The sick were either sequestered and died apart from their families or whole households were shut up in their homes, as happened in our hospitals and care homes. When Defoe bemoaned the lack of enough “pest houses” he might have been speaking of our own shortage of Covid wards leading to the construction of the Nightingale hospitals. Quack medicines appeared,  just as hydroxychloroquine and the possibility of injecting bleach into our veins to wash out our lungs found favour in certain quarters in the twenty first century. Defoe recorded people moving to live on boats in the Thames or to camp in Epping Forest, and similarly at the height of Covid caravans and camper vans occupied green sites, sometimes received sympathetically by locals, at other times not. During the plague year the government forbade movement to second homes once people were sick, but some went against the rules; no need to labour the parallels. Daily and weekly recording of illness and death rates confirmed that then as now, the poor, living in overcrowded conditions  with inadequate ventilation and unable to  avoid the breath of others, sickened more than the wealthy. It became apparent that asymptomatic people could carry the plague. There were disruptions to trade and the closure of ports. As the plague intensified people rushed to stockpile provisions and there were shortages; they soaked their money in vinegar there being no contactless cards to replace cash. The poorest in the community found themselves out of work, unable to purchase food or pay for their lodgings. Charity, like our foodbanks, stepped in to supplement the parish relief which like our universal credit proved inadequate. Servants were redeployed as nurses, sextons, gravediggers. In Defoe’s London burials took place before sunrise and after sunset and neighbours and friends could not attend church funerals; when people died in the streets  their bodies were removed in deadcarts to mass graves. Similarly in our own times government regulations limited numbers of mourners requiring them to be socially distanced, and as morgues and mortuaries became overwhelmed in 2020 contract workers wearing hazmat suits dug mass graves on Hart Island off the Bronx in New York. When, at last, the death rate began to decline JPs issued certificates of health to permit travel anticipating our own vaccine passports. Then as people became careless the rate rose again. Plus ça change…

There were differences, not least the greater presence of religion in Defoe’s Britain: sects, fortune tellers, and astrologers flourished; Solomon Eagle stalked the streets, naked with a pan of burning charcoal on his head, calling on the populace to repent; though some clergy fled, others kept their churches open; and when the plague ended Defoe gave credit for the recovery to god. Conversely there was less respect for the medical profession and far from clapping for carers Defoe wrote of nurses finishing their patients off and stealing their goods. And while, notwithstanding some fear of interspecies transmission, pet ownership increased during lockdown, Defoe’s London witnessed the wholesale killing of cats and dogs.

Defoe was only five years old in 1665 and the vivid “eyewitness account” which he recorded originated with his uncle Henry Foe, supplemented by Defoe’s own meticulous research. A man of many talents – merchant, spy, novelist, poet, political pamphleteer, and activist – Defoe’s life was a rollercoaster of excitement, achievements, and disasters. In 1685 he participated in the Monmouth rebellion against James II but escaped retribution in the Bloody Assizes, and when William III came to power became a secret agent in the pay of the latter. His poem The True Born Englishman defended William against racial prejudice, reminding xenophobic readers that they were all descended from immigrants. William’s death and the succession of Queen Anne led to the persecution of nonconformists and Defoe’s arrest in 1703 for pamphleteering, political activity and producing satires directed against high church Tories. Prior to his removal to Newgate, he was placed in the pillory for three days but his poem Hymn to the Pillory putatively resulted in the pillory being garlanded, flowers rather than rubbish thrown at him, and his poem sold in the streets. With the death of Queen Anne and the fall of the Tories he was able to resume work for the Whigs. Over five hundred works have been attributed to Defoe: away from the world of politics, these include Robinson Crusoe,  Moll Flanders,  A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain and of course A Journal of the Plague Year. No stranger to the debtor’s prison during his life he died, as he had often lived, in debt.

Defoe was buried in the Non-Conformist Cemetery at Bunhill but the original stone which marked his grave was struck by lightning and the headstone broken in 1857. James Clarke, the editor of Christian World,  a children’s newspaper, encouraged his readers to donate 6d. each for a new memorial, setting up two rival subscription lists, one for girls and one for boys. An obelisk, raised in 1870 bore the inscription:

THIS MONUMENT IS THE RESULT OF AN APPEAL

IN THE CHRISTIAN WORLD NEWSPAPER

TO THE BOYS AND GIRLS OF ENGLAND FOR FUNDS

 TO PLACE A SUITABLE MEMORIAL UPON THE GRAVE

OF

DANIEL DE-FOE

IT REPRESENTS THE UNITED CONTRIBUTIONS

OF SEVENTEEN HUNDRED PERSONS.

Defoe’s obelisk at Bunhill Fields
Inscription on Defoe’s obelisk

Samuel Horner, a stonemason from Bournemouth, erected the obelisk and took the original stone home with him, selling it as part of a general load from his yard. It became  part of the paving of the kitchen floor at Bishopstoke Manor Farm until the farm manager, Frederick Stiles King, moving to a new house at 56 Portswood Road in 1883, took the stone with him, where it remained in his front garden for over 60 years. Charles Davey acquired it in 1945 and thirteen years later gave it to Stoke Newington library. There it lived in a glass case in the entrance lobby, an appropriate final resting place as Defoe had lived in Stoke Newington from the age of fourteen while he attended the Dissenting Academy  under Charles Morton at Newington Green. But when I arrived at the library in search of the stone there was no sign of it. Happily, the librarian knew of its whereabouts: having been vandalised several times it had been moved to more secure premises in the delightful local history museum  in Hackney where, beside a bust of Defoe and backed by a wall display of the famous pillory, it keeps company with other Hackney  radicals, revolutionaries, and immigrants, not to mention a Saxon longboat  and a complete reconstruction of a pie and mash shop.

Defoe’s original gravestone in Hackney museum

A Brief Encounter with Laura, Alec, Helen and Sofie

The promise of “an immersive theatrical event” lured me to The Mill at Sonning. The theatre’s Waterwheel Bar had been transformed into the refreshment room at Milford Junction  in 1936, and as we finished our supper at a table in the bar we witnessed the first encounter between Laura and Alec in Noel Coward’s Still Life. After he had removed the grit from her eye they occupied the next table and their repressed romance took its course with a magnificent supporting cast of steam train effects, Banbury cakes dropped on the floor and returned to their plate on the buffet counter, and curling cheese sandwiches on sliced white, the latter carefully preserved under clingfilm at the end of the evening for future use. It was an unforgettable piece of theatre.

Before this I had been more familiar with Brief Encounter, David Lean’s 1945 adaptation of the play with Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. Of all the wonderful black and white films of the forties it is the one I love most. It engenders nostalgia with steam trains, the station buffet, Boots circulating library, the Kardomah coffee house, a service flat, Laura’s tailored suits, Alec’s trilby and a phone call made from the tobacconist,  all wrapped up in the swelling Rachmaninov score, the swirling fog, and the pent-up passion. Ultimately of course Nothing Happens, and it is hard today not to smile at the cut glass accents and the stultifying morality as the deeply conventional middle-class housewife and the married doctor battle with their intense emotions before parting, he to a new life in S. Africa, she to her home and husband. Alan Bennett satirised the film affectionately  in The History Boys where Posner and Scripps in one of the most delightful scenes in the play re-enact an emotionally charged exchange between Laura and her husband, Fred.

And yet…while others finding themselves in north Lancashire may head for the Lake District, my own footsteps always tend towards  Carnforth. For Carnforth is the real-life Milford Junction on whose platforms David Lean shot his film  when it was impossible to film night scenes around London because of the blackout. And Carnforth celebrates the association: in summer months flowers blossom extravagantly amongst the  vintage suitcases and trunks which decorate the platform  along with railway posters and porters’ trolleys beneath the famous clock. The refreshment room serves tea and Brief Encounter Cakes, and the railway museum offers a mini-cinema with tip-up seats showing the film on a loop.

The refreshment room at Carnforth

Such is the seductive power of the film that I can barely distinguish between Laura and Celia, Alec and Trevor. So, when I found  Celia Johnson’s grave in the trim churchyard of St. Bartholomew’s,  Nettlebed, in the heart of rural Oxfordshire, next to that of her husband, Peter Fleming, and surrounded by older headstones, many commemorating other members of the Fleming family, I was not at all surprised. It was just where I would have expected to find Laura. Her Wikipedia entry records that  after the war Celia Johnson focused on family life, just as Laura did, and died after collapsing with a stroke while playing bridge – just how Laura would have gone. And Nettlebed itself, quaint, sleepy, and manicured, a village so ridiculously pretty with its handsome houses, thatched cottages, and charming gardens that it regularly stars in Midsomer Murders, is just where Laura would have lived.

Grave of Celia Johnson
Grave of Peter Fleming

To find Trevor Howard/Dr. Alec Harvey then I should have boarded a Union Castle liner from Southampton, or at least a BOAC aeroplane from Croydon stopping to refuel every few hundred miles, to S. Africa. There I should have found him in some dusty, neglected graveyard outside Johannesburg, beneath a stone extolling the compassion and selfless dedication of a caring doctor. The reality was a little different: I travelled to the end of the Northern Line at High Barnet and after negotiating the roadworks, caught the number 107 bus to Arkley. There  behind the austere, brick, Victorian church of St. Peter I located a few stone slabs resting against the wall bearing  stark lists of those interred. But no graveyard ever disappoints for long, and beside the stone bearing Trevor Howard’s name there was a card with red roses from Helen and Sofie. The ink a little smudged by the rain despite a careful plastic covering, it read,

Dearest Trevor,

Thank you so much for all the happiness

you have brought to us with your

excellent performances.

One of the greatest actors that ever lived.

Thinking of you with lots of love.

xxx      Helen and Sofie     xxx

           

St. Peter, Arkley, memorial stones.
Stone bearing Trevor Howard’s name
Trevor Howard 1913-1988
Tribute from Helen and Sofie

I would have travelled the length of the Northern line a hundred times for the pleasure of meeting Helen and Sofie. I imagine them on a raw winter’s evening, drawing the curtains against the damp, grey nightfall, settling down on the sofa with a glass of red, and selecting a DVD starring their favourite actor. And when the choice falls on Brief Encounter, I’ll join them in raising a glass to Trevor and Celia.

           

Saying Hello to Joan, Alfred, and Lowry

It was a Sunday afternoon of penetrating,  unrelenting, rain interspersed with  claps of thunder when, shivering as the chilly water trickled under my coat collar and down my neck, I took refuge in the  Wren Gallery in Burford. Here was warmth, light, and, magically appearing in front of me, a platter of smoked salmon sandwiches. Surprised but delighted I took a sandwich whereupon a tray appeared bearing glasses of white wine. “Please” said Gill Mitchell “eat as many as you can and have another glass of wine. Our exhibition is opening today but, in this weather, there won’t be anyone  to eat all these sandwiches.” Happy to oblige I munched and sipped my way around the gallery and there discovered the wonderful world of Joan Gillchrest. She was a member of the talented Gilbert Scott family of architects, and after studying art in Paris and London,  driving an ambulance during the war, and an exotic post war life as a model, she  settled in the Cornish town of Mousehole in the 1950s. Her captivating paintings reminded me of  the works of  Alfred Wallis and LS Lowry: small, bent people struggled against the winds outside grey Cornish chapels, mines, and engine houses; they  walked dogs on beaches and  attended  weddings and funerals under louring Cornish skies. Other paintings were  suffused with the sunlight of a golden summer’s day: there were lighthouses,  seabirds, ships in  Mousehole harbour, ladies drinking sherry in the Lobster Pot Hotel. Views of the sea seen through the glorious tangle of plants in Joan’s greenhouse  also featured  her succession of rescue cats who formed the Titus dynasty  peering through the foliage.

I returned to the gallery the following week  to buy two small paintings, promising myself that in the future I would  buy a larger canvas, but as my finances improved  so did the value of Gillchrest’s work. So instead, I have shamelessly  treated the Wren as though it were a public gallery where I have viewed  ever-changing exhibitions of Joan’s work, and when, after Joan’s death, Gill Mitchell published  Joan Gillchrest: a Life in Pictures   I enjoyed a wider range of the paintings.

In Paul churchyard above Mousehole a  rough-hewn granite stone marks Joan Gillchrest’s grave and sleeping at the base of it last time I visited lay a small, stone, black and white Titus concealed behind exotic blooms which I moved to one side for the photograph before tucking him back beneath them.

Joan and one of the Titus dynasty
Titus asleep
Joan Gillchrest

In her book  Gill Mitchell  comments that although Joan never knew Alfred Wallis she was open about his influence on her work and would visit his grave in St. Ives to “say hello to Alfred,” indeed  her painting “Saying Hello to Alfred” features the  grave at Barnoon cemetery overlooking Porthmeor beach and Tate St. Ives, home to some of his paintings. The Cornish fisherman  sold little in his lifetime. He began painting as he said “for company” after his wife died, painting his ships, harbours, and lighthouses  on old pieces of cardboard and grocery boxes. Even after Ben Nicholson, Christopher Wood  and Jim Ede  discovered and promoted his work  he lived in poverty and died in Madron workhouse. The artistic community of St. Ives paid for his grave which is one of the loveliest I know, the tiles designed by Bernard Leach portraying a lighthouse, which Wallis might have painted himself using the same subdued colours, with a small figure clambering up the steps.

Barnoon Cemetery with Alfred’s grave in foreground
Grave of Alfred Wallis
Detail – Grave of Alfred Wallis

I have found no reference to any influence of Lowry on Joan Gillchrest but since her hunched figures  battling the elements reminded me of his, come north with me, far from the  lighthouses, rocks,  bays and boats of Cornwall . At the Manchester School of Art LS Lowry  studied under Adolphe Valette whose own large impressionist canvases of industrial Manchester seen through a smog- filled haze occupy a magical room in Manchester Art Gallery. Lowry  famously worked as a rent collector while caring for his widowed and bed ridden mother in Pendlebury, painting at night after she was asleep. Today  the largest collection of his work is  displayed at the Lowry Gallery in Salford Quays but to “say hello to Lowry,” I took the bus to Manchester’s Southern Cemetery in Chorlton-come-Hardy. At the largest municipal cemetery in the UK, I anticipated a daunting quest, but in the lodge the custodian supplied me with a plan and focused my search by pointing to a photograph on the wall of his own daughter standing beside Lowry’s grave. In the serried rows, a conventional white cross marks the grave of Lowry’s parents with his own name added inconspicuously on the side of the base. But I might have spotted it  without help, for in front of it, in lieu of the usual vase of flowers, was a pot full of paint brushes.

Lowry family grave
Lowry grave with paint brushes
The two small paintings by Joan Gillchrest which I bought from the Wren Gallery: Sherry Time and Magpie

Jenner, Jesty, Mary Wortley Montagu and Blossom

“ I have had my fifth Covid jab as I am immunocompromised,” read a text from my friend, “they can call me whatever they want as long as I am jabbed, jabbed, jabbed.” “ I had pneumonia with my flu jab last autumn,” I countered, but I was outclassed. “Doesn’t cut the mustard,” came the reply “fifth Covid trumps pneumonia.” My friend and I embrace our vaccinations; we belong to the fortunate generation who until recently took for granted the protection afforded to us throughout our lives by vaccines. I have no memory of receiving my smallpox, polio, and diphtheria inoculations but I remember  the sepia photograph on my grandparents’ bedroom wall of a seven-year-old boy in a sailor suit, their son who had died of diphtheria,  and the  two slightly older children in my primary school who wore callipers having contracted polio. Neither disease ever posed a threat to me. In our teenage years when my school friends and I received our BCG vaccinations we gave little thought to  tuberculosis but  speculated enthusiastically on whether our crocodiling from school to the clinic and back might involve missing maths or Latin. Personally, I hoped to miss games, but this was not a popular view. In adulthood  vaccinations  ensured my safety on holidays: typhoid, hepatitis and cholera became routine, immunisation against yellow fever spoke of exotic destinations.

The Covid pandemic  shook my complacency breaching the defences of my protected, inoculated western world, and I was afraid. When in December 2020 Margaret Keenan received the first licensed vaccine against Covid, developed by Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, I rejoiced. On a bitterly cold day in February 2021, I joined other exultant, albeit masked and socially distanced, individuals at Shepton  Mallet Social Services Hub where we thanked effusively the shivering but cheerful volunteers who told us where to park and those who managed the queue in the freezing hall with its doors and windows flung wide, reserving our most effusive thanks of all for those who administered our jabs.

Later, as the third lockdown passed, I made newly appreciative and grateful visits to early vaccinators.

A weathered slab beside the altar in the church of St. Mary the Virgin, Berkeley marks the grave of Edward Jenner along with his parents, wife, and son.

Grave of Edward Jenner

Having  noticed the immunity of milkmaids from smallpox, and linked this to their exposure to cowpox, which he believed protected them, in 1796 Jenner injected James Phipps, the eight-year-old son of his gardener, with pus scraped from the blisters of a milkmaid  who had contracted cowpox from a cow called Blossom. Six weeks later when he inoculated the boy with smallpox there were no ill effects. Jenner set up a hut in his garden, the Temple of Vaccinia,  offering free vaccinations to the poor.

The Temple of Vaccinia

Jenner’s discovery however was not universally welcomed: sections of the clergy  held it ungodly and unnatural to inoculate people with material from a diseased animal, others feared the effects. The cartoonist Gillray, who pictured people growing cows’ heads after having the vaccine, satirised the credulity of extreme opponents. When vaccination with the cowpox became compulsory in 1853 there were protest marches and calls for freedom of choice. It was not until 1980 that the World Health Organisation was able to declare that “smallpox is dead,” and today specimens remain in only two laboratories in the USA and Siberia for research purposes, held, it is said, with greater security than the nuclear bomb. An exhibition in Jenner’s house, next door to the church,  traces the horrible effects of smallpox and the history of the vaccine.

But Jenner was not  the first to inoculate with cowpox. In the graveyard of St. Nicholas in Worth Maltravers I visited the recently restored grave of Benjamin Jesty. Twenty-two years before Jenner, during  the smallpox epidemic in 1774, the Dorset farmer inoculated his wife and two children with a darning needle coated in pus drawn from lesions on an infected cow . Although his vaccine was widely used by country doctors and farmers,  Jesty  too had met with ridicule and hostility not least from  members of the medical establishment. He wrote his own epitaph  describing himself as “the first person that introduced the cowpox by inoculation.” His wife, fittingly commemorated in a grave alongside him, added the more cautious and modest “known” in parenthesis.

Grave of Benjamin Jesty, the first person (known) that introduced the cowpox by inoculation
Jesty’s wife, Elizabeth, first person (known) that received the cowpox by inoculation
Graves of the Jestys

 Before Jesty or Jenner the exotic Lady Mary Wortley Montagu had brought variolation,  inoculation with pus taken from someone with smallpox itself to produce a mild infection and then immunity in the recipient, to Europe in 1721. The practice was widespread in Africa and Asia, and after observing it in Constantinople where her husband was ambassador, she had her own children inoculated. Later she encouraged trials on Newgate prisoners: faced with execution they were offered the alternative of receiving the inoculation and their freedom if they survived. Happily, all survived. The practice was also trialled on orphans. Criticism of Montagu focused not on the dubious morality of these trials but on fears of the results  and a certain prejudice against oriental medicine. Controversial though the process was  the Straffords at Wentworth Castle  had their children treated. When their  son  inherited the estate he dedicated the Sun Monument, an obelisk  in the gardens of Wentworth, to Montagu. She is buried in the vault of Grosvenor Chapel  in London.

And Blossom? Jenner kept her hide and horns when she died. Today her hide hangs proudly in the library at  St. George’s Hospital Medical School where Jenner did his medical training, but they admit that her horns are wooden copies, a letter in their archives suggesting that an impecunious relative of Jenner’s may have sold the originals to an American university in the 1930s.

Blossom’s hide, St. George’s Hospital Medical School

The museum at Jenner’s House has in its possession no less than seven horns: one magnificent specimen lying on the desk in Jenner’s study bears a silver inscription attesting proudly that  Jenner himself polished it and gave it  as a gift; two others are on display in a glass case.

A horn on the desk in Jenner’s study, inscribed by Jenner
A pair of horns in a glass case in the Jenner museum may be those of Blossom

Rival claimants to the “true horns” include the George Marshall Medical Museum in Worcester which owns a pair; the Thackery Museum in Leeds has another two; the Science museum has one and so does the Old Operating Theatre. But Blossom’s finest memorial, and that of Jenner, Jesty and Montagu, is the protection bestowed on us  with every inoculation we receive.

Thank you, Blossom

Fanny Burney

In the mid-1980s I lived in a flat in a Georgian conversion in Bath. In the flat above me lived a student of English literature. As I passed him in the hall one afternoon he glanced into the contents of my basket and exclaimed “Aha! You know.” I followed his gaze, but my greengrocery did not disclose any clues. In response to my blank look, he delved amongst the potatoes and carrots to extract a fat volume which he flourished. “You know about her,” he insisted stabbing his finger at my copy of Fanny Burney’s The Wanderer. The truth was that I was finding this massive tome tedious, and my knowledge of Fanny Burney was insufficient to allow me to engage with confidence in any discussion of her work with a specialist in English Literature. As I hesitated Robert enlightened me, “ She lived in your flat. You didn’t know?” I was surprised; there was no blue plaque on 23 Great Stanhope Street although there was one on 14 South Parade where Fanny had lodged with her friend Mrs. Thrale for three months in 1780.

Robert however was right: Fanny Burney lived for three years, from 1815 to 1818, in Great Stanhope Street with her husband General d’Arblay and their son Alexandre. D’Arblay, a French émigré, supporter of the constitutional monarchy, had fled France in 1792  forfeiting  his property. Fanny had already found fame  with her first two novels Evelina  and Cecilia which had earned the praise of Dr. Johnson and the admiration of Jane Austen. They met through Fanny’s sister when the emigres were living near her at Juniper Hall, and spent their first ten years together  in Surrey,  supported by the proceeds of  Fanny’s latest novel Camilla . In 1802 when an amnesty  removed  d’Arblay from the proscribed list of émigrés and permitted his return to France they hastened there  hoping to regain his property and his army pension,  but with the outbreak of  the Napoleonic Wars they became trapped. During their enforced residency Fanny completed The Wanderer. After the restoration of 1814 d’Arblay held a position in the King’s Guard and during  the Hundred Days that followed Napoleon’s escape from Elba he joined Louis XVIII but, wounded by a kick from a horse, he missed seeing action at Waterloo. The wound turned  gangrenous, and septicaemia developed. Discharged from the army d’Arblay returned to England  with Fanny who  hoped that the Bath waters would aid his recovery. As she wrote in her journal, they sought “cheap lodgings” in Bath, for The Wanderer had  not sold well, the readers who had embraced her earlier novels sharing my lack of enthusiasm for this one, and so they came to 23  Great Stanhope Street in “an unfashionable quarter of Bath.” Fanny’s diaries reveal that their drawing room  and her bedroom were on the first floor. On the second floor slept the general  (in what was now my bedroom) and their son  (in my sitting room.) A walk-in closet was a book room (my kitchen). Their landlady, Mrs. Brenan, occupied the ground floor and basement, cooking for them, cleaning, making fires, and emptying chamber pots. There was no sign of the fireplaces in my day: the rooms had been gutted. Happily there was no sign of the chamber pots either, for  the general’s bedroom had been partitioned to provide a bathroom.

The family remained in Great Stanhope Street until the general died, the Bath waters having failed to  alleviate his suppurating wound, jaundice, and limp.

I often fell asleep  conjuring up his sickly presence in what had once been his room, and that of his prolific and devoted wife busy writing below.

In search of their graves, I visited Saint Swithin’s  parish church. The church had been rebuilt on the site of an older foundation in 1775 to house its growing congregation in fashionable Bath. By 1800 it was the second largest parish in England after St. Pancras, London.

St. Swithin’s cemetery, the Lower Burial Ground, lay  across Walcot Street and down the hill from the church. Fanny buried the general there in May 1818 with a black marble headstone, which subsequently disappeared, and she had  a  memorial tablet expatiating on his virtues erected in the church.

In 1837  their son  was buried near his father, and in 1840 Fanny was placed in the same grave and another memorial tablet raised in the church. By 1906 however their gravestone was weathered and neglected, and Burney descendants replaced it with a new  tabletop  monument. In  1955 when part of the burial ground was  cleared for proposed redevelopment, the PCC moved Burney’s three-ton stone up the hill and over the road to a small enclosure beside the church, where it remains today, a lonely cenotaph separated by railings from the bustle of Walcot Street on one side and The Paragon on the other.

In 1987 remains from the cemetery, including those of Burney,  her husband and son, were exhumed and reinterred beside The Rockery  Garden in the municipal cemetery at Haycombe on the south side of Bath.

The Lower Burial Ground, its few remaining graves clustering round the mortuary chapel, remains undeveloped.

Fanny’s  memorial plaque in the church was destroyed when a new organ was installed against the wall in the twentieth century but in 2013 the Burney Society funded a new memorial reproducing the exact wording of the original from photographs.

Along with the general’s memorial  it is housed amongst a truly magnificent collection in the church for the general was not the only one for whom the Bath waters proved less than efficacious.

But Fanny’s spirit is not wandering  the church and its precincts nor  is she down in The Lower Burial Ground nor up in  Haycombe Cemetery: she is busy updating her journal, perhaps even plotting another novel, shorter this time, in her rooms at 23  Great Stanhope Street. I know, I lived with her.

From the Nile to Dowlish Wake and Mortlake

As a child my partner wanted to be an explorer, so I had no difficulty in persuading him to accompany me in search of Richard Burton and John Hanning  Speke who in the mid-nineteenth century set out to discover the source of the Nile.

“Ruffian Dick” was a flamboyant, handsome, adventurer and risk taker, a polyglot  fluent in twenty-nine languages including Hindustani, Marathi, Gujerati, Punjabi,  Arabic, and Persian, and with a taste for dressing up. Acting as Charles Napier’s intelligence agent in the army of the East India company in Sindh,  he developed the practice of passing himself off as a half Arab, half Persian trader. In 1852/3 disguised as Sheikh Abdullah, an itinerant  Afghan Sufi, a disguise which allegedly included having himself  circumcised, he went on hajj to Mecca although it is doubtful whether the disguise was necessary for he was not the first westerner to make the hajj and others since Burckhardt had travelled without disguise. Impressed by the linguistic skills of this experienced traveller the Royal Geographical Society funded his expedition to Somaliland in 1854-5. He was  joined on that expedition by John Hanning Speke.

Speke  too had led a colourful life: joining the East India Company’s army at seventeen, he had fought in the second Sikh war and travelled extensively in Tibet and the Himalayas.

When their camp  was attacked during the Somaliland expedition Speke received eleven spear wounds, two spears penetrating his thighs and staking him temporarily to the ground. Punching his attacker in the face he  escaped, running  three miles  barefoot and almost naked. Meanwhile a javelin  passed through both of Burton’s cheeks knocking out his back teeth and  he had to make his escape with it still transfixing his head.

This did not quench their thirst for adventure and two years later Speke joined Burton again on the first Nile expedition of 1856-1859, when they set off  from Zanzibar and  travelled inland from the east coast to Central Africa and the Great Lakes in search of the source of the Nile. Relations between the two men had however soured as Burton had  taken credit for specimens collected by Speke in Somalia  and had published parts of his diary  at the end of his own book First Footsteps in East Africa. After leaving Zanzibar both men were so ill with tropical diseases  and fevers that bearers had to carry them in hammocks for much of their journey. While Speke was sleeping  a beetle embedded itself in his  ear and when he tried to remove it with the point of his penknife, he made one side of his face infected with a festering, suppurating sore which became so swollen  that he was unable to eat and was deaf for months. He was  partially blinded  from trachoma and hardly able to see  when he and Burton became the first Europeans to reach Lake Tanganyika, which Burton considered  to be the source of the Nile. By this time Burton’s mouth was numb with ulcers and he was still too ill to walk. Speke  continued without him to Lake Ukerere; he had lost most of his surveying equipment but was convinced that Ukerewe, which he renamed Lake Victoria, was  the headwater of the Nile. He  returned to England before Burton and,  announcing that he had found the source of the White Nile,  embarked on a round of lectures. The RGS awarded him another expedition. Burton felt betrayed: they had, he claimed, agreed that they would announce their findings to the RGS  and give their first public lecture together. He further repudiated Speke’s claim and asserted that Lake Tanganyika was the source of the Nile. The rift between the two men deepened with a prolonged public quarrel, resentments, and jealousies.

In 1860 Speke, with instructions from the RGS to circumnavigate Lake Victoria, locate the origin of the Nile and trace it to Gondokono, set out with James Grant on the second Nile expedition. Together they waded through swamps, faced threats from elephant herds, and were detained by chiefs wary of slave traders, but at the end an ulcerated leg held Grant back and Speke reached the lake without him. He located a river flowing from  the north side over Mayinja, The Stones, which he renamed Ripon Falls. He re-joined Grant and the two proceeded down the crocodile and hippopotamus infested river, but  they could not follow  it all the way between Lake Victoria and Gondokono on account of local wars and the presence of slave raiding parties leading to travel restrictions imposed by local chieftains. They had to leave the river and travel overland. From Gondokono they travelled by ship to Khartoum  and from there Speke sent a telegram to the RGS:  “The Nile is Settled” . On return to England, he was acclaimed as a hero. Catherine Cavender’s booklet on sale in the  church of Dowlish Wake describes his welcome in  Somerset: “ Church bells rang out above the music of brass bands and  cheering …Roads (were) strewn with flowers and here and there arched over with banners of welcome… A band played See the Conquering Hero Comes… (There was) a bonfire and huge display of fireworks…Somerset blossomed for days with flags and bunting.”  Speke was lionised but Burton  argued that since Speke had not travelled its full length he could not be sure that the river leaving  Victoria Nyanza  was the same river as the White Nile flowing from Gondokono. There was a gap in Speke’s map of the river and Burton held to his own conviction that the source of the Nile lay in Lake Tanganyika.

In 1864 the RGS arranged a public meeting at the Mineral Water Hospital in Bath  where Burton and Speke were to debate and settle their dispute. Speke was staying with his cousin at Neston Park, near Corsham. The day before the debate they went shooting partridge and while climbing a wall Speke’s gun discharged, he  shot himself in the side and died fifteen minutes later. The inquest returned a verdict of accidental death,  but Burton spread the rumour that it was a suicide because Speke feared speaking in the debate. Popular feeling swung against Speke, and it was not until 1875 that  Henry Morton Stanley verified Speke’s claim when he travelled the length of the Nile from Lake Victoria to Gondokono.

Meanwhile Speke was buried in the family chapel in the church of St. Andrew, Dowlish Wake in Somerset. Murchison, the President of the RGS, Grant, and David Livingstone attended his funeral. The government granted his family the right to add a hippopotamus and a crocodile as supporters of  their shield; the flowing Nile, and the  motto Honor est a Nilo, His Fame is from the Nile,  to their coat of arms. Despite embellishment with hippopotamus, crocodile, and egret however the cold , white, wall memorial which rises above Speke’s dark sarcophagus remains too austere and bleak a monument to evoke the magic and mystery of the Nile.

A Nilo Praeclarus, From the Nile Renowned, Speke’s tomb and monument
embellished with a crocodile
and an egret

A  more colourful memorial is the stained-glass  window presented by Speke’s uncle  portraying an earlier discovery on  the Nile.

Burton lived on until 1890  working, surprisingly, in the diplomatic service, with postings in equatorial Guinea, Brazil, Damascus and finally Trieste. More in character, he translated The Thousand and One Nights,  The Kama Sutra, and The Perfumed Garden. At his death, his wife Isabel burned his diaries and journals and the translation of The Perfumed Garden and wrote a sanitised biography of her husband. She buried him in the graveyard of St. Mary Magdalen Roman Catholic church in Mortlake in a tomb which she designed herself, modelling it on a Bedouin tent which her husband had owned in Damascus. There,  in one of the most incongruous and flamboyant sepulchres in England, she later joined him.

A ladder leads up to a window in the back of the tomb and in the spirit of exploration I sent my partner up to investigate.

Alas, notwithstanding the sense of peering into a mutoscope it revealed no exotic, erotic scenes from Burton’s life or his translations,  just two  coffins and some dusty lamps and wreaths.

Edgar Wallace

My mother loved the cinema, and it was our weekly treat in the sixties to spend Friday evenings at the pictures followed by six penn’orth of chips, hot, greasy, and wrapped in several layers of newspaper, on the way home. In those days there were five cinemas in Chester: the Gaumont was  the smartest with a huge glittering art deco foyer, magnificent auditorium,  and elegant restaurant; the Regal and the Odeon, which we most commonly frequented, had standard thirties cinema architecture; the tiny Classic, squashed between a sweet shop and a pub, favoured  foreign and X-rated films (we seldom went there); and the Music Hall’s name indicated its previous incarnation.

For 3/6d adults, 1/9d children,  we could enjoy a  programme of main feature, Pearl and Dean advertisements,  Pathe News and second feature, running continuously, and it was possible to enter at any point and remain as long as we liked. Some patrons sat or slept through several performances. Others  would suddenly leap to their feet and announcing  “we came in here” begin to collect their coats and umbrellas as they edged their way out apologising as they brushed past our knees blocking the screen at critical moments in the drama.

The permanent darkness gave the auditorium a  mysterious romance as usherettes guided us by the beam of their torches to vacant red plush seats. Between us and the screen hung a thick, blue fug of cigarette smoke and the pungent scent of tobacco and nicotine was occasionally joined by the flare and acrid fumes of a struck match. During the intermission, the Kia-Ora lady would make her way backwards down the aisle with a spotlight shining on her and a  heavy tray suspended around her neck  containing orange squash, Butterkist popcorn, salted nuts and choc ices.

When the second feature was an Edgar Wallace Mystery I was especially delighted. Born in 1875, Wallace had left school at twelve and variously worked selling newspapers, delivering milk, in a rubber factory, as ship’s cook, and as a war correspondent in the second Boer War, until he turned, very successfully, to writing. He dictated his prolific output of journalism,  poetry, historical works, plays, novels, short stories, songs, and film scripts, including the screenplay for King Kong, onto wax cylinders which his secretaries  typed up. The Edgar Wallace Mysteries were film adaptations of his crime fiction, based on the popular detective stories which he had written in the 1920s but which the studio updated and set in contemporary London. The mood for the convoluted tales of murder, blackmail, and burglary,  was set as the spookily lit bust of Wallace himself rotated slowly on the screen surrounded by swirling fog,  to the mournful, eerie sound of the theme tune, Man of Mystery. I lost myself in  the black and white thrillers which unfolded on the screen, wistfully identifying with the high heeled, pencil skirted heroine,  following  the trench coated,  trilby wearing detective as he  navigated  the London streets and nightclubs, the smoke from his cigarette mingling imperceptibly with that rising from the cinema audience. It was all satisfyingly louche, and of course the heroic detective could be relied upon to bring the disreputable villains to brook.

Disappointingly, Edgar Wallace’s final resting place is a world away from the seedy criminals and rakish detectives whom I watched enthralled on the screen; he lies in the decorous surroundings of Little Marlow cemetery in Buckinghamshire, near the country home at Chalklands which he bought with the proceeds of his seamy tales, in the most respectable and conventional of graves, with not an unsavoury villain in sight.

Edgar Wallace 1875-1932

Ivan Franko and The Stonebreakers

For over six weeks Ukrainians, led by the brave and seemingly tireless Zelenskiy, have been fighting to protect their homeland from an evil and brutal invasion. And even as they have fought in defence of their country, they have negotiated too, working and hoping for a political compromise which allows them autonomy and freedom to choose their own way of life.

There are no words for the horror, ugliness, and violence of war. Every night we have watched the news on television, every morning read the newspapers. War is death, injury and mutilation, homelessness, hunger and degradation, fear of an ever-present threat. Part of a privileged generation in a privileged country who have not known war in our lifetimes I cannot claim to empathise, to know anything of the feelings of those who have fled or the fears of those who remain. I can feel only shame for our own government’s failure to welcome refugees.

In happier times I travelled around Ukraine on the Ukrainian railways. Then the distinctive blue trains with their yellow stripe provided a comfortable intercity sleeper service for tourists like me,  and the carriage guards greeted us with tea in the mornings. In recent weeks, those trains have been involved in a massive evacuation programme,  carrying as many as 200,000 people a day, two million in the first two weeks of the war alone, to the west of the country, returning packed with humanitarian aid.

When my train took me to Lviv I visited the Lychakivske cemetery  where I found Ivan Franko (1856-1916), nationalist poet, journalist, activist, and reformer, he was a co-founder of the Ruthenian-Ukrainian Radical Party in 1889. On his grave a massive sculpture of a  stonecutter “crushing the granite wall” references his poem Kamenyari, The Stonebreakers, an allegory of the Ukrainian struggle for liberation from her oppressive past under the Polish, Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires. For foreign oppression is not new to Ukraine. In the 1340s the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and The Kingdom of Poland split the country between them. As the power of Lithuania declined, Poland tightened her hold until a challenge by Russia in the seventeenth century subjugated Kyiv and Northern Ukraine, while  the Poles remained in the West. In the eighteenth century  the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires carved up Poland between them and the Austrian Hapsburgs  annexed Lviv and the West. Against this background of colonisation and foreign dominance, Ivan Franko took a leading part in the rise of Ukrainian nationalism in the nineteenth century. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the turmoil of the Russian Revolution allowed Ukraine a very brief period of independence after the First World War, but the Polish-Ukrainian war (1918-1919) effected a return to Polish ascendancy in the West, while the Polish- Soviet war (1918-1921) precipitated the incorporation  of most of Ukraine into the Soviet Union. Occupied at separate times in the Second World War by the Nazis and the Soviets, Ukraine emerged under Soviet domination. At last, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine obtained a fragile independence in 1991, until on 24 February this year a new Russian invasion brought war.

In the same cemetery as Franko  l discovered Maria Konopnika, (1842-1910), Polish poet, novelist, translator, advocate of women’s rights and Polish independence from Prussia and Russia, and the flowers were piled as high on her grave as they were on Franko’s. Even more surprisingly I stumbled upon the burial ground of the  Polish Eaglets, young Polish volunteers who “defended” Lviv in the Polish-Ukrainian War. Polish workers began the restoration of this cemetery within a cemetery, which had been used as a truck depot after World War Two, in the late eighties, and following Polish support for Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004, it officially reopened in a joint Polish-Ukrainian ceremony in 2005. And today it is the old enemy, Poland, which has opened its borders and whose people have welcomed more than two million refugees.

In the last week, the war in Ukraine has taken on ever darker and more evil tones,  Russian forces sinking to new depths attacking civilian targets including schools and hospitals, and from Bucha  footage  has emerged of civilians who have been shot with their hands tied behind their backs. A Russian missile strike on a crowded railway station in Kramatorsk, where four thousand people were waiting to board the trains which would evacuate them  to safety, killed over fifty people  and injured more than a hundred. In the face of these war crimes  the possibility of any  reconciliation between Ukrainians and Russians seems a naïve and absurd hope. I know how easily in those circumstances I could soon burn with indiscriminate hatred for Russians, and who can fail to understand any Ukrainian who feels that way.

And yet many brave Russians although fully aware of the consequences for themselves have dared to oppose their government’s  war: Marina Ovsyannikova who held up signs during a state TV news broadcast reading “Don’t believe the propaganda,”  and “Russians Against the War”,  was arrested and detained by riot police . Others have had their homes vandalised and lost their jobs for signing petitions against the war. Anti-war protests have been criminalised, and even referring to the attack on Ukraine as war or invasion, carries the threat of fifteen years in prison. Protestors have responded by holding up blank sheets of paper, placards reading “two words” or bearing eloquent asterisks. Blue and yellow flowers materialize at war memorials  and anti-war graffiti appear. Tens of thousands, described by Putin as traitors and enemies of the state, have left Russia and now gather at protests around the world, and independent Russian journalists are working in Ukraine to break the Kremlin’s stranglehold on information; one of them, Oksana Baulina, was killed by a Russian missile in Kyiv while filming damage in the city from an earlier attack.

Franko’s poem spoke not just of smashing through rock with sledgehammers but also of building a strong dwelling and a new life. The determined courage of the Ukrainians, the generosity of the Poles, the bravery of Russians who stand up to their government, and the well-tended graves in the  Lychakivske Cemetery foster hope even in the darkest of times that there will come a day when the war is over and Ukraine is free again, and the blue trains with their yellow stripe  carry only carefree holiday makers,  when old hatreds while not forgotten are forged into new friendships, and a new memorial may find a place alongside Franko, Konopnika,  and the Polish Eaglets, remembering those Russians who stood with Ukraine.

Ivan Franko, co-founder of the Ruthenian-Ukrainian Radical Party
Maria Konopnika, Polish Nationalist
The Polish Eaglets

6.30am Lviv station in happier times

The blue and yellow train about to depart Lviv for Odessa
Morning tea on Ukrainian Railways

Slava Ukraini

Page 1 of 2

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén