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

Month: November 2023

One Date, Three Graves; Tales of Myth, Manipulation and Mescalin

I do not remember where I was when I heard that the Thirty Fifth President of the United States of America had been assassinated, but I do remember the subsequent media coverage of the death, the funeral, the arrest and shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, the conspiracy theories, the conjuring of Camelot, and the strange outpourings of public adulation and grief. No wonder that two other notable deaths on 22 November 1963 passed virtually unnoticed.

John F. Kennedy (1917-63) was the son of Joseph Kennedy who had amassed a fortune through stock market manipulation, property deals and bootlegging. It was trust funds set up by his father that provided Jack Kennedy with financial independence and enabled him to run his successful campaign to become president, notwithstanding an undistinguished record in the Senate. His father’s contacts,  including the mafia boss, Sam Giancana, allegedly provided support following a deal with Joseph that if his son were elected he would “lay off organised crime.” Giancana’s control of the Teamsters’  Union and their votes, and judicious use of threats and fraudulent voting, helped deliver Kennedy’s narrow Presidential victory.

JFK’s time as president (1961-63) was defined by the fiascos and iniquities of a foreign policy engendered by Communist paranoia combined with arrogant Imperialism. In April 1961 he unleashed the Bay of Pigs invasion led by CIA paramilitary officers who tried to foment an uprising  to overthrow Castro’s government in Cuba. They were defeated in two days. There followed the equally unsuccessful Operation Mongoose characterised by terrorist attacks on civilians, the destruction of crops, mining of harbours and farcical assassination attempts directed against Castro. Abortive efforts  were made to keep this operation secret to avoid repercussions from the United Nations.

On Kennedy’s watch American involvement in Vietnam built up: military advisers were sent to the country along with political and economic support for the Diem regime  whose forces were funded and trained by the CIA . Under the crude social engineering of the Strategic Hamlet Programme   peasants were forcibly relocated away from Viet Cong influence and subjected  to brainwashing and surveillance with no freedom of movement. In January 1962 Operation Ranch Hand introduced herbal warfare including the use of Agent Orange. This aerial defoliation not only destroyed land and ecology but also led to cancers, birth defects and other long term health problems in Vietnam.

In April 1963 Kennedy cynically recorded: “We don’t have a prayer of staying in Vietnam. Those people hate us. They are going to throw our asses out of there at any point. But I can’t give up that territory to the Communists and get the American people to re-elect me.”

It was an abhorrent record and, although still a child in 1963 with only a hazy knowledge of the full horror of American foreign policy, I sensed something wrong in the sycophantic media coverage and the deferential tributes. Though unfamiliar with the concept of establishment propaganda, the constant repetition of the Camelot myth raised my suspicions, and the uncritical public effusions of distress seemed fabricated. So I was surprised when, years later, accompanying more worldly Politics Students on an annual trip to Washington, they invariably showed enthusiasm for crossing the Potomac to Arlington to see the Kennedy grave. Challenged, they proved themselves well informed as to the noxious nature of the Presidency yet remained susceptible to the contrived allure of the Camelot myth.

The Kennedy Grave at Arlington Cemetery, Washington. Alongside Kennedy lies Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and two of their children.
An Eternal Flame burns at the Grave
The Grave looks out across the Potomac towards the Washington Monument

The second death on that November day was that of the academic and writer, CS Lewis (1898-1963). Amongst his sizeable output of fiction and nonfiction it is his children’s books The Chronicles of Narnia, seven fantasy novels which have sold over 120 million copies and been translated into forty-seven languages,for which he is best remembered. Like most small children I was once enchanted by the world of Narnia; what imaginative child would not be thrilled at the prospect of entering a large wardrobe full of fur coats to discover a secret exit at the back  leading to a magical kingdom of ice and snow, mythical creatures, and talking animals. It is a cleverly woven story of wonder, mystery, and adventure. Lewis began to write it in the 1940s when children  came to his house in Oxford as evacuees from London, and the four siblings who discover the world of Narnia were based on them.

But it did not take me long to realise that behind the richly imaginative narrative lay a manipulative allegory, a Christian subtext with the lion Aslan a Christ like figure sacrificing himself to torture, suffering and humiliation to redeem Edmund who has betrayed his siblings to the White Witch. Aslan’s sacrifice vanquishes death, and he returns to life but only the trusting and unquestioning Lucy can see him;  the message at the heart of this proselytising text is the importance blind faith, obedience to an authoritarian moral system, and an acceptance that there are things one is “not meant to know.”

I may not share Philip Pullman’s view that this is “one of the most poisonous things I have ever read” but alongside the Christian propaganda aimed uncomfortably at young children, there is also a pernicious defence of established hierarchies and a tacit acceptance of violence. The racist disparagement of the Calormenes, and the unquestioning acceptance of class and gender stereotypes  is disturbing. The female character of the White Witch, responsible for its being “always winter and never Christmas,” personifies evil, and when Susan becomes too interested in nylons, lipstick, clothes, and boys she can no longer return to Narnia. Worse, as Pullman says, is the terrible myth that death is better than life, the idealised view of an afterlife upholding a reactionary idealised theocracy.

But just as the Camelot myth drew my students to Kennedy’s grave, so the magic I remembered in his stories enticed me to that of CS Lewis. I did not have high expectations for the graveyard of a Victorian church, located in an old quarry in an Oxford suburb, but Holy Trinity churchyard in Headington is a delightful place. I visited on the eve of springtime as the soft green shoots of snowdrops and hellebores were emerging, and it resembled more a country churchyard than a suburban one. The gnarled roots of an ancient yew circle the honey-coloured stone marking the grave of Lewis and his brother which bears a quotation from King Lear.

The Grave of CS Lewis At Holy Trinity Church, Headington
“Men Must Endure Their Going Hence”
Lewis’ mother had a calendar with quotations from Shakespeare, his father kept the leaf from the day she died, Lewis’ brother Warren had the quotation inscribed on the grave.

And I was reluctantly charmed by the Narnia window in the church

My third grave however houses someone who was aware and wary of the power of indoctrination and  conditioning, the uncritical conformity which media myths and social engineering, fairy stories and brainwashing can engender.

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), writer and philosopher, had published his most famous work the dystopian Brave New World in the early 1930s but it was still very popular when my school friends and I discovered it in the 60s. Eagerly we debated his vision of an establishment controlling a docile population through a combination of drugs and entertainment, maintaining  economic and social divisions with neither alphas nor epsilons questioning their status but accepting a caste system, convinced that all was right with their world.

Paradoxically Huxley’s own experiments with mescalin recorded in The Doors of Perception (1954) led him to believe that the consciousness altering drug could also promote  enlightenment, and that drug taking could be a legitimate expression of intellectual curiosity, removing inhibitions and increasing awareness. In the 1960s this chimed with a youth subculture seeking social change and experimenting with psychedelic drugs and the hallucinogenic power of LSD, and Jim Morrison’s rock group – The Doors – took their name from the title of Huxley’s book. (He in turn had taken it from the visionary poet and artist William Blake: “if the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”)

Ostentatiously clutching our copies of The Doors of Perception  was as close as we came in our provincial girls’ school to the drug subculture of the sixties. And if we perceived it then as a more glamorous world than our own and lauded Huxley for his avant-garde views yet when I reread his book recently I confess that I found it dull. Worse, it contradicted the scathing indictment of mindless acceptance and unquestioning obedience which he had wrought in Brave New World. Yet though this may have been disappointing, his grave was nonetheless the one which I approached with most respect for the memory of its occupant.

Huxley is buried in the Watts Cemetery, home of the Watts Mortuary Chapel, at Compton near Guildford in Surrey.

Alongside him are other members of his illustrious family including his father Leonard, biographer and editor.

Jack Cornwell VC and the Battle of Jutland

An exhibition at Portsmouth Dockyard in 2016 marked the centenary of the Battle of Jutland. 36 Hours: Jutland 1916, The Battle That Won The War, was a multimedia presentation chronicling the only major sea battle of World War I. On 31 May – 1 June 1916 British and German dreadnoughts blazed at each other, through the poor visibility generated by mist, cloud, a dark evening sky, and an increasing volume of smoke from burning ships caught by gunfire. But while the exhibition captured the terrifying noise of constant bombardment, and the confusion and horror of intense shellfire, the claim that this battle won the war rang hollow.

Jutland was an indecisive disaster for both navies despite both claiming a victory: the German  fleet retreated, but Britain lost more ships and  twice as many men, the German dead numbering 2,551 and the British 6,097. The faith which both Britain and Germany had placed in their navies, building up immoderate numbers of battleships, proved unfounded.

Britain had been confident of victory over the numerically inferior German fleet. The huge losses suffered by her “invincible navy” led to so much criticism of the naval leadership that the Admiralty considered censoring and delaying the official report on the battle.

Moreover, when Kitchener, the then popular Secretary of State for War, drowned five days later when a German mine struck the ship on which he was travelling, and when losses on the Somme numbered 19,000 on the first day of the battle on 1 July, there was a clear need to staunch declining morale in Britain.

Jack Cornwell  was fifteen years old when he enlisted in the navy in 1915. He was trained as a gun sight-setter and assigned to HMS Chester which took part in the Battle of Jutland. The ship received seventeen direct hits in the battle. Many of the gun’s crew were killed instantly and others were mortally wounded. The Chester retired from the action and reached relative safety. Medical assistants sent on board found Cornwell, severely wounded with shrapnel and shards of steel penetrating his chest, standing in the shattered gun mounting. He died in Grimsby hospital two days later and was buried in a pauper’s grave. His mother arranged for his exhumation and reburial near their home in Manor Park Cemetery, East London. It was another pauper’s grave.

Two months  later however, on 29 July,  Jack Cornwell was exhumed again and reburied with full military honours; it was the largest public event which took place during the war. Crowds lining the streets witnessed the coffin born on a gun carriage, with a naval band, boys from Jack’s old school and others from the Chester marching behind it. The local MP, Bishop and Mayor accompanied the coffin, a bugler sounded the last post, and shots were fired over the grave.

When the official report of the Battle of Jutland had been published in early July it had included an account from the commanding officer of the Chester which described Cornwell standing alone at his post awaiting orders until the end of the action. Writers on The Daily Sketch had uncovered the reference and turned it into a  front-page story with a photograph of Cornwell’s brother George dressed in a naval uniform. With other journalists they fomented public pressure for recognition of Jack’s bravery, criticising the navy for allowing a hero to be buried in a pauper’s grave.

After the military funeral, the Admiralty awoke to the possibility of boosting public confidence in the war, and providing the navy with some face-saving publicity after the disaster of Jutland, by awarding Jack a posthumous Victoria Cross. On 15 September Jack Cornwell became the third youngest recipient of the Victoria Cross, awarded for a conspicuous act of bravery. The citation read: “mortally wounded early in the action… Jack Travers Cornwell remained standing alone at a most exposed post, quietly awaiting orders till the end of the action, with the gun’s crew dead and wounded all around him. His age was sixteen and a half years.”

The court painter, Frank Salisbury, portrayed Jack standing at his post by the gun, and prints were distributed to schools accompanied by booklets entitled “Faithful Unto Death” which  used his death to encourage concepts of duty and sacrifice. Six days after the award of the VC  schools all over Britain celebrated Jack Cornwell Day. A Cornwell Memorial Fund was established, and fund-raising badges were sold to children for 1d each raising  £18,000 to finance a ward for disabled sailors at the newly established Star and Garter Home in Richmond. Patriotic propaganda wielded the emotive story of obedience, courage, selflessness, and honourable conduct  to boost flagging resolve.

In truth it is hard to imagine that the poor boy could have  done other than to remain at his post. On the deck of a severely damaged ship, surrounded by the dead and dying, himself seriously injured, possibly traumatised, frightened, and shell shocked, where could he go? Probably no more or less brave than any other sailor, the strongest impression his story leaves is that a child of sixteen should not have been involved in the fighting at all, and that  his memory was cynically exploited in the interests of war time propaganda, to deflect criticism of the conduct of the Battle of Jutland and to revitalize dedication to the war effort.


From 1915 onwards stone memorials had begun to appear commemorating the war dead and serving to promote military recruitment. London’s first memorial appeared on 4 August 1916 in the churchyard of St. Botolph-without-Bishopsgate bearing the names of both Kitchener and Cornwell. A Pathe News of the time shows the Lord Mayor unveiling the cross and linking the popular ageing commander with the working-class boy hero as he reminds the assembled crowd that the cross drew together “the statesman-warrior”… and “a young, innocent and humble origined (sic) lad…cutting across all divisions of class and educational background in their sacrifice to a common cause.”  

The first World War One Memorial Cross to appear in London. St. Botolph-without-Bishopsgate
Jack Cornwell is specifically remembered on the plinth,
as is Kitchener.

In 1920 pupils and former pupils of schools in East Ham placed a stone marker bearing a cross and an anchor on what had become the Cornwell family grave. With Jack were his half-brother Arthur Frederick, killed in action in France in August 1918; his father  who died in October 1916; and his mother who died in poverty in 1919.

Grave of John Travers (Jack) Cornwell, Manor Park Cemetery, East London

The grave carries a quotation from Ovid:

It is not wealth or ancestry

but honourable conduct and a noble

disposition that maketh men great.

The Ballad of Jack Cornwell by Charles Causley carries a less sententious and more poignant  message. Here are two  extracts:

The Gunnery Jacks all spoke

Their terrible words of gunpowder

And sentences of smoke.

The deck blew up like a candle,

I heard the Gunner’s Mate say,

It looks more like November the fifth

Than the thirty-first of May.

But the catherine wheels were made of iron,

The stars were made of steel,

 And downward came a scarring rain

The sun will never heal.

Death came on like winter

Through the water-gate.

All I could do by the forecastle gun

Was stand alone, and wait.


They gave me a second funeral,

I heard the rifles plain

And up in the wild air went the birds

As I went down again.

The great Sir Edward Carson,

First Lord of the Admiralty,

Asked men and women who grumbled

If ever they heard of me.

It was the second year of the war;

Thiepval, the Somme, Verdun.

The people were encouraged,

And the Great War went on.

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