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

Author: Gravedigger Page 1 of 5

The Thames is Capricious. We Escape Leptospirosis; Others are Less Fortunate

I had long harboured a desire  to swim in the River Thames. Conscious of my own limitations, this was no ambitious plan to cover the length (over two hundred miles, I don’t think so) nor to venture into the tidal waters below Teddington Lock. The Port of London Authority  strongly discourages both activities with dire warnings of powerful tides overpowering the strongest of swimmers; eddies and undertows sucking them under in seconds; danger from water traffic in the form of clippers, ferries and working boats; and the biting cold of the water leading to crippling breathing spasms.

Something more modest then, a  gentle width somewhere in the Middle Reaches of the Thames. Here opinion was divided. Public Health England warned of  gastrointestinal diseases from contaminated surface run off, and from  water containing raw sewage routinely pumped into the river after heavy rains; the possibilities of contracting Leptospirosis or Weil’s disease from animal urine; high recorded levels of microplastics in the water; and dangers of collision with leisure traffic. Enthusiasts, by contrast, rhapsodised about an arcadian Thames: a sparkling , idyllically pastoral river  with 125 species of fish, over four hundred invertebrates, and flourishing flora.

By dint of slightly overemphasising the latter perspective, I persuaded a friend to accompany me,  and we took to the river at Clifton Hampden. Our respective partners, both non-swimmers and of the firm conviction that immersion, in any volume of water greater than that required to fill a decent sized bathtub, is a supreme folly, sat on the bank guarding the clothes. They wore expressions which said No Good Will Come of This.

And it must be confessed that we entered the water with some trepidation, feeling our way cautiously out into the river, wary of what lay beneath our feet, dreading that moment when the cold-water hit our stomachs, alert to the dangers from passing boats, and with mouths firmly closed. But once in the river the pleasure of swimming, pushing weightlessly through the water, took over. It was not cold, it did not look particularly polluted, and folk waved cheerfully from passing boats. Across and back, and we turned around, enthusiastic to repeat the exercise.

Cautiously we set out: I let Kay take the lead… there might be something nasty under foot
Wild Swimming
Return Journey…
… With Mouths Firmly Closed
It was so nice, we did it twice
A Triumpal Return

Later in the pub we regaled our sceptical partners with the delights of Wild Swimming. But there was a sobering coda. Walking along the Thames Path a few miles downriver, we paused to admire the thirteenth century flint church of Saint Bartholomew  at Lower  Basildon, and in the churchyard discovered the  hauntingly beautiful grave of Harold and Ernest  Edward Deverell. Aged fifteen and sixteen, they drowned  while bathing close by in 1866. The marble sculpture of the two boys, in their old- fashioned bathing trunks, and looking far younger than their teenage years,  is heart-rending.

The grave at Lower Basildon
Looking much younger than their teenage years

They were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided

A guide to the church  records  starkly: “ One brother got into difficulties and the other went to his aid: sadly, both drowned.”

There is a small risk  even in  those little adventures which look quite safe on a summer’s afternoon, and the boys’ deaths were tragic. Yet too much caution  renders human existence a tepid affair, with little point to life if we act in constant fear of its end.

Dusty Springfield: the Dark Side of the Sixties

I suspect that in every generation sexagenarians glance  wistfully over their shoulders and peer through their rose-coloured spectacles, bringing into fuzzy focus the years of their youth, inevitably a time of hope and optimism, when everything was lighter, brighter, and more exciting. But surely this temptation has never been greater than for those of us  who grew up in the Swinging Sixties. The soubriquet was not some post hoc addition, for even at the time it was in use, applied especially to Swinging London with its psychedelic fashions, Carnaby Street and Biba, and the London Sound: The Rolling Stones; The Who; The Kinks. London swung, it led the world – effortlessly.

Even in the provinces the glamour rubbed off. As I walked through the town to school each day, it was as though I were walking through a theatre with spotlights being switched on all around me. The grey-drab fifties were receding before an onslaught of colour. No more  the dirty yellow smog, no more soot-stained buildings, no more bomb sites and derelict houses. Every day  brought change: bomb sites were cleared, skips appeared outside empty houses, fresh paint brought shop fronts to life and boutiques mushroomed throughout the town. My previously monochrome world was transformed into a glorious technicolour environment.

 After school we headed to Granny’s Garden, our favourite boutique, where the young shop assistants perused the rails of mini-skirts, skinny ribbed jumpers, lace blouses, feather boas, ponchos, PVC raincoats and velvet jackets as eagerly as we did, and no one minded how many outfits we tried on in the communal changing rooms. We would emerge in our finery and bop around the shop, casting covert glances at ourselves in the many mirrors, as the latest pop music pulsated through the building. And no one seemed to care if, as was commonly the case, we left without making any purchases.

A far cry this from the two prim department stores which had previously held a monopoly as purveyors of frocks. Their air may have been headily scented, but such a pall of silence prevailed that we  had automatically lowered our voices to a whisper on entering. Middle-aged assistants guarded goods behind counters and clothes from the few racks were surrendered reluctantly with a careful counting of hangers.

Discos replaced dances: you could tell the difference because the music was louder and faster, a disco ball reflected the lights, and the over thirties gave us a wide berth.

No pop star epitomised this emergence from the chrysalis of the fifties as vibrantly as Dusty Springfield. With her abundant blond bouffant;  panda-eyed with heavy  black eye liner, eyeshadow, and mascara; her makeup completed with a pale pink lipstick; and all this sitting atop glittery, sparkly, frilly dresses, she was the Swinging Sixties, the glamorous girl we all aspired, hopelessly, to be. With a breathy sensuality which struck envy into our hearts,  her songs accompanied us through the sixties: “ I Only Want To Be With You;” “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me;” “Son of a Preacher Man.”

And yet, and yet, if I remove my pink spectacles and turn to face the sixties head on, was it all  quite so bright and shiny?

Even before Kate Millett took us by the hand in 1970 (the year of the publication of Sexual Politics) and guided us towards an understanding of Modern Patriarchy, articulating the need for a Second Wave of Feminism, jarring notes were already penetrating our consciousness.

Casual sexism labelled  young women “dolly birds” or just “ birds.” Infantalising and undermining, the derogatory terms implied  that an interest in clothes and makeup was incompatible with intellect. Meanwhile, even in academic schools, it was not unusual for a cohort of girls to leave at sixteen to go to secretarial college. One of my friends took this route and subsequently hosted a party peopled mainly by her new college friends and their soul mates, The Young Farmers. After one of the latter had tried, unsuccessfully, to stick his tongue down my throat, he informed me: “It’s not very attractive for a girl to have too many O-levels. Girls should concentrate on looking attractive, getting married  and entertaining for their husbands.” Too my shame I was left speechless. A short-lived boyfriend, with the air of one who considers himself emancipated, opined “I approve of women working…except when the children are young of course.” A friend’s father eyeing his daughter and me ruefully, expostulated: “But what will you girls do if you meet millionaires on the tube tomorrow, and they ask you to marry them, and you have to admit that you can’t cook?” We rolled our eyes at each other: there were just too many non sequiturs there for us to engage with the question at all.

Even after the 1967 Family Planning Act, GPs were often reluctant to prescribe the pill for unmarried women. In the last weeks of school, a GP was called in to give us The Talk: oozing with self-importance, he left us in no doubt that it was our responsibility not to enflame the passions of young men who might not be able to control themselves, and concluded with pompous self-satisfaction that he had never prescribed the pill for any unmarried girl without insisting that she first return in the company of boyfriend and parents to discuss whether this course of action was wise. I wondered even then how many unwanted pregnancies his sanctimonious attitude had facilitated.

And when the Abortion Act, making abortion legal up to the point of twenty eight weeks gestation, came into effect in April 1968, there were still a lot of hoops to be jumped through and care was needed to give the right answers to the two doctors and the counsellor who had to be convinced that this course of action was strictly necessary.

Barbara Castle, then one of only twenty-four women in Parliament, was not able to get the Equal Pay Act passed until 1970, and  then its implementation was delayed for  a further five years.

Not so rosy then, life for women and girls in the sixties.

Nor for other minority groups: the Race Relations Act of 1965 failed to address issues of discrimination in housing and unemployment,  and while the follow up legislation of 1968 may have prohibited overt racism, racist violence by far-right groups continued and casual prejudice against those with darker skins was widespread.

Similarly, it was not until 1967 that the Sexual Offences Act legalised homosexual practices between men over the age of twenty-one. For much of the sixties loving the wrong person  could make you a criminal. Even after the act was passed  widespread homophobia remained, breeding and cultivating  a fear of coming out and facing discrimination in the workplace, bullying, and hate crime. And although lesbianism had never been illegal, the same prejudices prevailed against gay women.

And  Dusty Springfield? When I discovered her grave in the churchyard of St. Mary the Virgin in Henley it seemed a strange resting place for the sixties icon. For if anywhere in England was untouched by the Swinging Sixties surely it was Henley. As the bright comet of the sixties flashed briefly across the twentieth century sky, this compact little town with its smart shops, elegant houses, cosy old pubs facing the river, and famous regatta held annually since 1893, looked a prime candidate for being the one to conform to older, more staid and sober ways.

Grave of Dusty Springfield, St. Mary the Virgin, Henley
In an unusual tribute someone has left a selection of press cuttings

But if there is a marked disparity between Dusty Springfield, the  embodiment of the Swinging Sixties, and the town where she rests, far more disturbing is the realisation that beneath the froth, fun, and frivolity of the sixties the dark evils of sexism, racism, and homophobia were still firmly rooted. Dusty Springfield, talented, beautiful, successful, and admired,  felt obliged to conceal her sexuality, keeping her relationship with the singer-songwriter Norma Tanega quiet, and living a reclusive life for a time to avoid the scrutiny of the British tabloids. She feared the prurient media attention that would lead to loss of contracts, and her authorised biography Dancing with Demons recounts her tortured fear  that it could end her career if she were exposed as a lesbian. Sadness and despair emanate from the pages of the book.

And so, despite the temptation in these gloomy days, to gaze back nostalgically at the sixties, I am resisting their lure. And if the present days lack the joyous optimism of those times, still much of the bigotry and prejudice which also characterised them, though by no means eliminated, have unquestionably declined. Swinging those years may have been, but  a certain darkness lay beneath their technicolour surface.

Kate Millett, Sexual Politics, Doubleday, 1970

Penny Valentine and Vicki Wickham, Dancing with Demons:The Authorised Biography of Dusty Springfield, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2001.

“Too many died. War isn’t worth one life.”

My grandfather, Harry Manley, was the gentlest of men, and I cannot imagine what emotions he confronted and endured when, somewhere on the Western Front, he faced the prospect of killing other men. Like many of his generation he never spoke of the war. He always attended church on Sundays, so he must have attended Remembrance Services. He probably wore a red poppy, but I have no memory of it. All that I knew as a child was that the reason he walked with a limp was because he had been wounded in a long-ago event,  referred to by adults, who clearly had neither the inclination nor the intention to discuss it further, as “ the war.” This was strange because “The Second War” was a frequent subject of conversation and featured regularly in heroic films and novels.

The First World War only gradually took shape in my consciousness through History lessons, and English Literature classes where a passionate teacher  introduced us to the poems of Wilfred Owen.

Only in her own last years, when she began to talk a lot about her parents and childhood, did my mother share her own limited knowledge of her father’s experience. Somewhere in France or Belgium he had been wounded and was lying in a shell-hole, unable to move, when a field ambulance arrived. The ambulance was  full, and from what I have read of World War I, I would take that description literally. The  driver assured my grandfather that he had noted his position and would come back for him. This must have seemed a well-meant but unlikely promise: how would anyone locate one shell hole on a chaotic battlefield; fighting might resume at any time; the ambulance might be blown up and the driver himself killed. But  return he did, and my grandfather was duly transferred from a field hospital to a London one. My grandmother was summoned to nurse him: staff shortages or because he was not expected to survive? Either way she arrived with determination, and skills learned in the Cottage Hospital in Ellesmere Port.

My grandfather became one of the lucky ones who not only came home but retained his calm, gentle nature. He resumed his job as a brick layer and my mother was born in 1920. But frequently throughout her childhood, she told me, bits of shrapnel would rise to the surface of my grandfather’s wound and a terrible stench would fill the house. My grandmother, ever stoical, practical, and capable, would calmly remove the offending fragments and clean away the foul stinking pus.

My grandfather, Harry Manley
My grandmother, Sarah Ellen Manley
A postcard my grandfather sent home to his wife
Message written in pencil on the back
A postcard sent from my grandfather to his son

My grandfather died in the 1960s, but another Harry, Harry Patch,  lived until 2009, dying at 111, by which time he had found fame as “The Last Fighting Tommy.” Harry Patch refused to speak of the war for eighty years, but in 1998  he broke his silence to recall the terrible loss of so many lives and to assert the futility of war. Five years later he returned to Belgium, for the first time since the war, to lay a wreath in memory of  dead friends at the spot where he was wounded, and they were killed. In 2007, his book The Last Fighting Tommy, based on interviews conducted by Richard van Emden, was published.

Harry Patch left no doubt of his reluctance to go to war: “I didn’t want to go and fight anyone, but it was a case of having to…why should I go out and kill somebody I never knew, and for what reason?”1 I could never understand why my country could call me from a peacetime job and train me to go to France and try to kill a man I never knew.”2

Nor was he in any doubt of the consequences of non-participation: “(The officer) had his drawn revolver and I got the distinct impression… that anybody who didn’t “go over” would be shot for cowardice where they stood.”3

He drew a raw picture of  the trenches: “the noise, the filth, the uncertainty and the calls for stretcher bearers.”4 “There was no sanitation at all and the place used to stink like hell.”5 “We lived with rats… When you went to sleep you would cover your face with a blanket and feel the damn things run over you.”6 “We were sitting in a sea of shell holes…They were half full of water and one,…well, the stench was terrible, a half-rotting body was in there.”7 “The bodies of wounded men who were dying… would sink out of sight in the morass. They would never be buried.”8 “A lad was ripped open from his shoulder to his waist, and lying in a pool of blood…he looked at us and said “shoot me.””9  “I saw one German… a shell had hit him and all his side and his back were ripped up, and his stomach was out on the floor.”10

Harry and the other members of his Lewis gun team had a pact; “We wouldn’t kill, not if we could help it… We fire short, have them in the legs, or fire over their heads, but not to kill, not unless it’s them or us.”11

On 22nd September 2017 Harry was wounded, the others in his team were killed. Harry wrote, “That day, the day I lost my pals, 22 September 1917 – that is my Remembrance Day, not Armistice Day.”12

Harry’s visceral loathing of  the war he was forced to fight resounds from the pages of his book: “At the end of the war , the peace was settled round a table, so why the hell couldn’t they do that at the start, without losing millions of men?”13 “The politicians who took us into the war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organizing nothing better than legalised mass murder.”14 “War,” he averred, “ is a calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings,” and affirmed, “Too many died. War isn’t worth one life.15

Of Remembrance Day, Harry wrote, “For me 11 November is just show business… the Armistice Day celebrations on television…it is nothing but a show of military force…I don’t think there is any actual remembrance except for those who have actually lost somebody they really cared for in either war.”16

Harry Patch was determined not to have a state funeral but, as the last veteran of any nationality who had served in the trenches, he agreed to a public one. His funeral was held in Wells Cathedral with a theme of peace and reconciliation, and, in accordance with his instructions, the soldiers from Belgium, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom who accompanied his coffin were not allowed to carry their ceremonial weapons. A memorial stone beside the Cathedral Green commemorates his life.

Memorial to Harry Patch beside Cathedral Green, Wells

But Harry Patch chose to be buried at a private ceremony near the graves of his parents and brothers, in St. Michael’s churchyard in Monkton Combe.

Harry Patch’s grave, Monkton Combe
Harry Patch’s grave is the one bearing red poppies
Harry Patch’s grave is the one bearing red poppies

And that is a where I go to remember: Harry Patch; my grandfather, Harry Manley; the other men who came home to live ordinary lives;  the millions, mostly young, who lost their lives or health in that pointless war; and their wives, lovers, girlfriends, mothers, sisters, and friends  whose lives were forever diminished by their loss.

  1. Harry Patch with Richard van Emden, The Last Fighting Tommy, Bloomsbury, 2018, p.59.
  2. Ibid., p.137
  3. Ibid., p.91
  4. Ibid., p.74
  5. Ibid., p.77
  6. Ibid., pp.104-5
  7. Ibid., pp 98-9.
  8. Ibid., p.99
  9. Ibid., p.94
  10. Ibid., p.93
  11. Ibid., p.71
  12. Ibid., p.203
  13. Ibid., p.137
  14. Ibid., pp.188-9
  15. http://news.bbc.co.uk  Veteran, 109, revisits WW I trench.
  16. Patch, The Last Fighting Tommy, p. 20

https://www.ppu.org.uk The Peace Pledge Union produces white poppies to reassert the original message of remembrance: “never again.” They are a symbol of remembrance of all victims of war, of a to challenge militarism, and of a commitment to peace.

https://www.wri-irg.org War Resisters International is a global network of grassroots antimilitarist and pacifist groups working for a world without war.

Roy Plomley and My Desert Island Discs

In Putney Vale Cemetery in London there is a gravestone flanked by palm trees, topped by a scallop shell and where dolphins swim above the faded inscription:

Roy Plomley OBE

Who created

Desert Island Discs

Born 20th January 1914

Died 28th May 1985

Roy Plomley’s grave at Putney Vale
Detail of grave with scallop shell, dolphins and palm trees.
Detail of dolphins

Desert Island Discs began in 1942. The theme tune, Eric Coates’ By The Sleepy Lagoon, drifted out of the wireless,  followed by the sound of surf breaking on the shore and the cry of herring gulls. The format was simple: each week Roy Plomley interviewed a notable person  about their life and views, the talk interspersed with their choice of the eight pieces of music which they would take with them if cast away upon the eponymous desert island.

Plomley created the programme and presented it every week until his death in 1985. Subsequently four other presenters have taken his place. This year marked the eightieth anniversary of the programme, and it is the second longest running radio show in the world. I doubt if there is anyone in Britain who has never tuned in, curious about the musical tastes of the esteemed and the execrable, as fascinated by the meretricious as by the meritorious.

In an interview with John Dunn, Plomley explained that few people ever refused to take part in the programme: why would anyone, he asked, when

“ you  get invited out to a very good lunch…and then you play your favourite music…and talk about yourself…and on your way out you get a cheque.”

While most of us will never be offered the lunch or the cheque, I defy anyone hearing the programme not to muse upon their own selection of eight discs.

 And yes, here are mine…

It is the summer of 1969. I am in Montauban on a French exchange, designed to improve my command of the language before the A-level exam next year. I am in possession of a pale blue mini dress with pearl buttons, silver sandals with glitter, and  my exchange, Françoise, and  I are listening to Georges Moustaki singing Le Métèque. We are mesmerised by the photograph on the record cover: a man with dark eyes, olive skin, long hair, and an already greying beard. The words of the song hold us spellbound; his is a world of exotic destinations, he is a free spirit, a man of passion and poetry, romance and sophistication, of Experience. We are enthralled by this heady mix. We are seventeen and want to be “ the sweet captive” of this man who will “drink of our youth” (it loses something in translation.). We are  avid for “a whole eternity of love.” We have powerful imaginations but No Experience – but fervently hope to remedy this soon.

Four years on and another set of examinations is punctuating my life. In the last weeks before Finals, the files and heavily annotated and underscored notes are piled up on my desk, and I emerge from my room only for meals. I am not alone in this and a heavy , unnatural pall of silence hangs in the corridor. Periodically  the stillness is riven by  Lou Reed’s Transformer  emanating from my neighbour’s room. Whichever tracks he chooses he always sets the needle back on to Perfect Day for the finale. With any other record this would be  irritating but Perfect Day just makes me smile, push aside the books for a moment  and daydream.

Even today it  transports me back, not just to those final weeks but to the whole heady experience of three  years of freedom without responsibility, of new discoveries and delights. Coming from a worthy but  dull girls’ school where work was set for the sake of it rather than to  open new horizons, I had arrived at university with other things on my mind than a serious commitment to study. That had changed under the influence of my tutor, Peter Reddaway, and Maurice Cranston who  taught me Political Philosophy. Suddenly learning was exciting and I devoured all that my erudite teachers had to offer.

And beyond the library was a social life and the sheer ridiculous fun of living in hall with two hundred other students. Passfield Hall was the first hall in London to go co-ed and this gave it a certain caché. Others less privileged would query in awe the goings on there. In truth the regular sighting of one’s fellow students scuttling to the communal bathrooms in their pyjamas, or bleary eyed and unshaven over breakfast, was not conducive to passion, but we always managed to field questions with knowing looks implying that Sodom and Gomorrah paled into insignificance beside Passfield.

These were the years of my first lover and my first heartbreak, and months of a tear-stained pillow. Was the experience worth it? Of course it was.

A more sophisticated friend introduced me to London beyond the university: to The Marquee and Sunday nights at The Roundhouse. There I learned to roll a joint and, unlike Bill Clinton, I did inhale.

Perfect Days indeed.

I am in my twenties and living in Athens with a Greek boyfriend. We are in love but not  good at the day-to-day business of living together. We argue a lot  and when angry we know how to hurt each other. I pack my suitcases and come home,  but a few months later I am back. We fall into a pattern of quarrels and reconciliations. Sometimes everything is perfect, and the world is a magical place, at others we make each other wretched. It ended badly, but Manos Hadjidakis’ Fifteen Vespers will forever transport me back to  an idyll on Serifos,  to warm summer nights,  the sound of the waves,  the scent of jasmine, and the taste of  Karelia cigarettes. And with the passing of the years the bad memories  fade, while the good ones grow more luminous.

It is  New Year’s Eve, sometime in the 1980s, and I am in a bar in Havana, absently wondering whatever happened to the red and black poster of Che Guevara which once adorned my bedroom wall. Suddenly a group of Italians spring to their feet, and erupt, with a perfect command of words and tune, into a rendering of Carlos Puebla’s Hasta Siempre Comandante. They follow this with an emotional Bella Ciao. Then they embrace everyone and wish them a Happy New Year. But it is 6pm. Understanding dawns: it is midnight in Italy. The  evening proceeds punctuated with hourly performances from different national groups. And at midnight – a toast to Che.

It is the 1990s and I have realised  that I will “never ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in (my) hair.” Instead, I drive a Vauxhall Corsa through Bristol’s rush hour traffic to work every morning, often stationary for what seems like hours at a cheerless roundabout on the A4. Meat Loaf’s Paradise By The Dashboard Light blasts from the car stereo. He is clearly having a better time than I am.

In  celebration of the Millennium, I book my partner and self on to a boat trip across Lake Nassar to Abu Simbel. As the boat moves slowly towards its destination the massive rock cut temples grow larger and the rich, extravagant strains of The Triumphal March from Aida crash upon the air. After dinner we go ashore and drink champagne and as midnight approaches the lights on the boat are extinguished and we are guided in silence through the velvet black night to the Great Temple of the Pharaoh Ramesses II. At midnight, the door is thrown open upon a blaze of light and we enter the hypostyle hall between the four colossal statues of Ramesses. Inside are dazzling floor to ceiling hieroglyphs and painted scenes of the Battle of Kadesh, more statues line the walls, and the ceiling is painted with winged vultures. Later, as the others make their way back to the boat, I close the massive door and stand alone in the temple. Three thousand years ago the Ancient Egyptians worshipped their Sun Gods here. Three thousand years hence the temple and its behemothic statues may still keep vigil beside Lake Nasser.

It is 2015 and the third week of July: the annual Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival and Rally, a celebration of trade unionism and Labour politics, is taking place during a Labour leadership election. A wreath is laid at the grave of James Hammett and a procession of vibrant  banners precedes the speeches. Jeremy Corbyn is standing as leader of the Labour Party and his support, along with membership of the Labour party, is increasing rapidly. He is on the brink of achieving the  largest mandate ever won by a party leader, and by the hung Parliament of 2017 Labour’s share of the vote will have increased to 40% with a net gain of thirty seats. Without notes he gives an impassioned speech setting out his radical beliefs with eloquence and emotion, lucidity and resolve. By the time Billy Bragg follows the speeches with a rendering of The World Turned Upside Down,

“…Still the vision lingers on

You poor take courage, you rich take care

This earth was made a common treasury for everyone to share”

it  feels as though the New Jerusalem is just around the corner. For the first time in my life British politics are electrifying, exciting hope and promising change.

That was another story which ended badly: a combination of antagonistic media and smear campaigns by political opponents caused Jeremy Corbyn to stand down and the Labour Party retreated into woolly centralism and unprincipled compromises. Tories tightened their grip and seven years on those high hopes have turned to ashes. But another Billy Bragg song  still raises smiles, hopes, and voices at Tolpuddle – There is Power in a Union. And as more unions reluctantly turn to strike action this autumn, our current political nadir may yet precipitate a sea change in British politics.

Remembering Raja Ram Mohan Roy

At  Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol a magnificent chattri towers incongrously above the angels, crosses, and obelisks which line the Ceremonial Way. Made from Bath stone but based on a traditional Bengali funeral monument, and much the grandest of the Victorian memorial sculptures, it marks the grave of Raja Ram Mohan Roy.

The chattri of Raja Ram Mohan Roy

Raja Ram Mohan Roy, often referred to as The Father of Modern India, was a linguist and philosopher, committed to female rights, education, and religious reform. He was born into the Kulin Brahmin, those Bengali Brahmins designated Kulina or superior. They advocated the prevailing systems of polygamy, dowry, sati, caste rigidity and child marriage. In his childhood he witnessed the burning to death of his seventeen-year-old sister-in-law in a sati ceremony. Mohan Roy championed a social reform Hinduism which opposed all these practices, leading to conflict with the authorities of the day and with his own family. Committed to monotheism, he co-founded the Kolkata Unitarian Society in 1822 and the Brahmo Samaj in 1828, the latter specifically seeking to reform Kulin Brahminism tempering it with Unitarian beliefs.

For Mohan Roy, education was the key to social reform, and he established schools where teachers incorporated western learning into Indian education, believing that modern subjects were vital to prepare young people for success in the world. This integration of eastern and western culture brought further criticism,  as did his emphasis on the particular importance of education for girls.

He travelled widely, learning many languages, and defying the Hindu prohibition on crossing the Kala Pani, the Black Water, or the seas which separate India from foreign lands. Such journeys resulted not only in loss of social respectability but also, it was believed, precluded reincarnation when individuals were cut off from the regenerating waters of the Ganges.

Roy had been instrumental in obtaining a ban on the practice of sati which the British East Indian Company had long condoned to facilitate their own trading and colonial expansion. In 1830 he came to Britain, acting as Ambassador for the Mughal emperor, and successfully pressured the British government  into upholding the ban.

While in Britain the Raja visited his Unitarian friends in Bristol including Lant Carpenter and his daughter Mary. Influenced by her contact with him, Mary was to become a political and social activist campaigning against slavery, for prison reform, female education, and latterly for female suffrage.

Sadly, the Raja was never to leave Bristol,  for in 1833 he died of meningitis while staying at Beech House, the home of Unitarian friends in the suburb of Stapleton. According to Hindu beliefs he should have been cremated  but in the England of 1833 this was still illegal. Non-Christian burials in  Christian graveyards were also prohibited. And so, at a silent service, his friends buried him in the grounds of Beech House.

Ten years later new owners had purchased Beech House. Consequently, William Carr and William Prinsep, businesspeople who had worked in Kolkata, bought a plot in the new cemetery which the Bristol General Cemetery Company had established at Arnos Vale . They  moved Mohan Roy’s coffin to a brick lined vault in an unconsecrated section of the cemetery. The chattri was designed by  Prinsep and funded by Dwarkanath Tagore.

There is a celebration of the life of Raja Ram Mohan Roy  every year at Arnos Vale on the Sunday closest to the anniversary of his death  on 27th September 1833. This year marked  the 250th anniversary of his birth in 1772. Anyone is welcome at the ceremony and so  I joined members of Brahmo Samaj, Unitarians, a representative of the Indian High Commission, The Lord Mayor of Bristol, staff and volunteers at Arnos Vale, and other members of the public to honour the life and achievements of this remarkable man.

Mrs. Mariju Chowdhury, a member of Brahmo-Samaj speaking at the ceremony
Ovessa Iqbal laying flowers on behalf of the Indian High Commission
Laying flowers at the memorial
Carla Contactor speaking at the ceremony
At the memorial

There are other tributes to Mohan Roy in Bristol:

In Bristol Art Gallery, a magnificent portrait of the Raja provides a burst of colourful magnificence dominating a room of Victorian art.

Portrait of Raja Ram Mohan Roy in Bristol Art Gallery

In 1998 the Indian government presented a bronze statue of Raja Ram Mohan Roy to the City of Bristol in celebration of fifty years of Indian Independence. It stands  outside the cathedral on College Green.

Bronze statue of Raja Ram Mohan Roy outside Bristol Cathedral

There is a plaque on the wall of Beech House in Stapleton.

Beech House, Stapleton where Mohan Roy stayed on his visit to Bristol
Contrary to the dedication on the plaque, the Raja was born in May 1772

Next year the ceremony at Arnos Vale will be on 24th September.

https://arnosvale.org.uk/remembering-the-raja

Arnos Vale Cemetery  closed and fell into neglect in the 1980s. With no room for new burials, the income of the private for-profit company which owned it disappeared. With fewer descendants left to care for graves the cemetery  become overgrown and vandalised. In 1987 the company  proposed to clear away the graves and use the land for commercial development. The Friends of Arnos Vale Cemetery led a successful campaign to save it, and in 2003 Bristol City Council made a compulsory purchase order. Today volunteers have cleared away brambles and overgrown paths, restored monuments, and cleaned graves. They host tours, talks, film, theatrical and musical productions. And they have a great café where in fine weather you can sit outside with the forty-five green acres of the new Eden stretching before you. If you find yourself in Bristol pay them a visit.

https://arnosvale.org.uk

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