Norman Thelwell (1923-2004) produced talented landscapes in watercolours and oils. He was better known however for his prolific output of cartoons; some poked gentle fun at human foibles, but it was the Thelwell Pony which brought him lasting celebrity and gave pleasure to generations of children and adults. The pony cartoons were born in the 1950s when, in a field viewed from his studio, Thelwell observed two fat, hairy, bad tempered ponies called Thunder and Lightning. In his autobiography he wrote:
They were owned by two little girls about three feet high who could have done with losing a few pounds themselves. They would arrive to collect their mounts in yellow pullovers, tiny jodhpurs, and velvet safety helmets. Thunder and Lightningwould pointedly ignore them, but as the children got near, the ponies would swing round and give a few lightning kicks which the children would sidestep calmly. They had the head collars on those animals before they knew what was happening. I was astonished at how meekly they were led away, but they were plotting vengeance – you could tell by their eyes.
There followed a lifetime association with the trademark plump, stubborn ponies and their equally plump, determined riders. The comic strip Penelope and Kipper featured in the Sunday Express, and the collections of cartoons came out on a regular basis, delighting not just Pony Club Members but a whole spectrum of children and adults.
On the hundredth anniversary of his birth this year two exhibitions celebrate the work of Thelwell: one at Mottisfont, a National Trust property near his home in Hampshire, the other at the Cartoon Museum in London. The latter features his work alongside that of other cartoonists and environmentalists in an event in support of climate recovery and carbon neutrality. Entitled Norman Thelwell Saves the Planet, it pays tribute to the prescient concerns raised in his work The Effluent Society (1971), a humorous but heartfelt plea to take better care of the natural world.
In lieu of commonplace angels sounding the last trump, Thelwell’s gravestone in St. Andrew’s churchyard at Timsbury, Hampshire features two resolute little girls with herald trumpets blasting the peace of the graveyard undaunted at being bounced out of their saddles by their recalcitrant ponies.
The graves of those taken too young are always painful. Heart-breaking too are those recalling lives which have been difficult, troubled, unhappy. But for those who have led a long life, loved, and been loved, whose passage through the world has known shared happiness, the sadness is mitigated, and when their stones speak with a gentle humour they make me smile.
Michael Bond (1926-2018) first introduced us to A Bear Called Paddington in 1958. His inspiration was a small bear whom he saw seated alone on the shelf of a London department store one Christmas Eve. Feeling sorry for the forlorn bear he bought him and gave him to his wife as a Christmas present. They named the bear Paddington after the nearby railway station and Bond began drafting a story about him.
Paddington’s Aunt Lucy had sent him to London from “darkest Peru” when she moved to the Home for Retired Bears. He had arrived as a stowaway and the Brown family found him sitting disconsolately on his suitcase near the lost property office at Paddington Station. Around his neck he wore a luggage label written by his aunt, “Please look after this bear. Thank you.” In his suitcase was the remains of a jar of marmalade which had sustained him during his voyage.
Bond explained that his inspiration came from his war time memories of refugee and evacuee children at London stations wearing similar labels bearing their names and addresses and clutching small suitcases containing their few possessions. Paddington too was a refugee and Bond received many poignant letters from child immigrants telling him about their new life in England.
Aunt Lucy had taught Paddington perfect English, impeccable manners, and a clear-eyed understanding of the difference between right and wrong. He was not afraid to, politely, challenge authority when he considered that authority was in error, nor to express his disapproval of wrongdoing with a “hard stare.” Paddington was kind, loving, charming and upright. Filled with enthusiasm and optimism, he always tried to do the right thing notwithstanding a tendency to be disaster prone.
The Browns, whom Bond modelled on his own happy childhood family, adopted Paddington, and as his story unfolds he writes letters and postcards to Aunt Lucy about his life in London.
Bond continued to write about Paddington for many years. The books were translated into forty languages and sold thirty-five million copies around the world bringing delight to children and adults alike.
When Bond and his wife separated they decided on joint custody of the bear, and he described how they would phone each other up and say, “He feels like coming to you now.”
In 2000 a bronze statue of Paddington was erected on Platform One at the station. Parents take photographs of their children, often holding one of Paddington’s favourite marmalade sandwiches, standing beside the bear; unaccompanied adults pat him surreptiously as they pass.When Michael Bond died in 2017 the statue almost disappeared beneath the welter of flowers, cards, notes written on luggage labels, and jars of marmalade.
Bond is buried in Paddington Old Cemetery beneath a stone bearing the appropriate legend,
Please look after this bear. Thank you.
for Paddington Bear and his creator were said to be very much alike.
In the early Spring of 1972, I queued for five chilly hours to see the Treasures of Tutankhamun at the British Museum. Over nine months 1.6 million people visited the exhibition, and it remains the most popular in the history of the museum. It was magical. The now famous words of Howard Carter when he first peered into the tomb welcomed us:
…as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment – an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by – I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, “Can you see anything?” it was all I could do to get out the words, “Yes, wonderful things.”
Wonderful things indeed: a gold figure of Tutankhamun, the golden shrine, scarab necklaces and bracelets, alabaster vessels and caskets, and the mask of solid gold, beaten and burnished, which had covered the head and shoulders of the Pharoah. I had stepped out of the grey London streets and into all the colour and spectacle of Ancient Egypt.
Yet whilst I was entranced by these riches I could not shake off the uneasy knowledge that Howard Carter and his financial backer, Lord Carnarvon, were essentially grave robbing, albeit with official sanction. No surprise then that when Carnarvon died in April 1923, only months after the discovery of the tomb, speculation began about “the curse of Tutankhamun.” The apocryphal story of the warning found on the wall of the burial chamber, “Death will come swiftly to those who disturb the tomb of the King,” passed into popular culture.
Carnarvon, of course, died not from a curse but from an infected mosquito bite. Nonetheless his death and that of others with even the most tenuous connections to the excavation were claimed as evidence of the malediction. The list included: George Jay Gould who had visited the tomb and died of pneumonia a few months later; Carnarvon’s brother, Aubrey Herbert, who, five months after Carnarvon’s own death, died from sepsis following dental surgery; Aaron Ember, Egyptologist, and friend of Carnarvon who died when his house burnt down; and Archibald Reid who died soon after x-raying the contents of the tomb.
But Howard Carter himself, openly sceptical of the curse, lived on until 1932 when he died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Despite the drama and glamour of his discovery his fame had dissipated and only nine people attended his funeral. Since that exhibition back in 1972 however his star has risen again and today his own grave in Putney Vale Cemetery in London is carefully tended. The stone bears an inscription taken from the alabaster lotus chalice found in Tutankhamun’s tomb:
May your spirit live, may you spend
millions of years, you who love Thebes,
sitting with your face to the north wind,
your eyes beholding happiness.
And at the foot of the grave an extract from the prayer of the goddess Nut :
O night spread thy wings over me
as the imperishable stars.
Carnarvon’s grave lies within the fortifications of Beacon Hill Camp overlooking his family seat at Highclere in Hampshire. It is surrounded by an ugly iron fence with a padlocked gate.His epitaph
5th EARL OF CARNARVON
DISCOVERER OF THE TOMB OF
IN COLLABORATION WITH HOWARD CARTER
is less than modest given his lack of enthusiasm for the dig, which he had only agreed to finance for one more season in response to an impassioned plea from Carter, and that he only arrived from England after Carter had discovered the entrance to the tomb.
More than twenty years after I saw the exhibition in the British Museum, I viewed those treasures again, this time in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo. There were no queues, only fragile vitrines came between me and the precious objects, and for most of the time I had the rooms to myself with just an occasional group passing swiftly through like a murmuration of starlings. But while the artefacts were as wondrous as ever, and the opportunity to view them almost in solitude an unexpected privilege, the old museum, built in Tahrir Square in 1901, was looking dusty and tired, unworthy of the glorious heritage which it sheltered.
Then in 2003, following an international architectural competition, the Irish practice Heneghan Peng won the contract to design a new museum to be built on the Giza Plateau next to the pyramids. Work on the site halted during the conflict which followed the Arab Spring of 2011 and during this time rioters broke into the old museum, the destruction and damage including two statues of Tutankhamun. And in events far worse than any imagined curse the museum was reportedly used as a torture site.
But work resumed on the new Grand Egyptian Museum in 2014, and it is due to open later this year. For the first time Tutankhamun’s entire treasure collection will be on display – and in the exact order in which Howard Carter found the objects in the tomb. More than five million people are expected to visit every year, and for all my reservations about grave robbing I will be among them.
Whitchurch Canonicorum lies only a few miles from Charmouth and Lyme Regis, but while holiday crowds hug the Dorset coast the tiny inland village remains undisturbed.
It was not always so, for the church of St. Candida and the Holy Cross was once a busy and prosperous centre of pilgrimage. Today it houses the only British shrine with relics, apart from that of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey, to have survived the Reformation. The simplicity of the tomb concealed its true purpose and, mistaken for an ordinary grave, it escaped destruction.
St. Candida, or Saint Wite, was a Saxon holy woman, an anchoress purportedly martyred in 831 when 15,000 Danes landed at Charmouth and engaged in widespread slaughter. In the church a thirteenth century marble tomb chest contains her relics. When the chest cracked open in 1899-1900, a lead reliquary was found inside. It contained the bones of a forty-year-old woman and bore the inscription “HIC REQUECT RLIQE SCE-WITE” (Here rest the remains of Saint Wite) on the lid. The stone beneath the tomb contains three vesica-shaped openings where pilgrims left offerings of coins, candles, cakes, and cheeses. More dramatically they inserted diseased limbs or, with a little struggle, their whole bodies, into the vesica to ensure the closest possible contact with the relics. When the cure was successful they made candles, the length and breadth of the previously afflicted part, which burned around the shrine. Suspended above it hung their discarded crutches and sticks.
A mile to the south of the church lay St. Wite’s well where the saint lived and prayed and maintained fires as beacons for sailors. The pure waters of the well were reputed to heal eye diseases. The wild periwinkles which bloom in the area at this time of year are still known as “St. Candida’s Eyes.”
Also in the church, buried beneath the floor of the now vestry, are the remains of John Somers. Following a shipwreck, this privateer started a colony and became governor of The Somers Isles, later Bermuda. His life as a castaway allegedly provided the inspiration for Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. When he died, of “a surfeit in eating of a pig,” his heart was buried in The Somers Isles, but his body, pickled in a barrel, was landed at the Cobb in Lyme Regis, and returned thence to Whitchurch Canonicorum .
But I had not come in search of either of these luminaries. I was on the trail of a Bulgarian dissident killed by the Bulgarian secret service in cooperation with the KGB in 1978. Georgi Markov had been a successful writer in Bulgaria, winning literary prizes, part of the official intelligentsia, associating with high-ranking politicians, and enjoying an affluent lifestyle, including driving a silver BMW. Indeed, Zhivkov, the Party leader, had tried to lure him, with offers of more privileges and positions, into serving the authorities through his writing. But instead, his work had become more critical and satirical in relation to the regime. He came under increased scrutiny and some of his works were banned. In 1969 he defected to Italy and in 1970 moved to England, where from 1975-1978 he was employed by the BBC World Service and by Radio Free Europe. Increasingly he used these organs, especially his broadcast In Absentia for RFE, to criticise the Communist government in Bulgaria, and to accuse Zhivkov of fraud, nepotism, incompetence, mediocrity.
Then, in September 1978 came a drama which we would previously have associated only with the novels of Le Carré and the dark, mysterious streets of those Eastern European cities which lay beyond The Iron Curtain. Markov had left work at Bush House and was waiting at a bus stop in The Strand near Waterloo Bridge for the bus home to south London. In this most mundane of circumstances and humdrum of environments a man bumped into him and with the tip of his umbrella pushed a sugar-coated ricin pellet into his leg. As the sugar dissolved the poison was released into his bloodstream. The man disappeared in a taxi and that evening Markov was admitted to hospital with a fever and died there four days later. Medical staff had been sceptical of his claims that he had been poisoned but Scotland Yard, aware that there had been two previous attempts on Markov’s life, ordered an autopsy and the remains of the poisoned pellet were discovered. To test the theory, they injected a pig with the toxin. After suffering identical symptoms to Markov, the pig died two days later.
Markov’s stone in the churchyard at Whitchurch Canonicorum records his death “in the cause of freedom” in English on one side and Cyrillic on the other.
No one was ever arrested for the killing but suspicion fell on the Italian born Bulgarian agent Francesco Gullino. The latter had been arrested for smuggling in Bulgaria in 1970 and offered a choice between prison and espionage work. His file in the Bulgarian archives records his training and missions but pages relating to the time of Markov’s killing are missing, however one of his fake passports shows that he was in London at the time of the murder. In 1993 British authorities interviewed him based on information from Bulgaria but no arrest was made. He remained free until his death in 2021 leaving the suspicion that he may have given evidence on other cases in return for his freedom.
About to leave the churchyard I spotted another small, flat stone dating from 2000 and bearing the legend “The Grand Inquisitor.” Here were the ashes of Robin Day, the television journalist credited with inventing the political interview on television. I remember him as a staid, conservative figure, uncritical of government and traditional institutions like monarchy and the legal profession, one who accepted a knighthood, and was chummy rather than subversive in his interviews with politicians. In the 1950s however Day had been the first to break with the habitual deference which journalists had previously shown when interviewing members of the establishment. At the beginning of his career, he was criticised for being disrespectful and pugnacious towards his subjects. His incisive, abrasive style was turned first against Kenneth Clarke then chairman of Independent Television and thus his employer. Later he interviewed President Nasser after the 1956 Suez crisis, and ex-president Truman: “Mr. President do you regret having authorised the dropping of the atomic bomb?” he asked. His less than respectful 1958 interview with then Prime Minister Harold MacMillan was described by the Daily Express as “the most vigorous cross examination a prime minister has been subjected to in public”. Hence he became known in British broadcasting as “The Grand Inquisitor.”
I wonder how they rub along: the anchoress, the privateer, the dissident writer, and the journalist. They surely have a wealth of stories to share as they lie together now in the quiet of Whitchurch Canonicorum.
Great Expectations was always my favourite Dickens, not least for its unrivalled ensemble of characters.
Biddy is surely Dickens’ most loveable female. Unlike his usual heroines who are either vapid, foolish creatures, simpering and affected, or wearyingly saintly and selfless, Biddy alone is credible and attractive. For Biddy is both good and clever. She may love Pip, but she is not deceived, being acutely aware of his weakness and vanity. And if her tone is never acerbic, her words are frequently pointed. She knows that he has no justification for patronising and condescending to her. She may be hurt by his carelessly cruel words, but she maintains her dignity, replying to his arrogant suggestion that despite not being a gentleman, “I should have been good enough for you; shouldn’t I Biddy?” with a disconcerting: “Yes, I am not over-particular.” She counters his vain and supercilious query, “How do you manage, Biddy, to learn everthing that I learn and always to keep up with me?” with a humour to which he is impervious, “I suppose I must catch it – like a cough.” The only time her response borders on the sharp is in defence of Joe when Pip asks her to, “help Joe on …with his learning and his manners. “Won’t his manners do then?” she flashes back at him with real and justified anger.
When she writes to Pip explaining that Joe wants to visit him in London, she reads the letter to Joe omitting with characteristic sensitivity the sentence where, clearly all to aware of the mean-spirited embarrassment with which Pip will greet this proposal, she has written, “I hope… it will be agreeable to see him even though a gentleman, for you had ever a good heart and he is a worthy man.”
Pip himself is a study in human weakness, his pride and snobbery fighting with his natural affection. He is ashamed of his home at the forge; he dreads the appearance of Joe, “coarse and ignorant,” before Miss Haversham and Estella; he finds Biddy “common.” His resentment flares when, in response to his own condescending assurance, Joe too readily agrees that he is sure he will never forget him. When Joe and Biddy express wonder at the notion of his being a gentleman he is angry and bitter.
His impatience and embarrassed contempt surface when Joe visits him in London, and make a sorry contrast with the quiet dignity with which the latter takes his leave. And the remorse which succeeds soon fades into spurious self-justifications for not staying at the forge when he next returns to visit Miss Haversham. When he finally returns for his sister’s funeral he is annoyed by Biddy’s silent reaction to his assertion that in future he will often visit Joe; she knows, of course, that he will not do so , but Pip takes her silence as an unkindness and injustice to himself.
His abhorrence and repugnance when he realises that Magwitch is his benefactor, his disgust at his uncouth manners and appearance is not attractive. Yet when the returned convict is hunted down and wounded Pip’s better self emerges and he sees “only a man who had meant to be my benefactor, and who had felt affectionately, gratefully, and generously, towards me with great constancy through a series of years. I only saw in him a much better man than I had been to Joe.” In the end he does not desert Magwitch.
Great Expectations also offers us one of the most delightful minor characters in Dickens: Trabb’s Boy, exuberant and irrepressible, thumbing his nose at pretension and mocking Pip’s insolence as, thinking himself above others, he makes a proud progress down the High Street in his new gentlemanly clothes. As Trabb’s boy impersonates him to the amusement of spectators it is impossible not to sympathise with Pip’s humiliation in the face of sustained mockery and ridicule.
In Satis House with its dark rooms and yellow light, we encounter the faded spectre of Miss Havisham, one of Dickens’ great grotesques, a ghastly waxwork amongst her cobwebs and rotted cake. Spinning her own evil web like one of the speckle-legged spiders with blotchy bodies that scurry in and out of the lump of black fungus which had been her wedding cake, she pursues her cruel manipulation of the young Estella and her vengeful torture of Pip.
And through the tragic life of Magwitch comes a severe indictment of a society which put men in irons and imprisoned them in hulks before transporting them, then condemned them to death if they returned however blameless, industrious, and honest their lives might have been in the intervening years.
As compelling as Dickens’ characters is his mesmerizing evocation of the marsh country where the young Pip lives at the forge. It is a “dark flat wilderness,” with a “ low leaden line beyond,” the river on which stands a gibbet hung with chains. A raw wind rushes from its “distant savage lair,” the sea. Here on a damp rimy morning, “ on every rail and gate wet lay clammy.” The dismal firing of the great guns on the hulks , the sound deadened by the thick mist, warned of an escaped convict.
In the bleak churchyard overgrown with nettles Pip traced out the letters on his parents’ tombstone and contemplated the “five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine.” And here he encountered the terrifying Magwitch, the convict escaped from the hulks, with a great iron on his leg: “ A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped and shivered, and glared and growled.” Magwitch turned the petrified Pip upside down in search of any food he might have in his pockets. “ When the church came to itself – for he was so sudden and so strong that he made it go head over heels before me…I was seated on a high tombstone trembling.”
Years after I first read the novel I went in search of the church of St. James in the village of Cooling on the North Kent marshes. Here, in a small churchyard which, like its environs, has been much tamed since Dickens’ day, are the little stone lozenges which inspired the description in that vivid opening chapter.
Nearby is a splendid chest tomb, surely the one on which Pip found himself seated and trembling.
From the church I crossed the marshes to the river and another graveyard where, anchored in the mud, the skeletal wreck of a hulk lay rotting. I longed to believe that here were the warped remains of the ship from which Dickens drew inspiration, but regrettably I knew better. It is the Hans Egede, a barge built in the 1920s, and converted into a hulk for coal storage in the 1950s after it had caught fire. It was being moved up the Thames from the Medway when it began to take in water; it was beached and abandoned. Besides, even in Dickens’ day the hulks were moored on the Medway rather than on the Thames.
But in my imagination this was the hulk from which Magwitch escaped, and only because the day was so unnaturally bright and sunny was I unable to detect his ghostly form dragging his leg iron across the marshes towards the churchyard and a small boy who would provide him with vittles and a file.