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.
One of the saddest little graves in London is that of a terrier who endures a distressing notoriety as “Giro the Nazi Dog,” and whose grave marker is said to be Britain’s only Nazi memorial.
Setting aside the preposterous assumption that a dog might hold political opinions, his owner too was innocent of this slur. Giro belonged to Dr. Leopold von Hoesch who was the German Ambassador to the United Kingdom between 1932 and 1936. Von Hoesch came to London following postings in Peking, Madrid, and Paris, as the representative of the Weimar Republic. He lived at 9 Carlton House Terrace, which, as Prussia House, had been the official residence of Prussian Ambassadors since the nineteenth century. After a brief hiatus during the First World War representatives of the Weimar Republic returned to the residence in 1920. Von Hoesch was by all accounts a respected statesman, popular in Britain, and critical of the Nazi regime. He was dismayed when Hitler secured the position of Chancellor in 1933 meaning that he himself became by default the representative of the Third Reich in Britain. He was particularly censorious of von Ribbentrop, and he denounced Hitler’s invasion of the Rhineland in 1936 in direct contravention of the Treaty of Versailles and the Locarno Treaties.
Giro died in the garden of the Ambassador’s residence in 1934, allegedly after chewing on a live electrical cable. He was buried in the garden but claims that he was given a funeral with full Nazi honours are entirely apocryphal.
The Ambassador himself died at the Embassy two years later of a heart attack at the age of only fifty-five, and the British government granted him an extraordinary funeral parade before his coffin was shipped back to Germany. The coffin was draped in the Nazi flag, by this time the official flag of Germany. As it left Carlton House the German embassy staff crowded the terraces outside and gave the Nazi salute. British government ministers accompanied the cortege as it moved down The Mall. The German national anthem played at Victoria Station and a nineteen-gun salute was fired at Dover as the body was transferred to a British destroyer which conveyed it to Germany. The Pathe News coverage of the event is disturbing, making for queasy watching, and although Hoesch almost certainly had clean hands, it is hard not to wonder at the wisdom and motivations of those who permitted and organised this event.
But certainly, in Berlin no representative of the Nazi Party attended von Hoesch’s funeral.
Ironically it was von Ribbentrop, of whom Hoesch had evinced a particular loathing, who replaced him as German Ambassador. A key member of the Nazi regime von Ribbentrop employed Albert Speer to “improve” the Embassy with a massive staircase made from marble donated by Mussolini, and, reputedly, a swastika mosaic on one of the floors . But two years later von Ribbentrop’s tenure was abruptly ended, and the Embassy closed. When the German Embassy reopened post war it relocated to Belgrave Square.
In the 1960s builders excavating the former Embassy garden to create an underground car park discovered Giro’s grave. They moved the stone a short distance to its present location at the top of the Duke of York Steps, beneath a tree in a small enclosure outside 9 Carlton House Terrace. The inscription reads:
EIN TREUER BEGLEITER! (a faithful companion)
LONDON IM FEBRUAR 1934
It is a bleak location, cold and cheerless. The large, white stucco-faced houses, adorned with pompous pillars, form terraces of unrelieved monotony and smug, dismal uniformity. Steep steps down to the Mall and the absence of people engender a dreary and sterile atmosphere. For many of the houses today are expensive, unoccupied investment properties or exclusive meeting places. It is an area without heart or soul. And poor Giro lies alone in his odd little enclosure. Far better across the Mall in the bustle of pretty St. James’s Park or a little further west in the pet cemetery of Hyde Park.
So, if you are passing, pause to greet Giro, and remember, in the implausible event that he has any political affiliation, he is not The Nazi Dog but The Weimar Dog.
“ 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Southwark is my favourite Cathedral, not least for the warmth of the welcome always extended by the volunteer guides. It was one of them who first introduced me to Doorkins Magnificat. Leading the way to the Bishop’s Chair he indicated a tabby cat comfortably asleep on the cushion. “I always have to check on her” he whispered, “the first thing my wife asks me when I get home is ‘how was Doorkins today?’” Doorkins, he explained, first appeared at the south-west door of the cathedral in 2008. Named by one of the vergers, she was timid at first but after a few weeks of being fed decided to make the cathedral her home, sleeping there by day and prowling Borough market by night. “At Christmas,” my guide continued, “she likes to sleep in the straw around the nativity scene.”
Doorkins lived at the cathedral for eleven years and if the vergers and clergy cast their bread upon the waters in offering her hospitality and sanctuary, they were more than repaid. For Doorkins not only brought joy to her carers and visitors, but she also developed her own successful line of merchandise in the gift shop, with cards, mugs, mouse mats, fridge magnets and her own book. She was a philanthropist too, donating the food and treats which her many admirers left, and which far exceeded her own needs, to Catcuddles, a cat rescue organisation pairing unwanted cats with loving homes.
Towards the end of 2019, as Doorkins grew old, suffering with kidney problems, failing sight and hearing, she retired to the home of Paul Timms, the head verger, where almost a year later she died peacefully in his arms .
Meanwhile the cathedral had been seeking another cat to keep its mouse population under control and on 30 September 2020, the very day that Doorkins died, a stray from Catcuddles arrived at Southwark. He was called after Dr. Johnson’s cat, Hodge, and in a short video Paul Timms recounts the story of how when Boswell remarked that Hodge was a fine cat, Johnson responded “yes, sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this” but seeing Hodge’s reproachful look, he added hastily “but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.”
A month after her death the clergy and vergers held a Thanksgiving service for Doorkins in the cathedral. It was live streamed because the pandemic lockdown meant that only thirty people were able to attend. A few voices were raised in criticism that a service should be held for a cat mid pandemic. The Dean, Andrew Nunn, responded gently in his eulogy, saying, “She arrived, she entered, and we made her welcome. People concluded that if this little cat is welcome, maybe I am too,” and he continued modestly “She did more to bring people to this place than I will ever do.”
Last time I visited Southwark I met Hodge proudly patrolling the cathedral aisles, and he is, like his namesake, a very fine cat indeed. And in the churchyard beneath a wall separating the cathedral garden from Borough market I found Doorkins in her final resting place.
Southwark will always be Doorkins’ Cathedral but Hodge, and the rest of us, are very welcome.