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.
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.
We were dismayed when we heard that for our teaching practice term we were to be scattered all over the country. During our first term we had enjoyed the rarefied atmosphere of Cambridge: observing in the Village Colleges; reading children’s literature; watching educational films; putting together themed multimedia presentations; filming each other microteaching – Chinese cookery, yoga, origami; mulling over our teaching practice wardrobes; and discussing “discipline” in an entirely theoretical manner. The Cambridge Village Colleges were not however, our supervisor informed us, representative of the range of abilities or the standards of behaviour which we might expect to encounter in the real world, and into that world we were now to be dispersed.
And so, I found myself at the wildly inappropriately named Heartsease Comprehensive School in Norwich. This is a little unfair, for Heartsease was a good school, despite its unwieldy size and disadvantaged catchment area. Indeed, at the time of my arrival it was shaking off an earlier reputation as a sink school and experiencing steady improvements. But it takes time to leave behind a problem school label, and I was conscious of benefitting from this, looking smugly nonchalant when fellow students reported rumours that mine was a difficult school and wondered sympathetically how I was coping.
My passage was eased further by the exceptional teachers in the English Department who gave generously of their time and expertise. In handing over the classes which they had carefully nurtured to my inexpert care, they were risking having to make up lost ground in the future and meanwhile putting themselves in the front line for “cover.” This frequently meant periods with the most difficult classes in the school when less scrupulous staff in other departments “went sick,” an event which happened with odd frequency on Friday afternoons.
Not only did they lend me their pupils, but it was also clear that they had briefed them to act with consideration towards The Student. For student teachers are fair game to bored teenagers, and with no malice intended they can easily derail painstakingly wrought lesson plans and reduce their captives to jabbering, drivelling incoherence. But my charges were clearly honour- bound to respect the moral strictures of their real teachers, so that even my least successful efforts met with little more than an exchange of indulgent smiles, raised eyebrows and the occasional, “O, Miss,” when my lesson floundered.
So, given a free hand, I embarked with confidence one morning on a comparative analysis of Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting and Henry Newbolt’s Vitai Lampada, ostensibly to illustrate the difference between good and bad poetry. There was a hidden agenda, for I was hoping that Wilfred Owen’s heart-rending condemnation of war would turn them against the jingoism exemplified by Newbolt’s poem.
But to a person my pupils embraced Vitai Lampada: they liked the tempo; they liked the rhythm; they liked the rhymes; they liked the imagery; they liked the emotion, the immediacy, and the vivid metaphor. They liked the sentiments of honour, nobility and selflessness. Useless for me to argue that the poem was maudlin, mawkish, manipulative, banal, cloying, and cliché ridden, that it was disingenuous to compare war with a cricket match, that the cheery tempo they liked so much was inappropriate for a poem about war. Losing sight of the question of literary merit, writ large in my lesson plan, I focused on the values espoused in the poem: hierarchy, unquestioning respect for authority, blind obedience to orders, Imperialism, a public-school ethos, and (this last in a blatant attempt to win over the girls) a toxic masculine culture. My pupils, normally loud in their condemnation of all these attitudes, were unmoved; they liked the poem – a lot.
Strange Meeting on the other hand met with a stony response: it was gloomy; miserable; did not rhyme properly. I struggled in vain to explain pararhyme, to suggest that Owen used it to promote unease, a bleak atmosphere, melancholy. My pupils were unimpressed. I tried them on realism, on poignancy, on irony, the dead soldier, who could have been a friend, killed by the protagonist. They were impervious to my arguments. Abandoning any pretence that we were debating the quality of the writing I focused on the message: war was arbitrary, futile, wasteful, organised brutality, the battlefield a dehumanising hell of hopelessness and horror. My charges nodded, “Yes, it is a really miserable poem.” But, I continued, the poem also points to the possibilities of choice, forgiveness, shared humanity, reconciliation. “Preferred the other one.”
I met with wry smiles in the staff room when I reported ruefully on the double failure of both my overt and my covert lesson plans.
Soon after qualifying I abandoned the teaching of English Literature, turning instead to delivering Politics classes. But I remember with gratitude the support of the English staff at Heartsease in the Easter term of 1980 and with amused respect the determination with which my pupils held to their own opinions.
And if I still have no doubt that Vitai Lampada is a deeply flawed poem, I have nonetheless visited Henry Newbolt’s grave in atonement for my attempt to use his poem for my own political agenda. The grave lies at the heart of the Orchardleigh Estate which was owned by the Duckworth family of publishers into which Newbolt married. When I first moved to Somerset it was a romantic lost domain, the grounds gloriously overgrown and the empty Victorian house bewitchingly mysterious. Today developers have cleared the parkland to accommodate a golf course, and revamped the house as a “Fairy-tale Wedding Venue” – three-day packages from £8,699. But the tiny thirteenth century church of St. Mary the Virgin remains untouched. It sits on a lake, protected by trees, and reached via a decorative iron foot bridge across a moat. Newbolt lies in the churchyard, near the edge of the lake under a small, worn, flat stone which describes him tersely as Henry Newbolt, Poet. His view of the lake has been somewhat obscured in recent times by the arrival of more Duckworths with grander stones, but it’s a charming, peaceful spot, with ducklings scuttling across the lake in springtime… and not a jammed Gatling in sight.
A memorial in the church bears a quotation from his own elegy, Mors Janua:
“ Jane Austen,” whispered the volunteer guide raising a weary eyebrow, “slipped in quietly at nine o’clock in the morning without disturbing anyone.” In the Cathedral a brass band was loudly, and repeatedly, rehearsing the national anthem. The harsh, strident tones ripped and tore through the early morning quiet, the band’s amplified performance penetrating every corner of the building. Already, when we entered, our bags had been painstakingly searched by two assiduously polite but resolute police officers. Their dogs patrolled the longest nave in Europe, sniffed warily at the chantries of Bishops Beaufort and Waynefleet, eyed the twelfth century Winchester Bible with suspicion, and pawed gingerly at the Tournai font.
“Military funeral tomorrow,” our guide continued sotto voce. “The cathedral will close soon for a full rehearsal.” Waving his arm at the array of memorials which line the great stone walls, he sighed, “ All high-ranking military, clergy and politicians, and all reputedly endowed with moral excellence and effecting heroic deeds.” He looked sceptical. “ No ordinary people.” He paused. “ And they didn’t even mention on Jane’s stone that she was a novelist,” he added indignantly.
We fled the noisy, disturbed cathedral, and passing rapidly through the Cathedral Close, awash that morning with police and military personnel, vehicles, and equipment, arrived in College Street. There we paused before the house where Jane Austen rented rooms during the last few weeks of her life in 1817, having come to Winchester to be close to her surgeon.
Then, abandoning the town, we followed Keats Walk to St. Cross Hospital. When Keats stayed in Winchester in 1819 he took his daily walk across the water meadows, and it was here that he composed his ode To Autumn. Our morning too was misty, with soft muted autumn sunshine just beginning to burn through, swans moving stately on the chalk stream and herons still as statues.
At St. Cross we explored the quiet complex of medieval buildings founded in 1136 by Henry of Blois. Church, Alms-houses, and Hall are all still in use. In the Master’s garden we found glowing herbaceous borders, cyclamen pushing through the grass beneath the sycamore trees, a dappled lake with a gentle fountain.
They still offer the Wayfarer’s Dole at St. Cross, but not feeling ourselves entitled, we joined instead a group of Friends and Brothers of St. Cross for tea in The Hundred Men’s Hall. There was a woolly tea-cosy on the pot, a choice of homemade cakes, and we were introduced to the Warden. Truly I felt myself in Anthony Trollope’s Barchester.
We returned another day to the Cathedral, when only its quotidian bustle rippled the surface, to pay our respects to Jane Austen. She lies beneath a dark stone slab on the floor of the north aisle. Here Keats, with only two years to live himself, walked up and down reading his letters from Fanny Brawne. And if the site occasions sadness for the early deaths of both writers, this is mitigated by profound gratitude for the treasures they left behind.
Jane’s mere presence here in a place generally reserved for the triumvirate of senior military, clergy, and politicians, is surprising. Speculation suggests that someone in the Austen family Knew Someone who Knew Someone With Influence. Her epitaph, composed by her brother Henry, certainly makes no reference to her literary achievements focusing rather on a conventional recitation of her qualities:
In Memory of
youngest daughter of the late
Rev. GEORGE AUSTEN
formerly Rector of Steventon in this Count.
She departed this life in the 18th of July 1817
aged 41, after a long illness supported with
the patience and the hopes of a Christian.
The benevolence of her heart,
the sweetness of her temper,and
the extraordinary endowments of her mind
obtained the regard of all who knew her and
the warmest love of her intimate connections.
Their grief is in proportion to their affection
they know their loss to be irreparable,
but in their deepest affliction they are now consoled
by a firm though humble hope that her charity,
devotion, faith and purity, have rendered
her acceptable in the sight of her
In 1872 Jane’s nephew placed a memorial brass on the wall, on the left of the grave, which acknowledged, with some understatement, that she was “known to many by her writings.”
A memorial window, financed by public subscription, joined it in 1900, but the window too is underwhelming, and Jane’s grave is overshadowed by the bombastic memorials trumpeting the achievements of the Pillars of the Establishment. But I prefer her plain black stone to these monumental, cold, white sepulchres, just as I valued the tranquillity of St. Cross above the undoubted splendour of what is undeniably one of England’s most magnificent cathedrals.