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

Category: Writers Page 1 of 3

Thank You Mary, for My Education and My Rights

I stood on a muddy patch of grass on  Newington Green looking up at Maggi Hambling’s  memorial to Mary Wollstonecraft, a small naked silver figure emerging above a swirl of organic matter, gleaming and glittering like a fish in the pale autumn sunlight. It was my first visit to London since the pandemic, in  that strange time when the full wrath of Covid had passed but we still moved in and out of changing restrictions, alternating between nervous caution and an impatient desire to re-engage with the world.

After a few moments other women joined me: some still wore masks and we all kept a discreet distance from one another, but the air was heavy with unspoken thoughts. Eventually someone broke the hesitant silence: “I’m not quite sure that I understand it.” Empathetic murmurs preceded a burst of speech as we shared knowledge: “I read that she is arising out of female forms to show that she is supported by her predecessors.” “Hambling says it represents everywoman and the birth of the feminist movement rather than Wollstonecraft herself.” “She said that she made it in deliberate opposition to traditional male heroic statuary.” “She made her naked so that she would be relevant for all time, not bound to a certain era by her clothes.”

We were silent again for a few moments, then: “The most important thing is that it is here.” “And that it was made by a female artist.” “Anything new and different is always a bit challenging.” “It would have been inappropriate just to put up a conventional statue.” “I expect it will grow on us.” We parted agreeing that we would revisit the statue.

Two years on and I greet it as a familiar friend and a fitting tribute to Wollstonecraft, for as it says on the plinth, the statue is “for Mary Wollstonecraft,” not of her.

Mary Wollstonecraft memorial on Newington Green
Gleaming and glittering in the autumn sunlight

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was a writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights. She had variously earned her own living as a lady’s companion, teaching in a school which she founded with her sisters and friend in Newington Green, as a governess, and as a translator before focusing on her own writing.

Her output was prolific, but two books stand out like especially bright stars. Critical of aristocracy, monarchy, church and military hierarchies, all hereditary privilege and advocating Republicanism, Wollstonecraft celebrated the  revolutionary events in France. In A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) she countered Edmund Burkes’s conservative critique of the French Revolution. When a group of angry women had  marched the royal family from Versailles to Paris, Burke had praised Marie Antoinette describing her surrounded by “furies from hell, in the abused shape of the vilest of women.” Mary responded angrily that they were working women angry at the lack of bread to feed their families. Though deeply saddened and depressed by the Jacobin terror and the executions of the Girondin leaders, and offended by the Jacobins’ treatment of women to whom they refused to grant equal rights, nonetheless Wollstonecraft continued to believe in the ideals of the revolution and remained true to her conviction that it represented a great achievement.

At the heart of all her work lay a conviction in the importance of education for women. In  A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, (1792), she argued that while women were not inherently inferior to men they often appeared to be because of their lack of education which made them seem silly and superficial, frivolous and incapable, leading to excessive sensibility at the expense of rationality. It precipitated them, unable to support themselves independently, into patriarchal marriages based on economic necessity. They became the mere ornaments and property of men,helpless adornments of their households. Such marriages infantilised them, made them poor companions for their husbands and poor mothers for their children, poor citizens, and poor human beings. Only with education could they achieve independence, support themselves, blossom as individuals with the same rights as men, and realise relationships based love and affection.

Mary had begun an affair with the philosopher William Godwin and when she became pregnant they had married so that society would consider the child legitimate, but Mary died of septicaemia eleven days after her daughter was born.

Godwin’s memoir of his wife, though motivated by his love, compassion, and sense of loss,  destroyed her reputation for many years. For he wrote candidly of her personal life as well as her writings, and her love affairs, illegitimate child, and suicide attempts shocked nineteenth and early twentieth century society. She had sought unsuccessfully to live with her married lover, Henri Fuseli and his wife. She had an illegitimate daughter, Fanny, by Gilbert Imlay. She made two suicide attempts when Imlay rejected her, the first by laudanum and the second by trying to drown herself in the Thames. The opprobrium which these actions engendered meant that only in the 1960s did her star begin to rise again when attention refocused on her work.

Godwin buried Mary in the churchyard of Old Saint Pancras Church where they had married, and when she was a small child he took their daughter, also a Mary, on visits to her. When Godwin remarried, the child, unhappy with that second marriage, continued her visits alone. There she would read her mother’s works, and later meet in secret with one of her father’s political followers, the poet Shelley. An unsubstantiated tradition has it that there beside the grave she lost her virginity to him. I choose to believe it.

Like her mother, Mary led a turbulent and unconventional life, eloping with Shelley in the face of her father’s disapproval, facing ostracism and debt. She had four children with Shelley, whom she married after the suicide of his  first wife Harriet, but only one of them, Percy Florence Shelley survived. Mary supported herself through her writing producing travelogues, historical fiction, short stories, biographies, and novels, most famously Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. After Shelley drowned in 1822 while sailing from Livorno to Lerici she devoted herself to promoting and editing his work and  ensuring the education of their son.

Mary Shelley had asked her son and his wife Jane to bury her with her parents in Old Saint Pancras, but when she died in 1851 they thought the old graveyard a “dreadful” place. Indeed a local resident had written to The Times in 1850 complaining that, “More than 25 corpses have been deposited every week for the last twenty years in an already overcrowded space: and at this very time they are burying in it nearly twice that rate…teeth, bones, fragments of coffin wood are seen lying in large quantities around these pits.” A few years later it featured in Charles Dickens’ Tale of two Cities as a site of body snatching. Moreover, the arrival of the railway brought further disruption and  the railway company supervised the excavation of over 10,000 graves to make way for the new London train terminus at St. Pancras. So they buried her in the churchyard of St. Peter in Bournemouth near their own home and to fulfil her wishes disinterred  her parents and reburied them with her.

Later in her desk they found a box containing a human organ wrapped in the preface to Shelley’s poem Adonais, an elegy on the death of his friends Keats. They thought it was Shelley’s heart, for in accordance with quarantine regulations his friends had  cremated Shelley on the beach where his body had been borne by the tide, but Trelawny had rescued the slow burning heart and given it to Mary. When Mary Shelley’s son died, both he and the heart joined his mother and grandparents.

At least one modern medical speculation however has suggested that this organ may have been Shelley’s liver rather than his heart, for the liver is a denser and more solid mass and more likely to have resisted the heat. I choose to believe it was the heart; keeping a liver, even one wrapped in poetry, in a desk drawer for thirty years lacks romance.

St. Peter, Bournemouth and the Wollstonecraft/Godwin/Shelley grave
William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, removed from St.Pancras, London to St. Peter, Bournemouth
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, her son and his wife

Today the Bournemouth grave despite its famed collection of inhabitants is little visited, the churchyard and the grey Victorian church a little bleak, while ironically the church and graveyard of Old Saint Pancras have a new vitality. The redevelopment of the surrounding area, the restoration of  King’s Cross and St. Pancras stations along with the magnificent old Midland Grand  Hotel, and the opening of the Crick Institute, have transformed the neighbourhood. The metamorphosis of Coal Drops Yard has seen designer outlets, an abundance of cafes and restaurants, fountains, and gardens  replace the dereliction  which previously blighted the area with disused railway sidings and warehouses. Ingenious designs have slotted clever apartments into old gasometers. The Central School of Art  has located in an old granary. Bright river craft dawdle along the Regent’s canal. And across the road from this vibrant area the graveyard offers a  tranquil green space, with its paths and gates recently repaired, shaded seats beneath the mature plane trees and neatly trimmed grass around the tombs. The pretty church is open daily hosting concerts and community groups as well as religious services.

It is Mary Wollstonecraft’s original grave marker which draws her admirers today though neither she nor Godwin lie beneath it. Nonetheless devotees leave tributes to Mary, the tomb chest always bearing an array of pens, pencils, flowers, stones and ribbons  There are notes too; like medieval pilgrims visitors seek Mary’s help with exams, relationships, careers, and sometimes they just tell her about their lives, their joys and sorrows, successes and failures, hopes and fears.

I lifted a crystal holding down a sheet of paper torn from a small notebook: “Thank you Mary,” it read “for my education and my rights.”

The original Wollstonecraft Godwin tomb at Old Saint Pancras
Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin
Tributes laid on top of Mary’s tomb

To find out more about Mary Wollstonecraft read Claire Tomalin, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft.

Laurie Lee: He Lies in the Valley he Loved

As the long-wet days of July dripped seamlessly into August I began a cull of the bookcases. This is slow work, for potential sacrifices must  be granted the dignity of a last read  before they make their final journey to the Oxfam Shop. Often this results in a reprieve when forgotten qualities and nuances not previously appreciated are discovered. The task is further slowed when I am distracted by an old friend  inviting me to turn its pages again, to read and to remember, and by the time I close the book and replace it, the day has passed, the light faded, and my labour no further advanced.

I took down an old Penguin paper back, its pages yellowing with age, priced in its 1964 reprint at 3/6d. Our English teacher had encouraged us to buy these editions and their faded orange spines are scattered amongst the novels on my shelves, the price not varying as I progressed through school in the mid and late sixties. Cider with Rosie was something of a cult book at the time, I think every girl in my class read it, and it met with universal approval.

I recalled a nostalgic account evoking the simplicity and innocence of a rural world in the aftermath of World War I; an autobiographical chronicle of a blissful lost idyll; a soft focused, sunny, beguiling picture of  life in the village of Slad in Gloucestershire. The blurb on the back of the book seemed to confirm my impression, sounding itself a little quaint today. “Cider with Rosie” it reads “puts on record the England we have traded for the petrol engine.” This tuned with the gentle melancholy I associated with Laurie Lee’s reflections, written years later, on his childhood memories.

At first the book confirmed my recollections: in 1918 when Laurie Lee, his mother and siblings moved there, Slad was indeed a lost domain, isolated from the world, its inhabitants’ horizons confined largely to home, their only transport the horse and cart. Lee conjures  a world of homely cottages, “snug, enclosed and protective” set in the hillside “like peas in a pod,” and of cottage gardens: “syringa shot up, laburnum hung down, white roses smothered the apple tree, red flowering currants spread entirely along one path: such a chaos of blossom as amazed the bees and bewildered the birds of the air.”

He charts a poetic journey through the changing seasons. In winter, “there were jigsaws of frost on the window. The light filled the house with a green polar glow; while outside there was a strange hard silence, …it was a world of glass, sparkling and motionless. Vapours had frozen all over the trees and transformed them into confections of sugar,” and there was  carol singing in the snow with candles in jam jars. The summers were spent roaming the fields: “The grass was June high and had come up with a rush, a massed entanglement of species, crested with flowers and spears of wild wheat, and coiled with clambering vetches, the whole of it humming with blundering bees and flickering with scarlet butterflies.”

 The  Annual Church Tea and Entertainment, the charabanc outing to Weston-Super-Mare where the children played on the beach and peered into the penny slot machines, leap off the pages, intense, vivid, gleeful events.

Poverty, dirt, and limited horizons are treated lightly, met with humour: a pump supplies water and wood fires are used for cooking and heating water for the shared bath – “being the youngest but one my water was always the dirtiest but one.” The  hungry children tore apart “fresh loaves with crusts still warm, their monotony brightened by the objects we found in them – string, nails, paper, and once a mouse; for those were days of happy-go-lucky baking.” In the two roomed village school – “universal education and unusual fertility had packed it to the walls with pupils” – one teacher and her young assistant taught every child in the valley from four to fourteen.

And at the book’s heart he recounts the perfect first flirtation, the perfect first kiss, with Rosie. “It was a motionless day of summer, creamy, hazy, and amber coloured, with beech trees standing in heavy sunlight as though clogged with wild wet honey.…we went to the bottom of the field, where a wagon stood half loaded. Festoons of untrimmed grass hung down like curtains all around it. We crawled underneath, between the wheels, into a herb-scented cave of darkness.” They drank from the squat jar of cider and, “For a long time we sat with our mouths very close, breathing the same hot air. We kissed, once only, so dry and shy, it was like two leaves colliding in air.”

As he reveals the changes that began to encroach during the later part of his childhood, destroying forever that guileless world,  it is impossible not to share his regret, impossible not to want to reach out and hold on, to draw back all that is lost. The motor cars and the bicycles took the young  away from the village, the expanding towns drew nearer, the clothes people wore and the very language they spoke moved into line with the wider, modern world. “The old people just dropped away – the white-whiskered, gaitered, booted and bonneted, ancient-tongued last of their world, who had thee’d  and thou’d both man and beast, called young girls damsels, young boys squires, old men masters.”

But beyond the poetry I discovered something I had forgotten, for Laurie Lee did not view the past through  a glass darkly, and alongside the joyous celebration of his childhood world he reveals the bigotry, casual cruelty, danger, and disease which blighted the lives of the villagers.

For this is a world where infant death is commonplace: “in those cold valley cottages, with their dripping walls, damp beds and oozing floors, a child could sicken and die in a year,” and a heartless church will not bury the unbaptised infants in consecrated ground, so that “tiny, anonymous graves were tucked away under the churchyard laurels, where quick dying infants – behind the vicar’s back – were stowed secretly among the jam-jars.”

This is a world where old folk remember the gibbet at Bulls Cross, and Laurie and his friends play in a ruined cottage at Dead Combe Bottom where “behind the door, blood red with rust, hung a naked iron hook.” This, they learn, was the home of the hangman who, during the hungry times when local felons flourished, worked busily by night in darkness. One night he dispatched a shivering boy and as the cloud moved from the moon recognised his son. He went home, fixed a noose to the iron hook, and killed himself.

It is the world of ugly superstition and desperate tramps, halfwits, a deaf mute beggar “with a black beetle’s body, short legs, and a mouth like a puppet, soft boiled eyes” of whom it was said “he could ruin a girl with a glance, take the manhood away from a man, scramble your brains, turn bacon green,” so that when he approached the village “food was put out on the top of walls and people shut themselves up in their privies.”

It is a world in which a vicious murder can be absorbed into the fabric of everyday life. A lad who had been shipped off to the colonies, a common fate for poor boys, returns successful and richly dressed boasting of his success, contemptuous of the tenant farmers and their miserable wages, scornful of their narrow lives and their servility. In the village pub he buys round after round of drinks while he flaunts  his achievements, and “when the public house closed the New Zealander was the last to leave. When he reached the stone-cross the young men were waiting, a bunched group, heads down in the wind. They hit him in turn. Beat him bloodily down in the snow…beat him for the sake of themselves. Then they emptied his pockets, threw him over a wall and left him. He was insensible now…   the storm blew all night across him… and in the morning he was found frozen to death.” But the young men “were not treated as outcasts, nor did they appear to live under any special stain. They belonged to the village and the village looked after them”.

It is a world of tragic suicide. The grief stricken, half mad Miss Flynn who has “been bad” kills herself one night: “naked, alone in the night … she slipped into (the village pond) like a bed and drowned quietly away in the reeds.. a green foot under, still and all night by herself, looking up through the water as though through a window…her hair floating out and her white eyes open.”

It is the world where half a dozen bored, aimless young men casually plot to rape “mad Lizzy”, a simple-minded girl of sixteen with “a stumpy accessible body.” That Lizzy responds to the first tentative touch by hitting her would be assailant with a bag of crayons before walking away unharmed, renders the ugly intention no less sickening.

It is a world where the shadow of the workhouse is always present. “The Workhouse – always a word of shame, grey shadow falling on the close of life, most feared by the old, abhorred more than debt, or prison, or beggary, or even  the stain of madness”. Frail, sick, and old, the devoted Joseph and Hannah Brown “white and speechless were taken away to the Workhouse”  by the “kind, killing Authority” which labelling them too frail to care for themselves separated them for the first time in fifty years, Hannah to the women’s wing, Joseph to the men’s wing of the merciless institution. “They did not see each other again for within a week they were both dead.”

There was a darkness interwoven with the beauty of the Slad Valley, and Laurie Lee’s book is something more powerful and complex than the bucolic, nostalgic celebration which I had remembered.

Yet Laurie Lee never lost his great love of the steep sided valley, and with the success of his books he bought a cottage in Slad near his childhood home where he lived until his death in 1997.

He had chosen his place in the churchyard, located between the church and The Woolpack Inn. On one side his stone reads, “He lies in the valley he loved.”

On the other the first lines of his poem April Rise are recorded:

If ever I saw

blessing in the air

I see it now in this

still early day

Where lemon green

the vaporous

morning drips

Wet sunlight on the

powder of my eye.

In the church a memorial window features his violin, signature, a map of Spain and an extract from Cider with Rosie.

Bees blew

like cake crumbs

through the

golden air,

white butterflies

like sugared wafers

An afterthought

If you visit Laurie Lee in Slad, cross the road to The Woolpack where you can buy the books and where the food has been enthusiastically reviewed by no less a person than Grace Dent:>food>2023 The Woolpack, Slad, Gloucestershire: “Fancy but hearty food.”

A Grave which makes me Smile: Michael Bond

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.

Michael Bond’s grave at Paddington Old Cemetery, seldom seen without some Paddington memorabilia, often left by children

The Anchoress, The Privateer, The Dissident and The Broadcaster

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.

The visible repair on the left side of the tomb shows where it cracked in 1899-1900 enabling inspection of the reliquary found within. Also visible are prayer cards still left in the vesica by twenty-first century visitors.

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.”  

St. Candida’s Eye; wild periwinkles bloom in profusion in the area in early spring

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 .

Memorial to George Somers, shipmate of Walter Raleigh and coloniser of the Bermudas

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.

Markov’s grave in the churchyard at Whitchurch Canonicorum

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.”

The ashes of Robin Day, The Grand Inquisitor, gradually disappearing beneath the march of wild celandines

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.

The Lozenges, The Chest Tomb, and The Hulk

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.

Pip contemplated five little stone lozenges but thirteen of these tiny tragic graves surround their parents’ upright stone

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.

The beached remains of the one time hulk, Hans Egede

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.

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