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

Category: Writers Page 1 of 3

One Date, Three Graves; Tales of Myth, Manipulation and Mescalin

I do not remember where I was when I heard that the Thirty Fifth President of the United States of America had been assassinated, but I do remember the subsequent media coverage of the death, the funeral, the arrest and shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, the conspiracy theories, the conjuring of Camelot, and the strange outpourings of public adulation and grief. No wonder that two other notable deaths on 22 November 1963 passed virtually unnoticed.

John F. Kennedy (1917-63) was the son of Joseph Kennedy who had amassed a fortune through stock market manipulation, property deals and bootlegging. It was trust funds set up by his father that provided Jack Kennedy with financial independence and enabled him to run his successful campaign to become president, notwithstanding an undistinguished record in the Senate. His father’s contacts,  including the mafia boss, Sam Giancana, allegedly provided support following a deal with Joseph that if his son were elected he would “lay off organised crime.” Giancana’s control of the Teamsters’  Union and their votes, and judicious use of threats and fraudulent voting, helped deliver Kennedy’s narrow Presidential victory.

JFK’s time as president (1961-63) was defined by the fiascos and iniquities of a foreign policy engendered by Communist paranoia combined with arrogant Imperialism. In April 1961 he unleashed the Bay of Pigs invasion led by CIA paramilitary officers who tried to foment an uprising  to overthrow Castro’s government in Cuba. They were defeated in two days. There followed the equally unsuccessful Operation Mongoose characterised by terrorist attacks on civilians, the destruction of crops, mining of harbours and farcical assassination attempts directed against Castro. Abortive efforts  were made to keep this operation secret to avoid repercussions from the United Nations.

On Kennedy’s watch American involvement in Vietnam built up: military advisers were sent to the country along with political and economic support for the Diem regime  whose forces were funded and trained by the CIA . Under the crude social engineering of the Strategic Hamlet Programme   peasants were forcibly relocated away from Viet Cong influence and subjected  to brainwashing and surveillance with no freedom of movement. In January 1962 Operation Ranch Hand introduced herbal warfare including the use of Agent Orange. This aerial defoliation not only destroyed land and ecology but also led to cancers, birth defects and other long term health problems in Vietnam.

In April 1963 Kennedy cynically recorded: “We don’t have a prayer of staying in Vietnam. Those people hate us. They are going to throw our asses out of there at any point. But I can’t give up that territory to the Communists and get the American people to re-elect me.”

It was an abhorrent record and, although still a child in 1963 with only a hazy knowledge of the full horror of American foreign policy, I sensed something wrong in the sycophantic media coverage and the deferential tributes. Though unfamiliar with the concept of establishment propaganda, the constant repetition of the Camelot myth raised my suspicions, and the uncritical public effusions of distress seemed fabricated. So I was surprised when, years later, accompanying more worldly Politics Students on an annual trip to Washington, they invariably showed enthusiasm for crossing the Potomac to Arlington to see the Kennedy grave. Challenged, they proved themselves well informed as to the noxious nature of the Presidency yet remained susceptible to the contrived allure of the Camelot myth.

The Kennedy Grave at Arlington Cemetery, Washington. Alongside Kennedy lies Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and two of their children.
An Eternal Flame burns at the Grave
The Grave looks out across the Potomac towards the Washington Monument

The second death on that November day was that of the academic and writer, CS Lewis (1898-1963). Amongst his sizeable output of fiction and nonfiction it is his children’s books The Chronicles of Narnia, seven fantasy novels which have sold over 120 million copies and been translated into forty-seven languages,for which he is best remembered. Like most small children I was once enchanted by the world of Narnia; what imaginative child would not be thrilled at the prospect of entering a large wardrobe full of fur coats to discover a secret exit at the back  leading to a magical kingdom of ice and snow, mythical creatures, and talking animals. It is a cleverly woven story of wonder, mystery, and adventure. Lewis began to write it in the 1940s when children  came to his house in Oxford as evacuees from London, and the four siblings who discover the world of Narnia were based on them.

But it did not take me long to realise that behind the richly imaginative narrative lay a manipulative allegory, a Christian subtext with the lion Aslan a Christ like figure sacrificing himself to torture, suffering and humiliation to redeem Edmund who has betrayed his siblings to the White Witch. Aslan’s sacrifice vanquishes death, and he returns to life but only the trusting and unquestioning Lucy can see him;  the message at the heart of this proselytising text is the importance blind faith, obedience to an authoritarian moral system, and an acceptance that there are things one is “not meant to know.”

I may not share Philip Pullman’s view that this is “one of the most poisonous things I have ever read” but alongside the Christian propaganda aimed uncomfortably at young children, there is also a pernicious defence of established hierarchies and a tacit acceptance of violence. The racist disparagement of the Calormenes, and the unquestioning acceptance of class and gender stereotypes  is disturbing. The female character of the White Witch, responsible for its being “always winter and never Christmas,” personifies evil, and when Susan becomes too interested in nylons, lipstick, clothes, and boys she can no longer return to Narnia. Worse, as Pullman says, is the terrible myth that death is better than life, the idealised view of an afterlife upholding a reactionary idealised theocracy.

But just as the Camelot myth drew my students to Kennedy’s grave, so the magic I remembered in his stories enticed me to that of CS Lewis. I did not have high expectations for the graveyard of a Victorian church, located in an old quarry in an Oxford suburb, but Holy Trinity churchyard in Headington is a delightful place. I visited on the eve of springtime as the soft green shoots of snowdrops and hellebores were emerging, and it resembled more a country churchyard than a suburban one. The gnarled roots of an ancient yew circle the honey-coloured stone marking the grave of Lewis and his brother which bears a quotation from King Lear.

The Grave of CS Lewis At Holy Trinity Church, Headington
“Men Must Endure Their Going Hence”
Lewis’ mother had a calendar with quotations from Shakespeare, his father kept the leaf from the day she died, Lewis’ brother Warren had the quotation inscribed on the grave.

And I was reluctantly charmed by the Narnia window in the church

My third grave however houses someone who was aware and wary of the power of indoctrination and  conditioning, the uncritical conformity which media myths and social engineering, fairy stories and brainwashing can engender.

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), writer and philosopher, had published his most famous work the dystopian Brave New World in the early 1930s but it was still very popular when my school friends and I discovered it in the 60s. Eagerly we debated his vision of an establishment controlling a docile population through a combination of drugs and entertainment, maintaining  economic and social divisions with neither alphas nor epsilons questioning their status but accepting a caste system, convinced that all was right with their world.

Paradoxically Huxley’s own experiments with mescalin recorded in The Doors of Perception (1954) led him to believe that the consciousness altering drug could also promote  enlightenment, and that drug taking could be a legitimate expression of intellectual curiosity, removing inhibitions and increasing awareness. In the 1960s this chimed with a youth subculture seeking social change and experimenting with psychedelic drugs and the hallucinogenic power of LSD, and Jim Morrison’s rock group – The Doors – took their name from the title of Huxley’s book. (He in turn had taken it from the visionary poet and artist William Blake: “if the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”)

Ostentatiously clutching our copies of The Doors of Perception  was as close as we came in our provincial girls’ school to the drug subculture of the sixties. And if we perceived it then as a more glamorous world than our own and lauded Huxley for his avant-garde views yet when I reread his book recently I confess that I found it dull. Worse, it contradicted the scathing indictment of mindless acceptance and unquestioning obedience which he had wrought in Brave New World. Yet though this may have been disappointing, his grave was nonetheless the one which I approached with most respect for the memory of its occupant.

Huxley is buried in the Watts Cemetery, home of the Watts Mortuary Chapel, at Compton near Guildford in Surrey.

Alongside him are other members of his illustrious family including his father Leonard, biographer and editor.

Robert Tressell and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

The bus headed  north from the centre of the city, and as it reached Walton the lack of investment in this deprived and battered suburb of Liverpool  was apparent.  Through the dirty windows  I watched the shuttered shops and red brick terraces passing by.  Walton is mentioned in the Doomsday Book as a town in its own right but by the late nineteenth century it had been swallowed up by the advance of Liverpool. Not quite sure where I was going I got off at the Clock Tower. It is an impressive, if daunting and forbidding structure, built in 1868 as the centre piece of the Union Workhouse. In the twentieth century the workhouse became Walton Hospital. Since the latter was demolished the clock tower building alone remains looming over a new housing estate.

But this was not what I had come to see. I knew that somewhere nearby was the Liverpool Parochial Cemetery, opened in 1851  as the growing population overwhelmed the central churchyards, and that there  Robert Tressell was buried.

As I turned down Rawcliffe Road an unexpected delight awaited me, for the cemetery is no longer in use and has been taken over by the Rice Lane City Farm. The graves have been tidied up and the  farm,  established by the local community 40 years ago, is open to all every day of the year. Small children ran around delighted by the ducks, pigs, sheep, goats, and Ness, the donkey. Scattered groups sat in the weak spring sunshine eating picnic lunches, and Walton suddenly seemed a happier, more cheerful place.

But what of Robert Tressell? The man I was seeking was born in Dublin but emigrated to South Africa where he was employed as a housepainter and sign writer. Following a failed marriage, he returned to England with his daughter Kathleen, and they settled in Hastings where he pursued his trade. He was a founder member of the Hastings branch of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation but is most remembered for writing what has been described as the first working class novel in England: The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. It was as author of this book that Robert Noonan assumed the pen name Tressell, a word play on the trestle table with which painters work.

Set in 1906, the partly autobiographical novel is a clarion cry for Socialism. It describes a group of painters and decorators  employed to restore a house in a world of stagnant wages and soaring profits. The poverty and near starvation in which the workers live, without proper food and clothing for themselves or their children, in cold cheerless homes, a prey to sickness, the workhouse, and early death, contrasts with the wealth and ease which their employers enjoy. Such is the precarious nature of the workers’ existence that a man murders his children rather than see them starve, an incident which Tressell based on a real case.

Owen, the main character,  refers ironically to his fellow workers as philanthropists because they  hand over the results of their labour to their employer without question, accepting that there is a natural order of rich and poor, of rulers and ruled. They are working class Conservatives, voting in ignorance, relinquishing self-respect and dignity, accepting that they should have only the necessities of existence, that “leisure, books, theatres, pictures, music, holidays, travel, good and beautiful homes, good clothes, good and pleasant food” are not “for the likes of them.”

Owen tries to explain Socialism to his fellow workers, to make them understand that the pathetic measures, such as smoking in the bosses’ time and minor pilfering, by which they attempt to “get some of their own back,” will change nothing. Revolutionary change, the proper valuing of labour power and the elimination of hereditary wealth is needed, he argues, to alleviate inequalities for good. But even Philpot, a good man who would happily pay another halfpenny on his rates to provide food for hungry school children,  cannot countenance the possibility of  changing the system.

Sometimes the novel becomes didactic as Owen lectures his fellow workmen on Marxist theory. At other times it is sentimental. But  the chapters which portray the men’s home lives, their troubled relationships, their children’s games, their friendships, their weaknesses, the accidents at work, the lure of the public house, and the annual beano, are vivid and real. And with echoes of William Morris, he portrays the frustrated craftsmanship with which the workers seek to express their personalities in lieu of the “scamping,” the cheap, rushed jobs required by their employers to maximise profits.

Tressell  hoped that by publishing the novel  he might convert his fellow workers and, knowing that he had tuberculosis,  provide money for his daughter if he died. But the handwritten manuscript was rejected unread. In 1910  he decided to emigrate to Canada in search of a better life, aiming to send for Kathleen once he was established. Aged forty, he fell ill and died of TB in Liverpool Infirmary while waiting for a ship. Kathleen had neither the money to pay for her father’s funeral nor the means to attend it. Tressell was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.

In 1914 Kathleen sold the novel to a publisher; since then it it has never been out of print, and it is frequently credited with helping to win the 1945 election for Labour.

In 1970 the historian Alan O’Toole used cemetery records to locate the grave where Tressell lay with twelve other paupers buried on the same day. Local Socialists and Trade Unionists unveiled a stone  in 1977. Made of Swedish granite donated by Swedish Trade Unions, it bears a portrait of Tressell,  the names of the twelve others buried with him, and an extract from William Morris’ poem The Day is Coming.

Robert Tressell’s grave surrounded by woodland on the edge of the cemetery,which now houses a city farm
Robert Noonan aka Robert Tressell
The stone bears the names of twelve others buried on the same day in a paupers’ grave
and an extract from William Morris’ poem The Day is Coming

Through squalid life they laboured, in sordid grief they died,

Those sons of a mighty mother, those props of England’s pride.

They are gone; there is none can undo it, nor save our souls from the curse;

But many a million cometh, and shall they be better or worse?

It is we who must answer and hasten, and open wide the door

For the rich man’s hurrying terror, and the slow-foot hope of the poor.

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

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