For the fifth year running my nearest village in Northamptonshire has just hosted a weekend of celebration called ‘Stoke Bruerne: Village at War’. A busy two-day programme of events, including a Spitfire fly-past, a bread-and-dripping and spam-sandwich tuck-in, and classes in how to dance the Lambeth Walk, started on Saturday morning with a formal opening ceremony by Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Montgomery lookalikes and ended on Sunday afternoon with an air raid ‘all clear’.
Stoke Bruerne lies on the Grand Union Canal about halfway between London and Birmingham; and Village at War was organised by Friends of the Canal Museum there to raise money for that worthy institution. It was a great success. The village was festooned with Union Jacks and crowded with hundreds of people (men often in old uniforms or siren suits, and women in sensible coats and skirts, wedge shoes and hats) buying items of second world war nostalgia and ‘black market’ food products from stalls beside the canal, watching noisy military demonstrations by ‘living history’ re-enactment societies, and listening to a very plausible George Formby impersonator.
Stoke Bruerne may not have played a particularly prominent part in the struggle against Hitler, but enthusiasm for that era is strong in this part of south Northamptonshire. Perhaps the culture of ‘make do and mend’ has special appeal as we face a new period of austerity. Perhaps people like to remind themselves that austerity has connotations of heroism and social cohesion. But I remember as a child disliking austerity very much, especially as it involved eating rabbit practically every day. And I really don’t wish to be reminded of the grimness and dowdiness of that time, even if they were suffered in the noblest of causes. So I decided to get away from Stoke Bruerne last Saturday and set off for Oxford a short hour’s drive away.
My purpose was to go to the Ashmolean Museum to see an exhibition of Edward Lear paintings and drawings marking the bicentenary of his birth. It is a small exhibition that the Ashmolean put together very late in the day after discovering, to its shock, that no London gallery or museum was doing anything of significance to celebrate the great man’s birthday. But it is a reminder of what a wonderful painter Lear was, even if he is now remembered mainly for his nonsense verse. Opening the exhibition last month, Sir David Attenborough described Lear as ‘probably the best ornithological illustrator that ever was’, and Lear’s paintings of birds, especially of parrots, are indeed superb.
But more moving for me are the beautiful landscapes he painted during his extensive travels around the Mediterranean and in India. There is something magical and sad about them. His view of Jerusalem is particularly affecting. Painted in the 1850s, it shows the ancient city still wholly contained within its walls, a small and vulnerable enclave of beauty and civilisation amid a wild and mountainous landscape. Equally touching is his 1880 painting ‘The Plains of Lombardy from Monte Generoso’, in which the plains lie far below and fade away into the distance under a blue mist.
But the exhibition also pays tribute to his brilliance as an illustrator of his famous nonsense limericks, with several of the original illustrations on display. And at the back of the exhibition there is a large board on which visitors are invited to pin their own efforts. ‘Along the lines of Lear, Leave your own limerick here,’ it says. I was wondering whether to give it a go when I decided that it could be risky. For on the board, dated the day before my visit, was a limerick signed by ‘A. Fraser’, which read as follows: ‘There was an old lady of Oxford/ Who said that “I don’t give a pox for/ The academic thing/ And all that bling”/ What a sensible old lady of Oxford.’
Now, I cannot be sure that the author was Lady Antonia Fraser, but somebody clearly thought it was; for beneath it was pinned an anonymous limerick cruelly mocking that illustrious lady. It is too unpleasant to reproduce here, so I will only say that it referred ungallantly to her physical appearance and used the word ‘phonier’ to rhyme with Antonia. Shameful. I admire people who are brave enough to put their heads above the parapets, but on this occasion I decided to lie low.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 6 October 2012