Thursday, 13 August 2009

Zulus fighting in the flowerbed

This post is mostly about Preston and South Africa and Crail and some dead people who were once alive in those places.

Last week I finished the last two first year portfolios for my MA; the Writer with the Writerly Name’s Creative Writing Workshop portfolio, and the Agreeable Doctor’s Creativity and Marginality in Contemporary Writing portfolio. There’s a dissertation to write now; and a year to complete it in. As ever, I was just one day short of having enough time to finish those last two pieces nicely and I was up until three on Friday morning compiling them.

A few hours later Ian hefted me weightily into the car, folding my legs and arms in after like an inexpertly doubled deckchair and we set off for Crail, via the Humanities Office to hand in the assignments. The Humanities Office was locked and deserted; but I can’t talk about that yet. It’s enough to testify that the kind lady from the Ceremonies Office took the portfolios from me and gave me a receipt, and a hug.

There is an assignment drop box but how I feel about assignment drop boxes is: what about the bad person with the lighter fuel and the lit match? That’s all I’m saying.

On the way to Scotland the Radio 4 play was Ken Blakeson's Bearing the Cross which tells the story of Rorke’s Drift. This is an Amazing Coincidence because there’s a flower bed in Avenham Park in Preston that’s designed to mark the 130th anniversary of Rorkes Drift (*thinks* 'maybe that’s why Ken wrote the play too').

The 1964 film, Zulu, depicts the Battle of Rorke's Drift. It was a terrible fight between the British Army and Zulu warriors. Preston are observing the event because the padre, George Smith, became the chaplain at Fulwood Barracks, here in Preston, on his return from South Africa and is buried in New Hall Lane cemetery (that was after he died, obviously).

Apparently one hundred and thirty-nine British soldiers successfully defended the garrison at Rorke’s Drift against several thousand Zulu warriors (reported numbers vary). Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to the defending soldiers; the largest number of VCs conferred to a regiment for one action. George Smith received the Zululand medal and clasp for gallantry; only soldiers can receive the VC.

I felt ill at ease when I saw first saw the Avenham Park flowerbed a few weeks ago. I know the soldiers were brave and doing what they were employed to do, but it somehow seems out of place to be commemorating the defeat of native people who were defending their stolen land; just as Victorian Prestonian warriors would have defended Avenham Park, armed with fettlers and yard-brushes, if Zulu pastoralists had rolled up and set about grazing their cattle on the sward. Ken Blakeson's play reinforced my disquiet.

Crail is in Fife, across the Tay from Dundee. I tipped my hat groggily to Kathleen Jamie as I was driven by Newburgh. Jamie wrote Findings which was one of the Agreeable Doctor’s set texts. She also wrote the poem Arraheids in which arrowheads in museums,

thon raws o flint arraheids
in oor gret museums o antiquities’

are likened to the sharp tongues of Grannies who cannot stop themselves from putting you back in your place;

'ye arenae here tae wonder,
whae dae ye think ye ur?'

We’ve all met one of those Grandmas.

Crail is a picturesque fishing town (see above) fixed in another time and place. Like the Isle of Man, I suspect it isn't there if you’re not looking.

As you know, I spend a lot of time in graveyards, stealing names, admiring Shap Granite headstones, looking for dead babies; I can add looking for the headstone of an Army padre to that list now.

The graveyard at Crail Parish Church is the best yet. It has the oldest and most elaborate range of monuments I’ve ever seen. Tombs that would temp one to be buried alive (as was said of the mausoleum at Castle Howard, I forget who by).

I’m tired and emotional now, thinking about assignment drop boxes, kind administrators and displaced Zulu warriors who're reduced to fighting in a flowerbed. I’ll tell the tale of mural memorials, body snatchers and mort houses next time.


liz mailer said...

That's brightened up an otherwise dull afternoon! Thanks,Kim. What I like about Scottish graveyards is that women are recorded on their gravestones by their maidenname, eg Here lies Janet McBloggs, wife of Andrew MacNobody, like they've had their true identity restored by death. I've just been paying homage at Jane Austen's gravestone in Winchester Cathedral - doesn't mention her novels, just "the extraordinary endowments of her mind"!

kim mcgowan said...

hi Liz

Yes I've only just realised that Scottish women are recorded by their own name on this last visit. What I didn't notice is whether it is still the case; I tend to lurk around the old graves in preference to the new ones. Having said that, there are some fabulous recent memorials in the New Hall Lane cemetery in Preston; well worth a lurk…

If you were trying to make me feel jealous by hanging around in Winchester Cathedral, you've succeeded.


lonlonranch said...

exciting stuff Kim, battles, graveyards, general unease - and thats just the coursework deadline! (boom boom)

I've not seen that Rawkes Drift memorial on Avenham Park, is it new? sounds of interest. myself and my fiancee hannah are into all that kind of stuff (well she did a history degree so it stands to reason.) she also fascinated by graveyards, got a kindred spirit there!

Thanks for the link that you sent ages ago. i listened to it and enjoyed it, i'll try and make it a regular thing.


kim mcgowan said...

hi Dave
Yes new and I suspect ephemeral, because most of the installation is flowers and stuff, so you and Hannah had better skip along and see it before the frost hits. It’s actually in Miller Park but I know you’re from Preston so you know they sort-of merge. It’s on the terrace just above the fountain. Tell Hannah I went and located George Smith’s headstone in Preston Cemetery, directions here: and it’s not light red marble, it’s Shap Granite, of course.
I like tracing all the cross-connections bits, George Smith, South Africa, Fulwood Barracks on Watling Street Road in Preston, the Sumners pub. We lived on Watling Street Road and our son was born in a house opposite to the Barracks, and I’ve been to the Sumners, and the Barrack’s chippy is in between our old house and the Sumners and I like fish and chips and ten years ago I went on an archaeological field trip to South Africa…oh and I’ve seen Zulu and now I’ve seen the Miller Park commemoration and his headstone. Marvellous!