What Is It That Lies Beneath the Lion’s Balls?

12-15-05, 8:30 am

On an unusually warm day in late October, I found myself lying face-up, on a comfortable stretch of grass, between two old, flaking tombstones, in Halifax’s oldest graveyard, St. Paul’s Cemetery.

Established in 1749, the year of the city’s founding, the cemetery is a national historic site, situated on an acre or so of green space in the city’s downtown where, coincidentally, there also exists the largest concentration of pubs per population in all of North America – which, also coincidentally, leads me back to where I began: lying face-up, on a comfortable stretch of grass, between two old, flaking tombstones, in the city’s oldest graveyard.

I chose to lie there because it seemed to me – at the time, anyway – to be a fitting place to contemplate my Muse. And of all the things that one might muse about while lying face-up in a graveyard, between two old, flaking tombstones, I chose to muse about this: what is it that lies beneath the lion’s balls?

A strange thought? Well, let me explain.

At the entrance to the cemetery, through which I had walked, stands a large stone archway with the words 'Welsford-Parker' engraved in deep-set letters. The massive monument is an ode to Victorian British Empire sensibilities, constructed in 1860, to honour the memory of those Nova Scotians who had fought and died in the great Crimean War.

Since I chose to lie some twenty feet from this monument, and since, consequently, it was the largest object in my sight line, I found myself looking up earnestly at the Welsford-Parker Monument, at its shape and size and deeply carved letters and numbers, and then thinking generally about the nature and meaning of war memorials. After a time, I wondered what bit of enlightened British propaganda compelled 19th century Nova Scotians – those who, as is true with all wars, were mostly poor, with little future prospects – to pack up and travel for weeks by boat, and train, and foot to the eastern edge of Europe to fight a war on a stretch of sand and rock thrusting out between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea.

But no matter how hard I tried, I could not imagine any Nova Scotian becoming passionate and patriotic enough to lay down his life for the British Empire to help the Turks and Sardinians steal the port of Sevastopol from the supposedly uncivilized Russian hordes.

So why did they agree to go?

The question seemed pressingly pertinent to me, lying there, looking up at that monument, given the President of the United States’ persistent jabberwocky about going to war in Iraq. That war, the President said with deadly seriousness, was about democracy abroad and security at home, which were certainly lofty goals. Unfortunately, neither one had anything remotely to do with present-day Iraq or, for that matter, present-day America.

All this seemed particularly confusing to me since this nonsensical message about the war in Iraq delivering more democracy and security to the world was not simply the loud musings of a deranged Texan – who somehow managed to get regular sleeping accommodations in the White House – but also the chest-thumping chant of many U.S. soldiers on the ground in Iraq and of many card-carrying, red-state Republicans throughout America.

But maybe that was the point: great absurdity can only be sold with great absurdity – and preferably great absurdity carved in stone.

Consider that for all their troubles in the Crimea – for being blown to bits and shot through the head and left to die bleeding on a lonesome stretch of Black Sea sand and stone singing God Save the Queen – these dead Nova Scotians were honoured by the British Empire with a massive stone arch replete with deeply carved letters and boldfaced numbers.

But there was more.

To further drive home the patriotic point, and to create some Empire worthy, romantic statuary designed to encourage future commitment to British wars, someone decided to add a formidable bit of symbolic mammalian masonry to the top of the Welsford-Parker Monument – that is, a stately stone lion, standing majestically with its teeth-filled mouth agape.

And it was to this lion that I now gave my full attention, because I then remembered the darkly funny part about this memorial: a few years after the statue was built, some gathering of proper Halifax matrons took embarrassed exception to that part of the stone lion which hung liberally – and, well, prominently – beneath the lion’s tail end. Afraid that the offending stone member might irreparably corrupt the morals of passing Haligonians, these prim, proper spokeswomen of British gentility promptly demanded that the city fathers remove the manly bits of the lion’s well-endowed granite groin.

And, presumably with a well-aimed chisel, they did.

Now, lying as I was, pondering the absurdity of war, and the absurdity of war monuments, I was struck by the absurdity of these juxtaposed moral offenses: the perceived inappropriateness of the stone lion’s natural appendage versus the celebration, in thick symmetrical stone, of war’s great glories.

So I began to wonder: after five or ten more years, when victory in Iraq is finally declared (yet again), what romantic stone war memorial will Americans create to celebrate this grand expedition on blood soaked sands? Will Americans, as with the emasculated lion on the Welsford-Parker Monument, compound the Iraq War’s absurdity by building a lie, creating a romantic, aesthetically pleasing, morally unoffending, stone celebration to war? Or will Americans be willing to show some testicular fortitude, and speak truth, acknowledging in stone the tens of thousands of pointless deaths caused by a pointless war in Iraq?

In a sense, while lying on that comfortable stretch of grass, between two old, flaking tombstones, I was asking this question: what is it that lies beneath the lion’s balls?

And the answer was this: we do – but we don’t have to.

--Steven Laffoley is an American writer living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is the author of . E-mail:or steven_laffoley@yahoo.com.