May Diary

Thurifer’ finds himself in a commemorative mood

Grave matters

Those who share my interest in wandering around cemeteries, locating graves of the famous and infamous, and savouring funerary monuments would appreciate the tour of the West Cemetery of Highgate Cemetery. The East section is open more generally, but the West is open only by guided tour. The one I took was excellent and highly recommended. There is a wealth of monuments that show the whole range of Victorian taste: High Gothic, of course, but also vaults and stones inspired by the passion for Egyptology. The Egyptian Avenue and the Circle of Lebanon are spectacular.

The Cemetery opened in 1839, and was a fashionable resting place throughout the remainder of the century. It fell into neglect after the First World War, but was rescued by the Friends of the Cemetery in the 1980s. A programme of restoration was begun, which continues. They have recently produced an excellent booklet: visit the website at www.highgatecemetery.org for more information and to book a tour. There are some thirty burials each year; but you need to die early in the year to secure a plot in what John Betjeman called a ‘Victorian Valhalla’. It is probably too late for this year.

I always look out for war graves dotted around graveyards, and there are many in both cemeteries in the care of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, their distinctive shape and simplicity, the uniformity of the inscriptions, and the brevity of the sentiment etched at their base never fail to move. Those that mark unidentified bodies bear the words ‘Known Unto God', and are particularly affecting.

Blue Plaques

Those interested in the urban landscape should look out for plaques on buildings which mark the birthplace or former home of eminent citizens. More towns and cities are providing this information on their buildings, and one of my favourites is in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It commemorates the elopement of one John Scott, a young lawyer, with a Bessie Surtees, from her father's house on the Quayside. Reader, he married her and they lived happily until her death. Scott succeeded at the Law and in politics, and as Lord Eldon was a notable reactionary Lord Chancellor. He is also commemorated by a Blue Plaque in Bedford Square, Bloomsbury.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Blue Plaque scheme in London. The first was unveiled in 1867 on the house in Cavendish Square where Lord Byron had been born. The Scheme has been administered by various public bodies, but now resides with English Heritage. Prominent as the plaques are on public and domestic buildings, the process of selection is not particularly well-known. Professor Ronald Hutton is the Chairman of the Panel, and more information can be found on the English Heritage website (www.english-heritage.org.uk). Plaques to Margot Fonteyn, Ava Gardner, and Samuel Beckett are among this year's pick of commemorations.

Irish farewell

A top shelf fell down recently. It was brought down by the weight of art books and exhibition catalogues that I had foolishly loaded onto it. While transferring lighter books (in weight if not in content) from the bottom shelf, I discovered a book that I had bought in 2001 which I had forgotten about. It was a signed copy of the Diaries of the Irish writer and lawyer Ulick O'Connor. I first came upon him as the author of a magnificent biography of Oliver St John Gogarty, the Irish poet, writer, politician, surgeon, wit, novelist, raconteur, bon viveur, hotelier, lecturer, target for assassination, friend of Yeats and others of the Irish literary revival (the list goes on), and owner of a house on the Connemara coast, Renvyle, now an hotel. About twenty years ago I stayed there. It was O'Connor's description of Gogarty's funeral that inspired me to visit. Although the Diaries correct some details, I still find it a fine piece of prose.

We stood on a hill over a small lake, with the Connemara mountains green and blue in the distance, the long incredible distance of the West, where the eye can see for many miles, yet there are never clear outlines, but forms blurred by bright colours. To the left of the grave a white ash stretched and crooked and bent, silver against the lake's blue [...] Beside me stood [...] Monsignor Browne, who had earlier sung the Requiem Mass [...] unbent by age, straight as a lance at six feet three, his carved aquiline features looked more than ever like a Florentine from a painting by del Sarto. Presently he recited a Gogarty Limerick in my ear, his voice alternating with the Latin chanting of the priest [...] As he bent to my ear, I saw in the distance, on Stanbollard Lake below, a swan move towards the centre [...] As it floated away till it became a silver point, I heard the Monsignor chant in a low voice: "Mein lieber Schwan – ach diese letzte traur’ge Fahrt" [My beloved swan – Now for our last sad journey]. He saw Oliver's soul borne to Paradise by the graceful bird, as the swan in German legend drew Lohengrin's barque to Montsalvat [...] Above Stanbollard Lake that day, [I] realised why he had written once that here was his proper home: "Where there was neither time nor tide, nor any change at all, something friendly and akin and full of all that might be needed if need were to arise; but it never did, for you felt that nothing was lacking. And you did not want to speak." ND

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