A Tomb with a View – Review

Tomb with a View

Peter Ross is a Glasgow-based journalist who lives in a property overlooking one of the city’s famous graveyards. Ross’s window view combined with his exploration and fact gathering makes for a fascinating read. I often rotate novels with reading travel literature/non-fiction and after enjoying Catharine Arnold’s Necropolis and Stephen Smith’s Underground London, had a feeling I’d enjoy this book.

There are some familiar visits – such as Highgate in London and Greyfriars in Edinburgh – but Ross finds new territory to explore. He is sensitive to ‘death tourism’ and the difficulty of respecting a grieving family’s wishes for privacy alongside managing the demand of fans and admirers to visit and leave tokens of appreciation. This has been a particular issue at George Michael’s grave and, we learn, pens are thrust into the earth at George Eliot’s resting place by lovers of Middlemarch. Of particular interest in the section on Highgate (and elsewhere too) is the need to ensure cemeteries are maintained and don’t fall into disrepair. For cemeteries to continue to function they need bodies to bury. They need the dead to stay alive as it were. There is no revenue without funerals and without revenue there is no maintenance or improvement and this may lead to them falling into ruin and being redeveloped. The problem is that we are running out of available space for burials. Highgate is estimated to have around seven years left at most and plans are being examined to look at using vacant plots or adding to existing graves.

Of course many choose cremation, but there is interest in green burials (wicker casket, all biodegradable) and Muslim funerals require burial within 24 hours. This demand for land has led to the cost soaring and some Muslim families have found it cheaper to transport their loved ones for ceremonies in Pakistan or Bangladesh, for example. Most naturally prefer to be buried here where they have chosen to make their home, but it is a costly business.

There are interesting visits to Brompton cemetery in west London, the resting place for many gay people and a tour brilliantly called Queerly Departed. There are further departures to Scottish islands, Belfast, Dublin, Fife, and a bone crypt in Northamptonshire with 1,000 skulls and the estimated remains of 2,500 people through the centuries, and characters including the Stepney Amazon and Peter the Wild Boy.

But what made the greatest impression on me was the chapter dealing with the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The CWGC looks after 170,000 graves in the UK, many of which are in towns or locations such as Cannock Chase, close to where we live, but some are hopelessly remote and require deliveries of memorial stones by helicopter and hiking across bogs and rocky coasts. The fallen are still being found on the battlefields of the Great War, with an estimated 100,000 soldiers still missing. A body was recently found under a floor by a Belgian family and Ross notes that by the October of 2019, 51 bodies had already been discovered that year. The commitment of the CWGC staff and the painstaking work checking records and notes and property found on or with the bodies to establish identity is incredible. Ross is with them when they find four bodies and part of a badge leads to the beginning of an identification of the men. It’s very moving to read and handled with skill. As an interviewer Ross isn’t frightened to challenge and offer alternative views. There are murals and plaques for those who died for the Republican cause in Northern Ireland, but don’t the soldiers who fell deserve remembrance here too, he asks?

Not sure what it says about me that I was drawn to this book when choosing birthday presents, but it comes highly recommended. It’s entertaining and sensitive and deals with a number of challenging issues around death we’re going to be hearing more about.

Bookmarks – what’s your preferred choice?

Do you have a favourite bookmark? Do you always use the same one or change often? Perhaps it’s a piece of throwaway card or a receipt. Maybe it’s half a birthday card or a fast food menu. Or a present from a bookseller like a nice bit of tartan or a cartoon rabbit.

Double Deathshead by Jake and Dinos Chapman

This is my ‘dangerous’ bookmark from Tate Modern. It was meant to instil fear in train passengers on the 1607 out of New Street. It didn’t. The man wearing slippers and a tea cosy for a hat did that much better.

Hendrick Goltzius’s Bust of a Man with Tasselled Cap (1587)

This is a well-thumbed and well-travelled one ( hope that’s never said about me). It’s from the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh. I wanted something different and everyone else was buying that vicar skating. I like this fella too. He likes a good deal, a nice wine and a cigar.

Boxing clothes label

This one fell off a hooded top I bought and travelled around with PG Wodehouse, Kate Atkinson and Louise Welch. What a great line up of fighters.

Christmas cracker

This one’s from a Christmas cracker but it can nip at pages. Really, your bookmark could be anything. There’s a sauna and swim receipt from Wimbledon leisure centre still marking Andrew Marvell in my Metaphysical Poets Penguin Classic.

Do you have sentimental attachments to a bookmark or will the local Pizza-the-Action menu suffice? Feel free to share…

What happened to General fiction?

I used to read almost anything when I was growing up. I’d pick up comics and magazines, the local sporting Pink newspaper, Ladybird histories, my Dad’s airport thrillers.

Although there have always been categories of books it seems no book can be published these days without being classified as thriller, crime, romantic or chick-lit etc.

I understand that marketers and publishers believe it boosts sales if books are clearly placed in categories. If you enjoy an Ian Rankin you’ll likely navigate your way about the crime-fiction shelves and pick up a Peter Robinson or Fiona Barton or Stephen Booth.

The same follows for romantic fiction and I know a number of book-present-buyers (yes, OK, they’re men) who trawl the tables and shelves of their local Waterstones or Smiths and make their purchases based on the look of the cover. Maybe it has a cupcake and a beach on the front. Or perhaps a man with a firearm at his side. Or a misty graveyard. Or a woman at a dockside in period costume.

This type of branding can lead to very similar covers and Private Eye magazine regularly demonstrates there’s barely a difference between some titles.

Perhaps, then, it’s helpful for the consumer and, yes, it’s a business so it’s really about the buyer.

As a writer it can be tough though. I felt pressured to write to a thriller formula in my early exchanges with agents and publishers and sometimes writing styles or ideas don’t easily seem to fit the market. However, we all want to get paid and get readers so it’s easy to understand why agents and publishers want writers who fulfil a ready made market. Put simply, they deliver on expectations.

A downside to this is it can be hard to place and market, or even find a way to market, for some great writing. I sometimes wonder what has happened to what you might call ‘general’ fiction. In other words books that don’t necessarily fit into these categories above but provide a real page-turning read. An example would be Rachel Joyce’s work (see below) and often comic fiction such as John Mortimer’s trilogy (above) and works by the likes of Leslie Thomas and David Nobbs.

It’s a theory, of course, but I think it’s harder than ever for this type of fiction to break through. There are exceptions and a good book can surprise and break through by word of mouth (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and also The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time being examples). Perhaps it’s just anecdotal and maybe it’s just the covers and marketing strategy that has changed. Or maybe it’s tastes. But these books sold by the wheelbarrow not so long ago and still can – there is always a market for strong, believable quest stories.

I’m reading many of these books again, some for the second time. I’ve had a tough few months and it helps to read purely for joy and escapism – what is wrong with that? We shouldn’t worry about being seen with the kind of book we believe would impress others.

Perhaps it is this snobbishness that dogs general fiction. Writers such as the excellent Jonathan Coe are seen as literary exponents of general fiction and that’s acceptable, but perhaps other general fiction writers are sent down the genre path. In her book ‘Write to be Published’ the entertaining and humorous Nicola Morgan says…..’be cautious of calling your book ‘general fiction’ in your approach to publishers. Only use it if it genuinely doesn’t fit one of the other genres, but still ask yourself whether it is going to be easy for a publisher to sell.’

I’ll be reading a lot more general fiction and unearthing a few seventies and eighties titles. And maybe I’ll have a go again myself when I’ve regrouped in 2022.

Snobbery is also playing its part here. How else was Morrissey’s bio published as a Penguin Classic when the sad, funny, tragic and beautiful The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin is yet to make even the 20th century classics list?

Please let me know what you think about general fiction? Do you read it and what are your favourites?

The Offing by Benjamin Myers

The book

Yes, the cover attracted me and then I remembered I’d read Ben Myers’ novel The Gallows Pole. That breakthrough novel is to be filmed by Shane Meadows later this year and I’m very much looking forward to it.

The Offing is Myers’ latest and is beautiful in its descriptive language, simplicity and understanding and capture of nature.

It’s set in Robin Hood’s Bay, North Yorkshire, immediately after the Second World War. Robert is a young lad from Durham who, realising he’s not cut out for following his forebears down the pit, sets off south to explore.

He reaches Yorkshire and the novel beautifully contrasts the coast blighted by coal and industry further north with the fishing and minor tourism of Yorkshire.

Robert is hungry and meets Dulcie, an eccentric character who has dined with DH Lawrence and others and introduces the young man to poems, rich food and the opportunity for sea swimming. He does odd jobs for food and a bed beneath a lean-to in the fields.

The book is gentle but rewarding and there are beautiful passages such as when Robert rambles down the dark, subterranean clefts from the moors towards the sea. He traces the ‘claw-marked calligraphy’ of the badgers. He touches kissing gates whose tops were worn ‘skull-smooth by the clammy palms of several centuries of passing land workers and hill wanderers.’

Robert learns a great deal from Dulcie and this chance encounter changes his life. There is a sadness behind Dulcie’s fascinating and well travelled exterior but you’ll need to read to learn what it is. You could read this book for the descriptions of nature, the endless possibilities in life….or you might wonder what chance can throw up and learn how new-found friendships can change everything for the better. Roll the dice like Robert.

The Terror

I’m enjoying watching The Terror on BBC iplayer. Ciaran Hinds, Jared Harris and Ian Hart are always great to watch and it’s incredibly tense and atmospheric.

Conflict is key for drama and being stuck fast in the ice, hunted by a beast, with food supplies toxic and dwindling certainly makes for tension.

I’m fortunate in that I picked up this book pre-lockdown from our brilliant local Oxfam. It’s fascinating reading and chronicles Erebus’s two ambitious naval expeditions – the first being a voyage further south on the planet than anyone had been before.

The second being the expedition to find the North West Passage. This is the basis for The Terror- the name of Erebus’s sister ship.

Michael Palin’s writing is full of interesting facts with plenty of humour. Those who hate horseradish with their Sunday roast would learn they’d eat an awful lot of wild cabbage (tasting of horseradish) to avoid scurvy. There’s plenty on Hobart nightlife, flying fish, discipline and the vastness of the Antarctic…..an ice plateau the size of France.

I’ll review in a little more detail later. But it’s hard to imagine the hardships these men tried to withstand.