Grave Stories

Come with me into the graveyard, all human life is here

Agatha Christie, Queen of Crime

The Mousetrap and I are of an age. Its first performance took place in Nottingham in October 1952, and after a short provincial tour it transferred to the West End stage the following month. It played at the Ambassador’s Theatre until March 1974 when it moved seamlessly to the larger St. Martin’s  next door. WGR Sprague designed the two theatres as a pair, with The Ambassador’s opening night taking place in 1913, but that of St. Martin’s delayed by the First World War. These old fashioned, West End theatres with their plush seating, velvet curtains and polished wood fittings have always provided the perfect backdrop for Agatha Christie’s murder mystery.

Unlike the Windmill theatre, where the legendary Windmill Girls continued to perform their tableaux vivants throughout the Second World War, even at the height of the Blitz, St. Martin’s is not able to claim  that “We never closed.” Covid regulations barred its opening from March 2020, but fittingly it was the first major West End theatre to reopen its doors in May 2021. For, as long ago as 1957, The Mousetrap had already become the longest running straight play in the West End. Since then, it has garnered further laurels: in 1958 it became the longest running theatrical production of any kind in the West End, outstripping the previous five-year record held by Chu Chin Chow, and celebrating with a party at the Savoy. Now the world’s longest running show, it easily eclipses even the protracted runs of the popular musicals of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. On Broadway, Phantom of the Opera ran for thirty-five years, Chicago for twenty-six, and Cats for a mere eighteen, while in London Les Misérables managed thirty-seven years, and Phantom thirty-six. But The Mousetrap is now a septuagenarian, boasting  over 29,000 performances, a wooden sign board at the entrance to the theatre updating the tally after every production.

Contemporaneous with the time it was written, Christie’s play is now in part a nostalgic period piece. Set at a time when rationing, poor food, coal fires, draughts, the wireless, and ugly furniture were still commonplace, the action takes place in the Monkswell Manor Guest House, a former country house, cut off from the outside world by snow.

Along the way the play has acquired its own traditions and treasured artefacts. The clock in the hall is the one remaining original prop from 1952 and has ticked above the fireplace for seventy years. The radio news bulletin is an original recording by the late Deryck Guyler, who holds the unique position of being the only person to have “acted” in every performance. Now the rest of the cast changes annually around  the November date of the play’s inception on the London stage. At the end of each performance  a member of the cast issues an appeal to the audience  not to spoil the experience for others: “Now you have seen The Mousetrap you are our partners in crime, and we ask you to preserve the tradition by keeping the secret of whodunit locked in your hearts.” (Shame on you Wikipedia for revealing the identity of the killer.)

Over the years The Mousetrap has become part of London’s heritage. On the night of Agatha Christie’s death in January 1976 the lights were dimmed while the cast and audience stood to honour the author. No less august an organ than the Financial Times trumpets the play’s success: “The Mousetrap is to the West End Theatre what ravens are to the Tower of London. Its disappearance could impoverish us.”

I became a fan of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries upon my graduation from the Children’s Library to Adult Fiction (an innocent term in the Chester library of the early 60s). I achieved this move only after much pestering of the librarian when I had exhausted the contents of the juvenile shelves. But my early acquaintance with the adult library was daunting, its volumes heavy, solid, and unwelcoming, long books with small print. I was steeled for an ignominious  return to  the adventures of Sue Barton, District Nurse, and the exploits of the Girls at the Chalet School, when I discovered  Agatha Christie’s novels, and I was hooked. Hercules Poirot and Jane Marple opened a new genre of writing to me, with the added advantage that I never remembered whodunit, so could happily revisit, losing myself in the faux refined world of St. Mary Mead or travelling with Poirot to exotic destinations on the Orient Express.

Despite my early immersion in the novels, as the scope of my reading expanded elsewhere, I remained unfamiliar with Christie’s plays. Then The Mousetrap and I turned twenty-one, which seemed an appropriate time to connect, and I saw the play during its last year at The Ambassador’s. Already it was looking quaint as England had changed much during those twenty-one years. When we both reached another milestone at forty, I saw it again and the passage of time seemed shorter, for the world had changed less and the distance between the action on the stage and real life seemed no more marked than it had been twenty years earlier.

Now in its seventieth year, and with no sign of its popularity abating, The Mousetrap is engaged in a 70th Anniversary Tour  around seventy provincial theatres, beginning in Nottingham. Later this year it will open on Broadway; the famous clock, it is rumoured, will go with it. Will I go to New York to celebrate this most recent anniversary? Probably not, but I may catch it in one of the provincial theatres.

Meanwhile I dropped in on The Queen of Crime herself. She is buried in the churchyard of St. Mary’s, Cholsey, near Wallingford in Oxfordshire, where she and her second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, lived for 40 years. A large ornate stone features a pair of puti, in danger of being throttled by their frilly ruffs, Agatha’s overlaid initials, and, in ornate script, a quotation from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen:

“Sleepe after toyle, port after stormie seas

Ease after war, death after life does greatly please.”

Edmund Spenser
Agatha Christie’s grave at Cholsey
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“Eleanor Rigby Died in the Church”

Before the Industrial Revolution and the opening of the great quarries in the nineteenth century, Woolton was a  village. Old terraces remain in the centre and isolated sandstone houses survive, stranded on islands in the middle of today’s  approach roads. Now Woolton is  a smart suburb of Liverpool with large, detached houses and thirties semidetached, an abundance of coffee shops, bars, and restaurants, and the  famous Woolton Picture House dating from 1926.

The parish church of St. Peter’s was built in 1886 using the same local sandstone  as Liverpool Cathedral, the latter one of the last customers before the quarries closed. The church has windows by Charles Kempe and William Morris, and its bell tower is  the highest point in Liverpool. When I visited it was enjoying an Open Day with a profusion old documents, photographs, maps, and local  history books on display.

But my objective was Eleanor Rigby. The dark, narrative song about loneliness came out in 1966 on  the Beatles’ Revolver album  and on a 45rpm single, its hauntingly beautiful, pensive lyrics oddly paired with the chirpy  Yellow Submarine. The origin of the name of the protagonist  is disputed. Paul McCartney  suggested that it was inspired by the actress  Eleanor Bron, who had starred with the Beatles in the 1965 film Help, combined with the name of a store in Bristol, Rigby and Evens Ltd., which he had noticed during a visit to Jane Asher when she was performing at the Bristol Old Vic.

But in Woolton they see things differently, for it was here at the Woolton Village Fete in July 1957 that John met Paul. The day’s events included: a procession; the crowning of the Rose Queen; a fancy dress parade; a display by Liverpool police dogs; and  performances in the school grounds behind the church by John Lennon’s band the Quarry Men Skiffle Group. The latter also took second billing, after the George Edwards Band (me neither), at the Grand Dance held in the church hall at 8pm with tickets priced at two shillings, and “refreshments at moderate prices.” In the hall they have marked the spots on the floor where a mutual friend introduced a sixteen-year-old John to a fifteen-year-old Paul and the latter auditioned to join the Quarry Men.

And in St. Peter’s churchyard, across which the young John and Paul frequently took a short cut, a headstone bears the name Eleanor Rigby. McCartney said that he had no recollection of ever seeing the stone, but he  admitted that he could have unconsciously borrowed the name.

Personally, I was predisposed to find the origins of Eleanor Rigby here, and so I discovered was everyone else. In many churches a famed connection with the Beatles and a trail of curious fans might have elicited a chilly response. But here the  wardens and parishioners extended  the warm welcome at which Liverpudlians excel. In response to my question, an enthusiastic volunteer explained where the grave was, urging me to look out for Father McKenzie’s prototype as well. He explained that if I went to the edge of the graveyard I could look upon the location of the stage where The Quarry Men performed in 1957. Then he drew my attention to the additional presences in the churchyard of George Toogood Smith, John’s uncle, and of Bob Paisley – the Liverpool football manager, he explained, noting my blank expression. Cheerfully he instructed me to come back if I failed to find any of these treasures, offering to abandon his post and conduct me thither personally. In many a larger cemetery I have wished for such  assistance, but here I left him surrounded by other eager visitors, while I located Eleanor Rigby  with ease.

Eleanor Rigby

Eleanor Rigby

Died in the church and was buried along with her name

The original Eleanor Rigby worked in the City Hospital at Parkhill, married Thomas Woods in 1930, and sadly died at only forty-four of a brain haemorrhage.

Only a few graves away was John McKenzie.

John McKenzie

Father McKenzie

Wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave

John McKenzie, only a short distance from Eleanor Rigby, come on, it’s obvious they were the inspiration for the song.

Then following my friend’s directions, I also located  George Toogood Smith and Bob Paisley.

George Toogood Smith, John Lennon’s uncle
Bob Paisley, Liverpool Manager

St. Peter’s holds  Open Days every summer to coincide with International Beatle Week. They offer leaflets with the plan of a walk incorporating Strawberry Fields and John’s childhood home, Mendips, and another of the parade route from 1957. If you doubt your ability to follow a map there is no shortage of folk eager to show you round. The church’s website has a special section on the Beatles where there is a copy of the programme from the 1957 fete. https://www.stpeters-woolton.org.uk  Impossible to read it without wishing you were there.

I recommend an excursion to see St. Peter’s and meet its warm, friendly congregation. If you are  lucky, your visit may coincide with a performance in the church hall by the remaining Quarry Men. But most importantly pay your respects to the original Eleanor Rigby, most assuredly the muse,whatever Paul McCartney  may say, for one of the greatest Beatles songs ever.

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The Magic of Bridges and a Disappointing Grave

When I was  young I cherished a secret dream of becoming a civil engineer. Secret, because I knew, that with only modest ability in mathematics and no talent at all for drawing, this was clearly not where my future lay. But I longed to build bridges, I could imagine nothing more satisfying than being able to create those solid constructions which hang, as if by magic, in the air. Periodically some prosaic soul  tries to explain to me the finer points of compression and tensile forces, torsion and shear, the importance of abutments and piers. But I prefer  the enchantment of the unknown, the romance of the little  understood; I am bewitched by the illusion of graceful weightlessness.

And no bridges hold a greater place in my affections than the hardworking Victorian bridges strung out across the Thames in London, each one  with its own stories, myths, and idiosyncrasies.

In West London in 1872 William Tierney Clarke designed one of the world’s first suspension bridges spanning the river between Hammersmith  on the north bank and Barnes on the south. After a boat collided with it in 1884, Bazalgette  rebuilt  it in cast iron, with large chains supporting its roads and walkways, using  Tierney  Clarke’s original pier foundations. Urban myth has it that Harrods funded the magnificent dark green and gold paintwork of Hammersmith Bridge to match their nearby furniture depository  and their Knightsbridge store. It could have provided subtle and splendid advertising, but the truth is that  Bazalgette chose the colours before either of the Harrods buildings were completed.

Tierney Clarke’s memorial in St. Paul’s, Hammersmith, with engraving of his original Hammersmith Bridge
Bazalgette’s Hammersmith Bridge
with distinctive green and gold paintwork

The Albert Bridge is a pure sugar plum in pink, blue and green. Illuminated by 4,000 bulbs at night, this ethereal, highly ornamented, and richly decorated bridge stretches between Chelsea and Battersea. Once known as the “Trembling Lady” because of a tendency for its fragile structure to vibrate when subject to excessive traffic and immoderate footfall, it still carries signs at its entrances warning troops to brake step when they cross. In 1973 a proposal in The Architectural Review floated the idea of converting the bridge into a landscaped public park with a pedestrianised footpath across the river. This scheme had the backing of no lesser luminaries than John Betjeman, Sybil Thorndike, Laurie Lee, and Robert Graves, all of whom  just happened to live nearby. Successful opposition from the RAC saw their campaign fronted by the unlikely figure of Diana Dors.

The Albert Bridge

Lambeth’s five-span steel arches and the seven-arch cast iron structure of Westminster Bridge with its gothic detailing by Charles Barry, sport red and green paint respectively, reflecting their positions at the southern and northern ends of the Houses of Parliament where the Lords sit on red leather benches and the Commons on green. The stone pinecones surmounting the obelisks at either end of Lambeth Bridge are sometimes mistaken for pineapples, leading to fallacious claims that they were placed in tribute to  Lambeth resident John Tradescant who grew the first pineapple in Britain.

Lambeth Bridge, with red paint
Westminster Bridge with green paint

More than a century after these Victorian bridges were built, the same oscillations that hounded the Albert Bridge caused the Millennium Bridge, less romantically designated “the Wobbly Bridge,” to close, only two days after it had opened, for modifications. This glorious steel “blade of light” designed jointly by the Arup Group, Foster and Partners, and Anthony Caro links Bankside and the City, connecting the Tate Modern to the glorious terminating vista of St. Paul’s. Walking across it is pure joy, but I rue the demise of the extra frisson which the oscillations provided.

The Millenium Bridge links the Tate Modern …
…to the vista of St. Paul’s

I am surely not the only one to take special delight in Horace Jones’ Tower Bridge linking the Tower of London and Southwark. Completed in 1894, it is the most immediately recognisable of the London bridges with its towers and rising bascules opening to let tall boats  pass from the Lower Pool of London to the Upper Pool. In 1952 a relief worker raised the  southern bascule before the security guard had rung the warning bell and closed the gates to traffic. The driver of a no. 78 bus found himself on the rising bascule. With great presence of mind, he accelerated, and the bus leapt onto the northern bascule which had not yet begun to rise. He later explained that he had been a tank driver during the war  and that since a tank would have had no trouble in jumping the gap he decided to see if a double decker bus could do the same. A delightful short Pathe film shows a representative of the City Corporation presenting the driver with a reward, £10 and a day off work,  for his quick thinking and unruffled response.

(See towerbridge.org.uk/discover/history/bus-jump  and scroll down).

Tower Bridge
Tower Bridge with bascules raised

Seeking to pay homage to all the bridge builders, I sought out Horace Jones as their representative, and I confess to a little disappointment on locating his rather bleak, austere grave in West Norwood Cemetery.

Horace Jones,Knight, in West Norwood

But Horace Jones’ spirit lies not in the graveyard but in the enchantment he left  for us every time the bascules of Tower Bridge rise. And for as long as their preternatural structures hover weightless in space, all the bridge builders have fitting memorials.

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The Merry Cemetery:The Dacian Way of Death

 I have never shared the view that cemeteries are gloomy places but will allow that they may be tinged with sadness. In the Northern Maramures region of Romania however is a cemetery like no other: The Merry Cemetery (Cimitir Vesel) at Sapanta. Here  the celebration of life takes precedence over the grief of death, and death itself is no solemn affair.

The Dacian Culture may have inspired these attitudes. Dacians, early inhabitants of these lands, believed in the immortality of the soul and for them the moment of death was one of exaltation, filled with supreme happiness  in anticipation of a better life. Herodotus describes how the Dacians were fearless in battle and joyful when dying, going laughing to their graves to meet their god, Zalmoxis.

The forest of oak headstones in the Sapanta cemetery  is the work of the wood carver Stan Ion Patras. Between 1935 and his death in 1977 he carved over eight hundred commemorative tablets, including his own. He painted these singular memorials in vivid, symbolic colours. Predominant is the radiant, deep “Sapanta blue” speaking of the sky, hope, freedom. Green represents life, yellow fertilility, red passion, and black death.White doves symbolise the soul and a blackbird hints at a suspicious death.

The Merry Cemetery

On the grave markers Patras carved  portraits  of the occupants and naive pictures  recording their occupations.

The Vet
The Teacher
The Woodman
The Shepherd

There is a distinctly gendered division of labour:

Weaving
Spinning
Cooking
More cooking

Below the painted carvings Patras inscribed epitaphs, written in the first person, enabling the inhabitants of the graves to tell the stories of their lives. Far from lauding them or whitewashing them with virtues, the whimsical, witty doggerel records indiscretions, shortcomings, weaknesses, faults, foibles, flaws, failings, and infidelities with cheerful insouciance. Even the modes of death, drowning, drinking, and  a disproportionate number of car accidents, provide a source of humour. And the soul who was murdered and buried without his head fails to disrupt the prevailing merriment:

Murdered and buried without his head

Yet even in Sapanta I found one grave which  broke with the relentless good cheer. The speaking poem of a three-year-old girl killed by a taxi read:

May you burn in hell

Taxi driver from Sibiu!

In all of Romania

You could find no other place

But here, near our house

To stop and hit me

And bring grief to my parents.

For as long as they live they will weep for me.

Three -year-old girl killed by a taxi from Sibiu

But habitually the latter day Dacians continue to greet death with equanimity; Patras’ apprentice, Dumitru PopTincu, continues his master’s work, and the burgeoning cemetery cocks a defiant snook at mortality.

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The Thames is Capricious. We Escape Leptospirosis; Others are Less Fortunate

I had long harboured a desire  to swim in the River Thames. Conscious of my own limitations, this was no ambitious plan to cover the length (over two hundred miles, I don’t think so) nor to venture into the tidal waters below Teddington Lock. The Port of London Authority  strongly discourages both activities with dire warnings of powerful tides overpowering the strongest of swimmers; eddies and undertows sucking them under in seconds; danger from water traffic in the form of clippers, ferries and working boats; and the biting cold of the water leading to crippling breathing spasms.

Something more modest then, a  gentle width somewhere in the Middle Reaches of the Thames. Here opinion was divided. Public Health England warned of  gastrointestinal diseases from contaminated surface run off, and from  water containing raw sewage routinely pumped into the river after heavy rains; the possibilities of contracting Leptospirosis or Weil’s disease from animal urine; high recorded levels of microplastics in the water; and dangers of collision with leisure traffic. Enthusiasts, by contrast, rhapsodised about an arcadian Thames: a sparkling , idyllically pastoral river  with 125 species of fish, over four hundred invertebrates, and flourishing flora.

By dint of slightly overemphasising the latter perspective, I persuaded a friend to accompany me,  and we took to the river at Clifton Hampden. Our respective partners, both non-swimmers and of the firm conviction that immersion, in any volume of water greater than that required to fill a decent sized bathtub, is a supreme folly, sat on the bank guarding the clothes. They wore expressions which said No Good Will Come of This.

And it must be confessed that we entered the water with some trepidation, feeling our way cautiously out into the river, wary of what lay beneath our feet, dreading that moment when the cold-water hit our stomachs, alert to the dangers from passing boats, and with mouths firmly closed. But once in the river the pleasure of swimming, pushing weightlessly through the water, took over. It was not cold, it did not look particularly polluted, and folk waved cheerfully from passing boats. Across and back, and we turned around, enthusiastic to repeat the exercise.

Cautiously we set out: I let Kay take the lead… there might be something nasty under foot
Wild Swimming
Return Journey…
… With Mouths Firmly Closed
It was so nice, we did it twice
A Triumpal Return

Later in the pub we regaled our sceptical partners with the delights of Wild Swimming. But there was a sobering coda. Walking along the Thames Path a few miles downriver, we paused to admire the thirteenth century flint church of Saint Bartholomew  at Lower  Basildon, and in the churchyard discovered the  hauntingly beautiful grave of Harold and Ernest  Edward Deverell. Aged fifteen and sixteen, they drowned  while bathing close by in 1866. The marble sculpture of the two boys, in their old- fashioned bathing trunks, and looking far younger than their teenage years,  is heart-rending.

The grave at Lower Basildon
Looking much younger than their teenage years

They were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided

A guide to the church  records  starkly: “ One brother got into difficulties and the other went to his aid: sadly, both drowned.”

There is a small risk  even in  those little adventures which look quite safe on a summer’s afternoon, and the boys’ deaths were tragic. Yet too much caution  renders human existence a tepid affair, with little point to life if we act in constant fear of its end.

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