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

Category: Writers

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

The Fair Maids, the Knight Templar, the Diarist and his Wife

The church at Norton Saint Philip boasts a clock by Vulliamy and Frodsham dating from 1848. It is not the oldest church clock in Somerset, but it is one of the few still wound by hand. Twice a week clock winders  winch up three weights in a pulley system and as they descend the clock strikes the hour, the half, and the quarters. Every sixth week we take our turn on the clock winding rota, climbing the narrow spiral staircase up the tower to a point where we look down on the bell ringers but up to those charged with care of the flagpole.

The clock winders eyrie
The winding mechanism
A clock winder
The weights
The minutes are the easiest wind

The base of the tower at the west end of the church is not its most attractive feature: here behind closed doors spare chairs are stacked, vases and watering cans jumble together, notice boards superfluous to current requirements lean drunkenly against the walls, plastic boxes spill electrical odds and ends, and what looks suspiciously like a hostess-trolley lurks in one corner. It has in truth a desolate air, the  few memorials lining the walls  have known better times and  they look down disconsolately on the dusty impedimenta. But these memorials  are the survivors: they were moved from the floors of the nave, chancel, and aisles to the tower walls during Gilbert Scott’s reconstruction of the church in the 1840s,  when others disappeared entirely. And high on the north wall are the  sisters whom I always greet: two small female heads, crudely sculpted with  flicked up hairdos reminiscent of Millicent Martin on TW3 in the mid-sixties, they are roughly attached to the wall.

They have no words of their own but beneath, in a shabby frame, a faded notice recalls a quotation from the diary of Samuel Pepys:

At Philip’s Norton I walked to the

Church, and there saw the Tombstone

whereon there were two heads cut,

which the story goes and creditably,

 were two sisters, called the Fair Maids

of Foscott, that had two bodies upward

and one stomach and there lie buried.

Pepys and his wife visited Philip’s Norton in June 1668. Foscott, now Foxcote, is a hamlet a few miles from Norton and when Pepys saw the tomb the effigy of the conjoined twins was cut in stone in the floor of the nave. Later the Somerset Historian John Collinson recorded in the third volume of his History and Antiquities of the County of Somerset  published in 1791 that “In the floor of the nave…are the mutilated portraitures, in stone, of two females, close to each other, and called, by the inhabitants, the Fair Maids of Foscott, or Fosstoke, a neighbouring hamlet, now depopulated. There is a tradition that the persons they represented were twins, whose bodies were at their birth conjoined together” and, he adds gruesomely, “that they arrived at a state of maturity; and that one of them dying the survivor was compelled to drag about her lifeless companion, till death released her of the horrid burden.” Today nothing  remains of the tombstone  save for the heads, the rest probably destroyed during Gilbert Scott’s restoration.

Pepys also noted that while in the church  he “there saw a very ancient tomb of some Knight Templar, I think.” The latter still lies in the south aisle but is now identified as a lawyer of the fifteenth century wearing a barrister’s gown. More loved than the Maids he is often in receipt of tribute, near disappearing beneath greenery at Christmas and well supplied with apples at harvest.

The Lawyer
His feet resting on his dog

Just a year after this visit Pepys himself had cause to erect a memorial: his wife, Elisabeth, died and he had a marble bust of her installed at Saint Olave’s in the City of London where he was a regular worshipper calling it “our own church,” and which was later described by Betjeman as “a country church in the world of Seething Lane.” Elisabeth’s bust was positioned on the north wall of the sanctuary so that Pepys could see her from his pew in the gallery, and in 1703 he was buried next to her in the nave. His own memorial  on the wall of the south aisle faces hers, and from their elevated positions they receive their many admirers.

Elisabeth Pepys
Samuel Pepys

Not so the Fair Maids, a little lonely these days in their tower with only the clock winders, flower arrangers, bell ringers, and flag hoisters passing busily beneath them as they go about their business. So, if you are in Somerset, follow Pepys’ example: come to this country church in Norton Saint Philip and visit my friends the Maids, say hello to the lawyer too, and listen to the hand wound clock striking the quarters.

Daniel Defoe

A year on from the first Covid lockdown I turned to Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year to compare notes. His plague year was very much like ours: the first signs in Holland and  rumours  regarding the possible origins in Italy or the Levant, mirrored our own experiences watching Italy and Wuhan. The gradual spread from St. Giles and the West End  to Cripplegate, Clerkenwell, and the City reflected our monitoring of Covid hotspots. The flight of the court and the well-heeled to their second homes was  familiar; likewise, the first deaths and the sudden desolation in the streets with shops closed, Inns of Court shut up, theatres, alehouses, and diners all dark. Attempts to control wandering beggars resembled our own government’s sudden concern to house the homeless. The sick were either sequestered and died apart from their families or whole households were shut up in their homes, as happened in our hospitals and care homes. When Defoe bemoaned the lack of enough “pest houses” he might have been speaking of our own shortage of Covid wards leading to the construction of the Nightingale hospitals. Quack medicines appeared,  just as hydroxychloroquine and the possibility of injecting bleach into our veins to wash out our lungs found favour in certain quarters in the twenty first century. Defoe recorded people moving to live on boats in the Thames or to camp in Epping Forest, and similarly at the height of Covid caravans and camper vans occupied green sites, sometimes received sympathetically by locals, at other times not. During the plague year the government forbade movement to second homes once people were sick, but some went against the rules; no need to labour the parallels. Daily and weekly recording of illness and death rates confirmed that then as now, the poor, living in overcrowded conditions  with inadequate ventilation and unable to  avoid the breath of others, sickened more than the wealthy. It became apparent that asymptomatic people could carry the plague. There were disruptions to trade and the closure of ports. As the plague intensified people rushed to stockpile provisions and there were shortages; they soaked their money in vinegar there being no contactless cards to replace cash. The poorest in the community found themselves out of work, unable to purchase food or pay for their lodgings. Charity, like our foodbanks, stepped in to supplement the parish relief which like our universal credit proved inadequate. Servants were redeployed as nurses, sextons, gravediggers. In Defoe’s London burials took place before sunrise and after sunset and neighbours and friends could not attend church funerals; when people died in the streets  their bodies were removed in deadcarts to mass graves. Similarly in our own times government regulations limited numbers of mourners requiring them to be socially distanced, and as morgues and mortuaries became overwhelmed in 2020 contract workers wearing hazmat suits dug mass graves on Hart Island off the Bronx in New York. When, at last, the death rate began to decline JPs issued certificates of health to permit travel anticipating our own vaccine passports. Then as people became careless the rate rose again. Plus ça change…

There were differences, not least the greater presence of religion in Defoe’s Britain: sects, fortune tellers, and astrologers flourished; Solomon Eagle stalked the streets, naked with a pan of burning charcoal on his head, calling on the populace to repent; though some clergy fled, others kept their churches open; and when the plague ended Defoe gave credit for the recovery to god. Conversely there was less respect for the medical profession and far from clapping for carers Defoe wrote of nurses finishing their patients off and stealing their goods. And while, notwithstanding some fear of interspecies transmission, pet ownership increased during lockdown, Defoe’s London witnessed the wholesale killing of cats and dogs.

Defoe was only five years old in 1665 and the vivid “eyewitness account” which he recorded originated with his uncle Henry Foe, supplemented by Defoe’s own meticulous research. A man of many talents – merchant, spy, novelist, poet, political pamphleteer, and activist – Defoe’s life was a rollercoaster of excitement, achievements, and disasters. In 1685 he participated in the Monmouth rebellion against James II but escaped retribution in the Bloody Assizes, and when William III came to power became a secret agent in the pay of the latter. His poem The True Born Englishman defended William against racial prejudice, reminding xenophobic readers that they were all descended from immigrants. William’s death and the succession of Queen Anne led to the persecution of nonconformists and Defoe’s arrest in 1703 for pamphleteering, political activity and producing satires directed against high church Tories. Prior to his removal to Newgate, he was placed in the pillory for three days but his poem Hymn to the Pillory putatively resulted in the pillory being garlanded, flowers rather than rubbish thrown at him, and his poem sold in the streets. With the death of Queen Anne and the fall of the Tories he was able to resume work for the Whigs. Over five hundred works have been attributed to Defoe: away from the world of politics, these include Robinson Crusoe,  Moll Flanders,  A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain and of course A Journal of the Plague Year. No stranger to the debtor’s prison during his life he died, as he had often lived, in debt.

Defoe was buried in the Non-Conformist Cemetery at Bunhill but the original stone which marked his grave was struck by lightning and the headstone broken in 1857. James Clarke, the editor of Christian World,  a children’s newspaper, encouraged his readers to donate 6d. each for a new memorial, setting up two rival subscription lists, one for girls and one for boys. An obelisk, raised in 1870 bore the inscription:









Defoe’s obelisk at Bunhill Fields
Inscription on Defoe’s obelisk

Samuel Horner, a stonemason from Bournemouth, erected the obelisk and took the original stone home with him, selling it as part of a general load from his yard. It became  part of the paving of the kitchen floor at Bishopstoke Manor Farm until the farm manager, Frederick Stiles King, moving to a new house at 56 Portswood Road in 1883, took the stone with him, where it remained in his front garden for over 60 years. Charles Davey acquired it in 1945 and thirteen years later gave it to Stoke Newington library. There it lived in a glass case in the entrance lobby, an appropriate final resting place as Defoe had lived in Stoke Newington from the age of fourteen while he attended the Dissenting Academy  under Charles Morton at Newington Green. But when I arrived at the library in search of the stone there was no sign of it. Happily, the librarian knew of its whereabouts: having been vandalised several times it had been moved to more secure premises in the delightful local history museum  in Hackney where, beside a bust of Defoe and backed by a wall display of the famous pillory, it keeps company with other Hackney  radicals, revolutionaries, and immigrants, not to mention a Saxon longboat  and a complete reconstruction of a pie and mash shop.

Defoe’s original gravestone in Hackney museum

Fanny Burney

In the mid-1980s I lived in a flat in a Georgian conversion in Bath. In the flat above me lived a student of English literature. As I passed him in the hall one afternoon he glanced into the contents of my basket and exclaimed “Aha! You know.” I followed his gaze, but my greengrocery did not disclose any clues. In response to my blank look, he delved amongst the potatoes and carrots to extract a fat volume which he flourished. “You know about her,” he insisted stabbing his finger at my copy of Fanny Burney’s The Wanderer. The truth was that I was finding this massive tome tedious, and my knowledge of Fanny Burney was insufficient to allow me to engage with confidence in any discussion of her work with a specialist in English Literature. As I hesitated Robert enlightened me, “ She lived in your flat. You didn’t know?” I was surprised; there was no blue plaque on 23 Great Stanhope Street although there was one on 14 South Parade where Fanny had lodged with her friend Mrs. Thrale for three months in 1780.

Robert however was right: Fanny Burney lived for three years, from 1815 to 1818, in Great Stanhope Street with her husband General d’Arblay and their son Alexandre. D’Arblay, a French émigré, supporter of the constitutional monarchy, had fled France in 1792  forfeiting  his property. Fanny had already found fame  with her first two novels Evelina  and Cecilia which had earned the praise of Dr. Johnson and the admiration of Jane Austen. They met through Fanny’s sister when the emigres were living near her at Juniper Hall, and spent their first ten years together  in Surrey,  supported by the proceeds of  Fanny’s latest novel Camilla . In 1802 when an amnesty  removed  d’Arblay from the proscribed list of émigrés and permitted his return to France they hastened there  hoping to regain his property and his army pension,  but with the outbreak of  the Napoleonic Wars they became trapped. During their enforced residency Fanny completed The Wanderer. After the restoration of 1814 d’Arblay held a position in the King’s Guard and during  the Hundred Days that followed Napoleon’s escape from Elba he joined Louis XVIII but, wounded by a kick from a horse, he missed seeing action at Waterloo. The wound turned  gangrenous, and septicaemia developed. Discharged from the army d’Arblay returned to England  with Fanny who  hoped that the Bath waters would aid his recovery. As she wrote in her journal, they sought “cheap lodgings” in Bath, for The Wanderer had  not sold well, the readers who had embraced her earlier novels sharing my lack of enthusiasm for this one, and so they came to 23  Great Stanhope Street in “an unfashionable quarter of Bath.” Fanny’s diaries reveal that their drawing room  and her bedroom were on the first floor. On the second floor slept the general  (in what was now my bedroom) and their son  (in my sitting room.) A walk-in closet was a book room (my kitchen). Their landlady, Mrs. Brenan, occupied the ground floor and basement, cooking for them, cleaning, making fires, and emptying chamber pots. There was no sign of the fireplaces in my day: the rooms had been gutted. Happily there was no sign of the chamber pots either, for  the general’s bedroom had been partitioned to provide a bathroom.

The family remained in Great Stanhope Street until the general died, the Bath waters having failed to  alleviate his suppurating wound, jaundice, and limp.

I often fell asleep  conjuring up his sickly presence in what had once been his room, and that of his prolific and devoted wife busy writing below.

In search of their graves, I visited Saint Swithin’s  parish church. The church had been rebuilt on the site of an older foundation in 1775 to house its growing congregation in fashionable Bath. By 1800 it was the second largest parish in England after St. Pancras, London.

St. Swithin’s cemetery, the Lower Burial Ground, lay  across Walcot Street and down the hill from the church. Fanny buried the general there in May 1818 with a black marble headstone, which subsequently disappeared, and she had  a  memorial tablet expatiating on his virtues erected in the church.

In 1837  their son  was buried near his father, and in 1840 Fanny was placed in the same grave and another memorial tablet raised in the church. By 1906 however their gravestone was weathered and neglected, and Burney descendants replaced it with a new  tabletop  monument. In  1955 when part of the burial ground was  cleared for proposed redevelopment, the PCC moved Burney’s three-ton stone up the hill and over the road to a small enclosure beside the church, where it remains today, a lonely cenotaph separated by railings from the bustle of Walcot Street on one side and The Paragon on the other.

In 1987 remains from the cemetery, including those of Burney,  her husband and son, were exhumed and reinterred beside The Rockery  Garden in the municipal cemetery at Haycombe on the south side of Bath.

The Lower Burial Ground, its few remaining graves clustering round the mortuary chapel, remains undeveloped.

Fanny’s  memorial plaque in the church was destroyed when a new organ was installed against the wall in the twentieth century but in 2013 the Burney Society funded a new memorial reproducing the exact wording of the original from photographs.

Along with the general’s memorial  it is housed amongst a truly magnificent collection in the church for the general was not the only one for whom the Bath waters proved less than efficacious.

But Fanny’s spirit is not wandering  the church and its precincts nor  is she down in The Lower Burial Ground nor up in  Haycombe Cemetery: she is busy updating her journal, perhaps even plotting another novel, shorter this time, in her rooms at 23  Great Stanhope Street. I know, I lived with her.

Edgar Wallace

My mother loved the cinema, and it was our weekly treat in the sixties to spend Friday evenings at the pictures followed by six penn’orth of chips, hot, greasy, and wrapped in several layers of newspaper, on the way home. In those days there were five cinemas in Chester: the Gaumont was  the smartest with a huge glittering art deco foyer, magnificent auditorium,  and elegant restaurant; the Regal and the Odeon, which we most commonly frequented, had standard thirties cinema architecture; the tiny Classic, squashed between a sweet shop and a pub, favoured  foreign and X-rated films (we seldom went there); and the Music Hall’s name indicated its previous incarnation.

For 3/6d adults, 1/9d children,  we could enjoy a  programme of main feature, Pearl and Dean advertisements,  Pathe News and second feature, running continuously, and it was possible to enter at any point and remain as long as we liked. Some patrons sat or slept through several performances. Others  would suddenly leap to their feet and announcing  “we came in here” begin to collect their coats and umbrellas as they edged their way out apologising as they brushed past our knees blocking the screen at critical moments in the drama.

The permanent darkness gave the auditorium a  mysterious romance as usherettes guided us by the beam of their torches to vacant red plush seats. Between us and the screen hung a thick, blue fug of cigarette smoke and the pungent scent of tobacco and nicotine was occasionally joined by the flare and acrid fumes of a struck match. During the intermission, the Kia-Ora lady would make her way backwards down the aisle with a spotlight shining on her and a  heavy tray suspended around her neck  containing orange squash, Butterkist popcorn, salted nuts and choc ices.

When the second feature was an Edgar Wallace Mystery I was especially delighted. Born in 1875, Wallace had left school at twelve and variously worked selling newspapers, delivering milk, in a rubber factory, as ship’s cook, and as a war correspondent in the second Boer War, until he turned, very successfully, to writing. He dictated his prolific output of journalism,  poetry, historical works, plays, novels, short stories, songs, and film scripts, including the screenplay for King Kong, onto wax cylinders which his secretaries  typed up. The Edgar Wallace Mysteries were film adaptations of his crime fiction, based on the popular detective stories which he had written in the 1920s but which the studio updated and set in contemporary London. The mood for the convoluted tales of murder, blackmail, and burglary,  was set as the spookily lit bust of Wallace himself rotated slowly on the screen surrounded by swirling fog,  to the mournful, eerie sound of the theme tune, Man of Mystery. I lost myself in  the black and white thrillers which unfolded on the screen, wistfully identifying with the high heeled, pencil skirted heroine,  following  the trench coated,  trilby wearing detective as he  navigated  the London streets and nightclubs, the smoke from his cigarette mingling imperceptibly with that rising from the cinema audience. It was all satisfyingly louche, and of course the heroic detective could be relied upon to bring the disreputable villains to brook.

Disappointingly, Edgar Wallace’s final resting place is a world away from the seedy criminals and rakish detectives whom I watched enthralled on the screen; he lies in the decorous surroundings of Little Marlow cemetery in Buckinghamshire, near the country home at Chalklands which he bought with the proceeds of his seamy tales, in the most respectable and conventional of graves, with not an unsavoury villain in sight.

Edgar Wallace 1875-1932

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