Spooky, serene, sacred … RUTH HOGAN, author of The Keeper of Lost Things, explains how CEMETERIES INSPIRE HER WORK …
I’ve always loved a good cemetery. It started when I was a little girl. My dad’s first car was a white Morris Minor 1000 Traveller, and on Sunday afternoons we used to “go for a drive” – Mum and Dad, me and my sister, and Grandma Violet and Grandad Charlie. Charlie used to sit in the front next to Dad, and whenever we passed a cemetery, he would wind down the window and shout “Any complaints?” He always said that as he never got a reply the dead must be a contented lot.
So, I think that’s how it began. That, and the fact that they were just a little bit taboo. You could get away with wandering around a churchyard without being thought strange, but cemeteries were a different bag of bones entirely, and still are for some people. Morbid, macabre, spooky, creepy are words often used to malign them. But it was never like that for me. I always loved our local Victorian cemetery in Bedford. We used to hang around there as kids, even though we weren’t supposed to. We were allowed to go to the park that shared a boundary with the cemetery, but not the cemetery itself. My sister used to take me there so that she could meet secretly with her boyfriend – she was 15 and I was twelve. She preferred the cemetery to the park as there were fewer people to witness her interminable teenage snogging. I was left to amuse myself by wandering around, which I was happy to do. I know that for me, part of the attraction was the fact that we weren’t supposed to be there – the frisson of the forbidden. And it wasn’t just the place, it was the whole death and dying thing. It wasn’t talked about, certainly not in front of children. I worked out at a young age that the most interesting things were the things that grown-ups wouldn’t talk about in front of children.
Grandad Charlie died when I was seven, and I remember being very put out that I wasn’t allowed to go to his funeral. Back then it just wasn’t the done thing for children to attend funerals, but my exclusion simply fuelled my curiosity.
As an adult, I have finally been able to indulge my passion for graveyards. For a birthday treat some years ago, I asked my husband to take me on a tour of Highgate Cemetery in London, and Père Lachaise in Paris is next on my wish list. When we moved to our current home, one of the selling points for me was the house’s proximity to the local cemetery, and I was recently invited, much to my delight, to become the president of the Friends of the Cemetery. Over the years I’ve enjoyed many picnic lunches there with my mum and spent hours walking my rescue dogs along its peaceful winding paths. My local cemetery is my sanctuary. It fills me with a serenity that I’m positive my dogs can sense.
Whenever I’m walking, I’m also writing in my head and a cemetery is fertile ground for both plots and people, never failing to fire my imagination. Every grave has a story to tell. The scant details on a headstone are so much more than names and dates. They are a précis of a whole lifetime. And then there are the names – the wonderful, bizarre and sometimes downright dodgy. I’ve heard several writers cite cemeteries as a source of names for their characters.
My local cemetery is home to foxes, badgers, squirrels, woodpeckers and the occasional muntjac deer, but my favourites are the crows. I love the way they swagger around on the grass like avian pirates and I like to think of the trees where they roost as the masts of their ships. The cemetery also has a rare and beautiful strawberry tree that is hung in December with gorgeous pinky-red berries that look like frosted glass. It is in winter when I love a cemetery the most; sparkling under a veneer of frost or, best of all, swaddled in a blanket of pure white snow.
The Particular Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes by Ruth Hogan, published by Two Roads, £14.99stg, is out now.
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