Tag Archives: cemetery

Literary gossip No 3. The writer, the curtain and the poet’s wife

 

 

 

 

 You could say it was on the way to Holyhead, give or take a deviation or two. When we got there, we located the house overlooking the estuary of the Taf river though there was really nothing much to it – an abandoned place that people nowadays would die for. A  hideaway for a would-be poet.  “We’ve got this place in Wales,” they’d say. “Nothing  much,  just a couple of rooms. Miles from anywhere. And the locals are so friendly.”

 But it wasn’t like that at all. We peered through the grimey windows of the nearby “writing shed” and saw cups and saucers on the table, a few bits of furniture, a tea towel on the back of a chair, the detritus of a life governed by a perennial shortage of money. Married to a writer I knew all about that.

We walked through the cemetery looking for the grave. Hard to find at first and then, there it was, the little marker facing back to front but with his name on it: Dylan Thomas.

 He’d been drinking in a bar in Manhattan and had collapsed into a coma. Four days later, on November 9, 1953, he died, aged 39. His wife Caitlin was with him.

 Some time after visiting Laugharne – where Dylan and Caitlin lived for the last four years of Dylan’s life – Ian and I  returned to our own house in Buckinghamshire, where H.A.L Craig –  Harry to his friends – came for a working visit.

 Harry was born in County Cork but brought up in Limerick, in his father’s vicarage. After attending Trinity College, Dublin,  he worked for a while co-editing The Bell, alongside Sean O Faolain after which he moved to London.

Both he and Ian were passionate about radio and both wrote for the now defunct BBC Third Programme as well as for the then Manchester Guardian.

Hung about with small children, nappies and the job of keeping a log fire going in an Elizabethan cottage devoid of central heating, to have someone like Harry visit was akin to entertaining a glitzy visitor from another planet. He brought talk of London and Rome – to where he eventually  moved to work in the film industry. And he brought  gossip. Ian did that too, of course. By far his best was about an actor in one of his radio plays who, when he was resting, earned a bit on the side capering around in the nip with a feather up his arse for the entertainment of some Londoner he knew who got his kicks from this sort of thing and paid handsomely for it.

Living the dream, I was, with these stories. In our village (2000 on the voting list) with a Co-op shop, a Post Office, a garage, three pubs and twice that many chapels and churches, hearing such tales was like drinking nectar from the chalice of the gods.

 One afternoon, while our guest was taking his ease by the ingle-nook fireplace, the phone rang and I answered it.  “Hairy Craig,” demanded the American voice at the other end and I swooned. A film director surely, a Hollywood producer, Anthony Quinn  even. ( Quinn had starred in two of Harry’s films.) I never found out who though because once off the phone, Harry embarked on his own bit of gossip.

 He’d been in Laugharne to work on a programme with Dylan Thomas and as the two chatted, Harry glanced over Thomas’s shoulder in time to see the  curtain which divided the kitchen from the main room,  being pulled back to reveal Caitlin Thomas in all her naked glory. Dylan, oblivious to his wife’s display, continued talking – and drinking – while his guest just about managed to do the same.  

I pondered on what it would be like to be the sort of woman who  might rip off her clothes when a guest came calling.

Then, having pondered, I left the room to make the supper, set the table and put the children to bed.

 

NOTE: In  October 2014, to mark the centenary of the birth of Dylan Thomas,  the BBC will show a biopic which looks at the last few weeks in his life. The script is by Andrew Davies, the screen writer who gave us House of Cards.

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Cadavers, famous people and a surprise encounter in a cemetery.

 

 

A surprise encounter in Brompton Cemetery.

Always deviate. It’s the only way to go which is why, last week in London, with an hour to fill, I left the Olympic crowd swarming round the back of Earls Court and swung into Brompton Cemetery. It was a warm, summer’s evening and there were plenty of people about: cyclists, walkers, joggers, children, dogs. Men with briefcases, couples strolling arm in arm, people sitting on the grass chatting. No notices saying you couldn’t ride your bike or kick a ball or take your dog for a walk. It was almost as if the powers that be wanted people to enjoy themselves. As indeed they do for at the entrance, worked into stone is written:

The Cemetery is open from half past one o’clock on Sundays, Christmas Day, Good Friday and Ascension Day. The public are permitted to walk in the cemetery daily.

 

This is a cemetery to rival Highgate: Roman matrons made of stone weep over their husbands’ graves. Young maidens wilt. Young men, dead in their prime, are commemorated among the war dead. Cherubic angels lower their heads in sorrow and allow their wings to droop.

Avenues of lime are lit by the fierce light of the evening sun. Majestic mausoleums and catacombs line the main avenue leading to the chapel. Yes, the Victorians knew how to do death. It was consecrated in 1840 and, lying in the Royal boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea, has many famous residents including writer and pundit Bernard Levin, Samuel Cunard of the shipping line and Samuel Sotheby, the auctioneer, Richard Tauber the tenor.

The cemetery is the only one listed as a Royal Park and though closed for business from the mid 1950s to 199, it is again a working cemetery and has its own fan base which each year mounts a lecture by historian Robert Stephenson, called Cadavers in the Cloisters, the Medieval Way of Death.

It’s on Aug 16, in case you’re interested, at 18:30. You make a donation of £8 and kick off with wine and nibbles – perhaps to help strengthen your resolve before setting out for the underworld.

But on this golden summer’s evening, all I wanted to do was stroll which I did until I noticed a grave with fresh flowers on it. Two bunches, one wrapped in what used to be called cellophane. The other, a bunch of freesias, had a hand-written card which read: “In remembrance of your courage and determination. For the first time ever, all Olympic teams have a female athlete. Thank you. EMC x”

Yes, dear reader, I found myself standing by the grave of suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst.

 

Nearest underground is West Brompton. To get in touch, go to www.Brompton-cemetery.org and to see who lives there, go to www.Bromptoncemetery.org/residents

Emmeline’s gravestone is on the left a five minute walk from the main entrance.

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