Source: Review copy
Publication: 3rd September 2020 from Headline
My thanks to the publisher for the opportunity to read this book in advance of publication
Enter a grave new world of fascination and delight as award-winning writer Peter Ross uncovers the stories and glories of graveyards. Who are London’s outcast dead and why is David Bowie their guardian angel? What is the remarkable truth about Phoebe Hessel, who disguised herself as a man to fight alongside her sweetheart, and went on to live in the reigns of five monarchs? Why is a Bristol cemetery the perfect wedding venue for goths?
All of these sorrowful mysteries – and many more – are answered in A Tomb With A View, a book for anyone who has ever wandered through a field of crooked headstones and wondered about the lives and deaths of those who lie beneath.
So push open the rusting gate, push back the ivy, and take a look inside…
I am a huge fan of Peter Ross’s work and of his writing in particular. He is a writer who loves to seek out human stories, especially those that are warm and full of life and hope. He has always struck me as a journalist whose interest is in finding thre joy in life. A Tomb with a View is a perfect illustration of that. It is beautifully written, full of humanity and his great stories are told with understated flair.
Peter Ross spent some considerable time travelling across Britain and Ireland wandering round graveyards, talking to those who visit them, those who work in them, going on tours and gathering stories as he went.
In his introduction, Ross talks movingly about the book in the context of the Covid pandemic. Not just of lives lost, but of graveyards as a place of solace and a place to retreat to when parks became so crowded as to mitigate against social distancing. He tells us ‘ The coronavirus outbreak intensified this feeling I have that we are always in the company of the dead; that the outstretched palm is only a handspan away’. Ross is naturally empathetic. Here you will not find the hard edge of the journalist, humanity hidden under a veneer of cynicism. His curiosity and interest in people shines through; you feel he really does want to know as much as is possible about the lives of the people who are buried in our cemeteries and what befell them. And such stories there are a plenty! From the women from Wigtown who were tied to stakes and drowned for refusing to give up their Protestant faith to Hannah Twinnoy, who lies in a grave in Malmesbury Abbey and who became the first person in England to be killed by a tiger.
He spends time with Sheldon Goodman, the founder of Cemetery Club, which offers tours of London’s burial grounds, including one, Queerly Departed, a tour of Brompton Cemetery exploring the history of gay and lesbian Londoners buried there.
But what really interests Ross are the small stories, tales he says, that are everywhere ‘lying beneath the moss and leaves’. Tales like Douglas Crosby of Dundrennan, who died aged 7, it is said of a broken heart. A remarkable story that, whether true or not, still lingers.
Saddest, I found, are the forgotten graves. Those in York, on a patch of grass between two busy roads which house cholera victims from an outbreak in 1832, or the ‘Navvies’ Graveyard which marks the graves of 37 unnamed Irish workers who died of typhus in 1847 while building the Caledonian Railway.
There are touching stories too, a love story of a couple who lived for 80 years and had 12 children and who died within hours of each other; one could not exist without the other.
So many stories, from Muslim burials by Britain’s oldest firm of Muslim funeral directors to grand monuments, from Whitby Goths to tiny unmarked graves; each has a story and Ross accords each with the same degree of care and interest. There’s humour and there is also profound sadness.
You will not easily pass by the forgotten graves of unbaptised children in Ireland; graves which had to be dug by their parents because the church would have nothing to do with them. Ross also speaks to Mohamed Omer of the hugely difficult task he had of dealing with the profound bereavement of relatives of the Grenfell fire – a bereavement made so much more difficult because the bodies could not be buried for some considerable time. The pain of such deaths hangs heavy in the air.
Don’t though, take the impression that this is a gloomy or depressing book. It is quite the contrary. It is very much a celebration of the lives it contains. An appreciation of lives lived and of the stories within them and a tribute to those whose business is dealing with the dead.
Ross’s journey takes him to all manner of places, but perhaps the one that speaks to us today is the most contemporary. Sharpham Meadow is a natural burial ground by Totnes in Devon. A secular place, with slate stones for markers, it is a place of calm and beauty where the bodies of those gone are put into the earth to become part of it. Bridget has buried Wayne there and often visits to chat to him. Ross’s conversation with Wyne’s funeral arrangers is fascinating. The Green Funeral Company offers an alternative path to the traditional funeral directors; one that urges creativity and is elemental in approach. It spoke to me of a way of doing things that felt less rigid and pompous and was for the living as much as the dead.
Verdict: There are so many stories in this book, it is one I will be dipping in and out of for some time. Beautiful prose, and fascinating stories told with compassion and genuine interest. Ultimately, this is a warm and thoughtful book, both intimate and poignant, that stays with you. In the midst of death, Peter Ross bring light and life to a subject that we should all talk more about.
PETER Ross has worked as a journalist in Scotland since 1997. He is a six-time winner at the Scottish Press Awards and a fellow of the Orwell journalism prize. He is also the author of two collections of journalism. The first, Daunderlust, came out in 2014. The second, The Passion Of Harry Bingo: Further Dispatches From Unreported Scotland was published in 2017 by Sandstone Press.