The idea of writing Finding the Plot: 100 Graves to Visit Before You Die first came to Ann Treneman when she was chatting with Tony Wright, formerly Labour MP for Cannock Chase. They started talking about Birmingham and she happened to remark: ‘Did you know the man who invented Cluedo came from Bromsgrove?’ His name, rather marvellously, was Anthony E. Pratt, and she’d previously written about him for the Independent. Pratt had allowed the patent to lapse before the board game took off, and had died in obscurity (although with Alzheimer’s, in an old people’s home, rather than with lead piping, in the library). She’d found his grave (absolutely fascinating; page 241; I’m not reading the book for you; she also traced his daughter) and when she told Tony Wright as much he said: ‘You should write a book about the best graves in Britain.’ It was a fantastic idea — I so, so wish I’d had it — as every grave is a life, a story, and a story which comes with a satisfyingly proper ending. The book is packed with such stories, about the great and the good (Nye Bevan, Horatio Nelson, Marje Proops) as well as those you’ve never heard of, but are glad you now have. Indeed, one of my own particular favourites is Richard ‘Stoney’ Smith, the miller who did interesting things with wheatgerm and invented Hovis bread in 1887 (p. 82; a national competition was launched to name the loaf, with Hovis, a shortened version of the Latin hominis vis — strength of man — winning, and with ‘Yum Yum’ coming runner up. See? Don’t you wish you’d always known that?).
I meet Ann, who is my friend, in Highgate, where Stoney is buried. She has visited the grave, just as she’s visited all 100 graves, travelling tons of miles up and down the country, often with a long-suffering family member in tow. Her husband, either of her grown-up daughters, or her mother, now 82. She felt sorriest for her mother when they did Spike Milligan’s grave in Winchelsea, East Sussex. ‘It’s a very windswept place and it was so cold my mother’s fingers actually went white.’ Spike’s epitaph — ‘I told you I was ill’ — was once voted the nation’s favourite, and dying certainly does provide the opportunity to have the last laugh, should you wish to take it. I want ‘Never ill, now this?’ on my grave, while Ann wants: ‘Found the plot… at last!’ Apparently the American comedian Jack Benny wanted ‘Did you hear about my operation?’ but was, alas, talked out of it.
We walk into the cemetery, which is divided into ‘east’ and ‘west’. We do the west first, the older part, which opened in 1839 and which, for its own protection, is now only accessible by guided tour. There are graves that have been renovated, and graves that haven’t. There is moss, lichen, winding paths, ivy, plus all the trees and shrubs that have just somehow arrived, as if their planting has had nothing to do with human influence. Neither Ann nor myself can understand why anyone might consider cemeteries gloomy or to be avoided. They are peaceful, contemplative, even romantic. ‘And I like them,’ says Ann, ‘because they are just so completely interesting. The epitaphs are interesting. The names are interesting. If you’re a curious kind of person, you’re going to want to know: why does that man have a big dog on his grave? (Thomas Sayers, p. 41). What drove Julius Beer (p. 32) to create that mausoleum?’
A cemetery, we decide, is a sort of social history theme-park. There are fashions in funerary ornamentation — urns, angels, Jesus — just as there are fashions in names. Whenever I visit a graveyard, I am instantly absorbed by names; names that have stayed with us — Thomas, William, Emma, Elizabeth, Rebecca — and names that, for some reason, have not: Herbert, Winter, Ethel, Mennel. Ignatius. ‘Ignatius,’ says Ann, ‘now that was a name.’ We make a particular point of visiting two of what I shall call ‘Ann’s graves’. One is that of Thomas Sayers (as above), a bare-knuckle prize-fighter who was as famous as a pop star in his day, died in 1865, and whose grave is guarded by his huge mastiff, Lion. Or at least a huge sculpture of his huge mastiff, Lion, and it is, in fact, one of the best sculptures of a dog in repose I have ever seen: watchful, sad, truthful. The other is George Wombwell, the menagerist who died in 1850 and is buried under a gigantic statue of his lion, Nero, who in real life was apparently so tame that ‘he would give children rides’.
I could spend forever here, although probably won’t. It is still a working cemetery but, as our guide puts it, if you have to ask how much it costs to be buried at Highgate ‘then you can’t afford it’ — which is a pity, as there is so much to see: Beer’s mausoleum, and that prime example of Victorian showiness, Egyptian Avenue, and the Terrace Catacombs, where lead-lined coffins still lie. We agree it’s a shame that, as a culture, our lives have become so divorced from death, even treating it as an abnormality that could have been avoided if only we had eaten better, exercised more, avoided the sun, taken vitamins etc. Weird, especially when you consider it is actually the one inevitability left, with taxes having taken a back seat rather (see Starbucks, Amazon, Apple etc).
I ask Ann: ‘If you could pick one of your 100 to come back to life, so you could have dinner with them, who would it be?’ That, she says, is tricky, ‘because there are so many. Is it fair to pick Nye Bevan? He does sound an incredible person, in terms of what he did, with all the housing he built, and with founding the NHS. He accomplished not one, but two of the things most politicians only dream of. He was a proper politician. I would also love to talk to Mrs Pankhurst. The trouble is, so many of my graves are interesting. Byron. Who wouldn’t want to talk to Byron?’ But, Ann, what about Anthony E. Pratt? Wouldn’t it be your duty to have dinner with him and say: ‘Mr Pratt, don’t sell the patent for your Cluedo game. Don’t, don’t! One day, they will even make a film of it!’ Yes, there is also that, she concedes.
We pootle over to the east cemetery, where you can do your pootling unescorted. We do the ‘walk of fame’, the path down to Karl Marx, which takes you past Philip Gould, the Labour strategist (very moving) and Douglas Adams (fans leave pens) and Malcolm McLaren (‘Better a spectacular failure than a benign success’) and Patrick Caulfield (the artist) and Pat Kavanagh (legendary literary agent, and late wife of Julian Barnes) and Jeremy Beadle. Sometimes people’s graves can tell you quite a bit about what they thought of themselves. Pat Kavanagh’s grave is simple, unfestooned, while Beadle’s is piled high with books, sculptured from marble. Just saying.
And then it’s a quick lunch in Highgate Village, at Café Rouge — God, we are so 1980s! — before we have to part, and our lovely afternoon has to come to an end, as all things must. You can run from that fact as much as you like, but you’re not going to get away with it, I’m afraid. You’re just not.