“Personally I have no bone to pick with graveyards, I take the air there willingly, perhaps more willingly than elsewhere, when take the air I must. The smell of corpses, distinctly perceptible under those of grass and humus mingled, I do not find unpleasant, a trifle on the sweet side perhaps, a trifle heady, but how infinitely preferable to what the living emit, their feet, teeth, armpits, arses, sticky foreskins and frustrated ovules. And when my father’s remains join in, however modestly, I can almost shed a tear. The living wash in vain, in vain perfume themselves, they stink. Yes, as a place for an outing, when out I must, leave me my graveyards and keep—you—to your public parks and beauty-spots. My sandwich, my banana, taste sweeter when I’m sitting on a tomb, and when the time comes to piss again, as it so often does, I have my pick. Or I wander, hands clasped behind my back, among the slabs, the flat, the leaning and the upright, culling the inscriptions. Of these I never weary, there are always three or four of such drollery that I have to hold on to the cross, or the stele, or the angel, so as not to fall.”
Samuel Beckett ‘First Love’ (1946)
He had a vivid way with words, dearly departed Samuel Beckett, doyen of the shabby, the slovenly and the threadbare; a frowsy tang wafts from the page as you leaf through one of his books. By modern standards I imagine the general population in 1946 did not smell particularly fresh. But however stale and sweaty they were they surely smelled better than the dead? Hot running water, showers, toothpaste, dentistry, deodorant and changing underwear have all become much more common than they were 75 years ago and most of us now are relatively inoffensive, olfactorily speaking. I do think I know what he means about the slightly sweet smell of a corpse though; occasionally I do get a waft of it in cemeteries but having said that I’ve never been sure that I am not imagining it.
|Monument of HRH Princes Sophia, daughter of George III|
First thing this morning my phone flashed up a One Drive notification, ‘On this day…’, reminding me that last year, on this day, the second of November, I had been taking photographs in Kensal Green Cemetery. I had spent the weekend in Norwich, a last fling before yet another lockdown which had been announced by Boris Johnson on the Saturday just as we were getting ready to leave our hotel on Tombland (surely the best street name in England?) and go out to find something to eat. Despite the brand new lockdown I had a legitimate, work related, reason to be out and about on Monday. I had to visit a property in North Wembley but once I’d finished Kensal Green was only a minor detour on the way home. It was beautiful, crisp, sunny autumn day and I had the cemetery to myself. I took my first photo of the day, at the cemetery gate on Harrow Road at 13:19 and my last at 14:37, so I was there for just over an hour. I took nearly seventy pictures so one a minute almost. These were the best shots on what was a flying visit.