Dear Readers, you might remember that last week I was very enthusiastic about Peter Ross’s book ‘ A Tomb With.a View‘. Well, this week I would like to introduce you to a very different but equally compelling book – Jean Sprackland’s ‘These Silent Mansions – A Life in Graveyards’. It’s a book that’s difficult to categorise – part memoir, part social history, part biography, but always somehow managing to be a coherent whole. Sprackland is a poet, and I enjoyed the thoughtfulness of her writing, the way that she notices things that others don’t. And as she returns to the towns where she has lived, and the graveyards that were part of her life, she tells one fascinating story after another.
She starts in St. Mary’s Churchyard in Stoke Newington, to follow the story of a young woman whose clothes caught fire back in 1781, and travels on via a secret graveyard for Catholics in Lancashire. In Ilfracombe she investigates the wreck of a slave ship which still divides the local population. Her time as a schoolteacher in Blackbird Leys in Oxford is linked to the story of families so desperate that they sold the bodies of their dead children to science so that they could feed the ones who remained. There is the death of a circus owner, ruminations on holly blues, and why stone angels are so often decapitated, and on nostoc, that strange gluey stuff that sometimes appears overnight on stones and garden furniture.
But it’s the story at the end of the book that’s the real kicker. A child is drowned, and his friend tries to rescue him. Sprackland goes to interview the survivor, who is in his nineties. What happens when she talks to him is one of those moments when your jaw just hangs open.
But to find out what it was, you’ll need to read the book. It’s a splendid companion piece to ‘A Tomb with a View’, rather more introspective and thoughtful, but none the worse for that. It’s made me want to rush out and get her other books, both her poetry and her book about the coast called Strands. That’s the trouble with being a reader, things do rather lead from one to another. But what a splendid path it is.