“Hell of a Damn Grave. Wish it Were Mine”

I write the above quotation not to scare the crap out of any of you – rest assured that I am healthy and happy and have many cheery stories to tell about springtime in London so far. And I will, I promise. But right now I’m going to take a moment and finally tell you about a little pilgrimage I took back in early April. The line above was spoken by Gene Hackman as the comically pathetic Royal Tenenbaum in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. I quote it here simply because I was reminded of the quiet, surreal brilliance of that film the afternoon I finally went to visit Douglas.

Just about a month ago now, before I left for Paris, I headed up to Highgate Cemetery in Islington to do something I’d been unconsciously avoiding since I got here just about three months ago – visit the grave of my favourite author, Douglas Adams. Many of his books are set in Islington, a borough of North London, as were the last years of his life – so it was a neat experience to just wander the streets… I looked around and thought silly thoughts like, This must be what Kate Schecter’s house looked like; here Dirk Gently could have dived behind that very car to escape a maddened giant eagle; Richard MacDuff might have eaten at this very Pizza Express; in short, Douglas walked these streets. And now here’s me, walking them too.

At the top of Highgate Hill, I veered left and entered Waterlow Park, which I immediately loved. The strong smell of almost-spring floated on the cool air; the contrast of the trees against the grey London sky, the sloping hills, the birdsong, the water… It was full of what Douglas loved best: life, doing what life does. I stopped and ate my lunch, watching pigeons waddle and children play, still oddly reluctant to do what I came here to do. It’s a cliche, but it’s the reason that makes the most sense: seeing the gravestone will make it real. It was upsetting enough to lose my favourite author nine years ago from half a world away… to see the evidence up close… I wasn’t quite sure how I’d react. I loved the memorial lecture in March; Clive Anderson was a genial host, I got to contribute about twenty-five pounds to Save the Gorilla, a charity close to Douglas’s heart (indeed to all of those who have read Last Chance to See… his brilliant treatise on endangered species), and I met a very nice German girl with whom I whiled away the pre-lecture period trying to spot the Janes (his wife and sister) or catch a glimpse of young Penny Adams, now nearly twenty.

But this, somehow, was different. Both more real, and less. More because I would be alone, just me and a huge graveyard and the reality that he is really gone; less because I am acutely aware that Douglas himself was a confirmed and committed atheist, and might have found my feelings about this visit more than a little silly. I am generally of a scientific mind myself, in no small part because of his influence… but I also believe that there is more to each of us than meets the eye, or the microscope – and that if strange and terrifying events are to occur involving someone who is dead, then the scientific precept of Occam’s Razor would seem to suggest that their grave would be a likely setting.

In short, I was feeling overwhelmed. But I was here. So I strode up to the gate of Highgate East, handed the man my three pounds’ entry fee and the scrap of paper I’d been carrying around since February with Douglas’ plot and square numbers on it. I was promptly and Britishly told that there are 55, 000 graves in Highgate East, and there isn’t a map, and they don’t just point you in the right direction. You can write a letter requesting a guide to help you find a specific grave – this takes weeks and a minimum thirty pound donation to the Friends of Highgate. My heart sank. But I was there, and I’m here, in this country, to SEE things, after all – so I went in anyway, determined to make the most of the afternoon.

It was magnificent. This is no cemetery – it is a graveyard, pure and simple and OLD. Graves here are overgrown with ivy and moss, and engraved with phrases like “Went to Sleep” and long, eloquent verses from the Bible. In addition to the very old, there are also some newer graves; there’s a whole section given over to artists and writers and teachers and scientists, some of their stones truly magnificent. I held out hope for a while that I might find him here – I checked plot number after plot number as respectfully as I could, but no cigar. It was a beautiful afternoon in any case, and I came away satisfied and with a trove of photographs that I’m quite proud of (there’s a link below).

But as I made my way toward the entrance once more, a strange thing happened. Having been in a sort of meditative daze for much of the afternoon, I suddenly found myself focussing on the conversation of a group of strangers clustered around a small, shabby collection of gravestones at the side of the main path. I can’t tell you what they said to grasp my attention, but something in their manner resonated with me. I chanced a glance in their direction, not wanting to shatter the quiet of my afternoon with human contact – and there, just past the man with the telephoto lens, to the right of his bored-looking son, was a small blue rectangle, covered in dust and topped with a collection of cheap-looking knickknacks. In the dirt before it lay a pile of pens. And in stark, simple letters it was inscribed:

Here was the reason I’d come here. And what did I do? I turned on my heel, and began to walk briskly toward the other end of the graveyard. I will readily admit that I cried. Not nearly as long or as hard as I did in May of 2001; nowhere near the way I did when I lost each of my grandparents, of course. But nonetheless, tears were shed. I didn’t know him, and at any rate he wasn’t here now. But seeing solid, physical evidence that someone so influential in my life was here and now is not was a traumatic moment, more than I thought it would be.

Eventually, I collected myself, waited for the other pilgrims to leave, and returned. I took some photographs, cued up Douglas’ voice reading The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul on my iPod, and tried not to be a snob about the obviously heartfelt but incredibly tacky plastic toys and pins left by fellow fans atop the stone. They, like me, were simply reaching out to someone who had touched their lives. Earlier in the day I had found a small, smooth stone – careful to choose one from the centre of the path, and long-buried, so as not to usurp someone else’s tribute for my own purpose. I had carefully cleaned it off, and now I placed it on the edge of Douglas’s headstone, slowly, carefully, to show that I was here. He wasn’t Jewish, and neither am I – but neither of us are anything else, either, and the custom of showing that someone has been to a grave by leaving a solid, weather-resistant stone has always made an elegant sense to me.

I left and quietly travelled home, listening to Douglas read and wishing I could have met him. I also thought a little about his great passion for nature and animals, and how beautifully that passion was rendered by Hammer and Tongs in the 2005 Hitch Hiker film. It surprised me to find nothing growing around his grave – so many other stones in Highgate have ivy crawling all over them, or daffodils planted around them. But his just has a bit of grass and a lot of dusty dirt. I get it, I guess; he wouldn’t have cared, most likely, and his family are probably doing other things to keep his memory alive that make more sense to them. I deliberately avoided going on his birthday because I didn’t want to disturb anyone who might be there that day and be visiting not a hero but a husband or friend. But something tells me that his people don’t visit that often.

Yet I still find myself thinking that something should be growing there. That some part of the beauty he celebrated in his writing should be there with him, or at least there to greet those who come to see. So before I leave I may quietly and respectfully look into what it would take to plant something. Even if it only makes me feel better, there are worse outcomes.

To see some photographs of the beauty of Highgate, click here.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Really beautifully-written piece there, Sam – I have to admit I actually got a bit choked up reading it! And seeing the Dalek someone’s left on his gravestone, too… It’s such a great shame that he passed away before the new series came back – he would’ve embraced it with such gusto, and I think it’s almost a cert that he would’ve written for it. Great man.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Boffo on May 14, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    So enjoyed reading of your trip to Highgate and a quiet time with Douglas..very touching…I too felt the same when I heard of Jazz Great Rob McConnell, founder and leader of the Boss Brass passed away on May 1 weekend. I thought of those days long ago in the early 60’s when we bought his first LP’s ( in those days) and so enjoyed running into him at Loblaws when he lived here in Peterborough for a while..

    the conversation of the fly….
    Me : Hi Rob,Thanks for all the great music
    ROB: Do I know you?
    Me: Just a longtime Fan
    Rob; Thanks ,just doing my job!…….and with a wave of the hand he was off down the aisle at Loblaws…funny the things you remember when someone leaves us for good.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Dianne and Ivan Mills on May 14, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    Very interesting cemetary. Very old. I can’t believe how close some of those graves are. And very unkept. From reading some of the grave stones, a lot of he people were not very old when they passed away. I hope there were other people around when you were there, some parts looked very eery. As usual, you made me feel that I was right there with you. So glad you found Douglas Adams grave after going all that way.

    Keep up the good work.

    Reply

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