Among the gravestones, I begin to compose my own elegy written in a Brighton churchyard

Naturally, in such surroundings, one thinks of death a lot, even as one soaks up the sun. We’re all thinking about it a lot more than we used to, what with one thing and another. 

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I have taken, in the warm weather, to sunning myself in the churchyard of St Nicholas of Myra (yes, that St Nicholas) in Brighton. I like to think of it as a graveyard (“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” – Samuel Beckett, First Love) but the headstones have been moved to the sides, and only the more massy monuments remain, such as the one to William Blaber, who departed this life 181 years ago almost to the day. 

What Blaber did to earn such a tomb history does not recall, or at least my own cursory research brings up nothing, but he must have been a big cheese back in the day. There is an impressive structure erected by his friends dedicated to the memory of George James Hibber, MD, and he presumably did much for the common good. On its base the monument is described as a cross, but the cross has gone now. Tout passe, tout casse, tout lasse. Everything passes, everything breaks, everything wearies, even whopping great crosses on top of memorials.

Naturally, in such surroundings, one thinks of death a lot, even as one soaks up the sun. We’re all thinking about it a lot more than we used to, what with one thing and another. I am feeling so lousy these days that even climbing the hill back from the church to my place makes me feel as though I am about to join the choir invisible any minute, but here I still am, touch wood. 

A dear friend from Scotland died of cancer the other week, but I’m not ready to talk about that just yet. Nathan the junkie looks as though he’s going to drop off the twig any moment, which depresses me, for he is young and if he cleaned up he could be a fine, strapping young man. As it is, he hangs around by the Seven Dials Co-op begging for change and/or food. He says, or rather implies, the scabs on his face are due to his having been recently beaten up, but all the beggars round here have scabs on their faces, which I am told is because of the formication caused by withdrawal.

But the churchyard at St Nicholas is still a pleasing place, and it would be even more so if I didn’t suffer so acutely from seasonal nostalgia: as I lie on the grass with my book I remember all the past summers I spent lying on the grass in the sun, each one better than this one, with the exception of the one when I was ejected from the family home, 13 years ago. Last summer… well, for a part of it, I was one of the happiest men in the country, not that you’d know. But this summer is not shaping up all that well for any of us, really. And now the nights are beginning to get longer and before we know it, autumn will be here and then the rest of it. Everything comes round again and again. It is all incredibly tiresome, until it stops. 

Last night I wondered whether to leave the living room window open so I could have a bit of a draught. It took me a good five minutes to decide on this. The problem is this is a basement flat, and if I left the window open someone could climb in and slit my throat. Come on, doesn’t everyone worry about this? In the end I closed it, on the grounds that even though I’m complaining a bit, I’m not exactly yearning to be murdered in my sleep. (Yes, I know it doesn’t happen, or hardly ever happens, but this is how the mind works when you don’t go to bed plastered. And also, it only has to happen once.)

Still, mustn’t grumble. I saw my youngest son the other day; we lay in the churchyard and chatted of this and that. Later today the other two are going to visit and we shall do exactly the same thing. It is rather nice, to put it mildly, to have children one gets on with. Of course having children is another thing that makes me think of mortality, or at least of the passage of time.

“You now have three children in their twenties,” my daughter said to me the other day. “How does that make you feel?” I only had two words to say to that, and the second one was “ancient”.

And I have a horrible feeling I am looking more and more ancient. The lockdown hair isn’t helping: unless I manage it carefully, I look as though I have just finished starring in a particularly committed production of King Lear. Things weren’t helped on the first occasion I had the bright idea of sitting in St Nicholas’s. There was, sitting about 50 feet away from me, a group of teenagers being mildly, inoffensively boisterous and, you know, young. I looked over at them with a benevolent eye. 

“All right, Grandad?” one of them called to me, and they laughed. Well, I thought, that’s all I need. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 03 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Anatomy of a crisis

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