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6 November 2019updated 03 Aug 2021 2:39pm

Who Will Call Me Beloved? captures the atmosphere of a cemetery

What does a writer-in-residence at a cemetery actually do? Precisely as you’d imagine: wanders the graves noting evocative things chiselled in stone.

By Antonia Quirke

At Manchester’s Southern Cemetery, the largest multi-faith cemetery in the UK, one can walk directly down avenues of the dead stretching out as far as the doleful eye can see: all polished granite memorials of late-Victorian philanthropists, graves of forgotten Polish service personnel, and wind-chimes hanging on non-denominational trees. The whole place has a dreamlike quality. As Tania Hershman, presenter of this lovely doc (11 November, 8pm) about being the writer-in-residence here, swoons, “All these words are rushing at me. Words and words and words…”

What does a writer-in-residence at a cemetery actually do? Precisely as you’d imagine: wanders the graves noting evocative things chiselled in stone. “‘They Shall Be Mine sayeth the Lord, in that day when I make up my jewels’… oh, that’s interesting!” Hershman has a fondness for the headstones of single women – she is (contentedly) one herself. “Am I anyone’s beloved, and do I need to be?” Mulling it over, in an untortured way, as the light disappears, she comes across a gravedigger. “A lot of families say, ‘but we can dig the grave ourselves!’” he sniffs; then adds, like the laundress in the 1951 movie Scrooge when surveying Jacob Marley’s nightshirts, “they don’t know what’s involved”. We hear rooks, and passing voices. Hershman – modest, utterly unpompous, merely keeping us company – captures entirely the feel of passing time in this place.

I spent many hours there myself as a cardigan-swathed teenager, and was particularly obsessed by the little photographs somehow inlaid into various headstones. The tragic and intended permanence of those little oval portraits! Hershman fully comprehends just how exciting cemeteries can be. You never know what you’re going to get. Keening angels, broken flowers, Flaubertian carvings of couples in conversation. The architecture of a desire to individuate oneself. Little epitaphs kept at a thrillingly occluded level. In a graveyard, everyone is a bit of a mystery, no? Or perhaps not. Perhaps it’s the opposite. As Morrissey put it, of a walk in this very cemetery sometime in the 1980s, gravely reading the stones: “They were born/And then they lived/And then they died.” 

Who Will Call Me Beloved?
BBC Radio 4

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This article appears in the 06 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What went wrong