A Tomb With A View: The Stories and Glories of Graveyards

Peter Ross

Headline £20

Review by Hugh MacDonald

ANY confessions of a book addict must include the symptom of excessive categorisation of books. My favourite niche is The Books I Did Know I Wanted To Read But Really, Really Did.

This self-explanatory sub-culture demands no long exposition, but here is a shortlist: Down to the Sea in Boats by Horatio Clare, The Lonely City by Olivia Laing, Rats by Robert Sullivan, and Appointment in Arezzo by Alan Taylor. These, respectively, could be described as a guy travelling on a tanker, a woman meditating on the consolations and trials of solitude, a discussion of vermin in New York, and a fine writer meeting a great one.

The pitches for these works must have been challenging. Their execution was pitch perfect. Peter Ross now politely shuffles into the category. His book could be described as a guy wandering about graveyards, finding stories and meeting people, one of whom tells him to eff off. (Curiously, this happened in Glasgow).

It rises wondrously above such a banal description. This is a result of Ross being both a meticulous reporter and an insightful writer. A by-product of the first skill is the book’s title. As the alcohol culture seeps from newsrooms, an addiction to puns remains a cheery obsession for journalists. Ross, though, is imbued with more substantial reporting traits. He spots a story quickly, intuitively. He then pursues it energetically.

A Tomb with a View thus tells variously of a maid who was consumed by a tiger in England, the marchessa who puts Lady Gaga to shame with an outfit made entirely of light bulbs, and how Karl Marx sustains capitalism from his resting place in Highgate.

There are such intriguing nuggets on most pages but they can be best be described as entertaining diversions. This is because Ross is a writer. It is not too fanciful to talk of the soul of A Tomb With A View. It is replete with stories but it echoes with something profound. “If the imagination is a muscle, then graveyards are a gym,” writes Ross. He travels to the final place of the anonymous war-time dead, the crypts of the famous, the graves of those who have been denied dignity or respect even in their ultimate fate.

There are those decried as witches, condemned as prostitutes, denied rights and rites by organised religion or left forgotten in graveyards consumed by nature. Ross resurrects them all. He does this by not only reinvigorating their stories but by reminding the reader of their profound significance. Each was a life led. Each demands respect.

There is, perhaps oddly, fun in A Tomb With A View but there is a reverence that is never po-faced. It is consistently evident throughout Ross’s wanderings among the stones but it is never more starkly displayed than in his description of the suicide of a charismatic, damaged and bereft soul in the shape of a guide at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. It is part obituary, part tribute but essentially an empathetic and sympathetic examination of how a life than be lost with a suddenness that defies immediate comprehension but can be made partly explicable by gentle exhumation of past trauma.

There is, of course, sadness in such moments. However, it would be absurdly inaccurate to describe this book as depressing or morbid. It is, rather, a celebration of life and of love. It confronts our universal fate but tends towards a comforting embrace of mortality.

It is also imbued with something deeply moving. Ross makes one mention of the grave of his brother who died, aged 14 months. It may seem presumptuous to suggest that this benign ghost accompanies his older brother on his investigations and mediations, but it seems true, too.