Tuesday, 8 April 2014

In a country churchyard

I have never been particularly interested in writers. I have had the privilege of meeting quite a few great writers, but it was exciting because they were interesting people, not because they were writers. I seldom visit writers' homes and museums, and when I do, I never feel anything special, never a sense of awe, of seeing the actual desk, the actual pen or inkwell. The only really weird feeling I had was in Thomas Mann's house in Nida, where I truly sensed the writer's presence, just for a moment.

But every now and then a writer's home can offer something amusing, such as Dickens' works in his museum in London, from which he had public readings and that have notes in the margins: “Raise voice” or “Significant pause”.

Last week I was on a holiday in Kent, and my friend Morag had told me that one of the numerous churches in Romney Marsh had E. Nesbit's grave. Now, I do have a very special relationship with Nesbit, or rather with her books, but I had never bothered to find out about where she lived and died. Yet the goal of finding a grave is more enticing than simply visiting a number of very similar – unless you are an expert – churches. But there was nothing about Nesbit's grave on my guidebooks. The Lonely Planet England guide was conspicuously brief on Kent; the authors must have had unpleasant experiences. None of the many local guidebooks and folders in the cottage we were renting showed any recognition of one of the greatest British children's writers. I gave up, because combing through twelve churchyards is not my idea of a relaxing holiday.

We were driving along the coast, actually looking for a reasonable road to take us home to the cottage when I saw a sign to Romney Marsh Visitors' Centre. I like such institutions, absurd as they are with their guidebooks, maps, ceramic birds, cheap binoculars and bad coffee. The coffee was exceptionally bad, and the brochures hardly promising, but I have a habit of picking up any readable materials, so I picked up one about the churches, and then – wow! “The grave of E.Nesbit, the author of The Railway Children”. The Railway Children is not my favourite; frankly, I have never understood why it is considered a masterpiece, but never mind. St Mary's in the Marsh was just a few miles away by a horrifyingly winding road, and there was no parking except at the nearby pub that I had no intention to visit.

I don't know what I had expected, but probably a conventional grave. I should have known that Nesbit's grave would be unconventional. I have repeatedly told a story about Nesbit, the origin of which I don't remember, so it may not be accurate and in fact may be about someone else. The story goes: two ladies are exchanging gossip, and one says: “Have you heard that E. Nesbit has died?” “Has she really? So unlike her”. 

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