When I previously visited Brookwood Cemetery, I bumped in to an old guy who, like me, was wandering around the graves. We chatted for a while, and he told me that many years before he’d come across the gravestone of novelist Dennis Wheatley, but had never been able to find it since. I was skeptical. Before leaving home I’d scanned the cemetery website and seen no mention of him on the list of famous residents. I assumed the chap was mistaken, and besides, you do meet some strange people hanging about in graveyards. Which is probably exactly what he went home and told his wife 1.
As with so many things, I was of course wrong. Back home, a small amount of searching revealed that whilst he was cremated in Putney, his ashes are indeed buried in Brookwood. But what struck me was how little interest there appears to be in this. Wheatley was one of the world’s best-selling writers from the 1930s through to the 1960s, and his Gregory Sallust espionage and adventure books are reputed to have been the inspiration for Ian Flemming’s James Bond. Several of his occult novels were made in to movies, including Hammer’s incredibly successful 1968 production of The Devil Rides Out (which I’ve previously mentioned here).
The truth is that even when I was enjoying his books as a kid in the late 1970s, they were already rather dated. Wheatley’s characters inhabit a world of cravats and worcester suits, pink gins and martinis, and leather armchairs in wood-paneled gentlemen’s clubs. His villains are villainous simply by nature of being working class or (heaven forbid) being one of those Johnny Foreigner types. None of this mattered to me as a child of course. I doubt I even noticed. And even today I’m still able to enjoy his books with the knowledge that he was a product of his time. Context is everything. I was quite pleased to see recently that after years of being out of print, many of his books have now been reissued.
Of course, all of this was a good reason to go back and make another visit. Because hanging round graveyards is something I really need to find an excuse for.
1. [Following recent legislation, other gender combinations of spouses are now available. This is A Good Thing.]?
It wasn’t just the fact that she phoned that surprised me, but that she actually phoned. Not a text, tweet, email or whatever, but a proper let’s-party-like-it’s-2005 phone call.
Would I like to go to a photography exhibition at Tate Britain?
She was standing on the steps when I arrived. She looked different. When we’d met on the anti-austerity march she was wearing a ‘Bad Grammar Makes Me [SIC]’ tee shirt, and a tatty but snug pair of faded jeans. This time she’d made what my mother would call An Effort. Because that’s what’s socially adequate people do when they arrange to meet up. I cursed myself. I only have the one look, what an ex-girlfriend once disparagingly termed Columbo Chic.
She warily eyed the Yashica slung over my shoulder and reminded me that she didn’t like having her picture taken.
‘I get self-conscious and pull stupid faces,’ she explained. ‘You have to catch me when I’m not looking.’
She turned and bounded lightly up the steps, her heels clacking against the stone. I did a quick guess-focus and snapped off a single frame. At the top she turned to face me, and I gave what I hoped was a sheepish, self-effacing grin.
She shrugged. ‘I hope you got my best side.’
She frowned, and whilst she tried to work out whether I’d just complimented or insulted her, I started to wonder which of the two would make her the most uncomfortable.