I went to Jim’s funeral near Truro, which was simple, humanist, and moving. I won’t ever hear the McGarrigle sisters singing ‘Last Summer I Went Swimming’ again without thinking of him (it was played at the funeral). And afterwards I went back to Falmouth for a wake (a curious word: implies both what happens at the start and what happens when you’ve moved on – a poem there, I know, although I bet someone’s written it).
Falmouth has a double association for me. It was where I spent two happy years teaching. But oddly enough, it’s also where my great-great-grandfather is buried. He retired there to a huge house overlooking Gyllyngvase beach – the house was called ‘Sea View’, rather as every other boarding-house by the seaside is called, but in 1922 (when he died there: I’m unsure how long he’d been there, other than that a grandson of his went to see him there in 1918, after his arm was smashed up in the war, and recorded swimming in the bay) it must have been a startling place. The house itself doesn’t exactly survive – it was one half of a large semi-detached property, and its twin is still standing, but his half had apparently become derelict in the 1970s, was pulled down, and re-built. So it’s a little like seeing the negative of his house.
His grave is getting overgrown, and, out of some odd family impulse, whenever I am in Falmouth, I go and tear the ivy back. ‘Thomas George Greenwell, formerly of Sunderland’. It must have been a very different kind of funeral from Jim’s, which had a lot of tranquility and harmony. The Falmouth Packet recorded my great-great-grandfather’s funeral (as indeed it actually recorded his death). Very few people went. Just his eldest son (my great-grandfather), my grandfather, the said nephew, and also his ninth child, just 20, who had been the result of his affair, at the age of 59, with a housekeeper. As a result, it seems as if most of his surviving children – he outlived every single one of his siblings, despite being the second of a family of ten – chose not to go. There are notes in the Packet article to the effect that people were ‘abroad’. This is surely code for disapproval.
Cemeteries are curiously soothing places, or, if on the grand scale – like Pere Lachaise in Paris, for instance – amazing, orchestral places. I went to Pere Lachaise first when I was 20, visiting a German girlfriend called Caty Hofheinz who was working in Paris as an au pair. I had to sneak out early in the morning, because her employers would definitely have disapproved. So I got to PL when it was not long after dawn, and there was a low, rolling fog, with cats (as it seemed) leaping in and out of half-light. Colette, Bizet, Chopin, Marshal Ney, Rossini, Hugo, Wilde, Bernhardt, Piaf – and Jim Morrison – are all there. But I’d gone because one of the two most influential poems I had read in my teens included Ginsberg’s ‘At Apollinaire’s Grave’ – which he wrote in PL, under a tree by the grave itself.
Despite being one of France’s most famous twentieth-century poets, he wasn’t even listed on the guide. I had to go to a little office, and get them to look up Apollinaire under his real name (de Kostrowitsky), and get directed to something like the 90th quartier of the place. I sat where Ginsberg had sat, and enjoyed the homage. Daft, eh? It has one of his most famous pieces of concrete poetry (‘calligrammes’) inscribed on the stone: Ma coeur pareil a une flamme renversee (‘my heart is like an upside down flame’ – which a conventional if not an anatomical heart is). I enjoyed the place so much, I forced Caty to come on her day off. She told me I was a crazy person in three languages. Hmmm. I wonder what became of Caty Hofheinz. (I went to stay with her at her home, too, not very far from Coblenz. Her father could speak no English, I could speak no German, and his brave attempt to communicate by playing ping-pong had to be abandoned because I was so useless at it. He had survived the Russian front, and I remember him pointing out an army camp and saying ‘Scheisses Bundeswehr’. My noun-verb agreement may wrong…)
I would write a poem by my great-great-grandfather’s grave. But it is half-hidden by a hulking great holly bush. Perhaps I should pack my secateurs next time.
I’ve also discovered that you can see the house by using the swivel function on this Falmouth student site. Look behind and to the right of the long blue beach hut. The right-hand side of the large house (the window styles and different roof colours show the difference in age) is where ‘Sea View’ was.