In the M. R. James ghost story A View from a Hill, an historian borrows a pair of binoculars and realises he can see into the past with them. He can see the monastery that is now a ruin. Yet through the binoculars, it is filled with life and activity. He is seeing back in time!
It transpires that the local clock-maker had magically filled them with matter distilled from the bones of the victims of the gallows on the nearby Gallows Hill. He can see into the past with the bones of this ancient victims of the gallows!
And the ghosts of the cursed are out to get revenge on the man who handles the binoculars, the man who has meddled with the bones of the dead…
Now this all seems rather macabre. Dabbling with the occult, boiling up bones, all in order to see into the past using the corporeal remains of the dead. Ghost stories work through the fear of transgressing boundaries between past and present, between this world and the next, between the living and the dead…
Yet, in Britain today, humble memorial plaques ask us to do just that, or at least versions of this. Not only are we asked to sit where the dead sat, where their corporeal remains are scattered, and imagine the past when the now-dead were living and they sat and gazed. Moreover, we are also asked to imagine the dead here today, seeing what we see, sitting where they would have loved to sit. For we are repeatedly being asked by texts to sit and gaze with the dead.
What am I talking about? I am talking about the humble park bench, placed where the dead enjoyed to sit, or else where they would have liked to sit if someone had bothered to put a bench there for them when they were still living!
You will have done it without even thinking it. In the same fashion that you will have bought a soft drink. Not because the text or images told you to, but because it has been suggested and you have done what is suggested because it is what you are being asked to do. Like medieval grave-stones that beseech the living for prayers to be said for the souls of the dead, we are regularly asked by the survivors of a dead person, or by the dead person themselves, to sit, to rest, to watch. While texts might be seen as forms of mnemonic inscription, this is very much a form of memory work that Paul Connerton would perhaps call incorporating memories, memories involving the actions and experiences of the human body.
Now you want some examples of this? Ok, here are a few. And before someone objects. These memorial plaques are there to be read, there to be seen, so I regard blogging their texts is simply a extension of the wishes of the dead people and their survivors. I do it with no intended disrespect but to discuss these examples as part of a nationwide set of contemporary commemorative practices. I have avoided the precise locations out of respect, but it is in no way disrespectful to discuss these publicly situated memorials.
Gazing through the Lens
My first example is in a country park with a view over a valley with a majestic river, beautiful trees, an area where children play, dog-walkers and their dogs walk, and where trains pass by over a viaduct. The bench is new and my kids sit on it to eat ice cream. Meanwhile, I half-turn to read the memorial plaque. Unlike most, it says more than a name and dates of birth and death. It has something to say to me, the reader. Something for me to do:
IN LOVING MEMORY OF LEN
SIT HERE AND ENJOY THE VIEW
JUST LIKE MY DEAREST LEN USED TO DO
One is left in no doubt that good old Len enjoyed the view, whether there was a bench here in this precise spot or not. But Len didn’t do so alone. He has left behind loved ones, and one to whom he was dearest, perhaps his wife? We are being asked to sit like Len used to sit and to enjoy the view. The view of the sky, the hills, the trees, the river, the viaduct, other living people. There are other senses to be enjoyed too, the sound of animals, chickens clucking, children playing. But to gaze like Len, to gaze through Len’s eyes, is the companion to respecting his memory. Memory is through the embodied act of sitting, pausing to watch the world.
It is only after my children finish their ice cream that I realise that Len isn’t simply here in spirit, he is here in person. At the back of the new bench, there are two bouquets of flowers. The entire space between the back of the bench and the hedge against which it is situated is covered with a thick scatter of cremated and crushed, presumably human, bone.
So the bench is an interface between a bit of public space that is made private, made personal, made Len. And there is the public space where everyone is invited to sit and meet Len. What is clear is that Len is imagined here too, enjoying the view just like you!
Why Stand for a Bird’s Eye View?
My second examples is from the towpath of a canal. Here, the bench isn’t a standard construction park bench, it is a monument, with an elaborate text sometimes found on the more individualistic and ‘contemporary’ of grave-stones.
WHY STAND WHEN YOU CAN SIT?
ALAN M. J.
Again, the reader is requested to act, to repose upon the words. Moreover, the text is cleverly wrapped around the stone so that it is impossible to read the entire message from a single position: you have to move past the memorial, walk, before you can be requested to sit. Perhaps in 2006 there were Alan’s ashes behind the memorial, or perhaps his body was laid to rest in a nearby cemetery. Who knows? What is clear is that Alan liked the canal, the ducks, the narrow-boats, the horses pulling the barges. He perhaps also liked the music of the International Museum Eistedfford. What is evident is that the living are asked to sit where the dead are asking you to sit. And they are not asking politely, they are challenging you in a mocking if friendly way. Why are you standing there looking at this text when you could be sitting on these words? Self-deprecating and challenging, the memorial shakes you with the voice of the dead and demands you sit and look around at the view.
Listen to the River – Relax and Enjoy the View
My third example comes from a station platform on a heritage steam railway beside a fast-flowing river:
IN MEMORY OF
JOYCE ALLEN FORMERLY THOMPSON
A LADY WITH A BIG HEART
13TH AUG 1944 – 1ST MAY 2010
PLEASE SIT AWHILE, LISTEN TO THE RIVER
AND ENJOY THE BEAUTY THAT SURROUNDS YOU
You, the reader, are asked to reflect on what beauty is, where the beauty is. It is everywhere. But where particularly? The valley? The river? The steam engines that pass by? The people that you know? Joyce knew all right, whether her ashes were scattered here in 2010 or interred elsewhere, Joyce loved this place and you are requested to love it too. And not just the views, the sounds.. The steam engines, the river….
Close by is another bench with another inscription
IN LOVING MEMORY OF MY PARENTS
ROSE AND MILTON ALLEN
RELAX AND ENJOY THE VIEW
THEY WOULD HAVE LOVED IT
DEDICATED BY THEIR SON BARRY 2008
So here the survivors request it, you are invited to enjoy, and to imagine the dead enjoying it. And together, the enjoyment is combination with repose and relaxation.
Relax and enjoy, relax and remember, relax and gaze with the dead….
M. J. James was a medievalist and an academic, and I am sure he would recognise the power of place and the power of the dead to call to us through memorial texts. Yet few of us see the connection between how we are being requested everywhere we go, to sit like the dead, to gaze with the dead.
Incidentally, Dr Gabriel Moshenska of UCL has recently published a paper on archaeology and M. R. James’s ghost-stories. I need to double-check but I don’t think Gabriel explores the uncanny world of the present-day park bench… Because the kinds of relationship between the living and the dead created through the park bench are not transgressive, not macabre. They are the opposite. They are intimate, respectful and contemplative, but most of all, they are embodied and experiential.
- Moshenska, G. 2012. M.R. James and the archaeological uncanny. Antiquity 86: 1192-1201.