Friday, 29 July 2016
One of the largest cemeteries in Southampton lies opposite the General Hospital, situated on the south-facing, terraced slope of a hill, oddly reminiscent of a vineyard, and which may indeed originally have been used in experimental viticulture by prominent local landowners the Hoare family (after whom a nearby road was originally named Hoare's Hill, but changed in 1924 to the more anodyne Dale Road, at the request of the respectable folk moving into their new suburban semi-detached villas). I occasionally walk through Hollybrook Cemetery if I'm visiting the hospital and it's a pleasant enough place, though nowhere near as characterful or as photogenic as the Victorian cemetery at the south end of Southampton Common. With the twentieth-century decline in religious belief seems to have come a reluctance to invest the deceased's cash in a piece of grandiose memorial statuary. We'll take slab number two, please, in black marble, and go easy with the lettering.
One of the hidden surprises of this cemetery is that it contains a substantial number of official war graves, beautifully maintained, as always, by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. In the main these are the burial places of men who were hospitalised back to Southampton from the two world wars and who subsequently "died of wounds", mainly in the Royal Victoria Military Hospital at Netley. But there is also a monument which lists nearly 2000 non-naval service personnel lost at sea in "home waters" in troop and merchant ships sunk by submarines and mines.
Most striking among these names is the roll-call of around 500 officers and men of the South African Native Labour Corps, who died when the troop transport Mendi sank in the Channel following a collision in 1917. The role of Empire troops in both wars is often overlooked; in fact, this assemblage of graves and memorials in Southampton is an intriguing sample of all those who died in Britain's wars, recruited from every corner of the Empire and Commonwealth. There are also a few graves of German prisoners of war and airmen shot down in the Southampton Blitz. Unlike those monumental arrays in France and Belgium, where whole regiments lie together after the mass slaughter of particular battles, these are a randomly-selected group from many different regiments and theatres of war, potential survivors who, in the end, didn't make it, with the addition of some reluctant voyagers who were lost at sea in transit to or back from war, often in sight of land.
In his war memoir my father wrote about his own far-from-luxury cruise as a private soldier from Greenock in Scotland to North Africa via Cape Town aboard the Llangibby Castle, and then on to Calcutta on the Silver Teak (doing an emergency handbrake turn past Singapore, their original destination, which had just fallen to the Japanese). The fear of submarine or air attack and death at sea was a constant background note beneath the sheer boredom of days and weeks at sea. Troops were issued cork lifejackets and ordered to have them close by at all times, but were informed by the resident jolly tars that if they jumped into the water from any height wearing those bloody things they would assuredly break their necks. Fortunately, both of Dad's journeys went unmolested, but the Llangibby Castle was torpedoed carrying troops in another Atlantic convoy in 1942, managing to limp back under escort to Gibraltar.
As with all war cemeteries marking so many wasted and truncated young lives, the understated, uniform rows of Portland stone have a quiet democratic dignity that is very affecting. Which, I have to say, distinguishes them from an increasing number of contemporary memorials. There is something very odd going on, when relatives feel a need to festoon a grave with helium-filled metallic balloons, plastic toy windmills, and even solar-powered gizmos that whir round and round perpetually. A walk past certain parts of Hollybook Cemetery feels more like the aftermath of a fairground than a graveyard. Is this a revival of some kind of inchoate animistic or pagan belief system? Or just a me too fashion, masquerading as a custom, like the recent vogue for flying Chinese lanterns at New Year? It's clearly related to the mass urge to leave floral tributes, mawkish messages, and soft toys at the site of road accidents and child-murders and, to my taste anyway, distinctly creepy. So much so, that I can't even bring myself to photograph them. But there's a project there for someone with a stronger stomach for the excesses of popular sentimentality.