I used to harbour the ambition of amounting to more than a park bench memory after I am gone.
Britain is full of benches, from where the memories of the departed can stare out at agreeable views, and on whose plaques are inscribed things that vary from the poignantly sad, to the worryingly bizarre. Benches on sea walls and beside golf club tees; benches by beautiful estuaries and in urban parks; benches on little railway platforms and even supermarket car parks. If you don’t already, try to make a habit of stopping and reading some of them, if only to remind yourself that your personal grip on this planet is a very transitory one, and that there are hordes of tired walkers, frustrated shoppers and old drunks to come and sit on you when you have gone to the other side.
I once wrote a short story about a miserable marriage that was ended by a murder, the significant clue to which was cunningly inscribed on to the bench that was erected by the victorious wife in ‘honour’ of her husband. It was so bad, (the story, not the marriage), that even I noticed, and I deleted it just in case someone hacked into my system and publicised it in a tortured form of revenge porn.
However, not a seaside holiday has gone past in the last decade when I haven’t spent happy hours reading the plaques on benches from Padstow to Prestatyn, or Salcombe to Seahouses. And it was in the latter town this weekend that I hit the jackpot: thirty benches tightly grouped together above the tiny harbour, each emptily calling out their personal messages to the eider ducks and redundant fishing boats below. For a blissful quarter of an hour, I was in heaven.
It struck me, as I sipped my coffee on a seat courtesy of the founder of Sovereign Diving, that these benches come in a number of categories, and that insufficient research has been done into what these may be. Here is my own contribution:
- The Purely Factual: A simple name accompanied by some precise dates. Suitable for actuaries and accountants.
- The Amateur Poet: Along the lines of ‘Enjoy the view from this wonderful pew’, or anything that rhymes with love, which isn’t a lot, if you take ‘above’ or ‘dove’ out of the mix.
- The duplication for the sake of it: When two words just aren’t enough. ‘Always remembered. Never forgotten’
- The immortalisation of interesting spelling: When checking it out before the plaque writer got hold of it was just too much effort. ‘She has gone their before us’.
- The brutally ambitious: When the whole project was designed as a vehicle for getting that MBE out there in perpetuity, just in case anyone hadn’t noticed from the letterheads and the copious advertisements taken out in the local paper.
- The startlingly unambitious: Along the lines of Daphne ‘who loved this place, and who meant well’.
- The anatomically unlikely: When slipping into another room becomes something altogether more complicated. ‘Gone fishing’, for example, or ‘playing golf with Reggie once more’.
- The heartrendingly lonely: When her own dates are twenty-nine years after his, and she has sat on his bench every day until the letters have faded into almost nothing before her own were added. The most poignant I ever saw was on the edge of a playground in West Sussex that just had the dates of a nameless young child with the one word ‘Why?’
- The manifestly untrue: When the local pharmacist, or anyone else for that matter, is described as ‘loved by everyone’.
- The refreshingly honest: Somewhere outside St Ives, and I wish I still had the photograph I took, I once found a nondescript bench with a caption that ran something like ‘Finally she has stopped moaning’.
If anyone thinks to put one up when I myself ‘slip into that adjoining room’, I hope it will be high up on the Downs above the Rother Valley and say ‘Aah! The peace!’ I think we will all know what that means.