Holding onto Life: By Remembering the Dead

Much in our existence revolves around “holding onto life”. Taking holidays, doing things we love, remembering those who have died. I pretty much did all three of these activities together recently when I holidayed at Le Canonnier, Mauritius, walked The Coffin Route in England’s Lake District, and read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood while on those trips.

1967, Holcomb, Kansas, USA — Author Truman Capote poses at the grave of the murdered Clutter family, made famous in his novel and in the film. — Image by © Bob Adelman/Corbis

Capote’s book, which was published in 1966, is termed a “non-fiction novel”. Today the equivalent term might be “creative non-fiction”. The genre describes a story that is essentially factual, but written to read like a novel as opposed to, for example, an essay or a newspaper article. In Cold Blood relates the true story of the murders of four members of the Kansas-based Clutter family by criminals Perry Smith and Richard (Dick) Hickock. Readers therefore begin the book knowing the outcome. But this doesn’t detract from the product. Capote’s unique descriptions, careful character portrayal, and flowing style kept me totally engrossed – even through sections that seemed obviously lifted from official reports.

At the end of the book the reader is taken to the simple graves of the four Clutters. It is merely a “single gray stone”, which lies “in the far corner of the cemetery”. Without Capote’s book many people, myself included, would never have known or cared about the Clutters, or their murderers, and the senseless ending of their lives. In this way Capote helps us “hold onto life.”

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A cannon overlooks the calm Indian Ocean. Photo Brenda Daniels

I started In Cold Blood while enjoying a week of mild April sunshine (and short rain showers) at the Beachcomber resort of Le Canonnier on the northern coast of Mauritius. This type of holiday – a Beachcomber all-inclusive package – is like being in paradise. Calm seas, copious food and relaxing activities lull the mind and body into believing that nothing outside the resort gates exists. But even paradise has a dark history of life and death. I joined a “Beautiful Story Tour” one afternoon and heard a few facts told in a creative way. Le Canonnier, our tour guide explained, was the site of a military garrison in the 1800s. Cannons, an ammunition building, a large tree which was originally the fort of 50 soldiers, and a now-defunct lighthouse bear witness. And beyond a hedge, nestled in the thick, green grass the grave of a young doctor can be glimpsed. This doctor had treated indentured labourers who disembarked a ship just south of today’s resort, before contracting one of his patient’s illnesses and succumbing. I would never have noticed the grave – the remaining indication of a life having been lived – if our guide hadn’t pointed it out.

The life of English poet, William Wordsworth, is much more well-known to me than that of this fateful Mauritian doctor, and therefore easily remembered. This is of course due to the former’s published and widely loved poetry. But also to the careful memorialisation of his English Lake District home, which I visited on a trip in early May. What I saw in fact detracted from the romanticism surrounding the poet, portraying as it did the “non-fiction” side of this “creative” writer’s life. As charming as the cottage may seem from the outside, inside it is dark, cold, smoky and wonky. No wonder William and his sister Dorothy loved their garden so much.

My daughter and I walked to Wordsworth’s home in Grasmere from Ambleside via “The Coffin Route”, a rough woodland track away from the main causeway where the sight of dead people may have caused offence.

Funny how this route is now the most delightful one for walkers wanting to escape the realities of daily living by enjoying nature.

Remembering the dead on these trips was certainly an enjoyable “holding onto life” for me.

 

Exploring England in the Footsteps of Beatrix Potter

England is an excellent tourist destination. As I was planning an upcoming trip to the UK I was reminded of this fact while leafing through photos of a 2010 holiday there. From accessible transport and places to visit, to consistently excellent food and tour guides – that trip to the UK was educational and enjoyable. The quality and availability of many of the historic places and parks/gardens I had visited was due in no small part to the National Trust. Founded in 1895 to permanently preserve valuable buildings or beautiful countryside, this charity organisation protects over 300 historic houses and gardens, 49 industrial monuments and mills, owns more than 623,000 acres of countryside and over 700 miles of coastline. This vast organisation has positively influenced residents’ attitudes towards their environment; call it ‘national pride’ if you will, but I detected in people a real appreciation for their country’s history and environment.

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The setting for the Beatrix Potter movie. Photo: Brenda Daniels

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The map I misread

The Lake District is a fine example of the National Trust’s presence. I had stayed there in a tiny village called Far Sawrey, near Lake Windermere. Just a kilometre along the winding country road from the Far Sawrey Hotel is ‘Hill Top’, the house owned by famous children’s author, Beatrix Potter. Beatrix bought this house with the proceeds of her first book, Peter Rabbit, and donated it to the National Trust when she died. This unassuming cottage is left almost exactly as it was when Beatrix worked and lived in it – a testimony, perhaps to her attitude to the Lake District area in general. Keen to preserve the look of this landscape, as well as the original farming methods, Beatrix involved herself closely with the National Trust. Wanting to experience the modern charming countryside as well as get a feel of history I decided to explore in ‘Beatrix Potter’s footsteps’. So, using a guide book I set off on one of 15 simple trails. The trail took me through farmland and up a hill to ‘Moss Eccles Tarn’, a little mountain lake also owned by Beatrix Potter. As I crested a hill overlooking Esthwaite Water I misunderstood the map and veered off in completely the wrong direction. I wandered through forest, tramped through bogs, startled two deer and alarmed the grazing Herdwick sheep before finding the right path again. I was heartened to learn later that when Beatrix visited the neighbouring village of Hawkshead in 1882 she ‘had a series of adventures. Inquired the way three times, lost continually, ….. (and) chased once by cows.’ Seems I was in good company!

Visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk for more information on the National Trust.

This article first appeared in the Umhlanga Globe newspaper in 2010.