The Day of the Dead

It’s appropriate that today is the day on which my brothers and I have completed the sale of our parents’ house in Worcester Park, where they lived from 1988. On Saturday, I visited the house for the last time to check that all was well, but more to say goodbye to a place which contained so many memories and mixed emotions. We have to move on of course, and the sale provides a sort of ‘closure’ seventeen long months after the death of my mother.

Since I was 15 or so, I have associated the Day of the Dead with Malcolm Lowry’s extraordinary novel Under the Volcano, which is up there – with the likes of Orlando, Mrs Dalloway, The Card, The Towers of Trebizond, The History of Mr Polly, A Meeting by the River, Coming Up for Air, The Rainbow, G., The Man Who Was Thursday, On the Black Hill, The Sword of Honour trilogy, etc. – among my very favourite 20th Century novels by British writers. Like Mrs Dalloway and Ulysses, it’s set within the space of one day, in this case ‘El Día de Los Muertos’.

Shortly after I arrived in Portrush in the autumn of 1985, I borrowed from the university library in Coleraine all the books by Lowry which I’d not read before. The north coast of Antrim seemed like the sort of place Lowry would’ve written about brilliantly; and being then as fond of writing prose as well as poetry, I set about writing Lowry-influenced stories. Alas, I didn’t keep them, though I strongly suspect they weren’t much cop anyway.

Lowry was by all accounts a rather unpleasant fellow, but his vast consumption of Mexican booze can’t have helped with that. In the first Lockdown, I read all the books I could find on the great painter Edward Burra, whom Jonathan Meades, in a Radio 4 Great Lives broadcast, rightly called ‘the greatest watercolourist imaginable’. I will write more about Burra, and how I have responded to his works and influence, in due course, but when, in 1937, he, with Conrad Aiken and Mary Hoover, travelled from Boston to Cuernavaca (where Under the Volcano is set), for Aiken and Hoover to get married and to visit Aiken’s friend and mentee Lowry, the experience nearly killed him. For all Lowry’s travels throughout the Americas, it’s an oddity that he died in the Sussex village of Ripe, only 33 miles from Burra’s home in Rye, the ‘Tinkerbell Towne’ as he called it.

On this particular All Souls’ Day, it’s hard not to think of the lives which have been lost in this pandemic, and how, if governments had prioritised health before profit, many of those deaths could surely have been prevented.

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