On a rather muddled day in early autumn, I decided to visit M.R. James. In recent years, I’ve become interested in the places that James frequented, usually because they have had clear and profound effects upon his ghost stories. Visiting them with a sense of curiosity seems to invert the man’s clichés back upon him; walking in search of the known as opposed to the unknown. This trip was to be more simple than previous James-themed explorations in that I simply wanted to ground the spectre, so to speak, by finding his grave. James’ fame as the formidable intellect and provost of King’s College Cambridge comes only second in his adoration to his childhood school of Eton in Windsor. Having gone to the school itself and later retired there as provost in an unparalleled academic career, it’s clear that the school and town held a special place in James’ affections. There’s a sense of safety there for the writer; it’s the most unquestioningly English, middle-class island James could have possibly asked for at a time when World War One and its trauma was still echoing. It seems only right, therefore, for him to have been buried there.
I made my way there on a surprisingly sunny day from London Paddington, stopping briefly in Slough where the passing trains threaten to pull you along with their great speed, before taking the meandering train directly to Windsor. The castle came into view, along with a spitfire, flower beds and various other clichéd paraphernalia of Englishness. A quick wander over the Thames and the atmosphere turns from country town into country village; the shops turn smaller and (aside from the Costa) have mostly been there for at least 100 years or more; sinking into the ground, creaking with age. The streets became filled with Eton boys, ties and tails waving as they surreally ran about with Macbooks under their arms; the contrast between new technology and their endlessly archaic uniform is incredibly odd.
Walking against a parade of dressed-up parents, clearly attendeding some event at the school, I eventually wandered down a lane consisting simply of school buildings before an old church and graveyard came into view. The church is basically abandoned, later learning that Eton College has actually bought it but has yet to really do anything with it (judging from the outside at least). Thankfully, this same benign neglect has been applied to the graveyard and the graves; only if James himself had designed it could it have been more in keeping with the sensibilities of his fiction. The gravel crunched underfoot, ivy grew over many fallen graves, moss covered stone like a shadow and its northern most part was darkened to an eerie black by a thin forest. I had initially been worried that it would be pristine, reading of the restoration of James’ grave having occurred some years back closer to the millennium, but it was to prove a needless concern.
Wandering around, it was hard to believe that the Thames was only metres away. The place was deathly silent aside from the occasional bird call, including that of a song thrush. After months in the bustle of London, a sense of tranquility was incredibly welcome. I began to look for James’ grave, noting the grave of H.E. Luxmoore near the entrance whose scripture was actually written by James, having been a tutor to a him when first at Eton as a student. After some time searching, I had failed to find the grave and a mounting worry began to take over. Luckily, the darkness of the small forest drew me quite naturally and eventually I found James’ grave housed within it at the very edge of the graveyard. It was heavily overgrown, vine spindling around its foot and lit only by an old street lamp from the adjacent lane behind the wall. I could hear more Eton boys chattering away behind it, probably avoiding a lesson at no doubt extreme cost to their parents.
I snapped several photos of the grave, knowing that it would be too dark for my simple (and now defunct) 35mm to capture. The graveyard was so peaceful that I ended up sat on a dilapidated bench there eating my lunch alone and disturbed only by the occasional plane above heading to Heathrow. The bench was damp and rotten, several of the wooden planks having crumbled into the ground. I lifted up a fallen urn next to the bench on the ground which showed a variety of life scurrying away and some small, white eggs, possibly reptilian. I took in this atmosphere for a considerable time, making the most of the mossy vista that, in some ways, felt more alive than the town that lay all around it. The dampness of the graves was beginning to dry in the afternoon sunlight and, as I made to leave, I could not help but give one last glance towards the church and the graves; as if something fleeting had, for just a brief moment, tempted the corner of my eye to look back in nervous curiosity.