Like many addicts, it started with a single line. Except, in my case, it was on a bench, a little way off the main path on Hampstead Heath.
I suppose I’d dabbled before, often glancing at a name – an Ethel Campbell or a Dorothy Rather – and spending a moment creating a backstory. Sometimes it was easy, with Ethel, for example, being a “vegetarian, socialist, pacifist”. Sometimes it was hard: Dorothy Rather may have “fed the birds”, but was that her life, I’d wonder; was that it?
One morning in May several years ago I had a stronger hit. Dragged across the Heath’s dense network of paths by the mutt, I stumbled across the king of memorial benches. It said, in upper case: “‘THEY COULD DO WITH A BENCH HERE’, LEWIS GREIFER 1915 – 2003”.
I was hooked: seven stark words conveying character, humour – and utility. It was almost a haiku.
I spent the rest of that day scouring the Heath for benches, taking pictures. In their reduction of a life to a line, the dedications were funny, touching, aspirational, literary. Many were a Greek chorus expressing sentiments previously unspoken: “Take one day, rest a while, and pretend the world is just for you”, “Live life as a monument to your soul”. Others offered transcendence: “May this bench bring peace to all who rest on it.” And humour was sometimes light – “I don’t do walks, please be seated”…
…and sometimes dark. There’s a particular inscription that lies deep within the sylvan swathes of what Hampstead-dwellers fancifully term Middle Heath. Shielded by a prehistoric oak with claw-like roots, it’s fingered by moss and dirt: ‘For Mr Jo and His Dogs. Dead Gloriously Dead.’
Who calls themselves ‘Mr Jo’, for a start? And what about the dogs? Did they all pop their clogs together? Maybe his death was a release, its benign nature resounding across the heavens. Or were he and his canine companions actually hated? Dead, gloriously dead, indeed..
I spent a couple of years writing about these quiet stories, including a weekly column, Bench Marks, in Time Out magazine, and curating a pop-up gallery. Over the coming months you’ll be able to read these tales again.
But for a most inspiring Free Weekend, head to the Heath, or Regent’s Park, or along the South Bank, and contemplate a handful of the millions of other lives that have filled the ‘Smoke. And if you want to know more about Lewis Greifer, his story is here.
Words & pictures: Stephen Emms
A version of this article first appeared in The Times Saturday Magazine.
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