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Written in the book of life

11 November 2022

At Remembrancetide, Fergus Butler-Gallie reflects on books of the dead

Angelo Hornak/Alamy

In the style of an illuminated manuscript, Lichfield Cathedral’s Book of Remembrance records men of Staffordshire killed in the First World War

In the style of an illuminated manuscript, Lichfield Cathedral’s Book of Remembrance records men of Staffordshire killed in the First World War

AT THE entrance of the chapel of Tonbridge School, round the corner from the charred roundel of the Blessed Virgin which is the sole survivor from the catastrophic fire that engulfed the building in the 1980s, is a book. From it stare the faces of men, but, more often, boys, staff, and students, from more than a century ago, all clipped moustaches or — sometimes — fresh, unshaven cheeks and piercing eyes.

It is a book of remembrance, painstakingly researched, showing the faces and recording the names of the 415 members of the community there who were killed during the First World War. Like many public schools, Tonbridge’s casualty rate was higher than the average; but it is not unusual in having such a book. In almost all communities, schools, banks, railway depots, and parish churches, boards and brasses and books, bearing the names of men who died fighting in that great war, were dutifully inscribed by those whom they left behind and whom now, on boards and brasses and books, their names have outlasted.

On the face of it, the writing of these dead names seems like such a futile response to such mass slaughter — such a small drop of comfort in such a great ocean of loss.

PERHAPS mindful of this, at Remembrance services at school and university, I always sought to make the thought of the sacrifice and horror entailed in those deaths more “real” by imagining myself and my friends as those faces in the book; those names being read out; those deaths. That is a trickier exercise now; for, every time we meet, grey hairs have intervened and faces have become more lined. We are no longer those fresh-faced young men that they will ever be. We have grown old as they shall not.

Yet remembrance has a way of keeping pace with time and her developments: back home in Kent, the other day, the drone of a Spitfire — now used for bookable heritage flights — echoed across the skies. We talked of how disturbed the Garden of England would have been, some 80 years earlier. My father observed of the pilots, “That would have been your brother.” My brother is 20 years old.

And, the older I get, the more I come to realise that writing down names of those who have gone before, recording and remembering, is not, in fact, futile. Rather, it is our way of keeping track with Remembrance’s habit of popping up in those less expected places. To record the name of one who will never again read it is less the pen’s vain rage against the dying of the light and more a participation in the cycle of mourning, remembering, and yet — crucially — still living in which all of us must partake. In this sense, far from being a near-pagan hallowing of the past, participation in the rituals of Remembrance represents the ultimate faith in an arc that looks to the future — which necessarily bends towards resurrection.

YET it is not just in ritual or in great leather-bound tomes that such reminders occur. Remembrance tracks us in other ways, too, and often through books less formalised in their purpose. As I was sorting through my own books the other day — in consequence of an unexpected, almost drive-by, plastering job by my landlord — I came across a small, slim, leather-bound book that had belonged to one of my great-grandfathers, himself an officer on the Western Front. Helps To Worship, it is a condensation of the Prayer Book’s offices, including some extra prayers and hymns.

It cannot claim to be a beautiful book: it was produced quickly, and handed out to soldiers as they made their way to the hell of Flanders. Still, despite this cheapness, it felt valuable, of note, worth something. As I leafed through it, the tangible crease of the top corner of a page drew my attention to what must have been a much-visited hymn: “The King of love my Shepherd is”.

THAT is the beautiful thing about other people’s books: they often retain small traces of their humanity. My ancestor’s face may not stare out from the page like the men and boys from the Tonbridge School chapel, but I can sense his presence just as keenly. My shelves are filled not only with the field books of military relatives, but with books that belong to the dead of other professions.

At Westcott House, Cambridge, there sat in the corner of the common room what was — perhaps slightly insensitively — known as “the dead-priest box”. In it would be left tomes donated by the widows of Wescottians gone to glory. Often, their names and the year in which they had bought the book (most probably while they studied there) would be written in the frontispiece.

I can see why so many instructed their books to go back there: the clergy like pleasing circularity. I still occasionally flick through and read a page or a chapter here or there, making sure to pray for those whose names are written in the book.

OF COURSE, there are also books that belong to those still with us. These, too, can spur on remembrance of other kinds. As I finished my last parish position, I fell into the pattern of visiting an older lady who lived alone.

One day, she insisted that I take a pile of books — scriptural commentaries, religious biographies, and collations of prayers — collected over a lifetime of devotion which I felt I could only vainly aspire to. Inside the front of a copy of the Prayer Book was the handwritten inscription “To Rosemary, love Daddy and Mummy”.

I remember the first time that I came across that simple, touching dedication. I felt my lip begin to waver. I don’t know why I was so moved by it: perhaps it was the thought of someone I knew only as an older person having a childhood, a first vulnerability; the thought of her knowing all the loves and losses that make up a life-span.

Yet it isn’t only explicitly emotional inscriptions that can inspire such a response. I have known grieving families weep when handling account books, or piles of old magazines. Thumbing through the pages of a book that advertises, by the written hand of another, that it has belonged be it to a loved one or a stranger — to one living or one who is dead is naturally to start the process of contemplation of our own sense of belonging and inevitably, from there, of our own mortality.

GIVEN that they are capable of summoning such informal grief, it is no coincidence that books have become such totems of remembrance. They represent that fusion of the imaginative and the physical which so characterises how we remember. The grasping of an embodied thing, the reading of a name given substance by pen or print: what are these other than rituals of remembrance?

The Revelation of St John foretells that, when death and life are no more, there will be presented to God a book: a book of names and deeds; a book of remembrance. In the mean time, let us leaf through our books of the dead this Remembrance season, in sure and certain knowledge of the resurrection promised by that Book of Life.

The Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie is a writer and teacher.

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