William Zinsser wrote On Writing Well, the only book would-be writers need to read in order to learn their craft. And to prove he knows what he’s talking about, he has also written a string of readable books including Mitchell & Ruff, a gem that captures music and musicians like nothing else I’ve ever read.
When he tells you, therefore, that Joseph Mitchell is one of the finest writers of all time, you would be a fool to ignore him. So, I bought a second-hand copy of The Bottom of the Harbour, a book about New York’s riverside, and Bill Zinsser, of course, was right.
Let him describe it: ‘So insistent is the tug of the past – of long-gone ships and long-gone people – that The Bottom of the Harbour ought to be lugubrious. But it has a certain prevailing merriment. Since Mitchell and his subjects regard death as a normal part of life, his book has none of the self-indulgence common to the work of journalists confronted with ageing and mortality. It’s not sentimental, or maudlin, or strenuously colourful. It’s Dickens without tears..’
I loved the whole book but was particularly taken by one of the essays.
The Rivermen tells the history of Edgewater, a community across the Hudson from Manhattan, just below the George Washington Bridge. We learn of the early settlers from Holland and England and how they made a living from the river next to which they lived. We meet some of their descendants, a few of whom still manage to eke out such a living.
That was interesting enough but then Mitchell described how an aluminium factory had been built on three sides of the Edgewater graveyard. To reach their final resting place, the bodies had to ‘go through the truck gate of the factory and across a freight yard and up a cement ramp. It is lush old cemetery, and peaceful, even though the throb of machinery can be felt in every corner of it.’
I had to see that.
I took the ferry from Manhattan – a 15 minute boat ride to another America. Mitchell described how it was when he visited: ‘It is an unusually narrow town. It occupies a strip of stony land between the river and the Pallisades and it is three and half miles long and less than half a mile wide at its widest part. The Pallisades tower over it, and overshadow it. One street, River Road, runs the entire length of it, keeping close to the river and is the main street.’
That is pretty well how it still is. The houses are mainly two-storey, clustered on the hillside looking down on the river; there is a neat library (left), a school, a small shopping centre all watched over by Edgewater parrots. And there, tucked in a wall and easy to miss, the entrance to the cemetery. Overlooked now by apartments rather than a factory, it is still lush and very peaceful.
I spent a couple of hours going from grave to grave, noticing the names of the people I’d ‘met’ through Mitchell. I had the place to myself but as I re-read parts of the essay the voices from the past spoke to me and I could picture how ‘old men and old women come in the spring, with hoes and rakes and clean off their family plots and plant old-fashioned flowers on them. Hollyhocks are widespread. Asparagus has been planted here and there, for its feathery ferny sprays. One woman plants sunflowers. Coarse, knotty, densely tangled rosebushes grow on several plots, hiding graves and gravestones.’
As I made my way back to the ferry, I called into the library and discovered they didn’t have a copy of The Bottom of the Harbour. It’s a book I believe every child in Edgewater should read so I gave them my battered old copy, which had started its life in a library in Sunderland. I hope it has given the people of Edgewater as much pleasure as it gives me every time I re-read it.