Tag Archives: death

Death in St John’s Co-Cathedral

Never have I seen so many momento mori, strange and yet not strange in this enormous almost unbelievable place.

Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-CathedralThese are knights pledged to give their lives willingly in battle — while running hospitals and protecting travellers they also pledged themselves to the fight against the Arabs, the Christian presence in the Holy Land, the stand against the Ottoman Empire. They enriched themselves through piracy against the enemy trading in the rich waters of the Mediterranean.

This is what Christianity — turn the other cheek, love your neighbour as yourself — this is what it really meant to them. It took me a while to find the enemies that they trampled underfoot, but they are hardly forgotten:

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The slaves upon which much of their wealth was built — and who built this city — are here as well:

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The wealth is staggering. Still, so many ruthless and wealthy men meditating on their own deaths — I suppose it’s not all bad. I confess it gives a sense of awe.

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The highlights were Caravaggio, of course. A massive painting, the Beheading of John the Baptist, simple, the great dark spaces of dingy and shadowy wall are even more immense staring at it from afar, framed by gold leaf and pomp. It fits, somehow, while also overshadowing its surroundings. These details of architecture and frame are hardly visible as you look at it, they fade into the background and the skin, the sorrow, stand out above all.

beheading-of-saint-john-the-baptist- Caravaggio

Opposite is St Jerome, elderly, simple. A skull, to match the hundreds of skulls in this place, but an honesty and decay that sits oddly here.

st-jerome

The other wonder that I never knew was here are the choral books, especially those of Grand Master L’Isle Adam. They are wondrous indeed, with miniatures of surpassing beauty (and I promise I am not using that word lightly despite my many enthusiasms), and along the margins the most wonderful grostesques, creatures of bark, creatures with horns and eyes in their stomachs — and there is nothing written of them in the cathedral or postcards for sale. I shall have to hunt for them further. Later. Now, more wandering through the evening and some wine. What I did find, to end:

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Stars Falling is out today

Stars fallingA new story, ‘Stars Falling,’ is out in the world today! Always feels good to have a new story out. A nice surprise to find an acceptance not a rejection. A surprise that really did me good.

I know they say writing is mostly about rejection, but that doesn’t make it easier really.

So, I am so happy to have a story out. And sad at the same time, because this story makes me damn sad. I am not entirely sure where this story comes from — other than being spewed out by a whole mess of memories and feelings that never usually see the light of day. Mostly from growing up in Tucson, from LA. Mostly of that world where women blame each other for the things men do. That world where they stay with the men who beat them. Maybe this story is a twisted feminist take on domestic violence, but I worry it is not feminist enough. I don’t feel feminism has equipped me very well to deal with the memory of junior high when one girl curled her hands in another girls hair and beat her head into the concrete and there was blood everywhere. The memory of women who thought love was violent passion and jealousy and fighting and making up — and the memory of myself not totally rejecting that idea — despite the amazing model I so luckily had in my parents. It didn’t equip me very well to deal with such contradiction, or the phone call I picked up to hear ‘Bitch, who is this? Bitch, what are you doing at my man’s house? I’m going to come over there and kill you.’

I was pretty sure it was a wrong number. But not entirely. Not after being hit in the face by another ex for stealing her man, even though she was already married again with two kids. I know I gave up on feminism way too early, I didn’t even know about the waves when I gave up. I been writing it, and coming back to it theoretically in various guises, with the help of bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins among others. All of these things being the reason, of course, why feminism is so desperately important.

This story is still back dealing with the part of the world I tried to leave behind, but if life teaches you anything it’s that you can’t really do that. Not that any of this was conscious while I was writing, it’s not how my writing works. Nothing in this is based on anything real except the L.A. bar with its velvet green curtains, pricey martinis and the god-awful band. I had a good night too, with Larry and his friends, and wrote some notes down on a napkin. Like a real writer does. But I look at this thing now I’ve written it and see it as a kind of reworking of these memories, and a channel for the anger that I still carry from years helping women and children get their papers under the Violence Against Women Act, then encountering so many more women going through his — or coming out of this — through tenant work. Most of my anger is for the men, but there is some emerging from the helplessness I felt as women I loved tried to leave and went back, tried to leave and went back, tried to leave and went back. I know the cycle of violence, know how hard it is, I hate that part of me is still angry at them.

I worked on an asylum case for a man, once, who had been horribly tortured for his work in the community in El Salvador. Good work, important work. Turns out after that he started doing unspeakable things to his wife. Violence to violence, you see. I didn’t know who to be angry at then.

I have said the words ‘you have to leave him or one day he will kill you’, I have said them many times. There’s something else here too, in my mind, which is that I can’t find the right words to describe the strangeness of knowing that of all the women I have known, the woman he did kill was my friend from college who never heard those words from me. White, middle-class, not just crazy smart but also well-able to take care of herself. Esther. She was New York cool, knew arthouse movies and visited galleries and talked nonchalantly about directors and writers and artists — I had never encountered someone my age (well, one year older, all of 18) before. She helped me move into my first apartment. She was so self-possessed, and so impossibly far from the violence of my own world.

I still haven’t been able to come to terms with her death, have started writing things and stopped, started and stopped. I knew domestic violence was as prevalent among rich families as among poor from counselors and therapists I have worked with. I don’t think I could have believed it deep down. It took my partner to remind me that you never really know the demons people are facing. That leave you stabbed and bleeding, dying on the floor.

I have left a prevalence of certain attitudes behind, perhaps, but never violence.

Of all the strong and beautiful women I have known who have lived with fear of death at the hands of their partner, Esther was the best situated to get out. She was the one who did not. Esther still brings tears to my eyes and a riot of feelings I can’t sort out. Except the clarity of missing her and the guilt for not keeping in touch.

Anyway, all of this leaves me a bit ambivalent about ‘Stars Falling’. But I am rather proud it’s the only woman’s voice in this issue, flawed as it may be as a story. I write noir, and love it as a genre, because it grapples with this darkness within us and around us. It grapples in flawed ways, because how else can we try to do it, and don’t we have to try? But noir is also generally so damn male. A little in love with its own violence. A little over fond of violent women stereotypes. These other stories sharing the issue with me are good and tight and I enjoyed them, but they fit in that mold. So it almost feels the wrong company. But I hope in a challenging kind of way, so I am still glad it’s there.

Luckily the other stories I’m currently flogging have nothing like this kind of baggage attached to them.

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June Jordan’s March Song

Syria has been breaking my heart open, Palestine, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the present springing from a bloodied history of colonialism, intervention and horror. Today we are left with dead children. Numbed children. Cities flattened. Homes lost. Loves lost. Everything lost. People fleeing, suffering without succor. The racist idiocy in all of this of French police forcing women to strip themselves of veils and burkinis (fierce blogs out today here and here). I don’t write much about current happenings, other people are doing that much better than I could. The horror of a world at war, whole populations uprooted and struggling with violent death and loss, sits inside me though. Along with helplessness. Marching, signing petitions, emails, contributions…not enough. Recognizing that all of our struggles connect? Not enough either, but we must not forget it and we must wrestle with what that means. June Jordan did this with an integrity and a reach that humbles me. There is a wonderful blog here from Therese Saliba on June Jordan and her solidarity with the Palestinian struggle in essays and verse.

There is this poem from Living Room, 1985, a book dedicated to the children of Atlanta and Lebanon.

March Song

Snow knuckles melted to pearls
of black water
Face like a landslide of stars
in the dark.

Icicles plunging to waken the grave
Tree berries purple and bitten
by birds

Curves of horizon squeeze
on the sky
Telephone wires glide
down the moon

Outlines of space later
pieces of land
with names like Beirut
where the game is to tear
up the whole Hemisphere
into pieces of children
and patches of sand

Asleep on a pillow the two
of us whisper we know
about apples and hot bread
and honey

Hunting for safety
and eager for peace
We follow the leaders who chew up
the land
with names like Beirut
where the game is to tear
up the whole Hemisphere
into pieces of children
and patches of sand

I’m standing in place
I’m holding your hand
and pieces of children
on patches of sand (362-363)

Living room, room to live. This is from ‘Moving Towards Home’

I was born a Black woman
and now
I am become a Palestinian
against the relentless laughter of evil
there is less and less living room
and where are my loved ones?

It is time to make our way home. (400)

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More poetry…

St Pancras Church, Old & New and the Grant Zoology Museum

I have seen so much while I’ve lived here, though I have certainly slowed down the last couple years. Now staring my own leaving in the face, I sat and made a list of all the places I’ve been meaning to see for ages but just haven’t yet. I found a few new places to see while doing this as well, and of course, there are some amazing exhibitions on at the moment at places I know and love well.

Today, in a way, was quintessential London — as London was. As it won’t be for much longer. I started at Old St Pancras Church, just behind the station. People have called it the oldest site of Christian worship in England. There is some proof. The current church is lovely, Catholic, a modern reconstruction, but incorporates the many hundreds of years of its history within its walls as Roman tiles, Saxon altar stone, Norman pillars.

The graveyard…a big, beautiful, flowered open space. It was once even bigger, but being so close to the railway station, much of the graveyard was claimed for progress. Thus came into being the ‘Hardy tree’. Thomas Hardy, the novelist extraordinaire himself, was hired to deal with the exhumations, and he chose to arrange the tombstones around this tree like rays about the sun. It is curious, and strangely beautiful.

Old St Pancras Church

Here too is the tomb of Sir John Sloane, architect, whose home is another fabulous museum in Lincoln Inn Fields. It is a listed monument, most curious in design (as you would expect), and supposedly inspired the design for London’s iconic phone booths.

Old St Pancras Church

Best of all is the tomb of Mary Wollstonecraft (Godwin), amazing feminist, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women — something that knocked me over with its awesomeness when I was young, one of the things that made me want to write.
Old St Pancras Church

Her daughter’s book Frankenstein also made me want to write — this is where Mary planned her elopement with Percy Bysshe Shelley.

It also features in Dickens Tale of Two Cities, but that can hardly compare.

This is the kind of place that inspires love for London — except for all those cranes in the background building the modern monstrosities around the station — more unaffordable housing.

Old St Pancras Church

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From there I walked to the Grant Museum of Zoology, which represents an early Victorian teaching collection — the goal was to have one of everything back in 1828 when it was founded. It is an extraordinary place, custom-made cabinets of glass and polished wood holding skeletons in various poses, preserved animals in varying degrees of dissection or preservation. Lots of jars.

Lots of moles.

Grant Museum of Zoology

A fossil compsongnathus (my dad used to tell us stories about them) and lungfish, a huge incredible skeleton of a boa constrictor, a tiny octopus (a few of those actually), an amazing ‘museum of tiny things’ (the micrarium). I loved it, despite the hordes of children. Also amazing, but a little more complicated by the connections between exploration, science, and colonialism. Here you can find the quagga and the tasmanian tiger, both hunted to extinction since this museum was founded.

Grant Museum Of Zoology

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the last stop was unplanned, but I’ve always wondered about the crypt of the New St Pancras Church. It was open, with an artist in residence — ‘Being Silence’ and the artist Evgenia Emets. It was cool seeing her large calligraphy canvases, experimenting with the space. I just took pictures of the space, it is quite amazing.

New St Pancras Church

Also, rather full of figures from the East India Company. Also complicated. But cool to get down here.

New St Pancras Church

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And then I got to drive the 68 bus all the way home. Happiness.

on the 68 bus

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John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea at Bristol’s Arnolfini

John Akomfrah Vertigo SeaVertigo Sea, a solo exhibition of two films showing through 10th April, 2016 at Bristol’s Arnolfini, its UK premiere. Where better to see such films exploring the connections between oceans and Empire, slavery and migration and the killing of our natural world than this city built with slavery’s profits?

We saw Vertigo Sea first, sat confronting the sea and movement and death and forced migrations on film across three screens. The sounding of waves. The vastness of ocean. The smallness of our own stature in the face of it. The wonder of the creatures who live within it. I imagine the feeling of always being held, wonder if that sounding of waves is something that lives within you if you live within the ocean, if your heart beats to it. Birds, thousands and millions of birds swirl across its surface, like algae, like the shoals of fish that dive and spin.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea
John Akomfrah “Vertigo Sea” (2015). Installationsview. Nikolaj Kunsthal. Foto Léa Nielsen

Water is here too in the form of snow, vast expanses, glaciers, landscapes we all know are fast disappearing.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea
John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea © Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy Arnolfini. Photo Stuart Whipps

Always the vastness of the world, the ocean, the water. Moisture as great banks of cloud upon the earth. Then the vastness of death we ourselves leave behind. The killing of wild things, the carving up of whales, the rivers of blood.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea

There are those who travel oceans to kill alongside the desperation of others traveling the oceans prised lose from land by war and famine and searching for life and hope. The desperation of others traveling the oceans ripped from all they know, plundered for work and death in lands far away. The oceans connect us in so many ways. Look how we have moved across them, look how we have died in them, look how we have hunted and killed in them. This is a unique meditation on human violence in the face of great, impersonal force.

John Akomfrah Vertigo SeaFrom the exhibition guide:

The inspiration for the work came from a radio interview with a group of young Nigerian migrants who had survived an illegal crossing of the Mediterranean. They expressed the feeling of being faced by something vaster and more awesome than they had thought possible. While the sea is mesmerising, universally compelling and beautiful, it is also a uniquely inhospitable environment. It is difficult for us, as humans used to having control over our surroundings, to grasp the enormity of this constantly changing element, and the word ‘vertigo’ perhaps refers to this unfathomable reach.

Maybe it’s because I grew up in the middle of the desert, but I love the feeling of being small, love the feeling of being just a tiny part of the world, in the world rather than in control of the world. We are never in control of the world. But I imagine this installation feels different to me than to others, I wonder if it does provoke a sense of control being absent. An overwhelming. I hope so.

But how I mourned through this film, mourned the death and all of those lost. Now and then, too, I turned my eyes from the killing.

We couldn’t see both installations the same day, seemed to us Vertigo Sea was too powerful. So we went back to watch Tropikos two weekends later.

Situated in Plymouth and the Tamar Valley – locations with significant, though largely forgotten connections with the expansion of European power and influence – Tropikos is an experimental drama set in the 16th century.
Akomfrah’s starting point for the film was the connection between the waterways of the South West and the slave trade. In this film, the river landscape is transformed into an historic English port to re-imagine some of the first British encounters with people from Africa.
Again, the pounding of oceans. Elizabethan costumes vs white draped simplicity, the deep roar of passage and rending, black skin in water and warmth but there is the looming English presence behind and you long to call out, to warn. Too late.
John Akomfrah, Tropikos,
John Akomfrah, Tropikos, 2016 | Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Black faces are seen in frigid English landscapes, floating still and silent down the Tamar, landscape passing in emerald fields and grey skies behind these people stolen and surrounded by goods stolen with them. Bowls overflow with pearls and precious things, corn, roots and tubers. Dressed first in simplicity, but later boxed into new finery.

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Tropikos, John Akomfrah, Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Always there is the sounding of oceans.

Only one table shows what England gave in return: wildflowers, a bible, a sword.

Death is here too, it is hanging. Birds and fish with glassy eyes and bodies cut to let them bleed. Other trees hung with pineapples and daikon radishes. Always the cold arrogant English faces in contrast, husband and wife unable to speak to touch to share the same spaces. Sidelong glances at the others come among them.

Words from Hakluyt, Shakespeare, Milton, Gaston Bachelard….they mingle with Melville from Vertigo Sea. Both are powerful, both had moments so reminiscent of his other work, particularly Last Angel of History, but perhaps it is because I saw that not too long ago. But there are these stills, posed, surreal elements of physical things with a huge weight of symbolic meaning. The detritus of our lives washed up on the stones, yielded by the water. The ending of time.

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John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea (2015). Still. © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy

Go see them if you can.

For more on race, environment and empire…

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Death and the Anthropocene: Roy Scranton

25330145There is a name for this new world: the Anthropocene. The word comes from ancient Greek. All the epochs of the most recent geological era (the Cenozoic) end in the suffix “-cene,” from kainós, meaning new. Anthropos means human. The idea behind the term “Anthropocene” is that we have entered a new epoch in Earth’s geological history, one characterized by the advent of the human species as a geological force. (17)

There you have this new word being thrown around in environmental and urbanist and academic circles — anthropocene. It annoyed me at first, I confess. But new words often do, when they feel like an academic gimmick to make old ideas stand out. I’ve decided this isn’t one of those words though, I think it’s a good word.

I liked this tiny book as well, a couple of essays pushed into a just-long-enough form. There is plenty to ponder here with some solid references for climate change and the role human beings have played in entering this new period.

Thomas Schelling is one to remember, writing that carbon trading simply will not work. The idea of climate change as a ‘wicked’ problem, I am trying to remember where else I have seen that used:

Global warming is what is called a ‘wicked problem’: it doesn’t offer any clear solutions, only better and worse responses. One of the most difficult aspects to deal with is that it is a collective-action problem of the highest order. (53)

and this:

The problem with our response to climate change isn’t a problem with passing the right laws or finding the right price for carbon or changing people’s minds or raising awareness. Everybody already knows. The problem is that the problem is too big. The problem is that different people want different things. the problem is that nobody has real answers. The problem is that the problem is us. (68)

There were a few other references that fascinated me — Mount Tambora exploding in 1816, creating ‘The Year Without a Summer’ (52). And then the ‘dark snow’ effect that is helping melt glaciers in Greenland (52). I have never heard of either.

But really, this comes down to a rather interesting philosophical take on what is needed now from human beings:

To survive as a soldier, I had to learn to accept the inevitability of my own death. For humanity to survive in the Anthropocene, we need to learn to live with and through the end of our current civilization. Change, risk, conflict, strife and death are the very processes of life, and we cannot avoid them. We must learn to accept and adapt. (22)

There is a lot about death. A calling on samurai wisdom. I feel this probably works for some, but at the same time it is such a male path, a warrior path — and it feels like a path, a way. This is such a continuation of beat poets and City Lights tradition. Nothing about love, healing, compassion, creation, cooperation in here, though I think they are as much processes of life as anything else. Vandana Shiva is as much a warrior, but it has nothing of her love or hopes for the future or sense of connection to the world nor how we might change things in very different fashion. So all in all, I wouldn’t mind working side by side with people on this way, but it is not one I would chose. Or that would choose me.

I’m not one to completely discount the need for violence in liberation, but I disagree that violent struggle is the real maker of change. Nor do I quite see civil rights struggles in the same light. He writes:

‘What’s more, the success of the Civil Rights movement can’t be properly understood, without taking into account federal military interventions'(73)

He lists Eisenhower sending troops in 1957 to desegregate Little Rock schools, Robert Kennedy sending marshals to university of Mississippi in 1962, John Kennedy sending troops to stop rioting at University of Mississippi and the University of Alabama 1963, federal troops protecting marchers from Montgomery to Selma. (73)

‘…the fight to win fundamental civil rights and political equality from segregationists and racists was grinding, dangerous, and aggressive: it strove to take something from Southern white racists that they didn’t want to give up, namely power. (74)

And from this he goes on to quote Heraclitus:

It should be understood that war is the common condition, that strife is justice, and that all things come to pass through the compulsion of strife. (76)

And:

Fight. Flight. Fight. Flight. The threat of death activates our deepest animal drives. (77)

I think there’s a bit more to us, to animals. I have to disagree strongly with Heraclitus.

The greatest challenge we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront our situation and realize there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the difficult task of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality. (23)

I think acceptance of this statement will help some people, but I don’t think it will mean anything or be at all helpful to others.

The other really interesting thing in here, though, was on resonance, energy, our communication and how it is changing and potentially changing us. Think of bees and their dancing, their hive mind, and then think of twitter and facebook:

Politics, whether for bees or humans, is the energetic distribution of bodies in systems. (55-56)

Are we really organised entirely around energy? That is a really fucking interesting thought, though I’m not sure I buy it:

The key is energy: energy production and social energetics. Just as a beehive is structured around the production of honey, so are human societies structured around labor, horses, wheat, coal, and oil. How bodies harvest, produce, organize, and distribute energy determines how power flows, shaping the political arrangements of a given collective organism behind whatever ideologies the ruling classes may use to manufacture consent, obscure the mechanisms of control, or convince themselves of their infallible omniscience. (56)

He quotes Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy (on my list to read for some time now)

Workers were gradually connected together not so much by the weak ties of a class culture, collective ideology, or political organization, but by the increasing and highly concentrated quantities of carbon energy they mined, loaded, carried, stoked, and put to work. The coordinated acts of interrupting, slowing down, or diverting its movement created a decisive political machinery, a new form of collective capability built out of coalmines, railways, power stations, and their operators. (58)

I’m just not so sure this is entirely true as the foundation of power whether or capital or labour, or even of organising. Again it is such a male world, a working world that has nothing to do with women and children, home and community, words, race, sexuality, cities… so much is left out of this equation.

He has this interesting theory about vibrations though, the way we now share and thus amplify meme after meme, pictures, news, sound-bite beliefs:

But politics is the energetic distribution of bodies in systems, and we live in a system of carbon-fueled capitalism that we shouldn’t expect to work in physical human ways for several reasons, especially when it comes to responding to the threat of global warming. First, our political and social media technologies are not neutral, but have been developed to serve particular interests…Second, the more we pass on or react to social vibrations, the more we strengthen our habits of channeling and the less we practice autonomous reflection or independent critical thought. With every protest chant, retweet, and Facebook post, we become stronger resonators and weaker thinkers. Third, however intense our social vibrations grow, they remain locked within a machinery that offers no political leverage:  they do not translate into political action, because they do not connect to the flows of power. (84-85)

This is so SF, so William Gibson, I don’t think the internet and virtual reality has actually quite worked out like this. But maybe. It’s worth a ponder:

A new form of life has become evident: humanity has revealed itself as collective energy, light swarming across a darkened planet, a geological forcing, data and flow. We live in networks, webs, and hives, jacked in to remote-controlled devices and autonomous apps, moments of being in time, out of time. No longer individual subjects or discrete objects, we jave become vibrations, channelers, tweeters and followers. (107)

As is the idea that there are ‘new technologies of photohumanism’ and what that means.

I confess I like too the call for a renewed humanism — reminds of Edward Said’s defense of it really as a critical consciousness and an awareness of all that has come before us and all that will come after:

Philosophical humanism in its most radical practice is the disciplined interruption of somatic and social flows, the detachment of consciousness from impulse, and the condensation of conceptual truths out of the granular data of experience. It is the study of “dying and being dead,” a divestment from this life in favour of deeper investments in a life beyond ourselves. (91)

I like too that it is something we actively engage in, it is not just an archive:

The study of the humanities is nothing less than the [patient nurturing of the roots and heirloom varietals of human symbolic life. This nurturing is a practice not strictly of curation, as many seem to think today, but of active attention, cultivation, making and remaking. It is not enough for the archive to be stored, mapped, or digitized. (99)

I’m not sure at the end, quite where this leaves those of us who feel more called to life and love than death though.

Père Lachaise Cemetery — Aux Morts de la Commune

Père Lachaise has a completely different feel to other cemeteries I have known, whether in the UK and US, or in Latin America. Cemeteries play so many different roles in cities — too often forgotten is just the sanitary infrastructure, they bury the dead and all of their contagion safely. Paris must have suffered some of the same overflow of bodies, fumes disease as London as its population grew beyond the capacity of local graveyards. They also honour the dead in the name of God, family and country: families remembering those they have lost, cities and nations remembering those who played more public roles. This perhaps is what is most visible here from family to family:

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Père Lachaise Cemetery

But people like us come to Père Lachaise Cemetery because of all who are buried here. Above all for the two of us, for the role this cemetery played as public space, defensible space– the site of the last stand of the Paris Commune. Upon their defeat, 147 people were lined up against this wall and shot, then buried in a trench here:

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Daudenarde -- Commune of Paris 27th May, 1871
Daudenarde — Commune of Paris 27th May, 1871

Like Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetery, London, there is now a cluster here of those who have fought this same struggle. Including Marx’s daughter Laura and her husband Paul Lafargue, and some of the children of his daughter Jenny Longuet.

Père Lachaise Cemetery

On the opposite side, however, there are the much larger monuments to the soldiers who killed them. You learn much about a country from its monuments.

Père Lachaise Cemetery

This is why we came, this wall of the martyrs. No one else came near, they clustered instead around the graves now more famous. This gave space to mourn, but I had to mourn too that their struggle and their deaths are passing from common knowledge and wider honour.

We saw the graves of other famous names too, we bought a map at the entrance and stared in amazement at the names upon names of those we knew. Circled them, tried to find them all.

Many of the wonderful momento Mori we stumbled over by chance — like Etienne Gaspard Robertson, ‘a prominent Belgian physicist, stage magician and influential developer of phantasmagoria’:

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Père Lachaise Cemetery

This sufraggette among them, Hubertine Auclert:

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Some we knew to seek out, like early film-maker and purveyor of wonder, Georges Melies:

Père Lachaise Cemetery

In the vaults — I confess Ukrainian anarchist Nestor Makhno was a surprise:

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Another among them Richard Wright, who lived and died here in Paris.

The biggest surprise – Miguel Ángel Asturias Rosales (1899 – 1974), Guatemalan author who I have long admired, and never ever expected to find here until I stopped bewildered in front of this Mayan stele.

Père Lachaise Cemetery

We sought out Daumier, though, and found him after much effort.

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Gustave Dore we never did find. But here are many others that we did: Pierre Bourdieu, Oscar Wilde, Balzac, Proust, Nadar, Eluard, Gertrude Stein, Max Ernst, Georges Perec, Apollinaire, Michelet, Saint-Simon, Haussman, Abelard and Heloise and so many others that fully deserve to be in this list, but I could not manage to name them all…

Père Lachaise Cemetery

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Breath and Memory in Highgate Cemetery

Several years ago now, I went to a talk at Highgate Cemetery. A niche talk for a very niche (but rather fascinating) audience interested in Victorian grave sculptures. It may also have been just the fact of a talk at a cemetery with wine and all that drew them as it had me. But there was no chance to wander round, and somehow I had never been back. Until our latest wander through North London, along Parkland Walk — of my favourite green spaces in all of London, these two both rate high.

South London though, I’d been to a couple cemeteries in South London, those great new cemeteries springing up along the city’s outer limits to deal with the little church graveyards full to overflowing. Lambeth Cemetery in Tooting Bec, next to St George’s hospital where I had an appointment. After a lonesome visit to West Norwood Cemetery I had rather sworn off them, it was sad and grim and I wondered why I ever thought I liked them.

I realise the answer to that question is trees.

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

Like Arnos Vale in Bristol, Highgate is beautiful, eerie, splendid.

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

Our lives and deaths as part of a natural world so much bigger than we are, part of trees and forests primeval in their swallowing up of our memories and returning us to a natural cycle. Finally, to breath part of a natural cycle here in London. Just to fucking breathe.

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

I like to feel able to embrace that larger reality while fighting like hell to break all of our human cycles of oppression and horror, the second reason this is such a wonderful place.

Highgate Cemetery

Marx’s original grave, before his followers moved him to larger, more monumental grave of infinitely more questionable taste.

Highgate Cemetery

Yet I confess I cried — unexpected and quite embarrassing really. It was not Marx’s grave so much as the cluster of people who have chosen to be buried near him, people who have dedicated their lives to changing the world we live in for the better, and whose actions and words have all impacted my own struggle and thinking. Beginning with Eleanor Marx, who I love immensely and is buried with her father as though she were not worth her own monument. There is also Claudia Jones:

Highgate Cemetery

And so many others, from all around the world:

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

Someone else who had a great impact on me when I was growing up? The incomparable Douglas Adams:

Highgate Cemetery

George Elliot:

Highgate Cemetery

Those who I have come to honour more recently through my partner’s love of film:

Highgate Cemetery

Carl Mayer, the cowriter of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari:

Highgate Cemetery

I confess, too, that I have no small enjoyment from some of the weird, wonderful and strange things to be found in places like this:

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

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A Beginning Infrastructure of Death

930118In thinking about cities and how they work I never considered death in its proper light, and what burial and its infrastructure requires in a crowded metropolis. Having  just finished Necropolis: London and its Dead,  that has certainly changed. Neighbourhoods founded on putrescence, typhoid, bones emerging from the ground along with noxious gases and flying beetles, all of these things were unknown to me and dwelt upon at greater length here.

Daniel Defoe's Monument
Daniel Defoe’s Monument, Bunhill Fields

I enjoyed this book, though it is more an historical presentation of quirks and facts around death and burial that does not much interrogate that history. It relates portions of A Journal of the Plague Year, for example, as essentially the straight transcribing of Henry Foe’s diaries without discussion of claims that it is one of the earliest novels, and just how much of it is fiction flowing from the pen of nephew Daniel Defoe, the actual author, who was five during the events described. There is no exploration of what drove George Walker and Edwin Chadwick to exhaustively catalog burial grounds and campaign against them, or Isabella Holmes to dedicate her life to cataloging them so that they might be converted into public parks. Views on death are presented as essentially monolithic, though changing over time. Nothing is ever monolithic.

So with that caveat, here are a collection of just some of the more interesting facts. There was something about a writer’s skull, I can no longer remember now, in fact numerous stories about skulls, bodies left to science, bodies stolen, bodies mummified on public display. I never knew that during the French Revolution people took an entire month destroying the tombs of the Bourbons and the bodies within them, then continued back through the dynasties. I appreciate that kind of revolutionary commitment to such unpleasant work, clearly all of those kings inspired an immensity of fury among their people. Fascinating on a different level was the business of death, though this is hardly a robust political economy of burials and cemeteries:

In addition to existing burial grounds, new ones were founded as speculative ventures by entrepreneurs, These were either attached to existing churches and chapels, or created on plots purchased by developers. There were fourteen of these by 1835, including Spa Fields, Clerkenwell, which had started life as a tea-rooms but was then converted to the rather more profitable purpose of human burial: New Bunhill Fields, Islington; Victoria Park Cemetery, Bethnal Green at Cambridge Fields (five acres); and Sheen’s New Ground in Whitechapel (two acres) (97).

Architects and planners were quick to take note of Loudon’s suggestion. Joint stock companies devoted to the foundation of new cemeteries sprang into being…Cemeteries had become a form of property development (125)

It is interesting to think of this in relation to the new business of cremation, how hard the possibility of it had to be fought for (aided by Shelley’s untimely death, interestingly enough), how that impacted land use in the city and suburbs. In addition to Walker, Chadwick and Holmes there is another figure to investigate further — Stephen Geary (1797-1854), who over the course of his career designed one of London’s first public houses — The Bell in Pentonville Rd, moved on to design London’s first ‘gin palace’, opened near Aldgate in 1830, and then moved on into cemetery design and formed the London Cemetery Company. He became a teetotaler and I presume slightly less fun all around in his third phase of work, but I love how this can be seen as a progression through alcoholism but also on more metaphysical levels.

To find and read, there is Charles Dickens the ‘City of the Absent’ and the ‘Soul of London’ by Ford Maddox Ford.

Unexpected was the discovery that Victorian mourning dress was actually poisoning people — the veil was ‘Originally made from crape, this oppressive garment frequently afflicted wearers with asthma, catarrh and even cataracts as a result of exposure to the black dyes.’ (208) That seems worth more study as well.

At the end there comes a description of Charlie Brown’s lavish funeral within recent East End memory, owner of the pub the Railway Tavern found at the corner of Garford St in Limehouse. It’s like she doesn’t quite know what to do with this rowdy outpouring of emotion that doesn’t fit into her schematic, like that over the funeral of the Krays (or of Princess Diana). There is story in Morrison’s Tales of Mean Streets that exemplifies the spirit of what funerals meant to the poor of the East End, if not the widespread actions of those who are grieving. But I also couldn’t help remembering Maud Pember Reeves describing the pennies laid by in societies for the burials of family members, her incomprehension of it until investigation proved the decision as sound as any other. These kinds of nuances and outside sources not directly related to the business of dying and Dickens as old standby aren’t much in evidence in here and would have added a good deal I think.

I wanted to note also that I never found Bunhill Fields a gloomy place as she does — somehow that made me question every judgment in here. I find Bunhill Fields quite a wonderful place, unlike say Norwood which I do find overwhelming and creepy. That was the last cemetery I visited and I almost decided once and for all I am no longer fascinated by such places as I once was. But I do love these smaller burial grounds, and all these other cesspools of human remains now made such beautiful and welcome pockets of green filled with flowers, and so I will spend more time tracking down Isabella Holmes, who made that possible.

Bunhill Fields Cemetery

Bunhill Fields Cemetery

William Blake's Monument

John Bunyan's Monument

Bunhill Fields Cemetery

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The Deathly Surprise on Portugal Street

Portugal Street and Clare Market are now partially (or entirely) surrounded by the London School of Economics, inoffensive if not particularly picturesque streets. As noted in my post on The Pickwick Papers, this area is described by Dickens with Pickwick and Sam wandering more or less happily through it when attending upon the business of their court case. As below:

With this direction, and having been furthermore informed that the hostelry in question was situated in a court, happy in the double advantage of being in the vicinity of Clare Market, and closely approximating to the back of New Inn, Mr. Pickwick and Sam descended the rickety staircase in safety, and issued forth in quest of the Magpie and Stump.

Or:

In a lofty room, ill-lighted and worse ventilated, situated in Portugal Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, there sit nearly the whole year round, one, two, three, or four gentlemen in wigs…These gentlemen are the Commissioners of the Insolvent Court, and the place in which they sit, is the Insolvent Court itself.

I knew, of course, that this area had also been a terrible slum, but for the most part cleared and rebuilt by the late 1800s. Emmeline Pankhurst resided for a while in St Clement’s Inn, which she described as ‘a big rambling building’ where she could take refuge in a rooftop garden. Until 1903 the building had been attached to the Inner Temple as accommodations and offices for solicitors. A few years later it had been sold and the first London Women’s Social and Political Union offices were to be found there, within the apartments of socialists and WSPU members Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and her husband. Their offices later moved to 40 Kingsway, near where Portugal street joins it. I have read a great deal about all of this. Reading Catherin Arnold’s Necropolis, however, pointed me in a completely different direction, as though I were reading about another place entirely rather than this same tiny network of streets:

Clement’s Lane.—This is a narrow thoroughfare on the eastern side of Clare Market ; it extends from Clare Market to the Strand [note: this is before the redevelopment of Aldwych and Kingsway — Aldwych is here shown at the bottom of the map, the Strand is just beyond it] and is surrounded by places, from which are continually given off emanations from animal putrescence.

lse2

The back windows of the houses on the east side of the lane look into a burying ground called the ” Green Ground,” in Portugal Street, presently to be described ; on the west side the windows (if open) permit the odour of another burying place —a private one, called Enon Chapel —to perflate the houses ; at the bottom—the south end —of this Lane, is another burying place, belonging to the Alms Houses*, within a few feet of the Strand, and in the centre of the Strand are the burying ground and vaults of St. Clement Danes; in addition to which, there are several slaughter houses in the immediate neighbourhood: so that in a distance of about two hundred yards, in a direct line there are four burying grounds; and the living here breathe on all sides an atmosphere impregnated with the odour of the dead. The inhabitants of this narrow thoroughfare are very unhealthy; nearly every room in every house is occupied by a separate family. Typhus fever in its aggravated form has attacked by far the majority of the residents, and death has made among them the most destructive ravages.

The soil of this ground is saturated, absolutely saturated, with human putrescense. On Saturday the 27th April, 1839, at 5, p.m. I went, accompanied by a friend, to Nos. 30 and 31, Clement’s Lane, and, upon looking through the windows of the back attics, we saw two graves open, close to the south-eastern extremity of this burying ground. Several bones were lying on the surface of the grave nearest to us—a large heap of coffin wood was placed in readiness for removal, and, at a small distance, a heap covered with coarse sacking, was observed, which, when the covering was taken off, proved also to be long pieces of coffin wood, evidently not in a decayed state. The nails were very conspicuous. Several basketfuls of this wood were taken to a building at the south-west extremity of the ground. We were informed that this sight was by no means a novel one ; it was commonly—almost daily, observed.

(*) This place is, I believe, filled with dead; many of the coffins being near the surface.

This is from Gatherings from grave yards; particularly those of London: with a concise history of the modes of interment among different nations, from the earliest periods. And a detail of dangerous and fatal results produced by the unwise and revolting custom of inhuming the dead in the midst of the living. By G.A. Walker, surgeon. 1839.

He quotes a correspondent to The Times (25 June 1839):

Dear Sir,

Passing along Portugal Street on Saturday evening, about ten minutes before seven, I was much shocked at seeing two men employed in carrying baskets of human bones from the corner of the ground next the old watch house (where there was a tarpaulin hung over the rails to prevent their being seen, and where they appeared to be heaped up in a mound), to the back of the ground through a small gate.

There is more on this little area from this interview, found in Report on the sanitary condition of the labouring population of Great Britain. A supplementary report on the results of a special inquiry into the practice of interment in towns. Made at the request of Her Majesty’s principal secretary of state for the Home department by Edwin Chadwick, published 1843:

The man had lived in Bear-yard, near Clare-market, which was exposed to the combined effluvia from a slaughter-house and a tripe factory. He was a bird- fancier, but he found that he could not rear his birds in this place. He had known a bird fresh caught in summer-time die there in a week. He particularly noted as having a fatal influence on the birds, the stench raised by boiling down the fat from the tripe offal. He said, “You may hang the cage out of the garret window in any house round Bear-yard, and if it be a fresh bird, it will be dead in a week.” He had previously lived for a time in the same neighbourhood in a room over a crowded burial-ground in Portugal-street ; at times in the morning he had seen a mist rise from the ground, and the smell was offensive. That place was equally fatal to his birds. He had removed to another dwelling in Vere-street, Clare-market, which is beyond the smells from those particular places, and he was now enabled to keep his birds. In town, however, the ordinary singing birds did not, usually, live more than about 18 months ; in cages in the country, such birds were known to live as long as nine years or more on the same food.
–footnote quoting Vide General Sanitary Report p 103 and note p 106

The ‘Green Ground’ they describe sat at Carey St and Portugal St, alongside a workhouse (handy) until it was occupied and expanded by King’s College Hospital beginning in 1840  (it moved to Camberwell in 1913).  It is now occupied by the LSE library quadrangle — some details are on the London burials site, and a brief history from the LSE point of view (and shorn of most of its earthy disgustingness) can be found here, which states that the bodies were actually moved after 1852 to be reburied in the suburbs. But to return to Clement’s Lane — and the infamous Enon Chapel that once stood here — I return to Walker, who was quite a bit more lurid than his partner Chadwick:

Enon Chapel. —This building is situated about midway on the western side of Clement’s Lane; it is surrounded on all sides by houses, crowded by inhabitants, principally of the poorer class. The upper part of this building was opened for the purposes of public worship about 1823; it is separated from the lower part by a boarded floor: this is used as a burying place, and is crowded at one end, even to the top of the ceiling, with dead. It is entered from the inside of the chapel by a trap door; the rafters supporting the floor are not even covered with the usual defence —lath and plaster. Vast numbers of bodies have been placed here in pits, dug for the purpose, the uppermost of which were covered only by a few inches of earth…Soon after interments were made, a peculiarly long narrow black fly was observed to crawl out of many of the coffins; this insect, a product of the putrefaction of the bodies, was observed on the following season to be succeeded by another, which had the appearance of a common bug with wings. The children attend ing the Sunday School, held in this chapel, in which these insects were to be seen crawling and flying, in vast numbers, during the summer months, called them “body bugs”… (154-155)

There is much more, but do you need much more? For the ending of the story I give you a summary from the most excellent blog from The Order of the Good Death by Carla Valentine, Technical Curator for Barts Pathology Museum:

The new tenants who took over the lease in 1844 knew of the chapel’s history and capitalized on it by appealing to Londoners’ obvious tolerance for the macabre. They placed a layer of brick over the original wooden floor, lay down new wooden floorboards, and opened the space as a ‘low dancing saloon’ for teetotallers, cheerfully advertising “dances on the dead” as well as gambling. An old leaflet stated: “Enon Chapel – Dancing on the Dead – Admission Threepence. No lady or gentleman admitted unless wearing shoes and stockings” The Poor Man’s Guardian, in 1847, described this new venture as a ‘Temperance Hall’ which held plain and fancy dress balls accompanied by an efficient band: “Quadrilles, waltzes, country-dances, gallopades, reels are danced over the masses of mortality in the cellar beneath” [8] The venue was particularly popular for its annual boxing day bash.

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These dances continued until around 1848 when philanthropist, sanitary reformer and surgeon, Mr George Alfred Walker of Drury Lane, bought the chapel which was in the immediate neighborhood of his surgery. In 1839 he’d written, “My reflections upon leaving the masses of corruption here exposed, were painful in the extreme; I want language to express the intense feelings of pity, contempt and abhorrence I experienced. Can it be, thought I, that in the Nineteenth Century, in the very centre of the most magnificent city in the universe, such sad mementoes of ignorance, cupidity, and degraded morality still exist?” [8] At his own expense (£100 – quite a substantial sum for the day) he began having the bodies exhumed and buried properly in a single pit in Norwood Cemetery. (Mr Walker, who had studied at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, was passionate about the abolition of intramural interment and wrote many books on the dangers of disposing the dead among the living.)

The process of exhumation at Enon became a spectacle when the remains were piled up and a “pyramid of human bones was exposed to view” near the premises, visited by 6000 people.

It was at this time, with the human remains finally being removed, that it was calculated over 12,000 bodies had been given eternal ‘rest’ by Mr Howse.

I wish I felt the bravado in dancing over dead was simply that, and not a smelly insect-filled attraction for privileged slummers, all those who preyed on them, and the people who wished to stare at both in macabre surroundings. Or that it were not emblematic of a most desperate poverty and complete failure of local government.

There is more horror (though not the same degree of horror) about the vaults in St Clement Dane Church in the Strand. There is more reporting of testimony on the burial grounds here and stretching west to Drury Lane (the same grounds where Lady Deadlock expired at the gate in Bleak House–at least here the burial grounds were not forgotten and Tom’s All Alone evokes some of the misery of this area’s poverty, but clearly not enough) to be found in this article from The True Tablet, 5th November 1842, like this occurrence — again from Enon Chapel:

There were some men repairing Clement’s-lane ; they asked me to give them a few baskets of rubbish, which I did, and they picked up a human hand, and were looking at it, and there were crowds collected ; it did not appear to have been buried probably a month; it was as perfect as my hand. The sexton, when he found there was likely to be a piece of work, ran out and snatched it away, and blew me up for letting them have it.

I am sure there is a great deal more in multiple places in fact, but not sure I can read any more.

I don’t even know where to begin in processing this. Not least because this stench and smell and presence of bodies and slaughter houses and typhus appears neither in Dickens, who I trust for detail and published The Pickwick Papers in 1836, nor in descriptions of the area from the Booth notebooks — though perhaps I shall look again, make sure of their date (which of course was earliest 1848). The bodies under the Enon Chapel where exhumed and reburied by George Walker himself, who marked their new location in Norwood Cemetery. What about these other burial grounds? Was the smell taken for granted? Was this so much a part of life? Was it too offensive to describe? I can see that Dickens’ light-hearted if critical tones stretching to rank sentimentality would certainly have been dragged down a bit at the first sight of a dismembered corpse or description of death by typhus surrounded by body bugs. Still, Arnold mentions a short story by Dickens that I want to track down, ‘The City of the Absent’. For later.

My cynical self may mock, but my romantic side insists both there should be some feeling about such a terrible place beyond the general soullessness of it today, and that there should be some sign, some memorial — that we should work harder at remembering ‘the good old days’ that weren’t very good after all.

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