Sunday 23 October 2005

The Borders: A Visit to Abney Park Cemetery

I have to queue for 40 minutes to get my train ticket because there is only one lady at the counter. When I finally get there I know what has taken the others so long, she can barely speak any English and can't tell me the way to Abney Park. She just hands me a train map: as a result I take 2 wrong trains but when I do finally get to the right station to catch the train to Abney Park and as I press the Open button the train moves along and off! I am furious – Grrrrrrr - I could crush a grape! Because the next train is not due for another hour. So it looks as if I'll have to wait another year or write to them and ask for the info regarding my documentation of poets buried in the Seven Magnificent Cemeteries. It's a poet's life! 

I visited the Abney Park ‘Myths & Legends Day’, more for kiddies than adults but  thankfully they have a tour led by a member (I think chairman) of the Music Hall Society which I enjoyed. I like the completely bombed-out shell of the chapel and the oft-remembered but little-known names about whom I must find out more.

I also see the tomb of Reverend James Mather, the first internment in the cemetery whose gravestone is erected by the cemetery friends: the first person to translate The Bible into Hindustani. They have a polite and friendly team and a good guide book has been produced. 

Funnily enough on the way my train went past the Celestial Church of Christ with the sign 'Beware of dog' on the door!
Abney Park is the only completely unconsecrated cemetery of the Magnificent Seven. To signify this the Gothic chapel is not built traditionally in the shape of a cross but is equal all the way round. Queen Victoria had asked for all cemetery railings to be painted black after Prince Albert's death. The Abney Park railings were black until 1995 - The entrance is floored with bricks from London Fields. Hackney Council bought the cemetery grounds on 8 January 1979 for £2. They have produced an impressive book which contains a comprehensive history. It is an amazing place and the guide was a brilliant old energetic lady. We saw a scarlet, black and white butterfly. One of the ladies on the tour (married with a child) asked if I was an historian - "Poet" I replied. She said "I think they should make everyone a poet." I wonder what she could possibly have meant.


Here is an excerpt from Jeremy Worman's article about the powerful energies of Abney Park.  I don't know how much of it is true; I'd like to think that some of it is.  He writes:
On a bright day you would not be aware of these forces.  For this is the most verdant of spaces.  The trees make a harlequin's cloak across the acres of the dignified dead. Children, parents, young lovers, move between the sun's shadows.  Dogs, cats, squirrels, mice, wander cheerfully.  Birds flourish.  The winding paths take you into such dense green spaces that you almost believe that London no longer exists.       
         In a rainy autumn there is often the strange sense of being touched, by hanging branches, bushes, leaves, spider's webs, slugs' slime.  In once had the fear that if I stayed too long I should be encased in ivy.  Tender lover defies oblivion.
The reality of perished flesh under one is chilling.  The writer goes on to mention the sapling with printed note (of which there are numerous photos on Flickr) that says 'Please stop stealing my flowers.  You are upsetting me very much.  I am David & Tom's mum, Margaret.  Thank You.'  The brothers both died in their twenties in 1993 and 2002.  Abney Park is a place of contrasts: lover's trysts abound: 
Recently I came across lurid pink handwriting scrawled over an old stone headstone: 'Here lies Popadom, may she rest in peace.'        
      There is always the hint that chaos may break through.  This anxiety is at its strongest in autumn or winter, especially after twilight.  In certain spots nature itself seems to have become unnaturally fecund: ivy hugs the curves of graves, tombs and benches like forbidden lovers.            
         Once, a glue sniffer, a large man with a skinhead haircut, his face stiff and his lips dribbling, jumped out of the bushes in front of me.  Another time I passed on quickly as two people copulated noisily behind some trees.
Concerning the imposing chapel, he writes:
The presence of this building haunts the cemetery and to stand close to it, even on a sunny day, is to feel depressed.  So much effort came to this.  Through the locked steel fence I can see dogshit, old clothes, rubble.     
         God has abandoned this building.  There used to be occult symbols - a pentagram, an ankh, an upside-down image of Christ on the Cross painted on to the church.  
On a bench outside the chapel was the inscription: 'Do what Thou Wilt is the Whole of the Law,' a quote from Alister Crowley, the most evil of magicians.
       In the eighties there were articles in the local press about Satanists and witches holding ceremonies here (I gather there is still a group of black magicians practicing their craft in the locality).  These inscriptions have now been removed, yet to stand here at night is to sense a force that is frightening. 
                      (Jeremy Worman.  'Abney Park N16'.  Pen Pusher, November 2008).