Friday 5 December 2008

The Borders: Nunhead Cemetery Open Day, Canterbury, Betjeman Birthday Party & Poetry International

There’s a creeping new orthodoxy in Modern Society that’s sometimes called Positive Thinking. At its worst, this habit of optimism allows us to bury our heads in the sand, deny the ubiquity of pain in ourselves and others, and to immure ourselves in a state of heartlessness to ensure our emotional survival. The Buddha would have little time for this.
  Karen Armstrong. Buddha. (2000).
I recently visited Holy Trinity, Sloane Square: a splendid and fascinating church about which Betjeman had written extensively and campaigned for.  There is a sculpture of the Trinitarian Madonna here.  Not sure if this is still the headquarters of a charity for penniless artists.  Most likely not since all such institutions saw their end under the recent Labour government in the space of a decade.

I attended the Nunhead Cemetery Open Day. I have been to Nunhead before but never to the Open Day. It was quite an experience. It was a rainy day although thankfully the rain was not too heavy. I took my brother’s giant black brolly just in case; I like to carry it around because I can also treat it as a sort of walking stick. I bought a carrot cake (as I always do) and I think a sandwich to eat later. There were all sorts of wonderful stalls. I bought a catalogue of the catacomb burials – Nunhead probably has the smallest catacombs of the Magnificent Seven, the size, literally, of a large room. There are not that many burials there under the chapel. On the left, as one enters, are the tools of death: carts, chisels, tombstones etc. Photography is allowed and it does feel a bit uneasy when there are constant flashes going off before and behind one. Before the Society of Friends was formed the catacombs had been severely vandalized and the floor was littered with human remains and coffin timber so a lot of coffins have just been put back in place as best they could be. When the Necropolis Company took charge to clear and preserve what remained of the crypt, only 4 coffins were left intact. In a corner 32 sacks of water-damaged and leather-bound burial registers were found. I joined the Society of Friends. Their tours and books are fascinating. The view across London from Nunhead Hill is really something magnificent and unique, St. Paul's still reigns supreme but:
St. Paul's is now by giant monsters dwarfed
The Dunces find themselves Canary Wharfed
Onerously zizzy, busy, bold, and blind
Crowning the scene once and now hard to find

In Canterbury I saw the King’s Gallery, subsidence has led to the front of the building leaning over at an incredible angle - It is known to the locals as the Crooked Door Shop.

The Choristers were practicing in the cathedral and most of it was closed off to the public so I decided in favour of my favourite fish and chips for lunch instead which I ate in the garden of the grand entrance to the King’s School. There are 2 statues here of King Æthelbert and his queen St Bertha.
Æthelbert, king of Kent is listed by Bede as the third most dominant ruler of his time of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (of the late 500s). He succeeded his father Eormenic as king of Kent in about 560. He was the first English king to issue a law code. Kent enjoyed healthy trade with France giving Æthelbert access to luxuries leading to marriage with the Frankish princess Bertha who played a vital role in the king’s conversion to Christianity becoming the first Anglo-Saxon monarch to be baptized. The ceremony was performed by St Augustine whose papal mission from Rome he had sanctioned. Æthelbert liked doing things the Roman way and saw himself as a bit of a Roman emperor. He was influential enough to preach to Essex and east Anglia - He lost part of that influence when he took a Pagan princess as a second wife. His reign established a powerful link between church and state. I thought his statue looked a bit like Stalin.

St Bertha, queen of Kent (565 –612) reigned queen from 580.  She was the daughter of the Parisian king Charibert.  As a Christian she had her own chapel at St Martin’s, Canterbury and Liurdhard, her very own French bishop. 

Augustine’s mission landed on Thanet off the Kentish coast on 26 May 597 with Queen Bertha’s convoy.  From then on Canterbury became the center of the Christian church in England.[1]  I made my way to the nearby St Augustine’s Abbey.  The abbey is one of those Great Good Places one could spend one’s lifetime in and be happy. There is a museum and in the abbey and lots of tombs dotted all over the place.  There are timeless trees and there are tree-enclosed steps leading to the present.  In the museum there is a painting of the excavation of John Dygon’s tomb in 1901 who became abbot in 1496 (died 10 May 1510) from whose grave various goods were recovered.


There are the remains of a Roman window and ruined cloisters where there once would have been a splendorous chapel.  There are ruined pillars from a Norman Monk’s Choir.  There is the tomb of Theodore of Tarsus the seventh archbishop of Canterbury. There is the very simple and humble grave of St Augustine the first archbishop.  He is also known as Augustine-the-Less to distinguish him from his illustrious namesake Augustine of Hippo.  He was chosen by Pope Gregory the Great to be sent to England from Rome to preach.  Within a year he had converted thousands by first converting the king.

The foundations of the cathedral were laid in 601 on the site of an older Roman church and consecrated by Vergilius the Archbishop of Arles.  He laid the foundations of the monastery of St Peter & Paul (the church was itself closed today).  He died on 26 May 604 or 609 (according to some sources).

The chapel of St Thomas the Apostle is by the south side of the crypt which is also an amazing time-defying place in itself.  A cupboard recess, a corbel bracket that once would have displayed a statue and floor tiles from the thirteenth century still survive.

In the crypt there was a very strange and deathly-looking spider with red legs, and a distinct curious smell of rotting hides.[2]  

Finally there are the tombs of 4 Saxon kings – Eadbald (who built the oratory), Lothair, Mulus and Withred with their wives, children and a long list of grandchildren. 

At the annual Betjeman Birthday Party at St John’s,Waterloo, a series of his poems with excerpts from his writings and letters were recited.  I met Bevis once again who, as always, was delightful company.  He had composed a poem for the occasion which he gave me a copy of.  I met some of the other Betjeman Society members too.  John Heald asked me if I was the one who had written a book about Betjeman and that he wanted to read it.  

And so to the Royal Festival Hall – That grand place of happenings.  Up to the Poetry Library for the 2008 Poetry International.  I picked up 2 salmon and egg sandwiches at Waterloo and return some books to the Poetry Library.

[1] Narrated Zainab bint Jahsh: The Prophet once woke up and came to me in a state of fear with a flushed face and said 'Glorified be Allah: What great treasures have been sent down, and what great afflictions have been sent down! There is no God but Allah. Woe unto the Arabs from a great danger that has approached.  An opening has been bored into the dam of Gog and Magog like this' making a circle with his thumb and fingers (Sufyan and Wuhayb the sub-narrator illustrated this by forming the number 90 or 100 with his fingers). Zainab bint Jahsh said 'I said 'O Allah's Apostle! Shall we be destroyed even though there are pious persons among us?' He said 'Yes, when the evil increases.'

                       (Muhammad bin Ismael al-Bukhari.  Sahih Bukhari).
[2] The Woodlouse Spider (Dysdera Crocata).  A common spider from the southern regions of England and Scotland.  Its 
     diet consists mainly of woodlice.  As such it is one of the few spiders with fangs strong enough to pierce through the 
     hard outer shell of woodlice.