Thursday, 18 August 2011

The buidings look just like mountains

I’ve been in the south east corner of London all day today. I went there to visit two graveyards; one in Woolwich, and one in Bexley Heath. The Woolwich cemetery was a sort of double-graveyard, and it had a really heavy, dark atmosphere, which I didn't like at all. The first part was almost an empty field with a very steep gradient and nasty scrubby grass. There was something very wrong with it. The few graves that were still standing were scattered around, with enormous spaces of grass between them. Many of the others were lined up in rows against the cemetery walls. It was as though they’d all been swept aside with a giant brush - the graveyard equivalent of slum clearance - or lifted from another graveyard and simply dumped on the site. The place felt ill at ease. There was a violence there, like the bones had been separated or ripped apart, like nothing was resting in peace. It was a very unsettling experience.

The more official area of the graveyard was, in total contrast, overcrowded. It looked more like a Jewish cemetery, with rows and rows of graves crammed into neat lines. The wind was howling through the place, and everything seemed incredibly bleak. At one stage, I almost jumped out of my skin, when I heard the words “I love you very much” coming from a whispered voice which seemed to be directly behind me. I looked around to see a woman, probably 50 metres away, standing, talking to a loved one. I found it very moving, not just to see her there, talking to the gravestone, but to think that the wind should have chosen to carry that particular phrase to me.
I’m constantly astonished by how much segregation there is in this world – even in death. Every cemetery I’ve visited has got individual sections for Muslims, Catholics, Greek Orthodox... Even within these divisions are further divisions. Today, for example, I spent a great deal of time wandering through an area of Turkish graves, before heading into a section within the Christian zone where the majority of inmates were black. From my perspective, it would be wonderful to think it would be possible for a Muslim to be able to tend a grave next to a Christian, so that both could see that grief is grief and death is death, regardless of religion or colour. As my Grannie would say in her faintly racist way; "they've all got blood." Except, of course, the born again Christians, who don't have blood, they have fart bubbling through their veins.

The second graveyard was a great deal more beautiful; situated on a hillside in Bexleyheath, which would appear to be a particularly green suburb of the capital. It's one of those lovely spots where bits of the greenbelt begin to creep into the urban landscape. The first gravestone I saw there belonged to Damilola Taylor, the little boy who was stabbed to death by other children in an estate, I think, in Peckham. The wording on his gravestone was very moving; “I will travel far and wide to chose my destiny and remould the world. I know it is my destiny to defend the world, which I hope to achieve during my lifetime.” (Damilola 2000) I assume it’s something he wrote one day at school. Sadly, it seems that in death he could well have achieved his goals.  

There was a rather nasty, beady bloke driving around the cemetery, who'd obviously decided I shouldn’t be there. He drove past, unwound his window and said; “can I help you at all?” I was tempted to use the line I use in all shops and say; “no thanks, I’m just looking...” but ended up saying; “no, no... I’m just searching for inspiration.” It felt better than telling him I was writing a Requiem, which could well have opened up a massive can of worms. I decided if he asked me to elaborate that I'd lie and say I was looking for a good poem to use on a relative’s gravestone. I didn't need to. He sort of nodded, and went away. He returned a few minutes later; “this is a cemetery" he said, rather obviously "and I wouldn't want any of our relatives to be upset.” The place was empty. I couldn't think of anything to say, so just smiled. I was hardly dancing on the gravestones. He vanished again, and immediately returned to say; “and you’re not really meant to take photos.” Not really meant to? Surely it's either allowed or it's not? Perhaps I was meant to reach for my wallet? I'm sure he's taken plenty of pictures to show to people who are prepared to pay wildly inflated sums of money to be buried in his cemetery. And by his cemetery, I mean the council's cemetery. I nevertheless put the camera in my bag, and started walking towards the exit. I really didn't want to be thrown out of the place.

I went to Lesnes Abbey instead, which sits on the other side of the beautiful wooded hill behind the graveyard. I’d wanted to visit the place ever since Philippa recommended it to me. It’s essentially a ruined abbey, which overlooks the grey concrete buildings of Thamesmead. The 1960s concrete towers poke up behind the 13th Century abbey walls and create the mother of all juxtapositions. The trees around the abbey are full of strange birds like parakeets and jays. Flashes of greens and yellows everywhere I looked...

Lesnes and Thamesmead

I couldn’t resist a trip to Thamesmead. It’s probably the most extreme example of 1960s brutality in London, and as such has become the setting for a series of dark, brutal films and TV shows. Clockwork Orange, Beautiful Thing, Misfits... I'd never been before, and because of the aforementioned films, I fully expected to be blown away by its eccentric, symmetrical, quirky concrete beauty. Actually the place  just seemed a little tawdry. Based around a lake, it felt like a shittier version of York University - and the water smelt horrific; like rotten eggs and plastercine. I can't imagine living there.


I returned home to the official news that my pitch had been unsuccessful, which is a shame, but, as I say, you win some, you lose some. It's someone else’s gig to get excited about. They did give me the opportunity to have another bash, but frankly there wasn’t enough of a sense from producers of what they wanted from the music, so I ran a mile instead.
18th August 1661 was a Sunday, and Pepys, went to St Olave's church, before taking lunch at the Wardrobe with Lady Sandwich, where he discovered the family's young heir, who had been gravely ill, faring a little better. He was up and walking around. General Monck, however, was still poorly... Did I mention that he was ill, with plague-like symptoms? Pepys went for a walk in St James’ Park, where he too, saw loads of strange birds floating and flying around. Bet he didn't see a parakeet!

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