Friday, 29 June 2012

The stairway to heaven

My day started at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park in the East End. We have been shooting sequences for the ten films which are being made about The London Requiem. Each movement of the work has its own film, all of which will be displayed on The Space (www.thespace.org)

Our first interview was with a charming old lady called Doreen, who talked to us a little about Victorian gravestone symbolism, which is a genuinely fascinating subject matter. Death in Victorian times was something of an industry, which I'm convinced is largely due to the fact that Victorians could control almost anything; steam, water, electricity and diseases, but they couldn't stop people from dying. Perhaps as a result, the mystery of death fascinated them. It became grand and ritualised. As people grew wealthier and more class-obsessed, so they showed off with ostentatious tomb stones, mausoleums and monuments. Hidden symbols gave clues to the occupation of the grave's occupant, how he'd died, where he'd lived, whether his wife had gone first and even his secret religious leanings. There was a symbol for everything.

After bidding a fond farewell to Doreen, we interviewed one of the maintenance officers at the Cemetery Park, who talked with fabulous enthusiasm about how important the space had become as a nature reserve.

From Tower Hamlets, we went to Bethnal Green to interview people about the Stairway to Heaven campaign, which aims to finally build a monument to the 180-odd people who died in the wartime stampede and crush at that station. One of the women we spoke to had lost a cousin and a grandmother in the tragedy. The details are horrific. Many of the most seriously disfigured bodies belonged to women, who had died in strange contortions in a vain attempt to protect the children who were crushed underneath them.

We stood and looked down the staircase where it happened; just 19 steps. It's almost inconceivable that so many people died there; but in a crush of this nature, which happened in the dark, as people fall, they stick their hands out, which means everyone becomes horribly intertwined. It's almost impossible therefore to pull people out, and the result is slow suffocation. The woman we spoke to said that her grandmother was heard to scream "they're treading on me, they're killing me" before she died. It took the family hours to identify her body in the morgue. In those last traumatic moments, her hair had turned from jet black to snow white. Almost inconceivable.

After lunch we returned to the cemetery and I did a series of pieces to camera about my requiem, perched on gravestones, basking in the sunshine, surrounded by wild flowers. Believe me, it doesn't get much better than that.

From Tower Hamlets to Westminster Bridge. Each of the films is being presented by a different member of the choir and today was the turn of Anthony, one of our tenors. We walked in tiny circles on the bridge, trying to avoid the hell of waving tourists, a low, bright sun, horrid high winds and pretty much every piece of rubbish the location wanted to chuck at us!

It's now 8.30pm, and this workaholic has returned to Highgate cemetery in the hope that it might yield a few decent bird noises, or something, which I might use as atmospheric sound for the recording.

I think I need to knock things on the head and go home for a nice bit of food and put my feet up however. I have a seemingly unending week. I must try to recharge the batteries!

Pepys did his accounts for the end of June on this date 350 years ago and discovered himself worth 650l, the largest amount he'd ever possessed. To celebrate, he took his wife to church, and gloried in her new "green petticoat of flowered satin with fine white and gimp lace of her own putting on."

He met up with Sir William Penn in the evening, who was being suspiciously nice. Pepys was unimpressed, and assumed the rogue was up to no good; "I shall never be deceived again by him again, but do hate him and his traitorous tricks with all my heart." 17th Century dissing was an art form!

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