Walking with Christopher McCullough on 29 October 2011


Highgate Cemetery

I am walking with friend and former colleague, Christopher McCullough. Chris has chosen Highgate Cemetery, so walking on the Saturday before Halloween is perfect timing. The attractions of Highgate Cemetery are multiple: the Victorian spactacuralisation – or grand theatricalisation – of death; the related gothic funereal architecture (Chris has nearly completed his book on theatre and the gothic); and last, but not least, the grave of Karl Marx.

The only way to visit the West Cemetery is to join a tour. As it’s first come first served I’m pleased that we’re first in the 1.30pm queue. Ushered through the large metal gates, one side of the court yard forms an almost semi-circle of archways, on the walls of which hang small memorial stones. Having paid our dues, we are gathered together by our guide. Though she tells us her name, I am already distracted by the environment and am not listening with enough attention. (Chris thinks it is Dee, and she is clearly Scottish – surely that would be too uncanny?) We are told a little about how to behave (keep up please, feel free to take photos unless you’re told not to), and about the history of Highgate Cemetery.

Highgate is one of seven private cemeteries created in the borough of London in the early nineteenth century. As the urban population grew in response to increasing industrialisation, so too did the numbers of the dead. Burial space became inadequate, leading to unauthorised burials, shallow graves, and overcrowded grave yards. Highgate West opened in 1839, and in 1856 the East wing of the cemetery was opened, adding another 20 acres to that of the existing 17. The Highgate Cemetery was popular amongst the Victorians because it provided a safe place for the interment of loved ones – locked gates and high walls precluded the body snatchers.

Historical context furnished, we ascend the stone steps that lead us into the cemetery – and immediately find ourselves in an iconic film set, lifted straight out of Hammer House of Horror. Crumbling headstones stand higgedly piggedly, as if shifted from below; some look as if they are about to fall over, standing at a very drunken tilt. Greening stone crosses are swallowed up by dense Ivy, old trees cast a blanket of dark, punctured by shafts of sunlight that find their way through the thinning, bronzed vegetation, landing on an Angel’s face; bits of fallen statuary sink into the mud, colonised by grasses.

We stop first beside the grave of the coach driver, James William Selby, who set the record for the fastest ride between London and Bristol (7 hours 50 minutes). His memorial is embellished with a horn and whip, and upturned horse shoes. Another sculpture marks the death of a nineteen year old woman – an ornate tower inside which sits a large empty chair. Our tour guide attempts to take us to the graves of the Rosettis’, and Chris is particularly keen to see where Elizabeth Siddal is buried (mostly because he is imagining Dante Gabriel Rosetti disinterring her in order to retrieve a book of poetry he had buried with her. True or false?) Unfortunately, our guide fails to locate any Rosetti stone, or Siddal’s. (How she could ‘forget’ where they are, when they are undoubtedly the graves most visitors desire to see, bemuses us. For the time being, Lizzie shall remain an enigma and a reason to return another day.) On the way of our goose chase, we pass by the first recent grave of our tour; that of Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy poisoned in London in 2006. A coloured, framed photograph pictures him as very much alive. The flat surface of his grave is covered by a lush ivy blanket.

The way the crumbling, disappearing markers of lives lived long ago rub alongside the fresh testimonies is odd; but it does bring into focus the temporality of all things. These newer markers will, in time, become dust too. The difference in attitudes to death are also profound. The ostentatiousness of the showy Victorian funerals (with this graveyard on a hill providing a perfect raked stage for maximum performance of wealth and permanence in the face of death and disappearance) has given way to modest, and even fragile reminders of presence, their very impermanence seeming to embrace temporariness.

Our tour leads us upwards through the cemetery, to the utterly bizarre Egyptian Avenue – a street lined with 8 vaults on each side. (The architecture of the cemetery mixes up the neo-gothic with the neo-classical, and now adds the faux-Egyptian). Holes in the vaults’ doors are for the easy access of bats. (Yes, the cemetery is meant to be haunted by at least one vampire…) Walking up the incline of the avenue, we reach a circular structure of more vaults, these ones built around an ancient, huge Cedar of Lebanon. Around this circle, another row of vaults – one of which houses Radclyffe Hall. The vault belonged to Radclyffe’s first lover, Mabel Veronica Batten. The epitaph is from Radclyffe’s second lover, Batten’s cousin, Una Troubridge. The guide tells us that Batten’s husband is also interred in the vault. I love the complexity and am pleased to see fresh flowers splash vibrant colour against the black iron doors.

Further steps lead to a more open outlook, filled with an assortment of graves. The one that most takes our guide’s fancy belongs to the ‘menagerist’ George Wombwell – his life celebrated by a life-size lion guarding over him. This makes more sense than the grave of a horse butcher being marked by the statue of a (small) horse…

Our tour comes to its end and we are left to walk through the adjacent East cemetery at our leisure. The feel is startlingly different – the flora is less dense so it is much lighter and the majority of the graves are also more recent. We make a bee line to the huge, impressive bust of Karl Marx’s head. A row of white carnations seems a hopeful gesture. George Eliot’s stone is a heavy grey obelisk. Malcolm McClaren’s is surprisingly modest: a roughly hewn iconic wooden sign marks the spot: MM: MALCOM WAS HERE. If it’s not in bad taste to have a favourite, mine is artist Patrick Caulfield’s, which tells the same story as Malcolm’s, but even more to the point (and extremely stylishly): DEAD.

Thankfully, not yet.

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