29th July, 2016
We had visited Highgate Cemetery years ago when my daughter was a developing embryo in my womb but only viewed the east side, where the huge head of Karl Marx, philosopher, economist and revolutionary socialist, with its sculpted wavy curls and chunky beard rests without a neck on a square plinth that is dedicated to the great thinker.
The sculptor said he wanted to evoke ‘the dynamic force of his intellect‘ and his sense of energy and dedication to his purpose. And you do get the feeling from the sculpture that he was a considerable man. But we had never visited the locked up west side, across the road, the older, more derelict, more dreamy of the two sites. You have to take a seventy-minute tour to gain access to the enchantment.
We decided to uber from Notting Hill to the North of London, taking turns in the taxi to sit in the front, to catch the view. It’s leafy and green all way. We passed white Georgian terraces, circles and crescents, and the arts and crafts houses of soft orange brick, leadlight windows and dark stained shingle roofing and walls. We wound round Regent’s Park and Primrose Hill, went over Camden Lock and saw the canal boats floating on grey water, and then we were in one of our old haunts, passing the street in Kentish Town that ran down to Bartholomew Road where we lived, over twenty years ago in a top storey flat in the middle of a plane tree canopy and above the train line to St Pancras Station. I grew to love the swaying sound of the trains pulling in. It was in that flat, the home of a lesbian writer, who needed an income to write a book, and so let the one bedroom to us, while she stayed with her lover and wrote. I gave birth there, at home, with the French obstetrician and guru of the natural childbirth, movement Michel Odent in attendance. It wasn’t an easy labour, lasting hours and hours and I felt unsafe. When I screamed, ‘I’m dying, please help me,’ the guru, put his finger to his mouth and said ‘shh.’ I also attended Janet Balaskas active birth classes in Hampstead. We both went to her yoga classes and learned how to stretch and breathe through labour, none of which was any use when the wild shrieking took hold. Further on we passed Estelle Road in Hampstead, where my godmother, a biophysicist at University College London lived and who, with her brilliant German intimate and research partner, was our family away from home, each time we lived there.
We waited for our guide in the restored Church of England chapel by the side of a magnificent forecourt where once carriages and carts would have rattled in, over the cobblestones bringing bodies and mourners to the graveyard. Above this forecourt there is a perfect colonnade of cream arches built into the hill and beyond you can see a lone spirit of an angel levitating amongst the brilliant beech canopy.
I need to express my frustration with my limited technology. You must never try to photograph the beauty of a vast and historic 19th century forgotten graveyard sited in a forest of English trees on a hill overlooking London, with an iphone. My photos couldn’t capture the magic of what my own superior eye could see. I thought because the sky was overcast that the light conditions would be ideal but the camera struggled to make sense of the contradicting light effects, the striping of stone, tree and daylight. I began to feel annoyed by the men, with their flash cameras and long lenses and the sound of their shutters clicking rapidly, and also with their agile movements as they leapt about, paying very little attention to the fascinating commentary, crouching on their haunches, angling the camera sideways, like fashion photographers, to get their close ups.
My other problem is storage. I have too many photos in my camera roll and not enough GB to store them, so just at the wrong moment, the camera refused to capture my angel and I had to hurriedly and recklessly delete some videos and photos that not so long ago seemed very precious, just to free up space. I can see this is going to become more of a problem as the trip continues. I will talk to my son-in-law. He knows about these things and is good at solving problems by reading up on google.
The guide apologised for the rampant growth. Although there are teams of volunteer gardeners intent on controlling the ivy that flies unrestrained over the grave stones, plinths and sculptures, up the trees and along the branches, over stone arches, brilliant ribbons of dark green, the scale of the job is overwhelming. But why would you want to put a break on wild nature in this beguiling home of the historic dead. When the cemetery was opened in 1839 it had a pretty garden with more light and air and expansive views over the city — in a Victorian print a woman in a crinoline and bonnet, and a man in a top hat, with his cane on a dandy angle, amble down a sweeping path. At their side a gardener is clipping a flowering shrub, controlling nature — but over time the sycamores and ash trees have self-seeded and formed dense impenetrable thickets, their tangled tree roots uplifting the graves making sculptures and headstones lean and tilt. The intention of the conservationists and gardeners is to maintain a balance between a wilderness where birds and butterflies, insects and bats and a population of hedgehogs, and foxes can coexist alongside a park that people can visit without tripping over ivy, or stumbling on tree roots, and enjoy. So now they are culling some of the problem trees and replanting with natives. Their natives are hawthorn and Ash.
My husband didn’t like the elder guide and her soft delivery but initially I enjoyed her quiet passion and slow style. Her commentary gave me time to absorb the information. I liked learning about the symbolism of the monuments: the sheered off column representing a life cut short and the wreaths circling columns, angels, grave stones suggesting the possibility of life continuing after death. This concept helped the Victorians deal with the wide scale losses and early deaths of infants, to scarlet fever and other ills in the 19th century. It helped with adults dying young from typhoid, mothers dying in childbirth, fathers and husbands through accidents at work in the new factories and railways. Many people were killed on the streets, run over by horses and carts and carriages. Awful deaths. There was a famous menagerist, George Wombwell (1770-1850), upon whose grave lay a large, slightly friendly, but mostly rather scary sleeping lion, one paw draped over the lid to ensure the occupant would never get out. Mr Wombwell owned a travelling circus and one night his tigress escaped and ate a family in the nearby village. So the thought of being reunited with lost family was a hugely powerful incentive to help people carry on through difficult lives. I understand that. Through my childhood right up to university I held onto the idea that, in death, my mother and me would be together again with my father and brother in heaven, both of whom died before I turned two. Intellectually I understand that can can’t ever happen, now, and sometimes the knowledge of missing out on ever getting to know them fills me with a feeling of emptiness.
The guide was wonderfully informative but sometimes too much so. When she mentioned the Rossetti Family, I thought with a lurch, that we were going to see the graves of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel and his author brother William. And that we might also see the grave of poor, pale Lizzie Siddal who was immortalised in the Pre-Raphaelite painting Ophelia by Millais — posing in her gown in a bathtub of water, for this great art work, did not help her delicate health — and disinterred when Dante decided he wanted the book of poetry, his only copy that he had added to her coffin, in a moment of crazed grief, back again. I wanted to see the grave of their bright sister Christina Rossetti too because when my children were small I would recite her poems to them, as my method for easing them into sleep, but the guide said the gravestones were deteriorating and that they were deep in the forest and access through the ivy impossible.
The imagery in a graveyard is like a code that can be deciphered for further meaning and enjoyment. The guide told about us more about the symbolism: the little lamb of God, the Christ child, ‘agnus dei’, and doves of peace, a snake biting its tail to symbolise eternity, an hour glass for the passage of time and poppies for eternal sleep, passionflowers to signify Christ’s passion and the clinging ivy for immortality and fidelity. I saw clasped hands with the words ‘till we meet again’ inscribed underneath the names of the dead and was reminded of our own family gravestone, in the grounds of St Pauls church in Papanui, Christchurch, in memory of a Danish great grandfather and Scottish great grandmother. My great-grandmother, Margaret, died at the age of 32 and although my dear great-grandfather married again, at his died he was returned to Margaret, the great love of his life.
The guide had her pet enthusiasms. She asked the group, towards the end of the tour, when people were beginning to tire, had anyone heard of a certain 19th century horse racer, I can’t remember his name. ‘No,’ was the answer, all eyes directed on the ground so as not to encourage her but she proceeded to tell a long and very boring story that sent the photographers off in all directions, myself included. Mind you nobody strayed too far. At the beginning of the tour she had cautioned us about walking off the path and lingering by telling a story about four annoying people getting lost in pouring rain for a very long time and sending all the guides hunting for hours.
But I was glad of her interest in Radclyffe Hall, the lesbian author whose autobiographical novel Well of Loneliness (1928) had been banned as obscene at the time of publication because of its positive account of a lesbian love affair. The guide said the book wasn’t read much, even after the ban was lifted in 1958, not really until feminist scholars reclaimed the writer. This struck me as interesting because I remember studying the novel in the late 1970s at Canterbury University as part of a paper on the origins of the English novel although I also remember the male lecturers presenting it as an anomaly and rather amusing, when actually because it was autobiographical it read very well and felt authentic. The guide seemed surprised when I told her. It’s just a small, stone plaque sited in the doorway of her tomb, in an area known as the ‘Circle of Lebanon’ at the end of the Egyptian Avenue. These architectural features from the Middle East were added at the time of the Victorian enthusiasm for the Orient when English collectors were stealing treasures and bringing them back to London to exhibit at the British Museum.
The inscription on Radclyffe Hall’s plaque is a quotation from Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and is lovely in it simplicity.
And if God choose, I shall but love thee better after Death.
I asked the guide about the big bunch of orange and apricot roses arranged loosely in a glass jar and she said, most likely, they’d been placed there by lesbian admirers of the novelist. Apparently these arrangements of fresh flowers appear regularly by the graves of significant people.
Oh but it is the angels of the graveyard that bewitch and enchant. They’re present at every fork in the forest, floating on plinths above the graves, hands clasped, eyes looking upwards watching the souls of the dead flying to heaven. Sometimes they look down sorrowfully on the dead below holding a torch upside down to indicate life extinguished while the flame symbolises the idea of the soul living on. There are angels with arms outstretched to welcome the dead, and angels with their heads hung in sorrow. There are angels of consolation, angels of piety with a demure and lovely mien and then sometimes there is a surprising creature more lifelike and sensual than any of the others.
I have always liked the idea of having an angel on my gravestone and periodically I mention my wish to the family. Today I found the angel I would like. She was lying sleeping on her side on a puffy counterpane of stone. Her large and heavy and beautiful and bony wings were folded, slightly awkwardly behind her. One leg was bent at the knee, in the posture my mother taught me for sleeping when I was pregnant. A small pillow was wedged into my side to support the big bump that was my baby, behind the skin of my stretched tummy. I still sleep this way, taking the thin pillow with me on my travels to ease back pain. Her draperies clung to her body, like a rayon jersey Madeleine Vionnet gown, emphasizing her slender shape. She slept with her arms folded at the elbow in a remarkably realistic rendition of how human beings actually sleep. She looked as though she’d been sleeping soundly in heaven and the sculptor had gently tugged her down to sleep on his beautifully comfy bed.