Sunday, 17 April 2016

A sidelong glance at death

To begin with, here is a picture quiz: where in England did I take this bucolic photograph of pretty little terraced cottages overlooking a village green and pond (sadly no ducks when I visited)?

Answer, in the traditional fashion, at the foot of the page.* But not before I've taken you on a journey there via Cornwall, Ireland and Cyprus with a chill shiver of mortality and, of course, a sidelong glance at some textiles on the way.

Madron Well, Cornwall

I have written before about my love of Greek shrines, but perhaps not of my somewhat morbid preoccupation with death. Whether this is a result of my upbringing or of the universal middle-age rites of passage involving parents and peers, I don't know. But I have chosen to wrap the bones of mortality in ribbons and amulets. And thus I have sought out and photographed sacred wells, prayer trees and places of pilgrimage - Christian, "ethnic" and "pagan" - on which to hang my neuroses alongside the "clouties", written prayers, fertility symbols, New Age dream-catchers, strips of plastic carrier bag, shoelaces and hankies.

Prayer tree, Paphos, Cyprus

Holy Well, Castlehaven, Co Cork

And inevitably this has fed into my work (although in tangible form only at the sketchbook stage. And, yes, here's my love of clouds creeping in again).

I've visited these sometimes ancient sites with a mixture of cynicism and respect, adding my scraps of torn fabrics, ribbons or wild flowers not because I expect my prayer to ascend to heaven courtesy of a special backstage pass, but to honour the history, myths, traditions and true faith that they represent.

Cross Bones cemetery, Borough

So it was, finding myself with an unscheduled 40 minutes before I started work and a real sense of excitement, that I chanced across an example of - and here I struggle for the right words - tributes to the dead outside the stiff-upper-lip British mainstream, much closer to home. Or more accurately, much closer to the office, fewer than five minutes by foot from London Bridge and The Shard.

Here the ribbons, beads and textile scraps are for the likes of "An infant, name unknown, 1789", "Henry Williams, chimney sweeper", and "Margaret Burton, aged 39 years, 1840".

These are the until-now forgotten whores, their babies, the nameless and the poverty-stricken, sharing what was once a medieval unconsecrated pauper's burial ground but now the occupants of a prime site of real estate, their resting place saved from the developers and their disturbed bones treated with dignity by a determined community campaign to turn the mass grave into a garden of quiet remembrance. A bronze plaque has the epitaph "RIP the Outcast Dead".

The story of Cross Bones cemetery in Redcross Way, Borough, is a fascinating one: find out more here.

A few days ago I caught an interview on television with an eminent but ageing author whose name I never caught, and scribbled down his comment that "the opposite of death is making". I like that.

* And now to answer the question of the strange little houses at the head of this post: It is a small "secret garden" that had recently featured in the London Evening Standard and which I had set out to find before I stumbled across the graveyard on the same street. Red Cross Garden and its buildings were originally laid out by Octavia Hill in 1887 for the benefit of the poor and has recently been restored under community management.

No comments:

Post a Comment