(Published in Pen Pusher, November 2008)
If you enter the cemetery from Church Street through the renovated entrance gates you find the perfectly-maintained monument to Charles Booth (1829-1912), social reformer and founder of the Salvation Army. His Christian soldiers are a good lot. Yet his sarcophagus no longer represents what this place is about. There are more powerful energies at work.
On a fine day you would not be aware of these forces. For this is the brightest of spaces. The trees make a harlequin’s cloak across the acres of the dignified dead. Children, parents, young lovers, frolic between the shadows. Dogs, cats, squirrels, mice, wander cheerfully. Birds flourish. The winding paths takes you into such dense green spaces that you almost believe London no longer exists.
In a rainy autumn there is often the strange sense of being touched, by hanging branches, bushes, leaves, spiders’ webs, slugs’ slime. I once had the fear that if I stayed still too long I should be encased in ivy. On that occasion I was restored by the sight of a tomb to the Bostock family on which sat a finely carved lion. The inscription reads: ‘In that happy Easter morning / All the graves the dead restore / Father, sister, and mother meet once more.’ Tender love defies oblivion.
There is variety in the expressions of death. I notice on one headstone a well preserved photograph of a dark haired, handsome woman. I fantasize that she is about to set out, on a Friday in late-Fifties London, a Du Maurier between her fingers and fragrant from her weekend scent, for an evening of ballroom dancing. The reality of her perished flesh beneath the earth chills me. On a connecting path there is a small black marble memorial to two brothers, who both died in their twenties, in 1993 and 2002 respectively. Behind this is a sapling, to which a printed note is attached: ‘Please stop stealing my flowers. You are upsetting me very much. I am David and Tom’s mum, Margaret. Thank you.’
Although this place encourages reflection, one is also struck by a bravado: in the face of death the Victorians developed the elegance and drama of mortality. The main entrance on Stoke Newington High Street has Egyptian-style gates, and the entrance drive is wide. After this there are a series of tall pillars, some with angels, others depicting a broken column. All of them are three times taller than the average man. Was this cultural tendency for excess due to a confidence in the after life or a terror that there may be nothing there? Whatever the reasons, Abney Park gives us a glimpse into the Victorian sense of spectacle.
Like that age, this place is one of extreme contrasts. Behind the grand thoroughfares are secret areas where graves cluster together like snug hamlets. Such places are perfect for a quiet picnic or a lovers’ tryst. Generally, there is a feeling of peace amongst the dead. As you read the names on the graves, ‘Maeve Bowles’, ‘Lucy Turton’, ‘Charles Ryder’, you feel part of a restful community. However, a sense of disharmony is never far away. Recently I came across lurid pink handwriting scrawled over an old stone headstone: ‘Here lies Popadom, May she rest in peace.’
Abney Park was a non-denominational cemetery laid out in the 1840s by a private company. In 1972 the owners were declared bankrupt, although unauthorized burials continued for a few more years. Hackney Council now has responsibility for the site. In 1974 the Save Abney Park Cemetery group was set up, and the volunteers of today originate from that beginning.
There are many dignitaries buried, or memorialised, here. For example, Isaac Watts (1674- 1748), poet, writer of hymns, headteacher, who was educated at the prestigious Non-conformist Stoke Newington Academy, is honoured by a huge statue, which was paid for by public subscription in 1845. A War Memorial gains in dignity through its understatement.
There is always the hint that chaos may break through. This anxiety is at its strongest in autumn or winter, especially after twilight. In certain spots nature seems to have become unnaturally fecund: ivy hugs the curves of graves, tombs and benches like a forbidden lover. The moss is thick along the paths where weeds, fungi and graffiti struggle for dominance.
Once, a glue sniffer, a large young man with a skinhead haircut, his face stiff and his lips dribbling, jumped out of the bushes in front of me. Another time I passed on quickly as two people copulated noisily behind some trees.
In the middle of Abney Park is a chapel designed in the 1840s by the architect William Hosking, which combines elements of Gothic architecture with an overall geometric shape that is severe in its classicism. It is ruined now, closed to the public, and its roof is open to the elements. The presence of this building haunts the cemetery and to stand close to it, even on a sunny day, is to feel depressed. The ornate plasterwork of the tall Gothic windows is crumbling. Higher up, the four round, mandala-shaped windows have no glass in them although they would once have been a central aesthetic feature of the chapel. The spire, tall for such a small building, is intact and so are the spindly little turrets. So much effort came to this. Through the locked steel fence I can see dog shit, old clothes, rubble.
God has abandoned this building. There used to be occult symbols – a pentagram, an ankh, an upside down image of Christ on the Cross – painted onto the church. On a bench outside the chapel was the inscription: ‘Do What Thou Wilt is the Whole of the Law’, a quotation from Aleister Crowley, most evil of magicians.
In the 1980s there were articles in the local press about Satanists and witches holding ceremonies here (I gather there is still a group of black magicians practising their craft in the locality). These inscriptions have now been removed. Yet to stand here at night is to sense a force that is frightening.
As I walk out past the good General Booth I imagine the muted singing of hymns. The tinkling cymbals I half hear sound flimsy and far away. Death is dense and luscious in this place.