It’s the height of it, I think, that’s so remarkable. A city on a hill, Glasgow Necropolis, where the dead overlook the living.
I cross the bridge from the cathedral, covered up while workers clean the industry soot that’s blackened it. An unusually pathetic sign declares that, just like the masons who built the cathedral 800 years ago, the cleaners are working by hand. I feel obliged by the switchbacks to aim for the high point of the cemetery, the Knox Memorial, only to find that the footpaths all keep their distance. To reach it, I have to walk across the grass, between and over a few graves. There’s a pervasive smell of horse shit, and it takes me several minutes to work out where it’s coming from: bundles of decaying grass cuttings lie here and there, slowly composting, as if the mower baulked at picking up his leavings. At least it distracts from the factory chimneys that lurk below the edges of the cemetery, perversely mimicking its monuments.
The memorial is serious, and reminds me of one in Abney Park Cemetery. But there’s a thick wire running up the side of it, which does not stop by the uplights at Knox’s feet but continues, loose, to his head. A lightning rod, presumably. It looks like a sharp tug on the wire would bring the whole thing crashing down.
I loop back around the crown of the hill, taking in the stones, the tombs, the brutish bone palaces, surprisingly immodest given the hard-bitten religion of many occupants. Then there are the names, Scottish, churchy and solid: Malcolm, Knox, Hamilton. Andrew Bain, printer. William McCall, builder. Those defining professional qualifiers aim at specificity but have left us with its opposite. Far better, I think, to be domestic. Andrew Gogan, father.
The women almost always come second, if they come at all, and I find myself speculating about the history of particular inscriptions. Walter Neilson survived his wife Jane Fulton by 27 years, and their three children by 35, 42 and two years respectively, according to the order in which they appear on his monument. Neilson died in 1884, but his name appears at the top of the family. Did everyone else have to wait until he died to be remembered in stone? Did they leave a gap at the top for him, filling in the rest and waiting to complete the set? Or did they replace the stone every time someone else died, refreshing it with the new dedications? Did he have other children, and did their prospects of making it into the cemetery die with their father? The stones tell stories, but sometimes they’re difficult to read.
I walk back down the hill to the land of the living and sit on a wet stone bench near the cathedral door.
The tiger was out of place.
Baby P died on November 30th 2007, the victim of three adults. The public recrimination began nearly a year later. Its targets were several: the ‘monsters’ that caused the death; the ‘monsters’ in social services that could have prevented it but didn’t; the ‘monster’ doctor who’d failed to recognise a broken spine when she saw one; and somewhere, underneath it all, the ‘monster’ of us, of London, of England.
On November 23rd 2008, we walked into St. Pancras & Islington cemetery. It is not in Islington, nor St. Pancras, but out of place in East Finchley. Located in the London borough of Barnet, the cemetery is actually two. One is owned by the London borough of Islington; the other, by the London borough of Camden. Baby P lived and died in the London borough of Haringey.
The Sun newspaper had paid for a shrine to the dead child, and so, alongside many others, we came to see.
The cemetery also hosts the remains of pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown. His great painting Work, set a couple of miles away in Hampstead, and begun in the same year as the cemetery, 1852, shows a society with a hole at its centre. The workers who dig it don’t belong in their smart surroundings; the blond infant in the foreground wears a black band on its arm.
Baby P was not buried. The plaque that memorialises him marks the point where his ashes were scattered. Approaching it on foot, we were passed by cars carrying young families. In one, the cross of St. George adorned the back seats.
We were there for the wrong reasons. Researching a still-unwritten book about London’s Victorian cemeteries, the 23rd was just a date in our diaries. We’d decided to walk from Abney Park cemetery in Stoke Newington to Highgate cemetery, about a mile south of St. Pancras & Islington. It was the sixth leg of seven in our circuit of the city, and had been planned for several weeks. It was a coincidence that the Baby P furore had dominated the previous few days.
Passing the late Victorian angels, obelisks and stone crosses that used to pass for tributes to the dead, we approached the shrine, picking our way through cars parked up in a line on the road not 30 yards from the memorial stone, avoiding the waning roses that overlooked the ground.
The crowd there numbered about 15. Families mostly, young children with parents who knew what was best for them. Our presence was silently noted but not acknowledged, two young men conspicuous amongst the jumble of toys, flowers and scrawled notes that dominated the scene. A reporter interviewed a photogenic young family, and the photographer who accompanied her lined them up in front of the shrine to take pictures.
Six or seven incarnations of Winnie-the-Pooh surrounded the plaque. Teddy bears, flowers, prayers and written reflections sheltered it from the winter’s rain. A framed photograph of the dead baby, his shock of blond hair recalling other media-children, repeated everywhere in different sizes and on different backgrounds — always the same image, the one that had been in the papers.
And then there was the tiger, giant beside the other offerings, facing away from the circle’s centre. Wet and bedraggled, it looked hopeless, uncertain whether to exude comfort or menace. Perhaps it had been won at a fairground as the first prize for throwing something, or knocking something over. It could have been from Harrods, or Hamleys, a Christmas present delivered both too late and too early. Or maybe it was a cast-off, a gift from another child with another parent, prepared to sacrifice a loved plaything in recognition of a different order of loss.
It’s far too hot in Florence. Far too hot to be on foot, at least. Thirty-five degrees in the shade, walking along Via Coluccio Salutati onto Viale Michelangelo, where there’s not enough pavement and too many coaches, then across the bridge above the humming Arno and up Viale Gramsci.
Piazzale Donatello is a traffic isle of the dead with the English Cemetery at its centre. Approaching from the south today, there’s a sweaty stretch across the lanes of cars that collar it.
Left largely to ruin, the cemetery is now accessible again thanks to the noble restoration efforts of the past decade or so. Elizabeth Barrett Browning is the superstar here, and lucky to be here too: at one point, she was going to be reinterred with her husband in Westminster Abbey, but the request was withdrawn after it had been accepted. The initial idea had been to bury him with her, but by his death in 1877 the cemetery had closed for new burials.
Browning’s sarcophagus towers over little Fanny Holman Hunt’s. Arthur Hugh Clough gets a look in, as does Walter Savage Landor, but like her poetry, Browning’s resting place (how odd a phrase that is) seems to look better than theirs these days.
It’s called the English Cemetery, or sometimes the Protestant Cemetery, but it was actually founded by the Swiss Evangelical Reformed Church. The Swiss Cemetery doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. It’s too hot in Florence, too hot to concentrate, too hot to go hunting for dead heroes, too hot to think of half-remembered or never-read poetry. The only thing that comes to mind is by Tennyson, from ‘Ulysses’: ‘I am become a name.’
Algernon Charles Swinburne’s lines on Landor’s gravestone are as close as it gets to actual poetry here:
And thou, his Florence, to thy trust
Receive and keep,
Keep safe his dedicated dust,
His sacred sleep.
So shall thy lovers, come from far,
Mix with thy name
As morning-star with evening-star
His faultless fame.
No difficulty there. If there’s one thing Florence can do, it’s death. The whole city is a memorial to dead money and dead artists, a giant graveyard-cum-Renaissance playground in which the English Victorians look artistically unadorned and straightforward by comparison with the native excess. The mad monk Savonarola, whose bonfire of the vanities consumed art, books and mirrors in 1497, prompts some sympathy here. Certainly it seems a more sensible response to the place than Stendhal syndrome. But it’s too damned hot for a bonfire, that’s for sure.
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