Saturday, 26 September 2009

A Day With The Dead

I was too relaxed and lazy to get up really early today and head down to Brighton for the 'Convention of the Left' meeting, so I'll have to wait and see if there is a report by Harpymarx, who I know was there (and who might want to include this graphic in any blog post if it turns out to have gone horribly wrong).

The excuses for this morning's lethargy are two-fold: an incredibly busy week at work and the fact that one of close friends, Estelle, learned massage on holiday instead of relaxing in a hammock with a cocktail. She likes to practice on the people she knows and so in return for some trifling help with something or other, I was repaid with dinner and and pampering. As Estelle says, it's not so much a film night as an 'oily-film night', which is a joke that you have to admit is pretty... slick.

And so this is how, instead of taking a train to Brighton, I eventually spent most of the day in the company of a bunch of dead people.

Just in case you think this is some kind of sly and oblique dig at the comrades gathered at the seaside, let me explain. Like most Londoners, I've never managed to find the time to see half of the city's many attractions. I have a list of places I should get around to visiting and a free day seemed like an opportunity to try and cross a couple off. So I cycled the 12 miles from Forest Gate to one of the highest points in London (in other words, up some steep hills) to visit Highgate Cemetery. I arrived just in time to have a look around the West Cemetery, which is only possible by guided tours organised by well-informed, unpaid volunteers from the charity Friends of Highgate Cemetery.

Highgate, it turns out, is very much a product of Victorian capitalism, one of the seven privately run cemeteries around the outside of London that catered for a growing population and a quite different attitude towards death than today, one concerned much more with Christian belief in the eternal soul and eventual bodily resurrection.

It was also aimed at London’s emerging middle class, set in beautiful and well-maintained surroundings with a spectacular view over the city. At a time when the poorest sections of the working class were buried in unmarked paupers’ graves, prosperous families were expected to plan ahead and many established permanent monuments to themselves with mausoleums, gravestones and tombs that publicly displayed their wealth and prestige. It was a way of creating a form of immortality, often at great cost – none more so than the monument built for Julius Beer, a businessman who briefly owned the Observer newspaper. It was fascinating to learn that Beer's revenge on a society that shunned him because he was Jewish was to deliberately construct his mausoleum so it obstructed the view of the fashionable people who escaped the city at the weekend to picnic on the land above the Circle of Lebanon (above).

Ultimately the crippling cost of Victorian mourning and the later the mass slaughter of young men in the trenches of northern France during the First World War changed public attitudes to this extravagance. The private cemeteries soon found that their business model, which promised to maintain graves in perpetuity without understanding exactly how this would be paid for in the longer term, was fundamentally flawed. But people are still buried in Highgate and after the tour, it was over to the East Cemetery to do what everyone else does, which is searching out the famous, taking pictures of angels and visiting the grave of Karl Marx.

Click on the pictures to enlarge.

Marx’ final resting place may not be as bold as that of Julius Beer, but it is still monumental, with the same Victorian concerns for grandeur and immortality. It is a place for the living to come to pay tribute and, to my surprise, even in death some members of the Marx cult are drawn to be near to their secular saint. Dotted around the memorial are a number of graves of Communists, many who were exiles from Iraq, Iran and South Africa.

They include Claudia Jones, an important figure in recent black British history, who was born in Trinidad but grew up in Harlem in New York, where she became a Communist and a great orator. In the midst of the McCarthy witch hunts of the early 1950s, she was repeatedly arrested and finally deported, eventually receiving asylum in Britain (back when providing sanctuary from repression was still honourable). Jones then threw herself into resistance to racist attacks against the Caribbean community in west London, founded the West Indian Gazette and started the forerunner of what was to become the Notting Hill Carnival. Her grave is right next to Marx.

Another comrade close by is the campaigning journalist Paul Foot, his gravestone facing the great man just across the path. I found this more surprising: Foot was never a CP member but a life-long supporter of the Socialist Workers Party, more 'dissenter' than ‘established religion’ and well respected on the Left. But then I don’t really understand cult followers. Presumably Coyoacán was just too far away.

Leaving Highgate, I headed down to try and squeeze in another on my list: St Paul’s Cathedral. There wasn’t much time and it is eye-wateringly expensive (£11 to go to church!) but despite already feeling tired out, I clambered by the narrow staircase to the Stone Gallery for the great views across the City and the Thames. Then, having missed out on the Open House London tour of the Bank of England, I stopped off by Bank station to take advantage of the light and finish a roll of film.

It has been great to be outdoors in the sunshine for most of the day rather than stuck inside, even if I missed some interesting debate and cycled around 25 miles.

Anyway, my photos from Highgate Cemetery are on Flickr here and from St Paul's Cathedral and around the City here.

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