The picture is a monument at Highgate Cemetery and the quote is from a poem by Lizzie Siddal (‘Dead Love’), wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I’ve just been in London and tried to fit in as much as possible to 3 days. The most startling, rewarding thing was a visit to Highgate Cemetery West. All the tours were booked on weekdays so we only had the Sunday to try and commute from the Homestay in Gunnersbury to Archway in time to catch the early, unbookable tours. We managed to get on the 12.30 tour. It was a stunning place, from the famous stones, to the catacombs to the Egyptian Avenue (all mysteriously sealed away from view) and the memorials to lives cut short: Alexander Litvinenko’s stone cut across at the top as a symbol of a life stolen and the monument to an 8 year old daughter being carried to heaven by an angel. The catacombs were unsettling: decayed coffins spilling out of holes, rotten wood held together by lead lining. There were also some funny stories and the experience was not morbid as it may sound. The most interesting grave for me was the plain simple stone that marks the place where Christina Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal are buried. We were told the story of the exhumation of Dante Gabriel’s poems from Siddal’s grave and that ‘her hair had grown in death’. I alredy knew the story from Desperate Romantics and The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel, but being there was so peaceful and made all stories seen just stories and reality so much more poweful, sad, foreboding. I remember seeing the Ophelia Millais painting as a child and looking at the details in the face.
Another moving place to visit was the crematorium at Golders Green, but for completely opposite reasons. Here many ashes are scattered in surroundings so minimalist you barely know who is where – rose beds, thorn beds, numbered plaques and trees with inscriptions. It’s exceptionally well-kept and was deserted. Only gardeners and magpies for company. Paul Kossoff was down in a corner at the far end, out of sight and peaceful (where his friend says he would’ve wanted to be), his name engraved in a summer house and a small bridge over a symbolic river. Keith Moon, Marc Bolan, Peter Sellers and Ronnie Scott are also scattered here but their plaques are on the imposing red brick of the entrance.
Other highlights were Kew Gardens and the (live!) elm trees there – huge and thriving – also the peace of the place, the lake and the lack of tourists; Richmond and the river; a walk from Monument Station to the Tower of London, across Tower Bridge and down the South Bank past the HMS Belfast. We crossed again over Blackfriars Bridge and looked at the rotting oak supports of the old river moorings. I was ill with another cold/infection thing but was absolutely determined to enjoy every second of being away in a way that I have never enjoyed London before. The Syrian man who makes sandcastle sculptures on the riverbank near the Festival Theatre is amazing and deserves a mention at the very least.
I always feel I’m following in the footsteps of others in London, which of course we all are, but also of my mum and dad who met there in 1971 and have lived in so many different parts of the city. I was able to ask my mum tonight “did you and dad ever…?” about London places and pubs. I would never live there again but there is a magic about visiting.
I wish I’d been writing more. I have a lot in my mind. The thought of work on Monday’s like an anasthetic to thought. It’s the Copeland bi-election today. I took my daughter in to the (entirely deserted) polling station so she could see the voting process for the first time. If the hospital here is closed, I truely don’t belive it’s safe to bring up a child over an hour away down an appalling road from the nearest emergency medical treatment.
I’ve been reading the excellent and very original novels of Shirley Jackson, along with more Anthony Doer books. Shirley Jackson apparently died agoraphobic, obese and addicted to amphetamines and alcohol. To me what she produced is an absolute triumph of imagination and creativity over oppression and ‘small minded’ America. It’s no surprise why people like her struggle to cope with everyday life.