Thursday, 25 May 2017

Quite Decent, Mr Kozderka - the astonishing life of Ivan Blatný (1919-1990)

In the observation ward of Claybury Hospital
  I read the Coming of the Bill.                          
Ivan Blatný - Nastoupit v rad

A portrait of Blatny taken at Ipswich in the late 1980's by Jerry Bauer

The 35 year old Ivan Blatný was admitted as a long term patient in 1954to Claybury Asylum in Woodford Bridge. The prematurely middle-aged Czech with the strong mittel-European accent was in poor physical as well as mental health.  He was thin, frail and undernourished, had a serious chest infection and was limping from an untreated ingrown toenail. The psychiatrist who admitted him noted that the poet had been brought into the hospital by friends on whose floor he had been sleeping for the past few months. He had been making a precarious living for two or three years working for the BBC World Service and Radio Free Europe and publishing a few verses in an anthology of poets in exile. His homesickness and natural timidity kept him isolated and he only mixed in the émigré community. As a result of this and despite a natural facility for languages (he knew Esperanto, German, Italian and Spanish as well as Czech) after six years in England his spoken English still wasn’t fluent. It wasn’t his first stay in a mental hospital – the doctor would have seen from his records that he had been originally admitted to Friern-Barnet in 1948 and transferred later that same year to Claybury. When the door of the ward closed behind him it was to be for the last time, Ivan Blatný was never to live outside an institution again. He spent the next 36 years living at Claybury and other hospitals in Essex and East Anglia.         
The three year Ivan Blatny

Ivan was born in Brno in 1919 and came from an artistic background. He was precociously intellectual and by the age of 9 he was entering into literary contests and was learning Esperanto and German and travelling across Europe with his parents. In 1930, when he was eleven, his father became ill with a pulmonary infection that was eventually diagnosed as tuberculosis and died shortly afterwards. The family were left in straitened circumstances but coped until three years later when Ivan’s mother contacted hepatitis and also died. The devastated Ivan moved in with his maternal grandparents and poured out his feelings in verse. He later attended the Faculty of Arts at Masaryk University reading Czech and German, for a few months in 1939 before the Nazi Reich Protectorate closed down all places of higher learning.  With nothing better to do Ivan took over his grandfather’s opticians business in the centre of Brno. For the next 6 years he devoted himself to myopia, astigmatism and poetry. He contributed regularly to magazines and published works written in collaboration with the Bohemian Jewish poet Jirí Orten as well as three collections of his own poems. Jirí Orten was Ivan’s best friend but on his 22 birthday, the 30th August 1941, he left his apartment in Prague to buy cigarettes and was knocked down by a German ambulance.  He was refused admission to the first hospital he was taken too because he was Jewish and died two days later. The stress of living under Nazism led to Ivan’s first breakdown for which he was hospitalised briefly. In 1946 Ivan joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.
Claybury Hospital, Woodford Bridge

In March 1948 the poet had a stroke of luck when he was offered a place on a three man cultural delegation from the Czech Writer’s Syndicate to London. He defected the moment he arrived in the UK, resigning his membership in the Communist Party and his place in the Writer’s Syndicate and sending his membership papers back to the respective organisations in the post. On the day after his arrival he turned a talk he was scheduled to give on the Czech service of BBC radio into a denunciation of the Communist authorities.  The Czech authorities were furious and reacted by declaring him a traitor, banning his work and confiscating his property in Brno.
Blatny in Brno as a young man

Within a few months of his defection the stress of living as a refugee and the virulence of the Czech authorities reaction led to another breakdown.   For the next six years he was in and out of hospital; during periods of remission he worked sporadically as an External co-worker for the BBC World Service and Radio Free Europe, learnt Spanish and Italian and continued to write poetry. But by 1954 when he was admitted to Claybury for the last time his illness conspired to rob him of his poetic gift. He fell into a 15 year silence that was to last until the late sixties. The young writer seemed to be totally forgotten, his work banned in his homeland where many believed him to be dead anyway, doubly locked away from the world, inside a profoundly disruptive mental illness and inside the asylum, terrified of KGB spies amongst his friends and acquaintances in the émigré community. His isolation seemed complete. But at least one group of people still remembered him and still took a keen interest in is welfare. When the archives of the Czech state security services were opened following the velvet revolution there was a substantial file on Blatný (codename NEWT) which included a top secret plan to bring him back to Czechoslovakia. A Major Kolarik was to visit Blatný at Claybury and try to entice him home. The visit was not a success; Major Kolarick informed the Security Services that the poet was "in fact insane".

Following this visit even the Czech State Security Services lost interest in him. For the next eleven years Blatný lived quietly at Claybury with no contact with the outside world. In February 1969 he received his first visitor from Czechoslovakia since Major Kolarik. His cousin, Dr. Jan Šmarda had succeeded in tracing him and visited him in secret. In June he received another visitor from his hometown, a high school teacher, Vladimír Bařina. Bařina was an admirer of Blatný’s work who brought news from Brno, greetings from some of his old friends and poems from Klement Bochořák. The visit and the interest shown in his poetry seems to have stimulated him to start writing again.

Over the next eight years he wrote continuously, both in Czech and English and guarded his manuscript’s jealously in a cardboard box. The hospital staff still regarded his work as the scribblings of a lunatic and threw them away if they were given the opportunity. This work would no doubt have all been lost in time if Blatný had not been transferred in January 1977 to St Clement’s Hospital in Ipswich. A nurse working at the hospital, Frances Meacham, visited Brno later that year to stay with a friend who had served with her in the RAF medical corps during the Second World War.  During her visit she met, by complete coincidence, Vladimír Bařina who also introduced her to Jan Šmarda. The pair begged her to take care of Blatný and to keep them informed of how the poet was. With this began an extraordinary collaboration between the nurse and the patient that lasted until Blatný’s death in 1990.

Frances Meacham encouraged Blatný to put together a collection of his writings and she sent these to the famous Czech novelist Josef Skvorecky in Toronto. In 1979 these were published as Stara Bydliste (Former Homes) by the Skvorecky’s famous émigré publishing house 68. This was his first book for 32 years.  Its success encouraged Ivan to put together another book almost immediately which was published as samizdat in Czechslovakia in 1982 and then again by the Skvorecky’s in 1987. Pomocná s˘kola Bixley, Bixley Special School, was Blatný’s most unusual work, written almost as much in English as in Czech with the odd dash of German, French and Esperanto.
Blatny with Frances Meacham, 1980's

Blatný published no more after Pomocná s˘kola Bixley. In 1990 Vaclav Havel paid his first official visit to the UK. Frances Meacham presented him with a letter from Blatný offering him his congratulations and informing him that he will remain in Britain. Five months later he became seriously ill with emphysema and on the 5th August he died in Colchester General Hospital.  Later that day the Czechoslovak ambassador announced that Blatný was considered to be a Czechoslovak citizen at the time of his death. Following the cremation of his body his ashes were flown back to Brno and, in an official ceremony, they were placed alongside his father’s in the Central Cemetery. Father and son rested side by side for the first time in 60 years.    

On the 28th October 1997 Vaclav Havel announced that the Za zasluhy medal for merit would be awarded to Ivan Blatný in memoriam, “for outstanding artistic work.”

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Victory over Blindness - the funeral of Sir Arthur Pearson, 13 December 1921, Hampstead Cemetery

The choristers from the Royal Normal School for the Blind at Sir Arthur's graveside
Sir Arthur Pearson died on Thursday 9 December 1921 and was buried the following Tuesday, 13 December. Despite the speed of his interment his funeral was attended by over 1500 people, around a thousand of whom were blind and came from all over the country. 200 Guardsman volunteered to act as guides, collecting blind mourners from all the main London stations and accompanying them to the funeral in Hampstead. According to The Illustrated London News of 17 December “preceding the coffin was a Boy Scout bearing a floral Union Jack on a staff topped by a dove and the letters V.O.B – the initials of Sir Arthur’s slogan: ‘Victory Over Blindness’” One of the officiating clergyman was blind and choristers from the Royal Normal School for the Blind sang at the graveside. The ILN article features a series of fascinating photographs of this most unusual funeral. Interestingly Blind Veterans UK, which Sir Arthur founded in 1915 as the Blinded Soldiers and Sailors Care Committee, continues to hold an annual ceremony in his honour at Hampstead Cemetery.

A Guardsman leads a group of blind mourners through Hampstead Cemetery
Arthur Pearson was born in Wookey, Somerset in 1866 where his father was curate. He was educated at Winchester College and after leaving school became a journalist on Tit-bits magazine. Although he always kept his hand in at journalism and writing, (going on to produce such classics as ‘Handwriting as an Index to Character’ under the pseudonym Professor P R S Foli) he became most successful as a publisher, opening a publishing firm in 1890, branching out into periodicals and newspapers and creating the Daily Express in 1900. Among his publishing highlights was ‘Scouting For Boys’, written by his friend Lord Baden Powell. The Daily Express was an innovative publication, printing news rather than advertisements on its front page, being the first newspaper to carry a regular crossword puzzle and featuring gossip, sports and women’s features. One of the first features in the paper was the explorer Hesketh Hesketh-Pritchard’s series of reports on the uncharted interior of Haiti where English readers heard for the first time an account of voodoo. The series was so popular that as soon as Hesketh Hesketh-Pritchard returned from the Caribbean Pearson sent him off again on an expedition to track down the giant ground sloth of Patagonia (he arrived 10,000 years too late, which in geological time scales is like arriving on the platform to see the train pulling out, as Bruce Chatwin would have known, being the owner of a mysterious swag of ground sloth pelt which is made much of in the opening pages of ‘In Patagonia.’)

Sir Arthur's coffin on its way to the graveside
In the 1900’s Person began to suffer with glaucoma. Despite undergoing an operation in 1908 he eventually lost his sight completely, his son telling the inquest into his death that his “sight began to fail in 1913. It came on gradually, not suddenly, and from 1914 he had been unable to distinguish light or darkness.” He remained an active and independent individual despite his disability and as he gradually relinquished his business interests threw himself into philanthropy instead becoming president of the National Institution for the Blind in 1914 and founding the Blinded Soldiers and Sailors Care Committee in 1915. He died on Friday 09 December 1921 at home 15 Devonshire Street, Marylebone, after slipping in his morning bath, gashing open his head and drowning.  The inquest was held by the West London Coroner H. R. Oswald the next day and reported in detail in many newspapers in their evening editions, including the Yorkshire Evening Post of Saturday 10 December. The main witness was Sir Neville Pearson, the dead man’s son. He told the coroner that “he last saw his father alive on Thursday night about 11 o'clock, and he was then in good health and spirits. He had followed his usual occupation during the day, and had been to the theatre in the evening. Physically, his father was a strong and well built man. It was his custom to take a bath every morning in his dressing-room.”  The account continues:

The principal mourners, Lady Pearson and the deceased's son Sir Neville Pearson
Portrait of Sir Arthur
TRAGEDY DISCOVERED. On Friday morning, about a quarter nine, Sir Arthur's secretary, Miss Campbell, told witness she had found him lying face downwards in a bath of water. As Sir Arthur had not come down to breakfast at half-past eight, Miss Campbell had gone to discover the reason for his non-appearance. Witness went up and saw his father in the bath. Sir Arthur s head was thrust down between the shoulders, and the water was bloodstained. His head was completely submerged. There were bloodstains on the nozzle of the tap. Only the previous day Sir Arthur mentioned that had once before slipped in his bath. If he slipped and fell forward in the bath his head would strike against the nozzle. Witness presumed that his father had been in the position in which he was found for about half an hour. Naomi Alice Glennie, head parlourmaid at 15 Devonshire Street, said she called Arthur at half-past seven on Friday morning, and took him a cup of tea. He seemed exactly the same as he always was, and inquired about the weather as usual. Sir Arthur always prepared his own bath.

Miss Amy Campbell, the secretary, said Sir Arthur was always very independent and did not let people help him. He preferred to do things for himself.  Sir Milson Rees, medical practitioner, said he was called by telephone and found Sir Arthur in the bath face downwards, with his head submerged. Death had taken place quite recently. There was a wound of about an inch in length between the temple and the forehead on the right side. It was exactly such a wound as would have been caused  by falling against the nozzle of a tap. It was obvious that Sir Arthur slipped in the bath and in falling struck his head. A man with sight could have recovered himself. He was evidently stunned.

The Coroner said enamel baths were slippery and such accidental falls were often heard.

A general view of the funeral showing the size of the crowd

The article in the Illustrated London News

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The final resting place of the great and the good; Hampstead Cemetery, Fortune Green Road, NW6

"Ever hear about the aviation pioneer kidnapped (and then worshipped) by cannibals?" Me neither but on the 24 June I will find out because I have booked myself onto the Cemetery Club’s tour of Hampstead Cemetery. I don’t normally go in for guided tours, particularly of cemeteries, as one of the things I most value about them is the chance to get away from the rest of humanity (the living ones at least) and experience a bit of solitude. I am going to make an exception though because I recently saw Cemetery Club founder Sheldon Goodman speak at an event at the University of Greenwich and he was very good.  To get myself in the mood I had a look through the photos I took on my one and only visit to Hampstead on a dull and miserable mid December day back in 2013 to see if I had managed to take anything worth posting.

Hampstead is a 26 acre, late Victorian cemetery, consecrated by the Bishop of London in November 1876, and now run by Islington and Camden Cemetery Services. The Hampstead Burial Board acquired the original 20 acres occupied by the cemetery in 1874 for £7000 when it became clear that the churchyard of St James was almost full and would soon run out of space. The site was surveyed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette and then laid out and planted for £2500 and a further £4843 spent on the building of the lodge, chapels, railings and gate piers. 30 gardeners were originally employed to keep the cemetery looking its best. Despite a further 5 acres of land being acquired in 1901, 60,000 people are interred here and the cemetery is full and no longer open for new burials. The catchment area for the cemetery has always been reasonably affluent and as a consequence there are some very interesting memorials and a relatively high number of notable burials. The Bianchi memorial is the jewel in the crown but the Barritt organ is also justly famous and the Fletcher memorial at the back of the chapels is quite spectacular. Notable burials include Kate Greenaway the illustrator, Henry Irving the actor, Joseph Lister the pioneer of antiseptic surgery and Marie Lloyd the music hall star.

The cemetery chapels with porte-cochère
Looking through the newspaper archives to see if there were any interesting stories about the cemetery and  there were the usual crop of suicides, sudden deaths and grave robbings but also, in the Ballymena Observer of Friday 09 May 1913, an ‘exciting incident’ (according to the paper) at the cemetery gates when a bulldog attacked one of the horses drawing a hearse. As the funeral procession was about to turn into the cemetery the dog leapt at the horse “and seizing it by the leg brought it heavily to the ground. In its struggles to free itself the horse pulled down its fellow, and for some time the confusion was such that all efforts to get the bulldog were unavailing. A young woman to whom the latter belonged eventually managed to grip its collar, but it was only after the animal had been stunned with a heavy piece of wood that his jaws could be prized apart and the horse released.” The horse was badly injured and no doubt the bulldog nursed a headache for a day or two after being walloped with a log.  

The wonderful Bianchi memorial
Cemeteries are a favoured spot for suicides and Hampstead is no exception.  The cemetery was less than a decade old when it had its first suicide. The Globe of 19 February 1884 reported on the inquest held at the Reading Room of the Hampstead Workhouse into the death of Alfred Pierpoint Chambers, 89 years old of Clapham Road. His body had been found on the previous Thursday morning by one of the grave diggers on the grave of his wife; the jury heard evidence that he had been seriously affected by her death. The post mortem revealed that Alfred’s quick, but undoubtedly painful, death was the result of taking Potassium Cyanide. The jury’s verdict was suicide whilst of unsound mind. Alfred was buried with his wife.  The following year another inquest was held at the workhouse on another cemetery suicide. The deceased was a 39 year old, Henry Butterworth, a chemist on Tottenham Court Road. Henry had left for work on the Thursday morning but then his wife received a telegram from him saying that he had gone to Hampstead “to see our Fred”, this being the name of their only child who had died three or four years before. Worried about his state of mind – he had been low in recent months and was drinking rather more than was good for him – Mrs Butterworth contacted the Police. Later that afternoon a policeman called at the house to break the melancholy news that her husband had been found dead on the grave of their child. The post mortem revealed that Henry had taken a fatal dose of Prussic Acid, another form of cyanide. Verdict – committed suicide whilst of unsound mind.

Isabel White Wallis, wife of Edward White Wallis who was for 48 years the secretary of the Royal Sanitary Institute
And then in December 1892 yet another inquest looked into the death of Edward Cornelius Scanes, a tinplate worker of 77 North Street, Marylebone. His son told the jury that “owing to his wife's health and mind not being very good his father had been upset of late, and it had been noticed that he was low and desponding. He had on several occasions disappeared for some days. On Monday he went away, and on Wednesday witness heard his father had been found dead on a grave at Hampstead Cemetery.” Robert Dickens, a labourer, testified that he had been walking through the cemetery when he saw Edward lying across a grave and “on going to him found that he was dead, and noticed that he had shot himself in the chest, while a revolver was lying near his right side.” The police constable who had been summoned to the scene found three letters near the grave; the coroner read one of them out to the court ''From dad — Good-bye, Will. Good-bye, wife. Dear mother, good-bye. My watch is for my son. Please, wife, not to follow my body to the grave. Good- bye. My poor head is very bad." The jury returned a verdict of temporary insanity.  (Morning Post - Saturday 24 December 1892).

Death in the cemetery was not just the result of suicide. 60 year old Margaret Alice Forbes of Palace Garden Terrace, Kensington collapsed whilst visiting her father’s grave in May 1934 and died before she could be taken to hospital. In 1901 61 year old Robert McLean, a “tall, stalwart man” who was a constable of the Metropolitan Police and had been a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary  was employed by the cemetery on Saturdays  “for the preservation of order and the protection the graves.”  He was found dead by colleagues after suffering an apoplectic seizure.  Another cemetery employee, 54 year old general labourer John Henry Smith, died in 1940 not at work but at his home in Selig Avenue, just off the Edgware Road, along with his wife, both dying of injuries to their throats and chest. Their 22 year old daughter had injuries to her throat and wrists – presumably she had been arguing with her father and he became physical, murdered him and her mother.

Clifton Barritt's upright organ
Grave robberies? Herbert Walter Watson, 47, was charged with stealing a bronze crucifix from the cemetery in June 1922 and fined 40 shillings. Detective Parfield of the Metropolitan Police told the court that when he had searched Watson’s room it contained a large number of figures of Christ, wreaths and crosses for which the defendant had no other explanation than “he suffered from a nervous complaint and could not account for what he had done, and had no remembrance of entering the cemetery.” William Alexander Cochrane was not so lucky when he appeared at Hampstead Police Court in 1927. Cochrane was the superintendent of the cemetery with 35 years service when he was dismissed for embezzling two sums of money from Hampstead Borough Council, £5 2 shillings on one occasion and 15 shillings on a second. The court sentenced him to 3 months and 6 months for the counts of fraud, both sentences to run consecutively. In recent years the cemetery has been plagued by thieves who steal irreplaceable brass memorials to melt them down for scrap metal. A beautiful bronze figure by Sir William Gascombe John on his wife’s tomb was stolen from Hampstead in 2001 but later recovered. It was removed to East Finchley Cemetery for safe keeping but despite being kept under lock and key in an outbuilding was stolen again in 2006. It remains missing and has most likely been smelted. In 2011 the Bianchi grave was targeted with the cast iron gate going missing first and then the wrought iron railings. The following year cemetery management stepped up security measures including dog patrols and closing time sweeps of the cemetery to check gangs of metal thieves weren't hiding away waiting for it to shut before helping themselves to more memorials. The more recent crash in scrap metal prices has probably done more to preserve the cemetery's security than any of the other measures taken.      


Tuesday, 9 May 2017

The dead are with us - 'Here is Where We Meet' John Berger (Bloomsbury £9.98)

John Berger at 88, photographed for an interview with the New Statesman

On January 2 this year 90 year old John Berger died at his home in Antony in the southern suburbs of Paris. He was born in 1926 in Stoke Newington during the annual pyrotechnics of November 5th. His father Stanley never fully recovered from the trauma of serving for four years as a Major in an infantry regiment on the Western front during the Great War. He must have hated the noise of Brocks fireworks shattering the quiet autumnal evenings; no matter how muted the explosions must have seemed in comparison to the artillery bombardments it must have reminded him of the war. Stanley was the son of a Hungarian émigré merchant from Trieste; Miriam Branson his mother, was the daughter of a brewery drayman from Bermondsey,  who became a vegetarian, a pacifist and a suffragette.  After the war Stanley tried, and failed, at various business ventures until he set up a very early version of a management consultancy called the Institute of Cost and Works Accountants which turned into an unexpected success and allowed the family to move from Croydon (where they had settled after Stoke Newington) to what passes in East London as a leafy suburb in Highams Park. Miriam ostensibly gave up radical politics when she married but almost certainly influenced  her son’s political development; John was declaring himself an Anarchist by the age of 15 and, once that phase had passed, became a lifelong Marxist.

John Berger in 1972, in his mid forties (and under the sartorial influence of the times) during the recording of 'Ways of Seeing'
He left boarding school in Oxford at 16 and returned to London to study at the Chelsea school of Art where one of his tutors was Henry Moore (whose work he later called a ‘meaningless mess’).  In 1944, at the age of 18 he was called up; after refusing a commission in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, and as a result probably being viewed as unsound, his two years in the army were spent far away from any front line at a Belfast Training Depot in Ballykelly, where despite his reluctance to assume authority he still ended up becoming a lance-corporal. After his stint in the military he enrolled at the Central School of Art and Design in Southampton Row. Despite his determination to make a living as a painter he had to make ends meet by teaching drawing at St Mary’s Teacher Training College in Strawberry Hill, Twickenham. When a friend unexpectedly offered him a spot on a BBC World Service programme talking about art this led to him writing on the same subject for the New Statesman. He published a first novel in 1958 and went on to write over 60 books including 10 novels (one of which, ‘G’ won the Booker Prize in 1972 – Berger famously gave half the £5000 prize money to the Black Panthers after a delivering an acceptance speech in which he denounced the 130 year history of the Booker group in the Caribbean), four plays, five screenplays, two books of poetry and 48 books categorised by Wikipedia as belonging to the genre ‘other’.  The uncategorisable nature of his writing is one of its delights. He is most famous of course, for the television programme and book ‘Ways of Seeing’ in which, under the influence of Walter Benjamin, his opening salvo was “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak. But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but word can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.”

In his later years Berger said he was haunted by the dead.  In an interview in the New Statesmen in 2015 he said “The past is very present to me and has been for a very long time. I first became aware of this quite intensely when I was a teenager, because of the First World War. You see, I think that the dead are with us. What I’m talking about now is a very ancient part of human awareness. It may even be what defines the human – although it [was] largely forgotten in the second half of the 20th century. The dead are not abandoned. They are kept near physically. They are a presence. What you think you’re looking at on that long road to the past is actually beside you where you stand.” Nowhere did Berger make his feelings about the dead clearer than in his wonderful 2005 book “Here Is Where We Meet”, a series of short pieces exploring memory and loss, transporting the past into the present, and mingling the living with the dead. For Berger, a long time exile living in France since the early 1960’s, London, his hometown, is one of those long lost dead, only to be recaptured in memory or imagination. The stories are set all over Europe, Portugal, Spain, Poland, France but each place evokes the past of his childhood and youth in London, in Croydon, Islington, and Highams Park where a river in Easter Europe evokes the river Ching that ran at the bottom of the Berger’s suburban garden.
The Aguas Livres aqueduct in Lisbon, scene of John's last encounter with the ghost of his mother
In the first story ‘Lisboa’, the narrator, called John, is sitting in the  Praça do Príncipe Real where a Lusitanian cypress whose branches “have been trained to grow outwards, horizontally, so that they form a gigantic, impenetrable, very low umbrella with a diameter of twenty metres. One hundred people could easily shelter under it.”  He notices “an old woman with an umbrella ... sitting very still on one of the park benches. She had that kind of stillness that draws attention to itself. Sitting there on the park bench, she was determined to be noticed. ...Abruptly...she got to her feet, turned and, using her umbrella like a walking stick, came towards me. I recognised her walk long before I could see her face. The walk of someone already looking forward to arriving and sitting down. It was mother.”  The ghost (if that is what she is) of Berger’s mother takes to appearing at unexpected moments as her 80 year old son explores the Portuguese capital.  Her voice rejuvenates so that it is the voice of her 17 year self that talks to John. His mother had no connection to Portugal so John wonders why she has chosen Lisbon to appear in; "perhaps Lisboa is a special stopover for the dead," he thinks, "perhaps here the dead show themselves off more than in any other city." His mother has a different theory, it is the trams;

“The trams in the centre of Lisbon are very different from the red double-decker ones that used to run in Croydon; they are as cramped as small fishing boats and they are a lemon yellow. The drivers, as they negotiate the steep, one-way streets, and nose their way round blind jetties, give the impression of hauling in ropes and holding rudders rather than turning wheels and operating levers. Yet despite the sudden descents, the lurches, the choppiness, the passengers, mostly elderly, remain contemplative and calm—as if they were still sitting in their living rooms or visiting a neighbour. And indeed, in places, the trams with their open windows, sway so close to these rooms that it would be easy to reach out and touch a birdcage hanging from a balcony and with a little push set it swinging.”

The cemetery of Prazeres in Lisbon, the city's most celebrated place of interment
John takes the number 28 tram to Prazeres the “old cemetery where the mausoleums have front doors with window panes through which you can look at the abodes of the departed. Many are furnished with low tables, a chair, bunks with bedspreads, photographs, statues of the Madonna, cushions. One has a pair of dancing shoes on a rug. Another has a bicycle and a fishing rod leaning against the wall facing the bunk with a small coffin on it.” He spots his mother in the street, flattening herself against a shop front to let the tram past but miraculously boarding it at the next stop; they visit the fish market. John’s memories obtrude, visiting the cinema with his mother to see Marx brothers films or the day she came home with all her teeth removed or the unanswered question of why she never read any of his books. Their last meeting is on the arches of the Aqueduto das Aguas Livres, a vertiginous 60 metres above the Alcântara valley.

‘Lisboa’ is my favourite piece in the book, perhaps because I know the city well, but the other stories are equally as good. In Madrid the narrator finds himself recalling in vivid detail the sad schoolmaster who taught him to write and how to catch a ball, in Krakow he meets Ken, another influential teacher who introduced him to books and sex (no hint here that the young ‘John’ was remotely traumatised by the teacher’s forbidden interest in his body), in Geneva Berger meets his (living) daughter Katya and they pay a visit to the grave of Jorge Luis Borges, in Islington he visits a friend from college who might remember the name of a girl John grew close to during the war, and at a wedding in Poland by the banks of the river Szum he recalls his childhood on the banks of the river Ching in Highams Park. As always the prose is impeccable, studded with arresting images (‘Art, it would seem, is born like a foal who walks straight away’ – on the Cro Magnon rock paintings), nuggets of wisdom (‘desire is brief – a few hours or a lifetime, both are brief. Desire is brief because it occurs in defiance of the permanent. It challenges time in a fight to the death’), or unexpected observations (‘travelling alone between Kalisz and Kielce a hundred and fifty years ago. Between the two names there would always have been a third – the name of your horse.’) Despite his prolific output John Berger’s writing was never less than interesting and at his best he could produce astounding work. This is a wonderful book.  

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Grave News (April); the dead of London (and elsewhere) in the media

Just after Easter I was puzzled by the sudden flurry of interest in “Grave Wax, Corpse Liquor and Kissing Dead Queens – the boundless curiosity of the Gentlemen of the 17th Century”, a post from last July.  At the time I wrote the rather morbid little article I had hoped it might breathe a little life into my moribund blog and generate a few more page views than usual. But the macabre investigations of John Aubrey, Sir Thomas Browne and Samuel Pepys failed to pique the curiosity of the surfers and  browsers of cyberspace. I didn’t work out what had provoked the recent outbreak of views until a reddit thread called ‘Interesting as fuck’ showed up as a source of traffic and I followed the links back  to a Harry Mount article in the Daily Telegraph about the discovery of the Archbishop’s vault at St Mary-at-Lambeth. It was a story that had generated a fair amount of media interest over the Easter weekend but Harry Mount had uniquely mentioned that “most lead sarcophagi contain dry remains; however, some bodies decompose into a viscous black liquid known as “coffin liquor”. Should the ancient casings ever crack, it will spray forth.” The term ‘coffin liquor’ had been googled frequently enough in the following days to send my viewing figures rocketing for a post containing the synonymous term ‘corpse liquor’.  

St Mary-at-Lambeth; 14th century tower, the rest gothic revival
The ancient church of St Mary-at-Lambeth has some remarkable characters buried in the churchyard (or inside the precincts of the church) including the Tradescants, Elias Ashmole, Captain Bligh, the Comtesse de la Motte, William Bacon of the Salt Office (struck by lightning and burnt to a crisp) and Peter Ducrow. Of the medieval church only the 14th century tower now remains; the rest was pulled down in 1851 and rebuilt in a Gothic revival style entirely in keeping with the original. The reconstruction of the church was an opportunity to clear the crypt and vaults of a few hundred years of accumulated coffins and start afresh in a new, hygienic, miasma free atmosphere. It had always been assumed that the Victorians, in their usual conscientious manner, had thoroughly emptied and filled in the numerous vaults and so the discovery of a hidden flight of steps beneath the stone flags of the nave by workmen working on the remodelling of the building for the Garden Museum (who now occupy the church) was something of a surprise. In the old days some intrepid individual would have had to descend the stairs to find out what was down there in the forgotten vault but this being 2017 there is no longer any necessity to risk life or limb to make important archaeological discoveries, not if you have an iPhone and a selfie stick.  The first glimpse of the vault’s contents came from a video shot on a smartphone mounted on a stick and poked through a hole in the rubble – a tumbled pile of 30 lead coffins incongruously surmounted by a gold plated Bishop’s mitre.  The phone on stick technology, or a variant thereof, seems to have been the preferred method of carrying out a detailed assessment of the vault’s contents. Coffin nameplates have allowed investigators to identify some of those buried in the forgotten vault; they include two Archbishop’s of Canterbury, Richard Bancroft and John Moore and his wife Catherine Eden Moore, and John Bettesworth, a Dean of Arches. As parish records indicate that at least three more archbishops were buried at St Mary’s, it is strongly suspected that  Frederick Cornwallis (in office 1768-1783), Matthew Hutton (1757-1758) and Thomas Tenison (1695-1715) are also interred in the vault.  The Garden Museum have excavated a manhole above in the floor of the church glazed with a glass panel to allow visitors a view of the vault. The museum reopens this month and the 30 coffins and Bishop’s Mitre will almost certainly prove a draw with the general public.

Catherine Moore, wife of Archbishop John Moore, and her children by Daniel Gardner. Catherine was buried with her husband in the Archbishops vault at St Mary-at-Lambeth 
As part of a series called ‘Life Stories’ the BBC World Service broadcast a programme at the end of April called ‘Living With The Dead.’  It explores the unusual mortuary practices of the Toraja region of Sulawesi where animist beliefs still hold some sway against encroaching Christianity and the locals bury their dead with far less haste than has become the norm in the rest of the world. According to the BBC’s Sahar Zand “after someone dies, it may be months, sometimes years, before a funeral takes place. In the meantime, the families keep their bodies in the house and care for them as if they were sick. They are brought food, drink and cigarettes twice a day. They are washed and have their clothes changed regularly. The dead even have a bowl in the corner of the room as their "toilet". Furthermore, the deceased are never left on their own and the lights are always left on for them when it gets dark. The families worry that if they don't take care of the corpses properly, the spirits of their departed loved ones will give them trouble.” Corpses are preserved with liberal doses of formalin and then held onto until the family feels ready to hold a funeral. These are lavish affairs often lasting several days during which dozens of buffaloes and hundreds of pigs are slaughtered and guests sing and dance and gorge themselves on meat. After the funeral the deceased if interred in either a family tomb or in one of the many caves used for community burials. The wealthiest families commission realistic wooden statues of the deceased called tau tau, dress them in the dead person’s clothes, jewellery, glasses and even hair and set them to watch over the final resting place. Even after interment the Torajans continue to visit their relatives and handle their corpses. Zand says “In the rest of the world, these practices may seem bizarre. But perhaps the principles behind them are not so very different from those found in other cultures. Remembering the dead is something many of us try to do. The Torajans just take a very different approach.”   If you are interested you have about three weeks to watch the programme before it disappears from the BBC iPlayer.  

And finally, last week the Londonist featured an interactive map of London’s Magnificent Seven cemeteries :