The daffodils are out and suddenly the end of my residency at Brompton Cemetery is drawing closer. It’s so far held many of the things I hoped for, and also many things I didn’t expect at all. I have been spending as much time there as possible, meeting volunteers and visitors, participating in activities and attending events. On most days I wander the paths for a while, reading inscriptions on graves, observing the wildlife, seeking out new or interesting plant growth. I have been taking photographs – at first with the idea of neatly documenting graves, and seasonal changes, but now very haphazardly. I’ve found that the cemetery itself is leading me in my explorations, and the neat plans I made at the beginning of the project have faded. And, of course, I’ve been writing.
The biggest surprise was to discover how alive the cemetery is. I thought I would be delving into the Victorian Gothic, researching the cemetery’s famous residents, talking to undertakers and vicars and mourners. In fact, everywhere I look I’m surrounded by life, not death, and this is finding its way into my writing. Brompton is far more than a place to bury the dead. It’s a meeting place, a nature reserve, a muse for artists (and writers), a stage, a running track. It’s also a conduit – hundreds visit the cemetery every day, but countless more use it merely as a convenient path from one part of the city to another, not stopping and perhaps not even glancing at their surroundings as they pass through.
The opening poem of the sequence I’m working on captures some of these visitors and passers-through, as well as the more settled residents. Its title is inspired by Brompton’s landscape architect, John Claudius Loudon. Loudon was passionate about the benefit to ‘all ranks and all parts of the British Metropolis’ of open spaces in which people could wander and admire attractive planting. He called them ‘breathing places’ and I expect he’d be pleased to know that his philosophy is alive and well in Brompton today.
Leave the street, the buses, the sirens, the stop-
and-start. Leave the stepping aside
and the thick press of bodies. Cross,
and pass through the gates and the sky opens out.
Breathe in sycamore and maple,
cedar and London plane. Breathe in wallflower,
cow parsley and ragwort. A man is
sprinting the steps near the catacombs,
jogging back down again. A squirrel springs
up on a carved angel, his bright heart drumming.
Here is a woman reading on a bench, and here
a cyclist sweeps past the corner of the chapel,
and all around you the words of the dead
are carved in stone. They are priming themselves
for your notice, be ready to listen to them.
Be ready to speak in your turn.
The poem sequence will form part of the PLACEing Objects exhibition this week at SpudWorks in Sway, and I will also be reading, and talking about my experiences, at Brompton on Sunday March 29. If you can come along to either then please do! And for those who can’t I’ll be posting plenty of news and pictures afterwards.