I can only vaguely remember being able to get up out of an armchair without making sound effects. It’s a gradual thing, age. It creeps up on you. The recognition I can’t do some things any more, or certainly not as well, dawned on me long ago, but I heard from an old friend* recently who is finding late middle age, as I prefer to call it, a tad more difficult than most.
*When I refer to my old friend, I am of course referencing the breadth of years we’ve known each other not his chronological age. After all, he’s the same age as me; no more than late middle aged then. A mere slip of a lad.
The most famous offering of Scottish poet, Andrew Marvell, turned up in a podcast I listened to the other day. Regarding podcasts, I mostly listen to learned people commenting on news events or football. Mostly football, but somehow this one containing references to poetry sneaked in. To His Coy Mistress is, basically, a plea to the poet’s uncertain lady friend to hurry up, get a move on and become a little more free with her ‘favours’.
The opening couplet sets the tone:
‘Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime…’
but the segment of verse that’s stood the test of time best is buried in the second verse:
‘But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.’
That’s the bit that can invoke despondency in later life. Not as much time left as we imagined in our youth and now we’re in a pandemic, we’re potentially wasting what bit of time we’ve got left.
That’s the stark reality facing many people now and my old friend isn’t dealing with it very well. He’s a born and bred Londoner, (not being judgemental, he can’t help where he comes from), and in the far off days when I worked alongside him in the Kings Road, at that time the epicentre of ‘Swinging London’, we had spectacularly intense arguments about every subject under the sun. Bizarrely, we’ve been mates for almost fifty years now.
He was telling me of his daily exercise routine, wandering around Highgate cemetery. We’ve loved our visits there. One of Marigold’s choices for a perfect excursion, forget about Alton Towers or Disneyland, is a trip around an old graveyard and Highgate is a belter. 170,000 ‘residents’ in 53,000 graves – Ooh, budge up missus, room for one more – there can be few more fascinating places for a daily walk, but maybe a tad morbid in view of my friend’s present and seemingly immovable melancholia.
When Highgate Cemetery opened, cemetery tourism was a big thing, not just in London. If you went to Paris in the 1830s, one of the top places to go was Père Lachaise – it was a must-see.
It still is in my view, if only to discover such unlikely residents as Chopin, Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf and Jim Morrison all grouped together in one place. It’s unlike any other cemetery we’ve visited and we’ve trailed around a lot of them. It took us ages to find the grave of Edith Piaf, even though the scenes of public mourning following her death had been mind blowing. She’s buried in the family grave as Madame Lamboukas dite Edith Piaf, with the acknowledgment of her stage name only seen at the side of the monument, almost as an afterthought. With hindsight, we should have just looked out for a grave heaped with masses of floral tributes. Even many years after her death, the ‘little sparrow’ still draws vast numbers of her fans to Père Lachaise.
Highgate opened in 1839, before London had public parks so it was a virtual day out in the countryside for city dwellers. More recently visiting cemeteries fell out of fashion with more and more people opting for cremation and Highgate, its costs helped out by being used as a ‘horror setting’ by Hammer films, became increasingly dilapidated and neglected until a group of likeminded people came to the rescue forming the Friends of Highgate Association.
The success of their ‘business model’ means Highgate Cemetery draws 100,000 paying visitors a year, up from 63,000 seven years ago, There are various guided tours available. I looked on their website and most tours omit the final resting places of Karl Marx and George Michael. I assume this is an attempt to restrict numbers at ‘popular landmarks’.
Marx, observed in the Communist Manifesto: ‘In bourgeois society... the past dominates the present.’ I can’t recall the context when I first read this but I’m fairly sure it was nothing to do with where and how he would end his days.
When Marx died in 1883, he was buried under a plain, flat slab on a small side path at Highgate, with only a dozen people attending his funeral. The grave was neglected for decades, hidden under overgrown weeds, until Marx’s remains were moved in 1954 to a more visible location in the cemetery, and the monument was added, possibly for tourists, the original headstone being cracked and broken.
He is buried there along with his wife, a daughter, two grandchildren and, a nice touch, the family’s housekeeper.
There’s CCTV around the Karl Marx statue now following two recent incidents of vandalism. The desecration or removal of monuments is in vogue, an unfortunate reflection of our era.
Karl Marx, Michael Faraday, Douglas Adams, Ralph Richardson, George Elliot, just a few of the notable grave sights I’ve seen in person at Highgate, including the most memorable of all in my view, those of the brilliant artist Patrick Caulfield and the not remotely famous ‘resident,’ Jim Stanford Horn who was only 34, but I’ve missed out many more.
Since my last visit there’s evidence that it’s not necessary to be a Marx or a Faraday to be interred there. I offer up Jeremy Beadle and Malcolm McLaren in evidence. Ralph Miliband, father of Ed and David, is there too. As a prominent British Marxist in his day I assume he’s happy enough to be close to his chief inspiration.
I told my gloomy friend to buck up and get a grip. After all, things could be worse. He could be entombed in a Travel Lodge for ten days, the fate that now awaits anyone unwise enough to want to travel to the U.K. to savour the delights of our February climate.
The television news interviewed some of those poor wretches confined to one room in a hotel near Heathrow airport. Until I heard these harrowing tales I hadn’t realised the quarantine process was apparently akin to recreating the Black Hole of Calcutta in deepest Middlesex. Restricted to one centrally heated room, containing a bed, a chair, a desk, table, refrigerator, access to Internet and television and an attached en-suite bathroom, the inmates are being forced to collect all their meals from the doorstep.
Where do the BBC find these people? Some of them appeared fairly ‘normal’ until asked for their opinion. More evidence of light travelling faster than sound - many people appear bright until they start to speak.
I can’t imagine mentioning cemeteries without recalling our many visits to Tarifa on the southern tip of Spain. The cemetery perched above the town has appeared in this blog in the past and it’s quite simply one of the best settings for a graveyard we can imagine. It’s always beautifully kept and an increasing number of the, mostly above ground, graves are occupied by victims of unsuccessful immigrants trying and failing to cross the mere 8 miles of sea that form the Straits of Gibraltar, dividing Europe from North Africa. Many graves bear just the simple, stark inscription, ‘unknown African.’ Those poor souls washed ashore receive a burial in the same graveyard as Spanish aristocracy and the locals ensure the graves of these unknown victims of the ocean are regularly provided with flowers and treated with equal reverence.
At Algeciras, in the shadow of Gibraltar, a few miles from Tarifa we saw a much more basic cemetery with at least 100 graves of people who drowned in the straits. Almost all are nameless. Only the date of burial and case number have been roughly scratched into the cement grave markers.
On our first ever trip to Morocco and North Africa, the first of many, we made the ferry crossing from Algeciras. We prefer the swifter ferry from Tarifa now, but visiting Algeciras for the first time was a real eye opener. The period celebrating Ramadan was imminent and the area was swamped with Moroccans and Algerians trying to get home to be with their families.
Ramadan, one of the Five Pillars of Islam is observed by Muslims throughout the world as a month of fasting, prayer and community so the roads across Europe are packed with expatriate Muslims in heavily laden cars heading towards the ferries to get home. At night the hillsides around Algeciras are dotted with hundreds of tiny bonfires as the early arrivals await their turn to board a ferry.
Algeciras is far from attractive, it’s a scruffy working port, but while wandering around the port area we came across a tiny ‘monastery’ run by a man I had heard about but never expected to meet.
For more than 40 years, Padre Patera has been the first point of contact in Europe for thousands of Africans crossing the Mediterranean illegally by boat. He runs his charity out of a tiny monastery right next to the port. Illegal immigrants set off clutching only a scrap of paper bearing the name Padre Patera in the certainty that if they survive the perilous crossing they will receive a welcome meal and useful advice as to the next steps to take to achieve their dreams of living in Europe.
Many other memorable cemeteries come to mind: just outside a tiny hamlet in New Zealand we came across a hill side dotted with graves and stopped to look at the view across the mouth of a river to the sea. A great number of the headstones bore very similar names, all of them Scandinavian in origin, but the most striking aspect was that so many of the dates of death were the same.
A tragedy involving the sinking of a vessel at the height of a storm as they reached landfall saw a score or more people, all ages, men, women and children, bearing the same name. We saw so many Andersons, Petersons and Eriksons, buried side by side, entire families laid to rest in one place. I can’t recall the name of that village, it was a tiny settlement far from any tourist route, but neither Marigold or I will ever forget it.
Other memorable graveyards are rooted in memory. Lacking the poignancy of that in New Zealand, but utterly remarkable were the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague with its ancient gravestones leaning against each other for support, the vast expanse of the City of the Dead in Cairo and the oddly named Cemeterio dos Prazeres (which translates Cemetery of Pleasures) in Lisbon which contains an absolutely gigantic mausoleum, the largest in Europe, constructed for the Duke of Palmela and his family in the shape of a pyramid and modelled on Solomon’s temple.
More of this to follow...