I’ve been busy pretty much constantly for the last couple of months, and have not really had a chance to add anything to this blog, but I didn’t want anyone to think it had died a death. Far from it. I’ve been extremely busy behind the camera, just not shooting many things you could really call landscapes.
The River Medway floods in December and January even temporarily put paid to my long term project to shoot scenes on a stretch of it near where I live. The path was simply inaccessible for quite an extended period, after which it became a few miles of evil-smelling, slippery mud. I shot a bit of professional cycling action in France and Belgium in April, but it’s not landscape stuff.
Last weekend, however, I had a weekend in London. Now, London boy by upbringing I might be, but these days I seldom if ever do more than day trips there. This time, we had tickets for what turned out to be a stunning Martin Simpson gig at the EFDSS’ Cecil Sharp House, and my wife was also on a training course not far away. That meant we got to stay in a north London hotel for a night. And while there, I realised we were not very far away from somewhere I’d always wanted to visit: Highgate Cemetery. Maybe not everyone’s idea of “landscape”, but it’ll do for me.
To many, this is best known as the (unusual) place where Karl Marx is buried, but it’s so much more than that. The Highgate West Cemetery, which I’ve saved for another day, is possibly the finest Victorian necropolis in the world. The East Cemetery is a fantastic collection of mid and late Victorian burials, and, because it is still in use today, it contains the graves of some well-known figures from more recent times, as well.
Someone asked me today, in all seriousness, whether an interest in cemeteries was “an age thing”. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I have to admit I find them increasingly fascinating on many different levels: historically, sociologically, artistically, just for starters. Whole books have been written about the Victorian culture of death, and London is ringed with some of the best examples of its art. Highgate is possibly the best known.
I was quite shocked to find how overgrown much of it was. Mother Nature will eventually thwart whatever hopes of immortality the internees and their families may have thought they were buying into when acquiring a Highgate plot. However, the woods that now make up most of the Cemetery are criss-crossed with official and unofficial paths, making it easy to get to nearly all of the burials. I was constantly amazed at the ingenuity of those who chose the sites for more modern memorials, albeit that many of them are merely headstones, rather than full coffin-internments, as it were.
Highgate is also rich in the trappings of the Gothic style, and a finer setting for horror stories you’d be hard-pressed to find. I would think twice about a late-night visit! I’m also sure that some of the life size figures on some of the tombs were the direct inspiration for the “Weeping Angels” in the Dr Who tv series.
I was very nervous of turning my back on these, and frequently looked over my shoulder as I walked away! (And by the way, it’s amazing what you can find on Wikipedia, isn’t it?)
My chosen photo to accompany this little essay is merely typical of what I shot that day. I do very little monochrome work, but somewhere like this demands it, far more than colour. That said, the place was awash with woodland tones. There was ivy everywhere too.
I also took a load of what I’ve called “name-dropping” photos. You can read up on who is buried in the East Cemetery. It’s an interesting roll-call. I missed a few of the greats too, as my £5 guidebook bought at the entrance (admission another £4 on top) didn’t contain a map of the place. Be warned!
Favourites? The grave of writer Douglas Adams is very under-stated.
It has a pot of pens in front of his headstone, and tradition is that visitors leave a pen. Adams would have been quietly amused at the number of visitors kneeling before him to donate a pen, or take a photo, I’m sure. I was surprised to find the 2013 grave of Great Train Robber Bruce Reynolds. A woman standing next to me said “It can’t be ‘him’. They wouldn’t let people like ‘him’ in here.” There were also a number of military gravestones, and maybe the one that made most impression on me was of a WW2 bomb-aimer killed aged just 20, whose white Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone had very fresh cut flowers in front of it, probably only a day old. It was this that inspired the title for this blog. It’s a song by the same Martin Simpson we saw in concert the evening before.
And yes, there is a stone that says “Not Dead, Only Sleeping’. As Spike Milligan once commented on one of the same he’d seen – maybe even this one – “”Who’s he f*cking kidding?”
Might be an age thing, after all.