Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Cross Bones Graveyard feels the love at last

Peromyscus's law: The nearer it is to October 31st, the probability that a link you click will lead to skeletons begins to approach 1.

This is of particular interest to me as I don't actually like Halloween. Brought up a long time ago in England, we didn't have Halloween in the American sense. We had Mischievous Night, where the bolder children went smashing windows and setting fire to things. At the end of October and before Bonfire Night many of us carved faces into either rutabagas or turnips, depending on which ones are the big, grey wrinkly ones in your dialect. I think one year, in a fit of superstrength, I managed to hollow out enough turnip (or rutabaga) flesh to actually put the stub of a candle inside, but that was the one and only time. I have no idea why we did that, though. And nobody had any candy.

But the world wibe wed is no respecter of county traditions, and leans heavily Halloween.  Even though today is the first day of Diwali, I think I've only heard that on the radio. Everything on the 'tubes is geared towards skeletons. From Twitter, I clicked this link at the Smithsonian, and came across a sprawling write up of a cemetery in Southwark that borders on an area of London that has housed prostitutes for 1900 years. (Which is a whole lot of years. I'm not convinced we know for a fact that Roman soldiers were visiting ladies of the night in Southwark during the first century but the article seems to think we do.)



Crossbones Girl - a 'cold case' investigation of one of the skeletons found
at the cemetery.

The article gives a necessarily brief history of the area, and dwells on the cemetery, the Cross Bones Graveyard. Although the Bishop had the local licensing rights for prostitutes, for some reason they were still considered outside the church, and so were buried in unconsecrated land. There were a lot of them (and local poor, along with their children, who were also apparently buried here) and the later burials were shallow, leading to a bit of NIMBYism from the locals, who thought this might not be very sanitary. Still, the article says the burial ground was eventually "more or less forgotten" until the London transport authority needed the land to build a substation in the 1990s. Historians were given a brief window to check the ground, and then all hell broke loose. Not so much in terms of the corpses springing up and haunting South London, which would have been cool, but more in the sense of the living suddenly deciding that Cross Bones was Important And Must Be Commemorated.

The article says that "[t]he International Union of Sex Workers has even called for Cross Bones to be the first World Heritage site dedicated to those in the sex trade"; a local 'poet' called John Constable Had A Vision and wrote extensively about the site - and, in a less likely conclusion, was actually published and his work put on as a play; and lots of those New Agey/ Old Hippy folks who seem to lurk in the brick walls and cobbled mews in London like the Boneless in last week's Doctor Who sprang from the brick walls, as they do, and formed The Friends of Cross Bones. They have made a "wild garden" in the graveyard and festooned the gates with ribbons, and they aim to preserve "the garden as a more permanent place of reflection and remembrance".


A short doc on the Cross Bones cemetery.

This is the sort of story that presses all my buttons, despite being a little too Halloweeny to be really real.  Two thousand years of illicit sex, presided over variously by the original world authority, the Romans, and then their successors, the Christian Bishops; haphazard burials in unconsecrated ground, syphilis and miasma; a strange mass forgetfulness; the graveyard's revelation by the London Underground's mechanical backhoes; and the subsequent flume of psychogeography-related hysteria by those still remaining alive above ground, like the screaming mass hive panic in Quatermass and the Pit.

The spokeswoman from the local council is called Ms. Dark.

And, when the article declares...
An 1832 letter from parish authorities had noted the ground was “so very full of coffins that it is necessary to bury within two feet of the surface,” and that “the effluviem is so very offensive that we fear the consequences may be very injurious to the surrounding neighborhood.” [...] The land was sold for development 30 years later, but the sale declared void under the Disused Burial Grounds Act of 1884. Locals resisted further attempts at development, although the land was briefly used as a fairground, until complaints about the showmen’s “steam organs and noisy music” became overwhelming.
 ...it led me to believe, just for a moment, that it was the dead who had complained about the steam organs and noisy music. If the fairground featured a Ghost Train ride, I bet that was more than usually exciting.




Notes: Southwark is pronounced Sutheck. Quatermass and the Pit is pronounced Five Million Years From Earth.

3 comments:

KaliDurga said...

Hahahahahahahaa! I do love Halloween- and cemeteries, for that matter- but this cracked me up. How could they not rush to save a place that combined sex and death? Of course!

Lyle Hopwood said...

Yes, that's it, sex and death! How pithy! No, wait, where are you going? I said pithy not...

All the way through as I was writing that I was thinking "prostitutes and skellingtons"...no. "Carnal knowledge and skulls"...no. "Non-generative sexual relations and coffins"...no.

The phrase "sex and death" had completely deserted me. (This is probably a bad time for me to start NaNoWriMo.)

But to your point - did you watch the shorter video of the defenders? They look much more like Londoners than Romantics. More Eel Pie and Green Likker than Sex and Death. That was what seemed so non-magickal about it all. The graveyard itself seems like a great place to set a powerful story, though.

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