Greenwich Park, 1993. © David Secombe.
This Christmas season has a peculiar flavour, distinct from any other I can recall. The sheer weirdness of world events has imbued it with a sense of foreboding; and although I am old enough to remember the tail end of the Cold War and the fear of Mutual Assured Destruction, what we are living through now seems uniquely tawdry and surreal. Everyone seems to be casting around for historical parallels to contextualize the strangeness of the present. Thought For The Day pieties don’t really belong on The London Column, so I won’t rehearse the obvious. But, given that so many are casting around for runes to foretell the future, we might as well invoke the pagan underpinnings of the festival that is now upon us.
The picture above was taken in Greenwich Park in December 1993; the roe deer skull in the photo belonged to my companion on the day, an art teacher who was taking it into her class as a subject for a still life. It was she who remembered that we were standing near the remains of a Romano-Celtic temple, and she produced the skull as an fittingly atavistic prop. In its day, the temple in Greenwich Park was an excellently situated facility; an ancient world insurance bureau, handy for any last-minute sacrifices you wanted to make to Poseidon (or whoever) on your way to the Kent coast. And by 400 AD there might have been a lot of anxious sacrificial blood-letting at this temple, what with all those hairy Saxons and Picts … The retreat of the Romans from Britain has always struck me as being as comic as it is poignant; I’m thinking of the Romanised Brits, all those comfortable farmers and aspirational merchants, watching in dismay as the props of civilization gradually disappeared. No wonder so much treasure got cached at this time, buried for safekeeping and then forgotten. I imagine a party of bewildered civilians standing on the beach at, say, Richborough, waving off the last Roman galley, saying that the lads wouldn’t be gone long and that normal service would soon be resumed. I wonder how long it took for the reality to sink in.
And on that note …
Happy Christmas everyone.
DS: About a thousand years ago (1991) I spent a few months working with a BBC film crew – it really was film – making a documentary to mark the Queen’s 40th year on the throne. The camera/sound team of Philip Bonham-Carter and the late Peter Edwards, and the director Edward Mirzoeff (a sometime contributor to this blog) – had formidable reputations. I did not have a formidable reputation. I was hired in haste, the production already rolling, to take ‘stills’ and not get in anyone’s way. Naturally, I got in everyone’s way – most often in the viewfinder of Philip’s Arriflex – but somehow managed to avoid being fired.
My chief recollection of the project is fear: fear of getting in Philip’s shot, fear of missing my shot (the sound-proof camera housing I had to use denied easy access to the camera), fear of under-exposure in huge rooms lit by dim lamps, fear of saying the wrong thing … I even discovered a new kind of fear: that my Moss Bros penguin suit was about to collapse in front of royalty. At Windsor Castle photographing a state banquet I suddenly felt the elastic in my waistband give out; my trousers began heading south just as Lech Walesa was greeting the Queen Mother. The nightmares still recur.
I finally overcame my fears and managed to complete the project, salvaging some dignity in the process. Looking back, these images are souvenirs of a time that has become so distant. Who would have thought that 1991 would seem like such an innocent time?
Anyway, this blog post constitutes The London Column’s 90th birthday greeting to Her Majesty. Please be upstanding, and cue music:
All photos © David Secombe.
Kings Cross. © Dave Hendley.
All photos © Tim Marshall 2015.
Merry Christmas everyone.
… from The London Column.
Pig’s head still life, south London, circa 1982. © David Secombe.
From the Hern’s Tribe website:
Mid-Winter Solstice (Yule): Outdoor Ritual in London
A special ritual to mark the end of one Mayan cycle and beginning of another. Join us for the Journey of the Fool, and quest through the 4 Elements to consecrate a magical Talisman. Anoint the Yule-log (yes a real one) with your wishes & hopes for 2013, and place it in the ritual fire. Then feast with home made bread, mulled Wine, some woodland tribal cooking. Don’t forget the Mistletoe! There will be Wiccan elements to this ritual.
Date: Saturday 22nd December 2012. Venue: Coombe Lane (From East Croydon station, take the `New Addington’ branch of the Tram, and get down at `Coombe Lane’ stop).
Yule celebrations in Wicca date back to the late 1950s. Most Yule rituals will involve the casting of a circle, a ritual symbolising the rebirth of the solar deity, dancing round the circle and the feasting ceremony of ‘cakes and wine’. Other Wiccan covens might base their ritual on the passing of power from the Holly King to the Oak King – a concept derived from British folklore. The festival itself is entirely Pagan in origin. Echoes of old Druidic fertility rites survive in ‘kissing under the mistletoe’. Santa Claus has been Christianized as Saint Nicholas, but the tradition of a gift-bearing man arriving at mid-winter can be traced back to Wotan (Odin) in Germanic folklore.
Feasting is a large part of all Pagan traditions and at Christmas this is still a principle element. The focus of the meal around a specific animal is certainly a residue of animal sacrifice, although the popularity for turkey is a modern development. We should not be squeamish about animal sacrifice, it simply meant butchering an animal for the benefit of the community with a small and usually inedible portion being ‘given’ to the gods. Modern sensibilities are usually too cosseted to even contemplate killing a chicken, so we should not condemn the past on our own rather feeble standards.
I would like to reassure my readers that the pig in the photo above was not the by-product of any crazed sacrifice, Wiccan or otherwise: it was prosaically acquired from a local butcher for the alleged purpose of making brawn, which was a fatuous attempt to disguise an equally fatuous artistic project. It was the early 1980s and I was an ambitious photographic student, my hunger for success exceeded only by the depth of my cluelessness. This porcine still life was shot on a cold December night in the back garden of my parents’ house in suburban south London, and was a study for – well, I wasn’t quite sure. It seemed like a good idea at the time … The transparency laid undisturbed for decades until it turned up in a cache of forgotten transparencies I found last month. I offer it here as a seasonal offering in a more-than-averagely bleak midwinter; we’ve still got a week to go before the solstice on the 21st, and if the Hern’s Tribe lot are anything to go by, the south London suburbs are going to be where it’s at if paganism is your thing. As for me, I’ll be indoors, watching an old Ghost Story for Christmas on YouTube. Or perhaps this … (and I’m sure you’ll forgive the shameless plug).
… for The London Column.
Mural, Chaldon Church, Surrey. Photo © David Secombe, 1989.
When I was a boy, Halloween was a shadowy, elusive affair; the occasional carved pumpkin glowing in a window; the occasional fleeting glimpse of a reveller skipping away in a witch’s hat – usually some person you didn’t know and had never seen before. As a festival, it was upstaged by Bonfire Night, and I was frustrated by Halloween in those days. There was nothing you could buy, or be given in connection with it. Today, there is a great deal you can buy, as a result of the promotion of Trick or Treat, by which Halloween has eclipsed Bonfire Night and ghostliness has given way to mock horror. In the weeks before Halloween, Asda stores offer, amid a landslide of plastic tat; the Asda Squeezy Eyeball, the Asda Rat, the Asda Inflatable Coffin, the Child Grim Reaper Outfit (‘one size fits all’), the Adult Grim Reaper Outfit, the Inflatable Pumpkin Cooler (not for cooling pumpkins, you understand), the Skull Martini Shaker.
Asda is American-owned, and Trick or Treat came to us from America. The British folklorist Doc Rowe, believes that the Trick or Treat contagion began with a programme broadcast on BBC2 in the early ’70s as part of a documentary strand called Look Stranger. It depicted life on the American airbase in Woodbridge, Suffolk, and showed the children trick-or-treating. ‘Within two years,’ Doc Rowe told me, ‘all the tabloids were running features on how to dress up for the occasion.’ But his point is that this was merely the re-introduction into this country of a tradition rooted in psychology.
It helps to think of both Halloween and Bonfire Night as outgrowths of the Celtic celebration called Samhain, which marked the turning of their year and the beginning of winter. Samhain was associated with the lighting of fires to honour the dead, and defy malevolent spirits. The medieval church both denounced the festivals as diabolic and sought to appropriate aspects of them in the shape of All Saints Day on November 1st (on which the sanctified are honoured), and All Souls Day on November 2nd (a more democratic honouring of all Christian souls). According to Doc Rowe, ‘By tarring Halloween with an occult brush, by caricaturing it that way, the church made it an occult event.’ But while the original Halloween might not have been thoroughgoingly sinister, it did incorporate games and rituals of licensed naughtiness. All Souls Day, for example, was associated with Soul Caking, wherein poor Christians would say prayers for the departed relations of wealthier ones in return for food – and you can see how there might have been trouble if the rich didn’t play along.
It is likely that these traditions, these precursors of Trick or Treat, were taken to America by Scottish and Irish emigrants of the mid-nineteenth century … so the Asda Inflatable Coffin is actually our fault. But Doc Rowe believes these customs are ineradicable in any case. ‘The more you suppress these things, the greater they become.’ Apart from the Church, he identifies the main suppressors as ‘the health and safety camp’. I know what he means, and I wonder how long it will be before the words ‘high visibility vest’ come up in a ghost story.
… from Ghoul Britannia, published by Short Books. © Andrew Martin 2009.
Chaldon Church is a tiny and ancient (11th Century) church tucked away in an unnervingly isolated hillside location about a mile north of the junction of the M23 and the ‘Magic Roundabout’ (a.k.a. the M25, London’s present-day Roman Wall). The church is famous for its terrifying medieval wall painting, described by Exploring Surrey’s Past thus: ‘The mural on the west wall of Chaldon church is one of the earliest known English wall paintings – it dates from about 1200 and is without equal in any other part of Europe. It is thought to have been painted by a travelling artist-monk. The picture depicts the ‘Ladder of Salvation of the Human Soul’ together with ‘Purgatory and Hell’. Wall paintings of this kind were intended as a visual aid to religious teaching. The whole picture is in the form of a cross, formed by the Ladder and the horizontal division between Heaven and Hell.’ No photo can adequately convey the power of this mural, or the sense of unease I experienced whilst photographing it on a bleak, windswept afternoon 20+ years ago.The medieval imagination retains its capacity to disturb; and the thrum of traffic from the nearby motorways seemed very distant indeed.
See also: The Avoided House.
Solar eclipse watchers, Greenwich Park, 11 August 1999. © David Secombe.
In Hackney, Mare Street was as busy as on any normal weekday. People were shuffling about with plastic carrier bags or talking on their phones, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the sun was about to be eclipsed. We were rushing to get our errands done in time to get to the park for the main event, the kids equipped with arcane little things they could look through that they’d been given at school two weeks before.
The first glimmer of what was coming was a strange, translucent-but-heavy quality to the air, as if it were turning into some kind of gel. It felt suddenly harder to move through it. Then the light began to go a bit greenish. Everything slowed down. When we got into London Fields, the park was thronged with people on the grass, some with picnics, and the weird green heaviness in the air intensified; it was like being in a fishbowl.
At the height of the eclipse, the park and the pub and all the people were as if viewed through a thick glass coffee table. It was very strange. But the utter incongruity of the street scene – lorries and buses seeming to wend their way painfully through unfamiliar, viscous air – was never matched once we were in the park.
© Katy Evans-Bush.