N16. © David Secombe.
In London these days, a not uncommon sight,
but something Mexican-macabre about it all the same:
lashed to a post, or to railings, a bicycle painted entirely white –
white handlebars and frame,
white gears, brakes, wheels, spokes, pedals and chain –
and decked with florists’ bunches, satin-bowed and in cellophane.
There may be cards and messages as well. Toys, too.
Often a doll or a teddy.
But it’s the white that’s so striking. What does it mean to you?
Ghostliness? A skeleton? A bicycle being skeletal already…
Oh, get over it, it’s the vernacular now; and what’s not to like
about ‘Out with the whited sepulchre! In with the whited bike!’?
Christopher Reid, © 2016
The first thing I noticed was that the beigels had gone
and there was a run on fried egg sandwiches.
Katie Hopkins became a nice person.
The free newspaper on the bus had actual news in it.
It turned out there actually was £350 million for the NHS.
Farage said he’d buy those of us left a pint,
which was fortuitous ‘cos Wetherspoons had cut their prices.
No more forelock tugging for us, Squire,
‘cos what with all the empty houses
each and every one of us got a luxury flat,
each of which came with a rent cap.
The radio could have been better. They’d decided no Kate Bush,
no P.J Harvey but there was a hell of a lot of Coldplay.
Employment was a doddle. I’d always wanted to be a doctor,
or a plumber, or have me very own fish and chip shop,
and these days all the education was free so it was
certificates all round. Gilt edged ones with a crinkle cut at that!
At the job my working day had been halved, pay doubled,
holidays extended. The light began to dawn.
© Tim Wells. Written after the United Voices of the World picket of 100 Wood Street, 29 June 2016.
Playground, Rotherhithe. © David Secombe 1988.
From The Lancet, August 23, 1884:
Burying Cholera Patients Alive
It is not so much undue haste as inexcusable carelessness that must be blamed for the premature burying of persons who are not really dead. Such heedlessness as alone can lead to the commission of this crime is not a shade less black than manslaughter. We speak strongly, because this is a matter in regard to which measures ought to be at once taken to render the horrible act impossible, and to dismiss all fear from the public mind. If it be a fact, as would seem to be indisputable, that during the last few weeks there have been cases we will not attempt to say how many or how few of burying alive, a scandal and a horror, wholly unpardonable in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, have to be faced; and the sooner the full truth is known and rules of safety established the better.
Let it be once for all decided that measures shall be taken to ascertain the fact of death before burial. Why not revert to the old practice, and always open a vein in the arm after death, or pass a current of electricity through the body before the coffin is finally screwed down? It may be held that these unpleasant resorts are unnecessary. We do not think they are. In any case enough is known of the possibilities of ‘ suspended animation’ to render it unsafe to bury until the evidences of an actual extinction of life are unmistakable ; and, as it is impossible to wait until decomposition sets in in all cases of death from infectious diseases, it would be prudent to adopt what must certainly be the least of evils.
Lincoln’s Inn Fields, west side. Photo © David Secombe 2010.
The Haunted House
If ghost stories arise from the Gothic tradition, which was as much architectural as literary, it is also the case that persistent ghosts need a persistent location in which to manifest. So no wonder houses are haunted.
Haunted houses tend to be old and big. Such properties appeal to the romantic idea of faded grandeur, and also a baser snobbery. Every account of Borley Rectory, ‘the most haunted house in England’, describes it as hideous, but when I look at the pictures I wonder how much it would cost today if it were still standing, and whether the seller would take a low offer in view of its poltergeist infestation. Reading ghost stories we are torn: yes, a malevolent spirit stalks the east wing, but at least there’s am east wing for it to stalk. Ghost stories, both real and fictional, sometimes come with floor plans of the haunted area – literally, property particulars – and very mouth-watering they usually are.
Haunted houses also come with libraries, and with servants. The protagonist in a ghost story is quite alone in his huge house … except for his fifteen servants. The reader might not know about the servants until one of them hesitantly knocks and enters the master’s study on the final page and finds him slumped in his chair ‘With a look on his face, the like of which I’ve never seen …’
The author denigrates the house, but also slyly boosts it to engage our snobbery. In Walter de la Mare’s story, Out of the Deep (1923) the protagonist, Jimmie, inherits his uncle’s ‘horrible old London mansion’. But how horrible and old can a London mansion be? In Moonlight Sonata (1931) by Alexander Woolcott, one of the two principals inhabits ‘the collapsing family manor house to which he had indignantly fallen heir.’ The owner is down to his last gardener, who tends the ‘once sumptuous’ grounds, but the place doesn’t sound too bad to me. The Mystery of the Semi-Detached by Edith Nesbitt (1893) seems, from its title, to be bucking the trend, but the house is ‘commodious’, with several sitting rooms.
I myself grew up in a semi-detached of a more modest sort. We were its first occupants, and I was proud of inhabiting a new house. Those of my contemporaries who lived in old houses seemed to me to be taking a considerable risk. They were living in houses in which people had died, and people they didn’t know at that – people that nobody currently alive knew. It must be like living in a tomb. There would have to be certain echoes. In grappling with the subject, in his collection of sightings, Apparitions and Haunted Houses, Sir Ernest Bennett plaintively wonders, ‘Can it conceivably be the case that in some inscrutable fashion the woodwork and masonry of a house may exert some physical or mental influences which cause certain individuals to see the phantasmal figure of a former resident?’
… from Ghoul Britannia, published by Short Books. © Andrew Martin 2009.
Elsewhere in his fine book (an overview of the British ghost story tradition), Andrew examines Charles Dickens’s fascination with ghosts and how they impacted on his fiction. The above photograph shows the Inigo Jones mansion – on the right – believed to have been the model for the chambers of Tulkinghorn, the sinister lawyer in Bleak House. Although Bleak House is not ostensibly a novel about ghosts, it deals with the dead hand of the past weighing upon the present; and Dickens’s treatment of Lincoln’s Inn is appropriately atmospheric, menacing and grotesque. Here is the opening of chapter 32:
‘It is night in Lincoln’s Inn — perplexed and troublous valley of the shadow of the law, where suitors generally find but little day — and fat candles are snuffed out in offices, and clerks have rattled down the crazy wooden stairs, and dispersed. The bell that rings at nine o’clock, has ceased its doleful clangour about nothing; the gates are shut; and the night-porter, a solemn warder with a mighty power of sleep, keeps guard in his lodge. [. . . ] It is a close night, though the damp cold is searching too; and there is a laggard mist a little way up in the air. It is a fine steaming night to turn the slaughter-houses, the unwholesome trades, the sewerage, bad water, and burial grounds to account, and give the Registrar of Deaths some extra business’.
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.
Raine Monument, churchyard of St. George in the East, Wapping. Photo © David Secombe, 1988.
From The Hole in the Wall, Arthur Morrison, 1888:
The Blue Gate is gone now – it went with many places of a history only less black when Ratcliff Highway was put to rout. As you left High Street, Shadwell, for the Highway – they made one thoroughfare – the Blue Gate was on your right, almost opposite an evil lane that led downhill to the New Dock. Blue Gate Fields, it was more fully called, though there was as little of a field or a gate, blue or other, about the place, which was a street, narrow, foul and forbidding, leading up to Back Lane. It was a bad and a dangerous place, the worst in all that neighbourhood. The sailor once brought to anchor in Blue Gate was lucky to get out with clothes to cover him – lucky if he saved no more than his life. Yet sailors were there in plenty, hilarious, shouting, drunk and drugged. Horrible draggled women pawed them over for whatever their pockets might yield, and murderous ruffians were ready at hand whenever a knock on the head could solve a difficulty.
Bluegate Fields, a.k.a. Blue Gate Fields, was a Victorian slum north of the Wapping docks. Two streets were once named Bluegate Fields, the ones now known as Dellow Street and Cable Street, streets which border St. George’s in the East churchyard on the east and northern sides respectively (St. George in the East is one of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s six great London churches). Bluegate Fields is name-checked in The Picture of Dorian Gray as the den of vice where Dorian goes to corrupt his soul. Unlike Arthur Morrison, however, Oscar Wilde never visited Bluegate Fields. The area features in Peter Ackroyd’s 1985 novel Hawksmoor which fictionalises the real Hawksmoor (in the novel he is called Dyer, whilst a 1980s detective is called Hawksmoor) as a shamanic figure and draws on the dark history of the East End, presenting the wilder side of the city as a place that is permanently wrong.
I took the above photograph in 1988, during a rather aimless wander across the East End with a newly-acquired Hasselblad. Last year I revisited the churchyard for the first time in twenty years and was dismayed by the state of the Raine monument. They have at least put iron railings around it now, but persistent vandalism and successively desperate attempts at cleaning have rendered it as white and featureless as a corpse pulled from the river. As I lamented the damage, youths who might well be the sons of the vandals responsible for the decoration seen above cheerfully urinated against the church wall. Peter Ackroyd’s theories of Psychogeography are much mocked, but I confess that on this visit I wondered whether he might be on to something. The persistence of sadness, decay and deprivation in this bleak spot are hard to ignore: the spirit of Bluegate Fields lingers on, albeit in a different register.
© David Secombe 2011.