Thursday, May 01, 2008

City of the Living; City of the Dead

"London, after all, is a city of tombs. But London nevertheless is
a city in the full tide and race of human life."

These two sentences, from a Virginia Woolf essay entitled "Abbeys and Cathedrals" sum up the eternal dichotomy of life and death embodied not just by London, but by all big historic cities. The hustle of city life is anchored in the memory of all those who no longer bustle through the city. Every big city as at least one good cemetary, London has many fantastic ones.

A city of memorials to be sure; I've always enjoyed visiting London's many graveyards. Some people find my fascination odd or macabre, but I've never found anything spooky about tehse places. They are peaceful yes, beautiful most of the time, and if you take the time to poke around they are always full of fascinating stories. Like the churchyard near my house which has a tombstone for a man who died drowning-- and another tombstone next to it for the anonymous man who died trying to save him. Or the dozens of heartbreakingly small tombstones for babies, sometimes half a dozen in one family plot. These small monuments are sometimes all that is left to record the lives, marriages, deeds and deaths of these long ago people. So don't they deserve to be respected, admired and remembered? Even if it just by some unknowning curious girl with a big imagination?

My favorite London cemetery is the inside of Westminster Abbey, which I've written about before. For sheer star power you can't beat it- anyone who is anyone has their bones resting there. Elizabeth I is buried there, and Mary Queen of Scotts, Alford Tennyson, Robert Brown, Chaucer. Even more celebrities are simply memorialized with monuments. It's quite a sight to see: the pomp and circumstance, the overwhelming awe at how one small nation could produce so many recognizable historical figures. The grandness of English history is emphasized by the soaring Gothic architecture or the church.

Equally appealing, but often overlooked, are the smaller, secret graveyards which dot London. Waundering through a great green square you might not even realize at first that you've stumbled upon an old burial ground at all; many of the tombstones have been moved or cleared away to make room for dogs playing catch and youths on bicycles. An example would be St. Andrew's Gardens, the small park behind my old dorm in Bloomsbury. Gray and green tombstones line the borders of the park, more of an accent than a main focus.

London is bursting with people; try and take to come out of Leicester Square tube station around rush hour on a Friday and you will not believe that many people could exist. Festivals, races, movie premieres, demonstrations, London is a complex moving organism that never stops. It is exhilarating but it is also exhausting. I think that is what makes these old, half forgotten places so appealing. Time stops, or at least slows down- for once you can actually hear yourself think. Woolf really says it best:

"The only peaceful places in the whole city are perhaps those old graveyards
which have become gardens and playgrounds...Here one might drowse away the first
days of spring or the last days of autumn without feeling too keenly the stir of
youth or the sadness of old age. For here the dead sleep in peace, proving
nothing, testifying nothing, claiming nothing save that we shall enjoy the peace
that their old bones provide for us."

I am hard pressed to think of another author more in tune with the rhythms and songs of London than Virginia Woolf. Although her modernistic novels may not be my favorite and although I make fun of her whenever I get the chance, after reading her essays in The London Scene I have a new found respect for her. She was a native Londoner, and her love of the city really shines through in her writing in a way I can only hope my love shows in mine.

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