History rarely rests forever: a ramble with Iain Sinclair in Abney Park Cemetery

Iain Sinclair

First published in the Hackney Gazette on 24 August, 2006. 

WHILE Iain Sinclair points out the imposing Egyptian pillars outside the cemetery, which represent the gates of paradise, something remarkable happens.

A white hearse rumbles by, up Stamford Hill, followed by a white cortege, with dozens of motorcyclists dressed in billowing white t-shirts.

“That’s just fantastic,” he says, “it’s like a voodoo funeral. Only in Hackney do you get that sort of thing. That’s why I live here.”

The 63-year-old novelist, poet and essayist moved to the borough in 1968, having studied film while at university in Dublin.

He soon bought a condemned Victorian house in Albion Drive, Dalston, for £3,000 and has lived there ever since.

Hackney looms large in many of Mr Sinclair’s works, and in 1998’s Lights Out For The Territory, which documents a series of excursions through some of London’s more obscure landscapes, the first trip sets off from Abney Park Cemetery.

It was while working as a keeper in Victoria Park that he would disappear in his lunch hours to Abney Park, and to a cemetery in Tower Hamlets, to soak up the atmosphere of history while he was first writing more than 30 years ago.

“No one walks any more,” he says. “You’ve got to look up when you’re walking to see the history, such as above the old shops in Kingsland Road.

“I get a lot of the names for the characters in my fiction from the gravestones in this cemetery, names like Cakebread, as they can disappear and die out.”

Mr Sinclair is keen to look in the cemetery for the headstone of Edward Calvert, a 19th-century painter and engraver and follower of William Blake, the visionary poet and artist.

Abney Park Cemetery opened in 1840, its 32 acres of unconsecrated ground being one of the first purpose-built sites to bury the dead outside of central London.

By 1903, more than 100,000 people had been laid to rest in its grounds, although 70 years later the company running the cemetery had let it become wild and overgrown, squeezing more and more graves beneath pathways, into nooks and crannies, until Hackney Council later bought the property for £1 through a compulsory purchase order.

I ask Mr Sinclair if he would prefer the place to be tidied up, uncovering many more of the headstones which have long since disappeared – but he says he prefers the cemetery in its wild state.

“It’s like a city in here,” he says as we stroll down one of the innumerable and rambling footpaths, with headless and limbless statues of angels on either side.

With so many buried underfoot, and with the knowledge that there may be someone buried beneath the footpath we’re walking on, the cemetery is indeed a city, albeit an eerily quiet one.

Mr Sinclair stops and points out a sturdy-looking headstone, which gives the brief history of a much-loved husband and father.

“Like a stone book, you can just stop and read,” he says. “There are also lots of nautical ones in here as well,” he adds, moving on to another gravestone which bears an engraving of a ship at sea, but this one is weathered by age and creeping natural wilderness.

“The sea has gone green, it’s like something from the Ancient Mariner – there are so many vivid scenes like this here,” he says.

We move on and suddenly the boarded-up cemetery chapel emerges from the trees.

It’s a tall, fire-damaged, Gothic structure that wouldn’t look out of place in a horror film, and Mr Sinclair tells me that Hammer Film Productions, the British company behind 20th-century Frankenstein and Dracula classics, regularly used the cemetery to shoot scenes in.

At this point he produces a map from a satchel and heads in the general direction of where it shows Edward Calvert’s grave to be.

Soon we are wading through dense undergrowth, trying to avoid treading on graves that vanished into the bushes untold years ago.

“This is all new,” he says, pointing to a row of houses overlooking the cemetery wall, while a pneumatic drill clatters away somewhere in the background.

“It seems everywhere you look in Hackney now there are these modern yellow bricks going up.”

We reach a path, and three uniformed police officers appear from out of nowhere, traipsing along in single file, before receding into the shadowy green distance.

I’m beginning to understand that Abney Park Cemetery, which has a history of grave-robbing, is a place where anything can happen at the drop of a hat, and so this sudden interruption by the forces of law and order seems, on balance, entirely appropriate.

We press on, but the author soon admits he’ll have to return another day to seek out the Calvert headstone, and I ask him if he has encountered many interesting characters while on such quests.

He says that he is currently interviewing Hackney residents, both young and old, about their memories and impressions of living in the borough, for a new book, Hackney: A Fiction.

Mr Sinclair has just finished editing a 650-page collection, London: City of Disappearances, which features 50 contributors investigating uncelebrated urban myths and alternatives and forgotten histories of the capital.

We hear street chatter and the heaving sigh of a London bus. It is Stoke Newington Church Street, and the end of the expedition.

Before a final flurry of photographs are taken, Mr Sinclair quizzes me on current issues in the borough, particularly about incidents of arson in Dalston Lane and rampant property speculation near the site of the planned 2010 East London Underground line extension at Dalston Junction.

The writer may have described the Gazette as “the local frightsheet” in his fiction, but Mr Sinclair proves extremely well-informed on Hackney matters and says he’ll keep his ear to the ground.

Then he vanishes into Stoke Newington, and I can’t help thinking that Hackney and Iain Sinclair are perhaps one and the same – great, teeming masses of stories past and present, fused and limitless.



About James Willsher

Newspaper and magazine reporter since 2004, has freelanced in Russia and Central Asia, and does local government PR. Likes green tea and interviewing people / places. Phil Garrett was a pen name. @JGWillsher jamesgwillsher@hotmail.co.uk
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