The requirements of the recently deceased are slender, at most. No, cemeteries are for the living. Places of quietude for when you don’t want to be bothered by anyone. Away from the corruption, the filth, the blood, the shit, the mucus, the stains… I could go on.
‘I do love a cemetery,’ Deserter ex-girlf, Roxy, told me, on being invited on a tour of the best places to get planted in South London.
‘I love the sense of peace’ I said.
‘I like the booze, the sex and the drugs.’
I’m out of my league again. Of course, I’ve paused on a cemetery bench with a biftoir and a Continental lager. I’m only human. But for Roxy, her hip flask and tin of ready-rolled ‘beasts’ have led to more horizontal refreshment from her lover du jour atop the remains of three poets, two admirals and one American president. And to think I was merely hopeful for a go on her beast.
As I selected which cemeteries to visit, I realised there’s no point in being selfish about your own passing. If you are going to be laid to rest in South London, you may as well consider visitors. Does your final resting place provide a characterful wander through peaceful lanes? A stirring view? Interesting residents? A nice pub nearby? Or if you’re Roxy, cushions?
Founded as a ‘Gentleman’s Cemetery’, there are plenty of colonial Governors and Knights of the Realm lying around, but the most interesting grave belongs to Thomas Murphy (d 1932), who owned Charlton greyhound stadium (also dead and gone).
Prior to taking up dog racing Murphy ran a circus act – a 13-piece monkey jazz band. One night they escaped during a burglary and the ones that remained at large caused havoc near White City. Two made a home under a Tube platform, nipping out to raid a greengrocer’s and a sweet shop, while Bimbo (drums, percussion) managed to change trains and ride first class to Rugby before capture. Two greyhound statues sit at the foot of Murphy’s rather grand grave, with no monkeys in sight.
Roxy seemed strangely unimpressed by the freestyle simians.
‘I know I’m supposed to like jazz, but for me, it’s like musical incontinence,’ she said. ‘I’d be more surprised if monkeys couldn’t play jazz.’
Where to unsober after: The White Swan
Camberwell Old Cemetery features some lovely overgrown stretches, home to some rare species, but currently under threat from plans to create more burial spaces. They are being vociferously defended by the Save Southwark Woods campaign, however. Even Bianca Jagger and Mickey Flanagan are getting behind local anger at the plans. You can always find more dead people, but urban woodlands like this are irreplaceable.
There’s something pleasantly maudlin about strolling among 19th century graves that being around modern tombstones can’t provide. Like their inhabitants have been dead so long they’re practically over it. No longer mourned, they afford the silent company my friends refuse me.
Nearby Camberwell New Cemetery is much smarter and more open, or as Roxy put it:
‘Flat, with not enough hiding places.’
It does house quite a few hardmen, including George Cornell, a mobster shot dead by Ronnie Kray for calling him a ‘fat poofter’, in a poor advert for speaking your mind.
And then there’s the grave of Freddie Mills.
‘The Freddie Mills?’ asked Roxy, suddenly interested.
‘Yes, the Freddie Mills. From Carry On Constable and Fun At St.Fanny’s.’
‘The World Light-Heavyweight Champion of the World.’
Freddie Mills (1919-1965) was the most popular boxer in post-war Britain, scandalously omitted from our Fists of South London piece, despite winning the world title and living in Denmark Hill. As well as attracting the boxing fraternity, his funeral was attended by Bruce Forsyth, Norman Wisdom and Bob Monkhouse, so at least he was able to miss that.
He was found dead in his car outside his Soho nightclub. The official verdict was suicide; he had shot himself in the head. Twice.
Where to unsober: London Beer Dispensary
The grave of the gifted poet and friend of Wilde and Yeats, Ernest Dowson (1867-1900), was recently restored here. Being of the Decadent Movement, he was fond of prostitutes and absinthe and at least one of them was served at the Brockley Jack at the informal reception that followed the celebration of his work in 2010.
‘They are not long, the days of wine and roses’, wrote Dowson, famously, and he was right.
The ‘poor wounded wonderful fellow’, as Wilde described him, died in Catford, at the age of 32, from consumption, though the drop of port he had at 6am on the morning of his death was indicative of his unhelpful alcoholism.
I began to read Dowson’s catchily-titled Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae to Roxy, as we walked through the cemetery’s nature trail.
‘I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine…’
‘Yeah, beautiful and all that,’ she said. ‘But can our shadows fall into a pub now, or what?’
Where to unsober: Ladywell Tavern
‘Few others can offer such a vast panorama of London, not even Highgate,’ writes Darren Beach in London Cemeteries.
What Greenwich lacks in celebrity and atmosphere it makes up for in aspect. It’s a breathtaking view, clearly wasted on the dead. There are however, half-a-dozen shelters scattered about for the living to gather their thoughts and skin up.
But what’s this? They are all boarded up! You’re in a cemetery, visiting your dearly departed (possibly) and you’d like to step out of the wind, rain and misery for a moment? Well, screw you. Get back to your graveside and make sure you dress for melancholy weather next time.
It’s unspeakably mean. Cemeteries Manager Ken Wood (real name) said they suffered some unspecified anti-social behaviour in the shelters a few years ago and were ‘monitoring the situation on a regular basis’. I do hope they are not regularly watching boarded-up empty shelters on work time. And even more so, I do hope the errant behaviour wasn’t me and the Dulwich Raider smoking a blunt in the gloaming a while back.
I could understand it if mourners were being disturbed while paying their respects, but if it was just kids with alcopops and spray cans, surely there is a better way than depriving everybody the opportunity to take in this unique vista, along with a sit-down, a tinnie and some Old Holborn?
Where to unsober: The Long Pond
If you think a well-tended grave could be important in the afterlife, you’d best get your name down at West Norwood sharpish. It has a wealth of ostentatious tombs and vaults and 69 listed structures, many of which are grander than anywhere you are going to rest while you’re alive. It’s also teeming with life, ironically.
‘What the fuck is that?’ screeched a clearly zubed Roxy. ‘It’s doing The Exorcist head swivel. Quick, back to London!’
‘It’s an owl, Rox.’
‘Oh, right, yeah, course,’ she said, becalmed. ‘I wonder what they taste like?’
West Norwood Cemetery also has what’s left of Sir Henry Tate (sugar and art) and Hiram Maxim (inventor of light bulbs and the machine gun), but my favourite spot is the Smoker family bench (smoking and love).
Ambrose William Smoker was awarded the MBE for services to young people, and even in death, his work continues, providing a place to celebrate his family name in the most literal fashion possible.
Where to unsober: The Great North Wood
Like West Norwood, Nunhead is one of London’s Magnificent Seven cemeteries, only this baby has it all. Probably the most beautiful cemetery in London, it has history, nature, tranquility, views and is enjoyed by quite a lot of the undeceased.
Worryingly, it’s easy to get lost in. Nunhead Cemetery sprawls over 52 acres of spooky woodland, with meandering lanes, lined with overgrown graves, scattered at angles, like an ogre’s teeth. Despite the numerous dogs taking their humans for some much-needed exercise, it’s easy to find a spot to contemplate one’s significance.
There’s something about the air and light here that slows you down to a sub-London pace, where you can hear your own thoughts, should you have any. You could be anywhere, with nesting birds heard above the rustle of your carrier bag as you fumble for some Neck Oil. Well, you could be anywhere that had the constant air traffic of a major metropolitan hub, anyway.
We settled on the bench that looks out to St Paul’s Cathedral. Roxy shared her hip flask, Norman, and lit up another beast.
‘Well, we’ve had booze and drugs…’ I said, harking back optimistically to Roxy’s graveyard peccadilloes.
‘Your days of wine and roses are gone with the wind, sunshine,’ she scoffed, mixing up her Dowson.
I retracted a previous post-life desire to have myself stuffed and placed on a bar stool at my local. An eternity of being so close to a pint, but being unable to have one is, quite literally, a fate worse than death.
But providing a surface for misbehavers to enjoy each others’ flesh above my fading bones is infinitely more appealing, I pondered in my herbal haze.
‘What if I got some cushions?’
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