Crossbones Garden of Remembrance, London

crossbones

I was taking a short cut to Borough Market when I came across these gates above in Redcross Way. I’d thought they might be an art installation at first, but then read some of the inscriptions, and knew I wanted to research further.

crossbones3

The Crossbones Cemetery was originally an unconsecrated burial site for prostitutes (aka ‘single women’) and then later paupers from late medieval times until its closure in the nineteenth century.

In his 1598 Survey of London, the historian John Stow writes: “I have heard of ancient men, of good credit, report that these single women were forbidden the rites of the church, so long as they continued that sinful life, and were excluded from Christian burial, if they were not reconciled before their death. And therefore there was a plot of ground called the Single WOman’s churchyard, appointed for them far from the parish church.”

It could have stayed forgotten – just as many of the women buried there – had, but evacuations by the Museum of London prior to work on the Jubilee Line extension in the 1990s uncovered 148 skeletons, an estimate of less than 1% of the bodies buried there. Then, under the guidance of the poet, author and urban shaman, John Constable, a group was formed to protect the Graveyard from development and also to establish a memorial garden for who the gates declare as: ‘RIP THE OUTCAST DEAD’.

crossbones6

It’s a very moving place, not least because the spot still feels derelict apart from the visible touches of care.

crossbones2

As another sign says, it is ‘a place of healing where the wild feminine is honoured and celebrated for all that she is – whore and virgin, mother and lover, maiden and crone, creator and destroyer.’

crossbones4

And this, I think, it’s the secret of power for me. It’s not a place where you can visit and feel ‘poor women’, although that’s obviously a part of it. It’s also, perhaps strangely given the circumstances, a place of hope – that things might be different, that everybody – whatever their gender or profession – is worth something, and also that every man or woman has the right to be treated the same.

crossbones5

I really hope that the Friends of Crossbones Graveyard manage to create their garden of remembrance and that this hidden London spot is protected and given the respect it deserves, but in the meantime, here’s a poem I wrote inspired by the ‘Geese’ of Southwark (the women were apparently called ‘geese’ because of the white aprons they wore, or their white breasts bared to river visitors). There are also two videos I’ve found – one of a piece by John Constable (or Crow) and the other from a TV documentary which reconstructed one of a ‘young woman’s syphilitic skull with multiple erosive lesions’ found at the graveyard.

GOOSE

Catherine, Lisa, Louise, Angela,
Gabriella, Susan, Constance, Faith

It starts with the tapping of a toe,
a rush of blood, hips that swing

Anne, Jane, Mariella, Clare,
Lucy, Lucinda, Karen, May

one sassy look too far,
a dish upturned, locked door,

Sarah, Annabel, Estelle, Kay,
Alison, Christine, Jeanetta, June,

who always preferred the open road,
didn’t she? Liberty, morality,

Caroline, Sandra, Sally, Sue,
Maria, Moira, Elizabeth, Lou,

equality, justice. Two sets of law
making the same set of bones,

Geraldine, Jess, Samantha, Rose,
light, generosity, kindness, hope.

**

Here’s a clip from the BBC documentary, Cold Case, about one of the girls:

And here’s John Constable (aka Crow) performing at Halloween, 2008:

Not such new news – GMGA New Talent Finalist 2012

Forget tomorrow’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year, I’ve just realised I haven’t yet posted anything on here about this website’s exciting placing as a finalist in the Garden Media Guild Awards New Talent category.

new-talent

New talent!!! Of course, it’s not a normal talent contest – I didn’t have to sing or tap dance (luckily) – but I’m delighted to have been on the list next to such wonderful writers as Debora Robertson who was there for her book Gifts from the Garden, (and very good it is too, highly recommended) and Annie Guilfoyle.

And also to have discovered the winner, Rachel Mason Dentinger – an excellent article by here in Kew Gardens Magazine can be found here.

I can’t tell you how chuffed I am. Sometimes I think all bloggers wonder if anyone is actually reading them, and this has given me a real boost to carry on visiting and posting new poems next year.

Quebec House, Westerham

quebec3

I was attracted to Quebec House, the childhood home of General James Wolfe, not by wanting to find more about the ‘conqueror of Quebec’ but because the National Trust are currently re-doing the small vegetable garden (actually just a strip) with the flowers and vegetables General Wolfe’s mother would have grown in the 1730s.

quebecveg

Many of the plants were used in Mrs Wolfe’s extraordinary household recipe pamphlet so there’s a real feeling of homely usefulness that I loved. However, this provided a strange dissonance with the exhibition on the other side of the garden wall.

quebec6

This exhibition focused on General Wolfe’s military life, culminating in the Siege of Quebec which Wolfe ‘won’ for Britain over the French, but at the cost not just of his life but of the lives of many innocent people. Wolfe was openly ruthless.

quebec2

This was fascinating to me – on one side of the wall, evidence of a mother who took so much care growing good food for her family and on the other, a son who used hunger as a weapon. And then I took the guidebook into the garden and in the sun – remember the sun? – read about how he received his military orders when he was still effectively a child, how he would write home for his mother’s recipes so he could keep his soldiers healthy throughout his career, and then how he rejected his mother’s first choice of wife, suffering heartbreak when his own choice rejected him…

quebec1

…and all I could think of was how much of the story of this so-called public man actually mirrored the petty anguishes that go on in any family with a headstrong child.

And so I went to look again at the vegetable garden with quite different eyes – imagining a mother who sees quite a different man than the public would have seen. Even ‘heroes’ need someone to worry about whether they are ‘growing straight’.

quebec4.

Here’s my poem – it’s a mash-up with Mrs Wolfe’s recipe for a cure for consumption…

The General’s Mother Shares a Recipe for Consumption

Take a peck of garden snails
He was fourteen, already a man several years

wash them in beer, put them in an oven
full of stories from his father, the house too small for him

and let them stay till they are done crying
that day he came running, I didn’t need to read the commission in his hand

then with a knife and cloth
got to work packing, had to trust I’d taught him enough

pitch ye green from them
kindness, compassion, to put others first

and beat ye snails all in a stone mortar
all his reports glowing, his progression almost too fast

then take a quart of green earthworms
we thought a wife would settle him, chose a fine girl but

slice them through ye middle
his father made light of the row, said at least he knows his own mind

and stew them with salt
I wept in secret, at least I did that

then wash them and beat them
smiled when my choice married my son’s best friend

ye pott being first put into ye still
even played with the babies as they grew up

with two hand fulls of angelica, a quart of rosemary flowers
but I slept with his letters under my pillow

then ye snails and worms, the egrimony, red clover
tried not to let a mother’s worry speak too loudly

then pour in three gallons of milk
or that I knew he wrote different news to his father

keep your still covered all night
but I’d seen before what happens when he loses his softness

this done, stir it not

and I knew first-hand that a broken heart never heals straight

distill it with moderate fire
later we held our heads high, proud parents of a martyred hero

ye patient must take two spoonfulls at a time
and now I grow flowers, try to forget I ever had a child.