On one of my go out and adventure days, I take the bus through the center of London and on eastward. I keep my eyes wide open for no matter where I look there’s something grand; a dreary street with a startling steepled church at its end, a sign marking Drury Lane (which I’m not quick enough to get a picture of), the Thames with boats and bridges, the passing people, the contrasting architecture of new time and old, the shops, the notices by grass ways and sidewalks that say: No Dog Fouling which is of course, an admonishment to pick up one’s dog’s poop.
In Archway, I get off and after a quick chat with a local vendor about which direction I should walk, I head up the hill toward Waterlow Park. The day is crisp and lightly dusted with clouds. There isn’t even a drop of rain and though at first chilly being about 44 degrees, after a few minutes I unzip my coat and loosen my scarf. Stretching my legs feels nice after being in the bus for nearly two hours.
I’m all but whistling as I walk. For really, I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect winter day as I go along following yet another book reference.
When I’d been looking through lists of What Not To Miss While In London I’d stumbled across a mention of Highgate Cemetery. “Wait a second,” I thought. “I know about that place.” And had promptly written it at the top of my To See list.
Where would I go if I didn’t have books to direct me?
In An Uncertain Place by Fred Vargas (whose characters I seem to be following all over the place) Highgate Cemetery is the starting point for the novel’s mystery when a selection of shoes (with feet still inside) are left outside the main gates. Naturally, the legend of the cemetery with its unexplained, eerie happenings and allusions to vampirism links in with the plot. And, as befits a detective story, the shoes are the advance warning of a terrible murderer beginning his destructive mission.
I’m not really sure why I want to go so badly. But I do.
The night before, I look the place up to make sure I know what to expect while there—“The paths can get muddy underfoot, so do wear sensible shoes.”—and while I’m at it I find out that the cemetery is the final resting place of a number of notable people including Charles Dickens and Karl Marx. I also find out that the cemetery is separated into two parts, East and West. The East side can be toured without a guide while the West cannot. At this point, I’m not even sure if I’ll need to go inside. It’s just the gates I really want to see.
Therefore, upward I go. Past The Old Crown tavern where the words Take Courage fortify me as I puff along, past a hospital, past a church, I get to the top of the hill and find my way into the park.
Just to be directionally clear, I stop in at the café and ask the man working there if the cemetery really is directly through the park.
“You literally go straight through,” he says.
“No deviation,” I say with a smile, “neither to the right nor to the left.”
Without a twitch of eyebrow (though with a twinkle in his eyes), he says, “Literally straight. Even when you come to the lake and to the trees.”
Thus informed, I go more or less, if not quite literally, straight through the park. It’s friendly with trees, the occasional squirrel, and the aforementioned lake replete with ducks. The grass, weighted with water, squishes underfoot. Avoiding patches of mud the best I can in my sensible shoes, I meander through and eventually arrive at the cemetery.
There’s the famous gate. There’s the road the detectives would have driven up. There’s the place where the still footed shoes were left. There.
I stand and stare. I take my pictures. I glance behind me at the park.
Is this enough to see?
I’m not sure, so I go inside the little ticket booth at the entrance and the lady gives me a brochure, telling me (almost chastisingly) that the guided West tours are all done for the day. I go out and scan through the brochure, calculate the entry fee’s cost against my day’s budgeted allowance, and decide to self-guide myself through the East Cemetery.
There’s a stillness there among the “dead but not gone,” as a few of the tombstones proclaim.
“If you live on with those you loved, you have not really died,” some others say, and I ponder this, having an internal conversation with myself about legacy and meaning and death.
The trees are tall and protective, kindly protective, inviting. Not at all menacing, not at all creepy. Maybe all the menace and fright are to be found in the West Cemetery. How will I ever know having missed the West tour?
Though lightly chastised, I am not sad as I walk the paths among the crosses and slabs, the angels, the spires and monuments, among the trees, stopping occasionally to mark a date or to read an inscription. For cemeteries are the place of a million stories. Each life and each death spin a complicated web of mystery, pain, and joy. Although impossible to know, the imaginings like memories are maybe another extension of that person’s life. Maybe. Somehow.
One man’s stone says, “Better a spectacular failure, than a benign success” Just like that with a comma in the middle and no period at the end.
One woman’s reads, “Thy dragon is subdued Thou hast come home again.” I stand there for a while wondering, What dragon? What legend, what torment, what home, and what joy to be there again?
Musing, I wander down another path and the not so distant sound of children playing reaches me—laughter, voices, excited noise. “Ah,” I think, “that’s the contrast there, here’s this place of memorial and death and yet the children’s voices are still heard. There’s still life on the other side of these gates.”
The barren trees seem to be listening too, but what they think I don’t know. The sun inches its way lower in the sky. I pass a trio of woman. What drew them here? Vampires? Legends? A relative? A book? Marx? Do we acknowledge each other as we cross paths? I don’t remember. I’m absorbed in my own thoughts. I’m intrigued by the slabs worn nearly smooth by time and the cracked and broken monuments. I find it comforting that nature takes over, weaving its way in with roots and vines around and over and through what we have done.
The brochure I was given says, “Cemeteries were also intended as tourist attractions right from their earliest days, not just as places for the bereaved to mourn. Visitors would be improved by reading epitaphs, admiring the art of the memorials, and escaping the noise and pollution of the metropolis.”
Are those women improved? Am I? Yes, I’m sure I am. And while much improved, strolling by the root and ivy covered stones, nevertheless, I begin to think about leaving. I still have a long bus ride ahead of me and a few other places I would like to see before the day is over. But, almost as an afterthought, I decide to find Marx’s grave (Dickens’ grave is on the West side). Why not? I’m here.
Again, I’m glad I do.
The monument is a monstrosity. A giant, rectangular block of gray with a formidable bust of Marx on top. A memorial unveiled in 1956 by the Communist Party for him, his wife, their grandson, his housekeeper, and his daughter. It feels out of place among the other memorials, the trees, and the intertwining vines. This is not a memorial for nature to easily befriend or overtake. It is a monument to man. To one man. To his ideas and his impact on social science and people. Embarrassingly enough, I’m not even really sure what that impact was, at least not for me personally, or if that even matters.
I take a few photos and as I step away two men approach. One seems to be a sort of tour guide and the other his guest. The guide gives me a look that I can’t quite read. Is he wondering if I am a Marxist, a Communist, a Socialist?
No, I’m none of those things. Not here, not today. I walk away from Marx and head back toward the front entrance. I’m none of those things. I’m just a reader following fictional characters and finding in the process that real life is all around me.