Last week I joined Blake Morris for a walk in Abney Park cemetery. At the moment, Blake is systematically going through the walks in Ways to Wander edited by Clare Qualmann and Claire Hind. This week’s walk was Abney Park Cemetery, as written up by Romany Reagan. I asked to join Blake as I want to understand ‘mythogeography’ better, and Phil Smith kindly gave me his name.
This is a strange place: one of the Magnificent Seven large private cemeteries in London, but now no longer used for burials and on the Heritage at Risk register. So it’s pretty dilapidated. A few graves are standing open, but the empty insides have none of the magical implications of resurrection.
Those graves that remain, as always with headtones, provide tantalising encapsulations of a life lived by someone else, a minimalist summary, the metadata of a life. (Name, date of birth, date of death, sometimes hints about marital or parental status, sometimes the same metadata for family members buried in the same place.
Sometimes they hint at exotic or interesting lives: for example, why does Frank C Bostock (died 1912) have, uniquely as far as I saw, a lion on his tomb? Was he a national hero, or just an ardent patriot?
Why did Horace John Docwra die in Singapore in 1884, aged only 24? Why is his grave in London? is this just a memorial stone, or was his body actually brought back, doubtless at considerable expense, perhaps by a grieving father? Why is his mother not mentioned on the headstone?
For such an existential place, a place no longer having a clear purpose, a place half-loved but still ‘at risk’, there was an odd assortment of people on a Thursday afternoon. We saw a couple of the itinerant drinkers Quallman’s book mentions. We saw a school party apparently doing an open-air lesson, though about what, it was difficult to be sure. Four middle-aged men talked with animation around a bench strewn with Turkish newspapers. Two middle-aged women walked their dogs. A young man stood in the middle of a pathway, taking photographs of trees.
There’s a boarded up chapel, too, one of the first non-denominational ones in Europe apparently, since it was built purely for funeral services. A strange mix of architectural styles, with a now inaccessible interior hinting at past glories.
We talked about the meaning of walking. The ownership of walks, for example. Was this walk ours, or Romany Reagan’s? Blake had hoped that a friend would do a simultaneous walk in a French cemetery, but this didn’t happen. We pondered how our walk, being ‘art’, might be different to any other walk in the same place. Blake has written that “works in the artistic medium of walking, which are based in the physical experience of going for a walk, create a unique aesthetic experience with the potential to transform our relationships to each other and the spaces we traverse.” (see his “The Walking Library: relating the landscape”, sadly behind an academic paywall.)
In fact, mythogeography seems largely to be defined by what it is not: no Marxist assumptions, no wish to change society by creating mass situations, no domination by Guy Debord. Its stress on the importance of individual action makes me think of the American New Communalist movement of the 1960’s (see Turner’s “from counterculture to Cyberculture”, chapter 1 – reference put here as a note for when I start writing my MA dissertation…).
Incidentally, the Mythogeography website has a Starter Kit page which says: ” ‘Drifts’ are for opening up the world, clearing eyes and peeling away the layers of spectacle, deception and that strange “hiddeness in plain sight” that coats the everyday. The disruptions that set a ‘drift’ or ‘dérive’ apart from other kinds of walk are there to shake up things (and you) so that rather than wandering ankle deep through the sediment of discarded images and illusions, you can explore the whole whirling snowglobe.” Strand Strollers may be trying some of these ideas shortly.
But in the end, as Blake says, “The point is not to simply think, talk, read or write about walking, but rather to go on a walk. Skip the biography and walk straight out the door.” Thank you, Blake, for a really interesting afternoon.