David Tucker writes…
The Nightly London Photoblog*.
It’s like a noticeboard. Photos get thumbtacked onto it. For the most part they’re shots of today’s London that Adam’s “Canon’d” – he’s a dab hand with that machine of his, good eye, good reflexes.
I’d like to join the fun. (It’s David here.) Join the fun occasionally. Thumbtack up onto the “board” a few photos that are a very different cup of tea from the ones Adam’s putting up.
Old photos of London. Really old photos.
Put ‘em up with just a bit of accompanying “text”.
Starting with this one.
Every time I look at it it puts me in mind of Keats’ line from his great poem Ode on a Grecian Urn.
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought. As doth eternity: Cold pastoral!
The objet d’art that was the inspiration for that wonderful poem was of course a thing of great beauty.
What’s pictured in the old old photo I’ve dredged up is certainly not beautiful. But it is silent. It is a form, has a form – a chilling form, but it is a form. I don’t know about you but it “teases me out of thought.” It’s got its share of eternity. And it’s cold.
Pastoral it isn’t. Though it is “past” and, for that matter, there’s something “oral” about it. Tells a story. Tells several stories.
All right, what is it?
It’s a graveyard. The grimmest graveyard in London. Well, it was. It teases into mind all kinds of questions, beginning with the question, “where is it now?”
It’s the graveyard of Newgate Prison – the grimmest prison in the land. Newgate Prison is no more. It was taken down over a century ago. On the site now is the Central Criminal Court.
So, pretty good question – what happened to the graves when the prison was taken down?
The graves are – or were – beneath the flagstones.
The graveyard doubles as a corridor, needless to say.
At the far end of it is the door leading to the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court as it’s known today. Convicted murderers were led from the court, through that door, along this corridor. Though the graveyard. Led to their “condemned cell” in Newgate Prison. To their “awaiting execution” cell.
This corridor – this graveyard – was “dead man’s walk.” Prisoners led along here were the walking dead. The walking dead walking over the dead. The next time they came here they wouldn’t be walking. But they would be dead. Corpse dead. Corpses executed only minutes before. Brought here for burial. In a coffin, yes. A coffin packed with lime.
Notice the initials on the near left hand wall. A T. Beneath it an H. A B. An I. A D. Another T.
They’re the initial letters of the murderers’ – the corpses’ – surnames. Those single letters – cold, redolent of eternity (“doth eternity” is the line, but how can anyone with half an ear not hear the off-rhyme “death eternity”?) – indicate the place of burial.
But that’s all. No dates. No names.
Just that stark single initial.
Who was T? Who was H? Who was B?
And where are they now?
Where were they from? What were the particulars of their crime? When did they live and die? What were their last words? Indeed, who died by their hand? How? When? Where? Why?
Yes, why? The biggest question of all, that one. The Why? question(s). Why did they commit their crime? Who saw fit – and why – to bury them here? What was their era like and why was it what it was?
Cold, silent form. Eternity. Dost – dust – tease us out of thought.
*The Nightly London Photoblog is our strand that runs through November – every night a photo, one last look at London before bedtime.
A London Walk costs £9 – £7 concession. To join a London Walk, simply meet your guide at the designated tube station at the appointed time. Details of all London Walks can be found at www.walks.com.