The New English Landscape

For more than a decade we – photographer Jason Orton and writer Ken Worpole – have documented the changing landscape and coastline of Essex and East Anglia, particularly its estuaries, islands and urban edgelands. We continue to explore many aspects of contemporary landscape topography, architecture and aesthetics, and in 2013 published our second book, The New English Landscape (Field Station | London, 2013), the second edition of which was published in 2015 and is now out of print.

Category: Literature and Books, Landscape, Topography, Religion

The big sleep

Headstone commemorating William Blake and his wife Catherine Sophie buried close by in Bunhill Fields Burial Ground, London. © Ken Worpole

Some years ago a journalist claimed that for the first time in history the living outnumbered the dead. It sounded plausible, and I seem to remember that in his exquisite essay, Urne Buriall, Thomas Browne also raised this possibility. But it is not true. Nevertheless the weight the dead bring to bear upon the living is heavy, and this is what the historian Thomas Laqueur sets out to demonstrate in his monumental history, The Work of the Dead.

‘This book begins with and is supported by a cosmic claim,’ Laqueur writes. ‘The dead make a civilization on a grand and intimate scale, everywhere and always: their historical, philosophical, and anthropological weight is enormous and almost without limit and compare.’ There follow nearly 700 pages of closely argued text detailing the many ways the dead have shaped if not determined the world of the living, focusing disturbingly at times on the sheer material ‘uncanny’ of the corpse itself, often possessing more agency when dead than when alive.

One of the more obvious ways the dead exert their continuing presence in the world is visually, in the form of dolmens, standing stones, burial mounds, churchyards, cemeteries, memorials or a variety of other commemorative structures, inscriptions, and dedications. My regular 141 bus ride from Stoke Newington to Liverpool Street Station is hallowed by many such memorials to the dead, whether the plaque for Mary Wollestonecraft at Newington Green, the closed Jewish Cemetery along Balls Pond Road, memorials to John Wesley and William Blake at Bunhill Fields (and close by, the unique Postman’s Park, which memorializes those who gave their lives to save others), or the sombre lists of railway staff who died in the First and Second World Wars at Liverpool Street Station. Also on the station concourse are two statues commemorating the arrival there of the Jewish kindertransports from Germany at the outbreak of WW2. This is not all. Any train out of Liverpool Street heading into Essex passes through several miles of burial ground (over 60% of public open space in the borough of Newham is cemetery land), before arriving into open country. This historicizing of the landscape makes it human, or as Patrick Wright once said, you can’t have a city without ghosts.

The Work of the Dead is divided into four sections: The Deep Time of the Dead, The Places of the Dead, The Names of the Dead, and Burning the Dead. Starting at an anthropological level, relating the long history of changing belief systems to the treatment of the dead body, the book comes closer to our own times when the Reformation challenged the intercessionary power of the Catholic church as the gate-keeper of the after-life. We began to die alone. The revolutionary epoch in France and the creation of the secular cemetery at Pere-Lachaise in 1804, helped bring mortality into the modern age: a name and a private burial plot for all. This is more or less where we stand – or lie – today.

Section II charts the rise and fall of the churchyard and its displacement by the civic cemetery. This is relatively familiar material, though Laqueur’s detailing of the process of physical decomposition recorded at the time in many overcrowded churchyards across Europe – which led to the sanitization of burial beyond the city limits – makes grisly reading. Much more intractable material is yet to come in Section III. The horrific accounts of the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, of imperial conquest and mass slaughter, the carnage of the First World War, and then the numbing detail of the mechanics of mass extermination and cataclysm of the Holocaust, all bring the scale of human ‘disposal’ to unimaginable limits. As the author frequently reminds the reader, while it is acceptable to think positively about an individual death – its aetiology, its social meaning, and its material conclusion – mass slaughter remains almost impossible to ‘process’. The ‘emotional economy’ of war and genocide is beyond meaning.

Laqueur concludes with some harsh things to say about the enthusiastic adoption of cremation in the 20th century – ‘a breathtaking exercise in disenchantment’ – a position I have also come to, having spent time thinking about the rites and rituals of death in the modern world. The abrupt destruction of the human form seems too traumatic, leaving nothing to build upon in the way of architectural response, let alone as an important element in the human landscape. Architecture began with tomb, and landscape has so often been given memorable form by the burial mound, the public memorial or the cemetery. Yet few crematorium gardens possess any emotional depth at all. If as Laqueur suggests, the churchyard is a Gemeinschaft (community) and the cemetery is a Gesellschaft (society), the crematorium garden or columbarium is a kind of bank vault.

Laqueur’s book is a major work, though at times it makes for difficult reading, with its unflinching gaze upon the brutality of war and genocide, invariably accompanied by a callous indifference to human suffering en masse. It also ends suddenly, without any discussion on the growing trend for ‘green burial’, on the re-use of the grave space (common in Southern Europe where bodies are immured in wall tombs for as little as ten years before being removed and the space used again), or any wider observations on attitudes to mortality and personal memorialization in present times. The dead lie heavily in the clay in Laqueur’s study, though on their contested and disrupted presence above ground in the modern city – roadside memorials, white bicycles, inscribed park benches, graffiti and protest marches – the author has little to say.

Because there are few stories to compensate for the dark matter of the subject, it was disappointing to find no mention of one of the kindlier accommodations for the dead, the Friedhof der Namenlosen (Cemetery for the Nameless) in Vienna, where bodies recovered from the River Danube were buried with appropriate ceremony as an act of human solidarity. Death is both a catastrophe but it also the defining mark of being human.


The Peculiar People


In the July 1939 edition of The Countryman, writer Sylvia Townsend Warner described how she fell in love with the Essex marshes. On a visit to Whiteley’s Department Store in 1922 she bought an Ordnance Survey map of Essex, simply because of the unusual place names and the fascinating blue/green configuration of the coastline. A few weeks later she took a train from Fenchurch Street to Shoeburyness, and then a bus to Great Wakering, where she walked to the River Crouch.  Caught in a thunderstorm, she was rescued by a farmer and his wife who gave her tea, dried her clothes, and told her about their lives. Her next trip took her from Liverpool Street Station to Southminster, and from there a walk to the River Blackwater, again finding a scene of empty skies and utter tranquillity. She stayed overnight on a farm at Drinkwater St Lawrence, making life-long friends of its owners.

These private expeditions and the deep impression they made upon her resulted in the novel, The True Heart, first published in 1929, set on a small island she disguised as New Easter, clearly one of ‘the Essex archipelago’ near Great Wakering –  namely Havengore Island, Foulness Island, New England Island, Potton Island, Rushey Island and Wallasea Island – all still isolated and mostly off-limits. Warner briefly alluded to the origins of The True Heart as a result of her early Essex outings in her introduction to the first edition. In 2012 Black Dog Books included the hitherto unpublished essay on ‘The Essex Marshes’ in With the Hunted: Selected Writings, and this gives a much more dramatic picture of her deep attraction to a landscape where, ‘I knew that mysterious sensation of being where I wanted to be and as I wanted to be, socketted in the universe, and passionately quiescent.’

Not only did the marshes and saltings enchant Warner, she was intrigued by a religious sect she found there, The Peculiar People. This had been established in 1837 by a farm worker from Rochford who allegedly had a revelation after falling into a ditch one night, drunk. The church grew rapidly amongst the rural Essex poor, though not without controversy. Like the Plymouth Brethren, the Peculiars eschewed any kind of professional medical intervention, believing that all such matters were in God’s hands, and on those occasions when young children died, who might have survived with proper treatment, they understandably incurred the antagonism of their neighbours and fellow workers.

This congregation was unique to Essex, and thrived separately for over a hundred years, only reuniting with other nonconformist churches in the 1950s, eventually becoming a member of the Union of Evangelical Churches, under whose auspices some chapels continue to worship. In The True Heart the meetings of the Peculiar People ‘took place in a parlour and finished with seed cake.’  This was unusual, because the sect was remarkable in the number of chapels it built between the Essex marshes and east London, some 43 in all, several of which still stand.

I lived next door to a Peculiar chapel in Daws Heath, Thundersley, in the 1960s, and not surprisingly was intrigued by their name and the mysterious nature of their religious beliefs and observances.  It soon became obvious they were almost indistinguishable from most other nonconformist congregations: teetotal, fond of rousing hymns, modest in their dress and lifestyle. That chapel has now gone, but the chapel in Tillingham near Bradwell still displays a notice board proclaiming it to belong to The Peculiar People, while nearby at Steeple, there is a beautiful Peculiar chapel which I came across walking from Maldon to Southminster several years ago, now converted to a private house.