Review by Clare Wadd
In Cenotaph South, poet Chris McCabe challenges himself to find a great lost poet buried at Nunhead Cemetery, the fifth of London’s magnificent seven. As a walker, I know the cemetery quite well – its wonderful protected view of St Pauls, slightly hidden off the main paths, its great looping avenues, overgrown graves, and daffodils in the spring – but I’ve never given any real thought to who’s buried there.
McCabe’s starting point is trying to find the tree on Peckham Rye where the eight year old William Blake saw his vision of ‘a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars’. The idea that anyone could see a vision of an angel in Peckham is gloriously alien to our contemporary image of the area. Blake’s tree is commonly believed to have been an oak, but McCabe concludes it was a white hawthorn, the angels the blossom; the tree could still be alive, though he can’t locate it. Moving on from Blake, he tracks the next generations of local poets, visiting the places where they lived, wrote and read their poetry in Peckham and Dulwich. I hadn’t known area — the Surrey Hills in Victorian times — held so many links to poetry, and it makes me consider it anew – as others might consider it anew if they knew I come here mostly to walk in its green spaces and enjoy its many wonderful viewpoints back into the city.
McCabe lives in Liverpool, but is librarian at the Poetry Library in London, staying in Peckham in the week. As he explores, a map of his wanderings emerges, drawing out the satisfying shape of a coffin on Google Maps – Nunhead Cemetery at one end, Dulwich College at the other, and his own London base at its centre. Throughout the project his thoughts are sombre, dominated by his mother’s cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment back home in Liverpool. Through this personal story, his esoteric topic becomes universal, and we readers follow both narratives, those of us who are relatively ignorant of poetry perhaps caring more about his mother than about the Victorians.
Nunhead is large, was bombed in the blitz, and later suffered vandalism, arson and theft, before reopening in 2001 restored by the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery. It’s now a nature reserve, overgrown with brambles, ivy and cow parsley; gravestones are broken, and inscriptions have faded. Most of the graves McCabe is looking for can’t be found, even in winter when the vegetation has died back, and with the help of the knowledgeable Friends. He’s not overly impressed with most of the poets buried at Nunhead anyway, but finally we reach a poet he does like, a rare woman, Charlotte Mew. She isn’t really lost and isn’t buried here – though her brother Henry is – and it was her annual visits to his grave which inspired her well-known poem, In Nunhead Cemetery.
Cenotaph South is both accessible and compelling; whether your interest is poetry, or London’s history or green spaces, you get caught up in both the challenge and in the author’s own story, ’til both reach their conclusions.
Clare Wadd has lived in London for 20 years, where she is an active rambler, and a regular contributor to South East Walker magazine. Prior to moving to London, from 1987-1995, she co-ran Sarah Records, recently the subject of a book and an award-winning film. She was also a contributor to Matt Haynes and Jude Rogers’ Smoke magazine.