In the fourth instalment of his series on London’s Victorian cemeteries, Chris McCabe finds himself propelled through Abney Park Cemetery by Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Machen and Iain Sinclair, and discovers the rich stories of resurrectionists, nonconformists, celebrated hymnologists, and one great lost writer from the Caribbean. Adam Scovell reviews.
Chris McCabe’s Buried Garden: Lockdown with the Lost Poets of Abney Park Cemetery is the fourth in his series of books exploring London’s “Magnificent Seven”, a series of Victorian graveyards dotted around the capital. McCabe, a poet himself, focuses his wandering around such graveyards with an eye for seeking lost poets and writers buried among the dead.
In 2014, he explored West Norwood Cemetery for In the Catacombs. In 2016’s Cenotaph South, the lost poets of Nunhead Cemetery were his subject, while 2019’s The East Edge explored wordsmiths found in the graveyard of Tower Hamlets. Buried Garden sees the writer venture to Stoke Newington this time, in search of the lost writers of Abney Park Cemetery. In this volume, however, McCabe is documenting more than the history and writers tied to the plot. Instead, the overall spectre of the volume is 2020 itself and the unmistakable trials and tribulations of that year.
The result is a detailed and rewarding book, one which particularly captures the challenges for artists during the pandemic whose work is rooted in place. Buried Garden did also raise wider questions, however, regarding how far some of the tropes of modern place writing have left to go.
As with McCabe’s previous books detailing forgotten poets in graveyards, the pleasures of Buried Garden come from the writer’s ability to convey detail. Whether in the historic lives of the poets, the analysis of their poems, or the history of the geography in question, McCabe has an ability to interweave much of the information on show without needing to water it down.
In chapters looking into the lives of writers as diverse as Mary Hays, Eric Walrond and Edwin Paxton Hood, the detail on show is dizzying. The chapter exploring Walrond’s life is especially accomplished, weaving in everything from George Floyd’s murder and Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman to Walrond’s time in Parisian cafes and Wiltshire asylums.
The weird fiction author and forefather of psychogeography Arthur Machen plays a key role in McCabe’s project too. His work is quoted regularly, and is undoubtedly vital to the author’s approach. ‘My search in the disintegrating garden has begun,’ McCabe writes, ‘a journey – in Machen’s words – that deliberately “shun[s] the familiar”.’ Whether McCabe succeeds in avoiding the familiar will depend on the reader’s previous engagement with London writing, though certainly his detailed exploration of mostly out-of-print poets more than adequately achieves this.
The sheer obscurity of some of the information McCabe unearths is exhilarating. In his chapter looking at Emily Bowes Gosse, he tells of Dennis Potter’s television play Where Adam Stood (1976) which has a portrait of the writer of focus hanging on the wall of a set. When writing about the death of the writer William Hone, we learn that his funeral was attended by Charles Dickens who wrote an account of the event with his usual humane comedy. As McCabe suggests, ‘Not every poet has a Dickensian account of their funeral.’ Such fragments of detail are what make Buried Garden work as a project.
Whether McCabe achieves his goal of finding a great poet is debatable. The closest he comes is Walrond, and even then the stipulations have to be slackened to include the poetic qualities of that writer’s prose rather than his poems (which McCabe is critical of). But this is all besides the point, and it seems that the very act of exploring, both physically and temporally, is the onus of Buried Garden; ‘this is why I am here’, he writes, ‘to dust off the brittle pages and read in a new light.’ McCabe is not simply reading old poems, but old places as well.
Psychogeography in its modern non-fiction form has been increasingly formalised over the last few decades. Spurred on by those excitingly vivid forays of earlier decades, non-fiction psychogeography has grown a wealth of clichés in the intervening years: its neverending obsession with the south east, the seeming distance between writer and place of subject, and the determined approach to mine poignancy and synchronicity out of noticing the everyday. Buried Garden does manage to find some new and refreshing aspects, while other parts fall into line with such tropes.
Buried Garden is particularly reliant on two writers, in spite of neither being buried in the graveyard of focus. The first is Iain Sinclair, whose style of writing is abundantly clear as an influence throughout. He stalks McCabe’s sentences like a ghost until he finally achieves corporality later on when McCabe actually enlists him for a walk. Sentences at times feel straight out of Sinclair’s later work: ‘Contractors have used the cover of lockdown to rewrite London’s streets. The Slug and Lettuce outside Euston station has long gone, eaten by the caterpillar of development.’
McCabe also uses Sinclair’s technique of letting sentences disintegrate into bare components, something dependent on their application as to whether they work or not. ‘The cemetery as a depository of stray words; non-conformist jukebox’, is a good example of a successful Sinclair-esque sentence. But so is wordplay such as ‘AstraZenica. Astric Forever.’ It shows how the style sometimes lacks self-awareness.
The other writer to feature prominently is the already mentioned Arthur Machen. The author is arguably the most quoted, with long fragments from his early psychogeographic writing such as N, Far Off Thing and The London Adventure littered liberally throughout. In fact every chapter opens with a choice Machen quote, as well as featuring several throughout the text. He is the book’s grounding, though becomes a little overbearing as his wider work is also used to contextualise many things McCabe sees.
The constant quest for synchronicity between walk and subject renders some parts of Buried Garden a little convenient. It’s a frustration that often characterises criticism of such writing; where authors fall too easily into the role of the flâneur, connecting everything together like a vast conspiracy. This is heightened in Buried Garden for two reasons, though does create some interesting results.
The first is that McCabe was writing this during the 2020 lockdown. Being a Liverpool-based writer, he is forced to see London as an almost psychic place; half imagined and dreamed up. It makes his eventual walks during the brief respites of lockdown easing all the more excited, as well as allowing for Liverpool itself to occasionally feature when stuck at home. It’s refreshing seeing parts of Merseyside given this sort of treatment, and should point the way to future place writing, as does the recent success of Jeff Young’s Ghost Town. There are other realms worthy of attention beyond East London, Kent and Essex.
The second is that lockdown itself meant the ordinary did indeed become extraordinary when experienced again. Lockdown remythologised the everyday in a way that previous psychogeographic writing often forced out of its experiences. Whereas detailing fragments such as overhead phone conversations, people’s habits in the street etc. increasingly feels lacklustre in other work, it’s easy to empathise with McCabe seeing such moments with more than a fair share of wonder. Witnessing some degree of normality return was genuinely packed with poignancy last year, and even if McCabe does mine it more generally in other sections later on (especially in the all too handy role of dreams that connect up to themes and walks), it’s difficult to begrudge the writer for drinking it all in.
Though a little too enthralled with the style of writing that its method of creation ultimately demands, there is still much of interest in the lost voices among the gravestones of Abney Park Cemetery. Buried Garden is a rich and rewarding read, though the tracks it walks are certainly well-worn.
‘Buried Garden: Lockdown with the Lost Poets of Abney Park Cemetery’ is published today by Penned in the Margins. Buy a copy here (£9.99)