Chapter Four – Highgate Cemetery

I am in the process of writing a novel which, while decidedly not autobiographical, has obvious links to my own life. I’m going to publish the odd chapter here, and feedback is welcome. All you really need to know is the book is the dialogue of a young girl to her grandmother, who is incapable of communicating back. 

I don’t understand why nobody tells you how hard it is to move to London. Maybe it’s because it’s the most boringly predictable thing to do with your life as a New Zealander, short of staying behind, or moving to Australia. It’s kind of a rite of passage, just because we’re doled out these two year VISAs so easily, and the idea of sliding sideways out of uni and landing in a desk job is so dull. Or, I guess, it’s right for some people. It just wasn’t for me.

The thing is, we grow up thinking we’re part British anyway. Between the rugby and the Commonwealth and the Queen, there are pretty strong ties. And even though New Zealand’s national identity is there – almost too there, almost trying too hard – there’s always the greater looming power. It’s a safety thing too.

So people move to London because they can’t bothered thinking harder about something more interesting to do. I know that sounds harsh, judgmental, but it’s true – you can move to London and set up a life that looks very much the same as your one back in New Zealand, but it just looks better on Facebook, when your backdrop is the Thames or Big Ben rather than the house you grew up in. Move there are the right time, and all your friends will be there too, and you won’t have to make any new ones. You could go a whole day without actually speaking to someone who’s British – or even someone that isn’t a New Zealander. And of course, you can play off that whole ridiculous stereotype of New Zealanders as hard working and willing and honest. As if we’re all not as crap as anyone else at the age of 24, or whatever, moving to a new country to escape family obligations and student debt and the possibility of having to shoulder responsibility. Fact is, anyone moving to London knowing that they can’t stay there for longer than two years is doing it for one of three reasons – escape, arrogance or boredom. Usually it’s a bit of all three. And then you can go back home and occasionally drop into conversation “When I lived in London…” Never mind that nearly everyone can say the same sentence. Never mind that your life in London was the same as the one you came back to NZ. It still gives you kudos.

That’s why I did it, anyway – and I guess I’ve been shocked at how fucking hard it has been.

London might have its similarities to New Zealand, and there are plenty of us over here, and there’s money and jobs to be had if you can find them. But London is as empty as it is teeming, and everyone looks down and inwards. You can mock the Kiwi can-do attitude until you cry, but there’s something to be said for a country where people want to talk to each other, or have conversations about something other than the weather.

Maybe Londoners, the real ones, the ones who grew up here and have parents who grew up here, have come to mistrust foreigners – not for the stupid reasons, like job stealing or government bludging, but just because they never stay. London is nothing but a stopover on the way to somewhere else for most people who go there, because why would you stay somewhere that cares so little about you? Even if you’re there for 6 months, a year, two years, you’re just another thing to tolerate and turf, when you’re the kind of fat, hulking city that’s been there for one thousand years and will be there for another thousand after everyone has passed through and gone.

People speak about London as if it has spirit and personality, but really all it has is bulk. People are attracted by gravity and multitude and London sucks people in because it has everything – why would you live somewhere with one museum and one interesting historical fact, when you could live somewhere that has everything?

I don’t know, even when I’m hating it, even when I’m looking at my feet in the rain in my Primark trainers, and I’ve gone to another job interview I’ll never hear back from and I’ve paid £5 for a sandwich that tastes of nothing, I can still turn corner into a pocket of silence and a green tree growing against a grey church and forgive it. One moment like that in a week of shit, and I can remember why I’m there. That’s London’s power – because it has something for everyone. And not just something – it has the one thing that we need, that we haven’t even been looking for, until we stumble into it.

You can’t stay though. No one can stay.

Not even people who are born here and die here can stay here, because the ground is already packed solid with bodies. My friend and I went to Highgate cemetery last weekend. Everyone says it’s beautiful, but what I saw was death. I know, so original, seeing death in a cemetery. But in some parts it’s terraced and clipped and lovely, with flowers on the grave, and marble stone polished to reflect any dim light that filters through – but then you go off the path, to the graves that have been there for 80 or 100 years and they’re chipped. They’re grey and cracked, and some of them have fallen over altogether, with the names eroded so the bones below are nothing but bones, anonymous and broken. And the headstones themselves are leaning in to each other, packed like old teeth, so you can imagine the bones beneath reaching out for each other, rib cages interlocked like fingers, legs and arms linked and hooked because if there’s not enough room above then it stands to reason that there’s not enough room below, doesn’t it?

There aren’t enough living people in London to care about how many dead people there are in London, and even as the living pack in, still more people die.

Did you read about the rail developments in Liverpool St? How they were digging up the ground to make room for the tunnels, and they came across a mass grave, packed with 300 bodies, maybe 200 years old? Nobody knew they were there.

And the discovery must have been shocking, the one guy with the drill suddenly finding himself to be shattering a skull. Or that’s how I picture it anyway, because it’s better if it’s dramatic, right, a blackened skull suddenly leering out of the dirt? But realistically they probably had a full mechanical shovel full of several tonnes of dirt and they probably thought they were looking at tree roots before they realized that what they were seeing were limbs. Even then, once they realized, do you think they parsed out the bones and the bits like some ancient awful jigsaw, so the bodies were whole, and buried them beautifully, in lines, with those shiny pink headstones? They have no names, and they have no space. And they couldn’t stay where they were because otherwise where would the tunnel go? And the trains packed with the thousands of brand new Londoners desperate to go places, a hundred places, so that when they eventually go back home they have stories to say, and maybe some pictures of themselves standing in front of things? Maybe graveyards.

The news stories never contain what happens to the remains, unless they think they’ve found a king or a treasure chest, and so what I think they probably did was find somewhere – outside of London of course – where they could big a hole as big, and dumped them all back in. Or they burned them. I can’t really think of burning bones, can you? It’s not right.

The weirdest part of it all is the way people fight to be buried in London – in Highgate cemetery especially, together with Karl Marx and Christina Rosetti. I only know those names because I went there and looked at the monuments, that massive bearded statue of Marx surrounded by people commenting that he looks like Santa Claus. I don’t know why people want to be buried there. Maybe because it’s somewhere they know, which makes death less scary. Maybe because it’s somewhere where people go, so even if the people walking by their grave aren’t visiting them, at least they’re there. Maybe because the dirt is thick with famous dead people, and they think that famous dead people are better to be around than ordinary dead people, because dead people are scary but marginally less scary if they invented socialism. Or maybe because it’s the last kind of acceptance, the last nod from London that maybe you might be allowed to belong.

It could be any of them, but I think the last one might drive people most – the idea that you might finally belong somewhere if you’re literally part of the soil and carved into the stone.

People are dumb though, because even the shiniest graves chip and crack and fall. Even famous people get forgotten and even expensive tombs eventually get dug up. And nobody really belongs anywhere, even if they die there.

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