Absent Friends

The Crossbones Vigils have been held at 7pm on the 23rd of every month since 23rd June 2004. They were originally conceived to remember the outcast dead buried in the Crossbones Graveyard, to renew the shrine to the outcast dead and to reclaim the secret history as revealed by The Goose to John Crow. Over the years we’ve also begun to remember our own lost loved ones, many of whom have stood with us at Crossbones Gates.

We always say that each Vigil is unique, depending on the energy of the night and what people bring to it, though each is held by the simple ritual forms we’ve followed and evolved on the 23rd of every month since 23rd June 2004. In terms of remembering our own dead, the 23rd September Vigil for the Outcast our most challenging yet most rewarding Vigil ever. I brought my mourning to the gates – individually remembering Caras E Esta, Lindsay Kemp, Will Hensel, Martin Barker, Di Sherlock’s brother Mike (all of whom died in the last month), Ken Campbell (who died 10 years ago last 31st August), John Joyce (whose ashes are scattered at Crossbones), Irving Rappaport (who died on 23rd September 2017, exactly one year before this Vigil), and last but definitely not least, George Isherwood.

Just remembering these great spirits would have been intense enough, but Crow invited others to step forward and share their own losses and grief. Maggie powerfully evoked her murdered son. Then Rob, an Aussie, stepped up to tell us of his sister who had taken her own life and to read the unbearably moving letter she’d left for her young son (with help from Jennifer, Jacqueline and the women of Crossbones). At least two more speakers, Emma and Bernadette Martínez Hernández, were remembering loved ones who had chosen the exit door, as did Irving and most recently George, who elected to have the compassionate injection which is offered in the Netherlands. Raga reminded us that Venus (‘Reclaim Love’) is consciously preparing herself for Death, and at Katy’s suggestion we all spoke the unconditional blessing we’ve spoken with her at Reclaim Love happenings on many a Valentine’s Day:

“May all the Beings in all the Worlds be happy and at peace.”

After an hour or so of this we were all choked up, yet managed to transmute all this grieving into wild acts of joy in our celebration of the outcast, dead AND alive! Jenn, Jacqui and the women from ‘The Goddess, The Goose and me’ workshop performed a collective poem, Ian Blake shared a divine solo reed instrumental, Mark Juhan gave us a poem with a tree connection that comically subverted the smart-phone from which it was read 😉 Joanna read us Blake’s “He who bends to himself a joy…”, and John Crow cheered us up with his Riddle: “Click-clack click-clack don’t look back to see if Death’s a-followin'”

And in all this we were held by the five simple rituals with which for more than 14 years we’ve held the space here in the streets at the Crossbones Gates, allowing us to receive and work with whatever strangeness the night may bring us.

And this is why we return again and again to the sacred place of the outcast.

Lindsay Kemp ((3 May 1938 – 24 August 2018)

Lindsay Kemp taught David Bowie and Kate Bush all they ever knew – at least according to Lindsay! He certainly taught them, and all of us who were drawn into his charmed world, to be ourselves, only more fully, to be free and fearless and, above all, to be ‘FABULOUS!’ I got to know him in 1973, when two of my best friends joined the Kemp Company. He was 35, I was 21 and in awe of him, though he never patronised my clumsy boyish enthusiasm. FLOWERS, his adaptation of Jean Genet’s ‘Our Lady of the Flowers’, was mind-blowing, beautiful, terrifying, sad and funny all in one. I must have seen it a hundred times – at The Bush, The Regent, and many more theatres here and abroad. I loved his other work – Mr Punch’s Pantomime, Salome, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Duende, Parades Gone By, Cruel Garden – but Flowers was the one which influenced my own life and work more than any other.

In the ’70s I trained with him and became a camp follower. I’ll never forget when he got us all invited to a party in a country estate at Virginia Water, his outrageous tribe of queens and heads cavorting in a house that had once belonged to the Duke of Windsor. He was out as a gay man long before it was cool – or even safe – to be so, and inspired and mentored so many others, including my dear friends Atilio Lopez and Neil Caplan, both of whom died in the early ’80s during that terrible first wave of AIDS. Around that time, when I was touring Europe with Sheer Madness and other theatre companies, we’d run into the Kemp Company in Brussels, in Berlin, in Barcelona. In the late 80s/early 90s, after his shows at Sadler’s Wells, I’d go back stage and be reminded how, years before, Lindsay’s dressing room had seemed to me not only the most magical place on Earth, but also the one place I always felt truly safe – no matter what mental state I was in. When I visited him in Rome, his feet were giving him trouble and he could hardly walk – yet he kept going, and astonishing us all, for many more years! Love and gratitude. Viva, Lindsay! Dance on, forever! Open pathways.

George Isherwood (4 May 1947 – 14 September 2018)

George had been ill for some time and suffered much near the end, so his death wasn’t entirely unexpected, and in some ways is a deliverance, yet his absence from this world of fools is keenly felt. George was an extraordinary theatre creator, an actor-writer-director who inspired and encouraged so many of us. He combined a deep love of Shakespearean theatre with an equal delight in tacky American cartoons. The two came together in his masterpiece ‘Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits’, a tragi-comic retelling of 4 Shakespeare tragedies performed in under 75 minutes, using all the high and low arts of street theatre, with toilet-plungers for swords and industrial quantities of stage blood-capsules – and all this long before Reduced Shakespeare Company came up with a pale imitation.

The photo shows the final act of Anthony and Cleopatra with George as Anthony and me milking the bit part of a dying Egyptian slave. ‘Hits’ was devised with Minnie Marx and the Sheer Madness group they founded – with us all contributing something (my dying Hamlet came up with the immortal line: ‘Not to be. That is the answer!’) – but George’s eccentric genius and guiding spirit was writ large all over that prize-winning street show. I joined Sheer Madness in 1980 – we started out passing the hat in the streets of London, then were a big hit at the Amsterdam Fools Festival and spent the rest of that year touring Europe in a Mercedes van. Sheer Madness totally lived up to its name – none of us had a permanent base, we stayed in hotels or crashed with supporters, friends, fans. In Germany we scaled the dizzy heights – playing in big Stadt Theaters and winning the 1980 Konstantin Wecker Art Prize – and plumbed the lower depths – in Jahrmarkts, doing tacky clown shows between the snake woman and the psycho knife thrower, all to the stink of grilled bratwurst!

I left the group at the end of a crazed year, though I later went back to do short tours and stayed close friends with George ever after. He went on to devise and direct many other great shows for Sheer Madness and as an independent writer/director. We’d meet once or twice a year – and always enjoyed recalling the best and worst of Madness times (including the infamous “Brussels clinch”! ;)) George had an encyclopaedic knowledge of history – from the ancient Greeks and Romans through to the 21st century – and enjoyed dissecting the vital contribution of US and UK foreign policy to making the mess the world is now in.

Over the past 20 years, Katy also became good friends with him, and we were touched that he came to our wedding last April, even though he’d been seriously ill not long before. During my year of playing Hamlet to George’s Claudius in ‘Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits), I used to regularly, literally, spit in his face – something he specifically directed me to do! Long after I stopped being Hamlet, he’d recall our stage rivalry with great affection, often addressing me as ‘Sweet Prince’. At the wedding reception, he once again offered his face, inviting me to have one last spit. And, with both of us already sensing that this might be the last time we met, I stroked it tenderly. And we laughed. That’s the last of so many beautiful, funny memories of George. Our thoughts are with him on Monday 24th, with his husband Richard, and with all who knew and loved him. Open pathways, dearest George.

George, Irving, John, Ken, Mike, Martin, Will, Lindsay and Caras will all be remembered, along with many other friends on the ever-growing roll-call of the gone but not forgotten, at the 23rd October 2018 Vigil. The October Vigil has taken on many of the attributes formerly associated with The Halloween of Crossbones, the ritual drama performed every year from 1998 to 2010 and revived from 2015 and 2016, in which we joyously commune with the spirits of the dead.

At the 23rd September 2018 Vigil, in George’s memory, I read the Blake poem I sent him when we already both knew that he was dying:

“Little fly,
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath,
And the want
Of thought is death,

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.”

Goose be with him, with them, with us. Open pathways!

John Constable aka Crow >><<

Crossbones on BBC News, 30th July 2018!

Click on this link for a news report on Historic England’s initiative to highlight memorials that celebrate ordinary people.

We’re in a bracing phase of the work at Crossbones to ensure the future of the Garden of Remembrance alongside the planned redevelopment of the adjoining site. Historic England’s recent interest in the site, which led to the spate of good news stories all over yesterday’s media, is a welcome affirmation of the cultural and spiritual importance of the old burial ground with its memorial to sex workers. The place of the outcast, dead and alive!

BBC Radio 4 The Today Programme, 30th July 2018

Click on this iplayer link and go to 2.19.48 to hear Celia Richardson from Historic England tell why Crossbones Graveyard is so special:

‘Oh that’s extraordinary! So, Crossbones Graveyard is a very moving place. It is thought to have actually been the original resting place for the medieval sex workers who were licensed to practice in brothels by the Church in Southwark. And what’s happened is… after that, 15,000 paupers’ burials were held there. It’s no longer… people can’t be buried there any more, but it’s really been taken over by the community. It’s been taken to people’s hearts. It’s become a shrine to the outcast dead, and it’s absolutely covered in ribbons and memorials and mementos of people who died from the 17th century in workhouses right up to the present day. And what’s really interesting is that every year now, on the Feast of Mary Magdalene, The Dean of Southwark visits and makes an Act of Regret and Remembrance for the way that the Church treated women…’

Great news for Friends of Crossbones, Bankside Open Spaces Trust and all of us working to protect the shrine to the outcast and the Garden of Remembrance…

Crossbones Blessing and Bards

Sunday 22nd July 12.30pm – 5pm FREE!
Crossbones Garden, Union Street entrance, London SE1 1SD

The Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd. Andrew Nunn, conducts a blessing of Crossbones Garden of Remembrance, followed by a performance and picnic for St Mary Magdalene Day

12.30pm Garden opens. Procession from Southwark Cathedral. Join the procession on the west side of the Cathedral or gather at Crossbones to greet it.

1pm Blessing
An ‘Act of Regret, Remembrance, Restoration’ honouring the ‘Winchester Geese’, women who worked in medieval brothels licensed by the church yet were buried in the unconsecrated Crossbones Graveyard.

1.30pm Cross Bones Bards
Poems from The Southwark Mysteries, the secret history of The Goose at Crossbones, by John Constable with Michelle Watson. Also featuring Kirsten Morrison, Cunning Folk

2.30pm Magdalene Feast with impromptu performances
Celebrating St Mary Magdalene’s Feast Day. Light refreshments provided. Please bring cushions for your comfort and a tasty treat to share.

4.30 Closing ceremony

5pm Garden closes

Some adult content. Under 16s must be accompanied by a responsible adult.

Presented by Friends of Crossbones, supported by Bankside Open Spaces Trust (BOST) and C.G. Hacking and Sons Limited, with thanks to Southwark Cathedral

Isis-Magdalene Vigil

Monday 23rd July 2018

Yet another reason to join us for the Isis-Magdalene Vigil at Crossbones Gates, Redcross Way, gather 6.45 for 7pm Vigil on 23rd July

Cross Bones and the Winchester Geese by Terry Gatfield

An Australian who attended our May Vigil was moved to write this report:

It was the 23rd of the month and late in the year; the sun was setting slowly, having giving off what little warmth it had for the day. I stood in a relatively small geographical triangle comprising the points of Tower Bridge, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and the church of St George the Martyr, while Borough Market provided a door stop. Above me, the wheels of an electric train sang a metallic song as it rattled hastily over the tall brick parapets to its destination. The huge arches amplified the shrill sound of that found in the heart of a cello. Behind me, hung the glowing coach-style wall light of an ale house, The Boot and Floggit, a pub unchanged since Dickens walked the streets. This arena carried the scars from having been home to some of London’s poorest and most violent of slum dwellers. In front of me was a wrought iron gate festooned with ribbons, flowers, poems and tired photographs left to hang in memory of the dead, from ages gone past.

This is the graveyard of some 15,000 paupers, of infants, workhouse servants and prostitutes – especially those who were called the Winchester Geese. These were the medieval sex workers licenced by the Bp of Winchester to be fodder for the local brothels; alas these poor souls were forbidden to have a Christian burial. Because of the smell and health hazards of the over-crowded burial site it was closed in 1853. This is now prime valued land and has been sought by many a developer, and at one time it was to be location of a giant fairground. Fortunately, local residents and people with more passion than wealth blocked every entrepreneurial move. It remains to this day a sacred site and is called Cross Bones, the custodians being the people of Southwark, not the church or the local government.

I was attending an evening vigil alongside 100 others. With guitar in hand, it was led by a middle aged charismatic man who displayed the demeanour and possessed the voice of a RSC member. He informed the congregants of something of the history of Cross Bones and in time gave each of us a ribbon with a name, and the profession, of a deceased person written on it. We called out the name and tied it to the wrought iron gate, while offering a quiet prayer. A long silence followed; then everyone who had an interest in the proceedings was invited to come forward to share a song, recite a poem, offer a prayer or whatever moved them. After a little time a congregation of hands punctured the darkening night sky.

As this was happening, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a rather scruffily dressed old man, swaying a little like an inebriated drunk, who collapsed in a heap in the roadside gutter; he was an Australian I was to discover. At the time I thought that he had died and considered that he was fortunate to be able to find such an immediate burial site, and possibly getting a fresh ribbon, placed in remembrance on the gate for him. A kind man, Peter Gatsby, known to some of the locals, came and ministered to him and life seemed to be renewed. It was all rather surreal, his life seeming to ebb away with so little fuss yet with dignity.

The vigil did not stop for this blip. Testimonies and songs filled the remaining evening with a peculiar mixture of sadness and celebration and a blend of frivolity and respectful dignity, overlaid with occasional tears. Darkness descended, the people eventually dispersed and the street emptied. But the fresh, and the older sun-drenched pale, ribbons remained, swaying gently in the light evening breeze as a tribute and testimony to the promise of ‘life and resurrection on the last day’ for those who were unable to speak for themselves.

In the daylight hours of the following day, as I revisited Cross Bones and spent some time at the memorial gate, it dawned on me that what I had witnessed the previous evening was a wonderful gathering of people engaged in a deep, rich, street spirituality. Faith, hope and love abounded in the unseen. There were no clergy present, it appeared, despite being within a stone’s throw of Southwark Cathedral; no religious licences had been given by the establishment, no hymn books provided, no class exclusions, no request for donations, no special religious dress-ups, no formal membership: it was simply raw street spirituality. This was a Church service that was truly beautiful, in fact excellent, and perhaps for many it was one of the few Church services they might ever attend. Perhaps they, too, will remember it as fondly as I did.

PS – I made inquiries about the Australian who I thought had dropped dead the night of the vigil; it appears that he was taken back to Peter Gatsby’s flat nearby, and recovered well.

STOP PRESS NEWS Thursday 5th July: 5pm-8pm Landmark Court consultation

As you know, Crossbones forms part of a larger piece of land owned by TfL. Becki from U+I, with whom TfL are working to develop the land to the north of Crossbones (beyond the hoarding), has invited us to a special consultation evening for Crossbones supporters. Hej from Bankside Open Spaces Trust (BOST) who manage Crossbones Garden writes:

“We would like to invite you to a meeting with U+ I, in partnership with Transport for London (TfL), to discuss their plans to regenerate Landmark Court to the north of Crossbones Graveyard. U + I have already committed to protecting Crossbones and to work with us to enhance the Graveyard so it is preserved and more accessible to the public. In line with this they have invited members of BOST and Friends of Crossbones to meet with their landscape architect, as well as Wynne-Williams Associates, who helped to create the Vision for Crossbones, to discuss how we can work together with the Vision as a framework to protect and enhance Crossbones. The meeting will be at the Africa Centre, 66 Great Suffolk St, London SE1 0BL on 5th July between 5-8pm. If you could let me know if you are able to attend that would be appreciated.”

Please attend if you can, to listen and learn and to reaffirm that the identity and character of Crossbones Garden must be protected alongside any development of the larger Landmark Court site – as the place of the outcast, a wild garden in the heart of London. Becki can be contacted directly: RebeccaSelby@uandiplc.com There’s also an exhibition and general public consultations being held at the Africa Centre on Friday 6th: 12-8pm and Saturday 7th: 10am-3pm, in case you can’t make it tomorrow evening.

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