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Book report : London Cemeteries

Meller and ParsonsMeller and Parsons is the Lewis and Short of London cemeteryism: encyclopaedic, essential and it weighs a ton.

In the decade or so that I've been photographing London's cemeteries, it seems that their fortunes are changing. The neglect of the 60s and 70s is being undone by managers willing to give them the care they deserve, and interest from the not-bereaved is growing, with plenty of apparently normal people saying that, yes, they like looking at cemeteries.

This must be in no small part due to Hugh Meller's book 'London Cemeteries'. First published in 1981, it provided not only a history of burial practices in London, but a comprehensive guide to burial grounds, leading visitors not only to the famous Victorian sites like Highgate and Kensal Green, but also to the quirky and sometimes very personal monuments to be found in more out-of-the-way places.

Hugh Meller's original book had extensive sections on the history of London's cemeteries, as well as notes on monuments, epitaphs and flora and fauna to be found in them. But the real point of the book was the list of more than 100 burial sites, with addresses, history of the foundation and management of the ground, and extensive lists of those buried in each. When I say "encyclopaedic", I mean it: there isn't much you won't find here.

This new edition is the fifth; it's a paperback reissue of the fourth edition published in 2008, in which Brian Parsons added twelve new cemeteries and copious new pictorial material to Hugh Meller's work, as well as largely updating the text itself to take note of recent changes. It's tempting to think of the older cemeteries as static landscapes, but they're not; I was delighted to find out about the rediscovery of Lord Rodney's monument, for example, from Mr Parson's notes. A future edition should probably note that Maurice Selbach's headstone has been moved to the National Cycle Museum from Streatham Park; I've spent hours trying to find it in the cemetery!

His frankness about the more mundane elements of twentieth-century cemeteries was one of the things I loved most about Mr Meller's original text: "There is little to be said for poor Eastcote Lane, it is small, modest and dull" and "[Chiswick New] is not one of London's most appealing cemeteries and must be the noisiest, set down in a water meadow sandwiched between an arterial road and a suburban railway line." Mr Parsons continues this dryly humorous tradition, with such gems as Hatton Cemetery which occupies "a flat site beyond some enormous greenhouses", and Hillside which is "not a cemetery worth a detour".

It must be said, this is not a tome to tuck in your pocket and take cemeterying: even the paperback version is extremely heavy, but that's a price worth paying for the well-produced and beautifully illustrated work. If you're in the slightest bit interested in London cemeteries, then you need this book.

I feel duty bound to point out, though: this isn't a complete list of London cemeteries. Extended churchyards are included where they're still churchyards - St. Nicholas Chiswick and Mitcham Parish Church's - but those which have nominally been turned into gardens - e.g. St. George's - are not. You'd think "London cemeteries" was an easy brief, but there'll always be questions about how you define London and how you define a cemetery.

For sites which are definitely cemeteries, Hortus and Havelock in Southall, Hounslow, Borough, Feltham and Bedfont (all run by the London Borough of Hounslow) and Havering's Upminster, for example, are missing. There's always some argument about where London begins and ends, of course, but all of the above are run by and are in London boroughs and were open before 2008, so should merit inclusion. And by London cemeteries, if we mean "cemeteries where Londoners get buried", some of those even further out like Epping Forest, the Gardens of Peace and even Chiltern Burial Park should probably also be included in future. Mr Parsons, if you want a collaborator for the sixth edition, I'm happy to volunteer.

Available direct from the publisher or from Amazon.

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Book report : London’s Cemeteries

This book has one huge advantage over other guides to London's cemeteries: it's small enough to slip into a pocket. That in itself makes it worth buying, and Darren Beach has the essential qualities of a great guide book writer: he adores his subject, and he has a wonderful love of obscure facts: if you want to find the graves of Bobby Moore, Dodi Fayed, the highwayman Claude Duval, Cunard of the Line, Palgrave of the Golden Treasury or the woman who sang the opening line of The Smith's song The Queen is Dead, you've come to the right place!

Beach visits fifty of the capital's most memorable burial grounds, from Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's, through the grand and gorgeous Victorian cemeteries like Highgate, Brompton and Kensal Green, to more modern sites such as Chingford Mount, last resting place of the Krays, and St. Pancras and Islington, the biggest cemetery in London and a place where you can quite literally get lost amongst the dead. With an encyclopaedic coverage of both the rich and famous, and the obscure but intriguing, he provides a superb and comprehensive guide to historical sites, dead famous people and those who just have intriguing tombs. I've visited all the cemeteries he covers, but reading this book makes me just want to go and visit them all again.

Unfortunately, as a guide book, this has some failings. Firstly, overall organisation: cemeteries are divided into central, north, south, east, west and outer London, and are then listed alphabetically within these sections. There is a map at the front which shows the location of some of the cemeteries, but sadly there is no indication of the geographical boundaries of the sections - especially with so many cemeteries in north-west London, it's a confusion that could have been easily dealt with by expanding the contents over two pages so that the individual cemeteries could have been listed too.

Descriptions of cemeteries themselves are patchy: some have detailed descriptions including directions to the more interesting graves; others read like little more than a precis of Meller.

The other, rather more serious problem with this book is that its editing, proof-reading and fact-checking don't seem to have been done adequately: there are inaccuracies, errors and non sequiturs throughout. Many were listed in Amazon reviews of the first edition and have now been corrected, but here are a few examples of what remains:

  • William Blake's marker in Bunhill Fields isn't a "pristine white stone"; it's damaged brown sandstone (p. 16)
  • the Rev Dr Thomas Binney was not an "ant-slavery campaigner" (p. 32) :-D
  • the bust of Sir Peter Nicol Russell is above the statue of the young engineer, not "close by" it (p. 34)
  • Highgate's eastern half listed as "open 10am - 4pm Mar - Oct (last entry 4.30pm)" (p. 45)
  • confusion, or perhaps just unclear writing, about when tours of the western half of Highgate Cemetery may be had (pp. 45 & 47)
  • Julius Beer's bizarre double appearance in the Highgate section: any decent editor would have spotted and changed this (p. 48)
  • there is no such place as Willesden Road Cemetery (it's Willesden Lane), and the Dutch war graves are in rows of 8, not 5 (p. 53)
  • Princess Sophia referred to as Sophie (p. 91)
  • there is not a road dividing Richmond and East Sheen Cemeteries (p. 219)
  • the Hyde Park pet cemetery was not built by the Duke of Cambridge, though his wife's dog was the second to be buried there (p. 226)
  • and my website has its own domain; it's not a Flickr group (p. 231).

Pedantry, maybe, but in a guide book of all publications, one would expect accuracy.

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Book report : Permanent Londoners

Subtitled An Illustrated Biographical Guide to the Cemeteries of London, in fact this book is a guide to some of the more spectacular burial and memorial sites in London. Westminster Abbey is covered in four separate chapters, grouped according to the life and works of the subjects. St. Pauls', Windsor Castle and the Tower too have their own chapters, as do the parish churches of St. John at Hampstead and St. Nicholas, Chiswick. The cemeteries covered are Highgate, Kensal Green, Brompton, Bunhill Fields, Hampstead, Putney Vale, Golders Green and St Marylebone: certainly amongst the more interesting burial grounds, and the most visited.

The formula for each tour remains pretty much the same; a brief history of the place, followed by a guide around its notable monuments, with short biographies of those memorialised. These last are not terribly inspired, and stylistically seem to have been culled from many different sources without much editing.

My main complaint about this book, however, is what it *doesn't* cover: where are Nunhead, West Norwood, Abney Park? It's tempting to see the omission of City of London as just laziness, on the part of either authors or readers, for not wanting the trek 'up east' to see it.

If you're visiting the capital, or only want to see the most exciting monuments in the most touristy places, then this certainly a most valuable book. However, if you really do want to explore the cemeteries of London, you'd do much better with Hugh Meller and Darren Beach.

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Book report : The Magnificent Seven: London’s First Landscaped Cemeteries

I am massively disappointed in this book. The image of the cover makes it look like a lush coffee table book: I was imagining beautiful colour photographs, partnered with text that talked about the significance of the Magnificent Seven and what they'd inspired in cemetery design and management in the rest of London. I hoped for insight into the significance of *this seven* and how that might shape the future. I didn't get any of that.

The book consists of a chapter for each cemetery, with a standard introductory text to its location, layout and history, with a few pointers to exciting things to see and famous people in each cemetery: nothing that doesn't exist in plenty of other places. And there are a lot of black and white photos. I know some cemetery photographers swear by black and white and use nothing else: I'm (obviously) not one of them. If you're going to explain the sumptuous riches of these cemeteries, you need colour. And (sorry Messrs. Turpin and Knight but) the photography isn't really all that good (page 95 is particularly poor, but generally, verticals aren't vertical, horizontals aren't horizontal, and there are too many dull diagonal shots across monuments).

If you want a book on London's cemeteries, stick with Hugh Meller & Brian Parsons for comprehensiveness, and Darren Beech to fit in your pocket. And if you want photos, try Flickr.

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