We’re sitting in a café on Norwood High Street, overlooking the cemetery gates. It’s another of those perfect summer days when the world seems to slow down, the car wheels whispering here comes the night, though the night never seems to come. We’ve been talking about how my writing is going, then Colin (of the Friends of West Norwood Cemetery), changing track, makes me an offer into the underworld: would I like to go down into the catacombs?
I’ve always liked the word, its anapaestic rush of early syllables outriding inexorably towards the leisurely final syllable. Cat-a-comb; from the Late Latin catacumba: among the tombs. I don’t say Yes, I don’t have to; we’re already walking like delinquents up Norwood High Street. I walk into the road and step back in time for a truck to pass. I take a breath, glutting on the little air the heatwave gives. The important thing about heading into the underworld is of course not to look back, but I need to remember to look ahead too.
The thing about Colin is that — yes, I remember now — he’s a management consultant by trade. He brings the same professionalism to his pastime of taking care of the cemetery. I’m a keen amateur and need to remember to follow his lead. He’s done this before. His dead are not actors or puppets, their lives as real as ours is to us now, sitting in his green Skoda — the low-fuel light flashing — ready to drive towards the centre of the cemetery. This is why he takes my search for a poet so seriously: the work the living do for the dead is the only hope they have.
We could have walked but today is all about speed. Catch the summer before it goes. The scaffold around the dilapidated chapel above the catacombs comes into view. A fox looks back at us as we leave the car — it’s leaner and a deeper red than its inner-city relatives.
Colin leads me to a set of steps leading down into the catacombs. There’s a scaffold above, holding together the joins of the new building against what’s left of the bombed chapel. Colin lifts a blue net and we leave the sun behind; the coolness of Victorian brick and moss rises from below ground-level.
We pass a ceramic tube of Doulton’s pipe, the architectural equivalent of Tennyson’s octosyllabic lines. A vessel for so much shit to flow through. Colin hands me one of two thick black torches, reminiscent of a deep sea diver’s lights. The thick iron doors of the catacombs resist at first and then clang out our freedom: the day disappears behind us.
The underworld is always beneath us — this is something that every poet knows. We walk above our own resting places for the time that we have left. A moment from Dickens’ Dombey and Son comes to mind — written a decade after West Norwood was opened — when the cold, ambitious Dombey takes his son Paul (the name of my father and — through the variant Pavel — of my son) to be christened. ‘Over the fireplace was a ground-plan of the vaults underneath the church’. There is something reassuring about the paid-for order of the vaults beneath when one is alive and well above ground. We take up new rituals. We go on.
There is a box of red switches on the wall as we enter and Colin presses them down. A distant light goes on across the emptiness. What look like black telephone booths are evenly arranged across the walls: small rooms set-back from the vast hall we’re inside. Directly in front of us is a machine that might have been used as a device for torture. It exists in the hinge between ritualistic and industrial practices. A compression device for witches. A shrinking tool for growing chimney sweeps.
“This,” says Colin, “is the catafalque. It’s basically a coffin lift”. He points up to the roof and there’s a hole the same size as the iron bed that’s attached to the machine. “After the service there would be a vicar’s assistant standing there” and he points to a dark corner of the passage. He tells me that the vicar would have given the nod to the man controlling the hydraulic action pump (who must have been in good shape: it took 180 pumps of the handle to raise the bed to its full height). Amazingly for its time the machine was operated by hydraulics and operated silently. As the body descended from view the vicar might read from Jude: Unto him that is able to keep us from falling. The family wouldn’t have to wait long to reunite — a family vault was bought forever. I think of them as the equivalent to the middle-class obsession for Range Rovers: a comfortable space for the whole family to travel from life towards the promise of eternity.
I have no reason to suspect there’s another poet and it strikes me now that there’s no purpose to me being down here other than to be amongst the dead. I’ve become death obsessed. I’ll follow any road to the underworld. No hints have appeared through my research, no suggestions in the books of the notable dead. I think of the 12 dead poets above me in the ground. Their skulls form node-points in the network of metrical language. I stumble forward with the torch. The place is a labyrinth: corridors lead from corridors. It reminds me of how architecture in the stories of Edgar Allen Poe is always symbolic of the mind, an idea later picked up in the horror films of Dario Argento, where cupboards lead to rooms of barbed wire and then out, inexplicably, into the forecourts of inner-city cathedrals.
Not knowing what is around the corner it is very tempting for the mind to fill in the gaps. Later, I’ll research the layout of the catacombs and find them mathematically designed in regimented honeycombs. When I see the map, it strikes me as a pattern poem shaped like George Herbert’s ‘Easter Wings’. An exoskeleton of a moth. Or perhaps a structural device for a poem, like Swinburne’s roundel. I’m starting to see death as poetry-shaped.
Chris McCabe’s In the Catacombs: A Summer Among the Dead Poets of West Norwood Cemetery is out now, published by Penned in the Margins.