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"Going to Abney Park": a matter of life and death

Bohemian Rhapsodies.

In the darkest corner of what must be the most dilapidated cemetery in London, a small mound rises to a height of about three feet. At its centre is a chestnut tree, beside which stands the stone figure of a woman, dressed in classical robes and conspicuously headless. Tall, white-flowering weeds have proliferated in the fortnight since my last visit, competing for attention with the empty fag packets and crushed cans of cider that litter the ground.

This, according to the plaque below me, was once the “favourite retirement of the late Isaac Watts” – the poet and hymnographer who wrote the words to “Joy to the World” and hundreds of other songs of praise. Watts lived in these grounds, in Abney Park, Stoke Newington, from 1736 until his death 12 years later at the age of 74. It wasn’t always a wild space, with weeds and tree roots upending gravestones; and I doubt that the grotto my partner and I chanced upon a minute or so away was always strewn with used condoms.

Abney Park opened as a non-denominational burial ground in 1840 and was one of the “magnificent seven” cemeteries of London, established to help alleviate overcrowding in local parishes. Almost 200,000 people are buried here; so many that, by the early 20th century, the phrase “to go to Abney Park” was slang for “to die”.

But death has no dominion over this cemetery. It is teeming with life, from its 2,500 trees and shrubs to the woodland birds that dart chaotically across my path. Close to the chapel, now boarded up for repair, we pass an old beam tree. A sign at its root explains that though fires have been set against it – and even in its hollow – it “continues to grow and, each June, produces large, white, foxglove-like flower panicles”.

The writer Bridget Penney, who is working on a project about the park, tells me that it’s “a very privileged space. People are able to draw a whole range of experiences from it and take what feels most relevant to them.” She’s right – I’ve seen boozers boozing, people walking their dogs, children kicking a punctured football around. Amy Winehouse shot a music video here (“Back to Black”) and made it look like a place of high drama; I come here to drink tea. And it’s a popular cruising area – apparently, there’s even an audio guide for this.

Walking towards the Egyptian-style exit, we see a pile of flowers, some of them arranged to spell out the words “our nan” and “sister”. There are so many flowers that I can’t see the grave or gravestone; only a plastic name tag tells me that the deceased was “Aunt Joyce”. It’s a reminder that, as Penney told me earlier, “Burials still occasionally take place here.”

Nearby are the small marble graves of Tom and David Durnan, who died in 1993 and 2002, respectively. Above them is a laminated piece of paper. It reads: “Please stop stealing my flowers. You are upsetting me very badly. I am David and Tom’s mum, Margaret.”

Yo Zushi's zine and album of songs "Smalltime" is available now. The video for "Something New", taken from that release, is on YouTube here

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

This article first appeared in the 10 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, G0

Photo: Getty Images
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No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.
For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.
IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.
Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.
Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.
Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.
The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.
His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.
He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.
I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.