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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

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.