For an atheist, I have a paradoxical fascination with churches and graveyards – especially ancient ones. It’s not so much that I get involved in avid research about them more that I find them pleasing places to visit, pass the time and take pictures.
There’s a calm atmosphere around a churchyard which is unique. I don’t especially think this is a spiritual thing. I just think that it’s rare in these modern times that any kind of space is set aside for one purpose – especially one of reflection and quiet – so they’re increasingly the most protected oasis in our fast-moving world.
Those of a religious bent may well tell me that this is because they are ‘God’s acre’. Those with older spiritual leanings may well point out that many English churches were built on pagan sites (often wells; perhaps on a ley line too) as Christianity subsumed those ancient beliefs which came before.
Perhaps it’s all of these things or none, but there’s a wonderfully calm half-hour or hour to be had passing time in a churchyard.
The gravestones themselves hand a story down from the past to the future. The gravestone is almost the purest form of storytelling: just a name, a couple of dates and perhaps a line or two to summarise an entire life.
Wandering through Manchester’s Southern Cemetery, it was pleasing to bump into Tony Wilson’s grave – just as in the past, I’d bumped into Tony himself. I didn’t know him, but I think we met three or four times. The most notorious of those meetings was at a concert of Factory Records bands, held at the Derby Hall in Bury. Notorious, because singer Ian Curtis was unable to perform more than a few songs and – for one reason or another – a pretty solid fight broke out in which both band and audience participated. I’ve read several accounts of this – and seen it twice documented on film (in 24-Hour Party People and Control). None of the accounts seem wholly accurate, but then mine is probably tainted by both memory and proximity to the event.
I wasn’t in the audience – I was one of the people responsible for organising and running the event. I took money on the door, helped move the PA, operated the lights. (Such as they were; Joy Division liked the lighting cold and minimal, I just set up a few blue gels and left things alone.) When the fight kicked up, I turned on the house lights and hid under the lighting table to avoid flying beer glasses.
Tony Wilson said to me after, in the office, that this was “just kids having fun”. At the time, I thought this was a pretty stupid attitude and said so. Although I didn’t use the word “pretty”. In retrospect, I can see that we just had different experiences running a venue – mine was an arts centre; his was closer to the epicentre of youth, sometimes notorious for drugs and minor violence.
Also at the time, I didn’t appreciate Joy Division for the band they were – original, raw, incredible. Joy Division was but one band touched by the hand of Tony Wilson and his headstone, wonderfully designed by Peter Saville (responsible for Factory’s posters and record sleeves), is one of the most original you’ll ever see. It’s almost like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey – a deep black that’s almost unnaturally reflective. It carries the words: Anthony H Wilson; Broadcaster; Cultural Catalyst (my punctuation).
How incredible to so accurately sum up a life in three words. It also carries a quote from G Linnaeus Banks’ 1876 novel The Manchester Man: “Mutability is the epitaph of worlds / Change alone is changeless / People drop out of the history of a life as of a land though their work or their influence remains.”
At the other end of the scale (and almost at the other end of the country) I stumbled across the grave of a white witch, just outside the churchyard of Minster Church, near Boscastle. I say just outside and I mean it – she’s buried in woodland, just inches from the churchyard boundary. This may be because she’s excluded – but I think it’s more a matter of choice. It’s not the church mocking her, it’s those who buried her mocking the church.
Joan died in 1813, aged just 38 (probably a decent innings back then), while in Bodmin Jail. She wasn’t incarcerated for witchcraft, but for brawling; she’d suffered terribly from a tooth abscess which made her a bit more than bad-tempered. She got involved in fights and shouted insults at people. When she fought, she was unnaturally strong and was sometimes called the Fighting Fairy Woman.
She had been a seer and healer. One of the things she did was to tie clooties (strips of cloth) to trees or holy wells – as the cloth rots, so the person’s disease dissipates. It was somewhat moving to see that someone else had tied a strip of cloth to a tree, just above her grave.
Her headstone reads: “Joan Wytte. Born 1775. Died 1813 in Bodmin Jail. Buried 1998. No longer abused.”
She had been abused in death, her bones disinterred and used in séances. Later, they were on display at the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle and were finally given a proper burial after, it is said, just a few too many poltergeists were disruptive at the museum.
It’s both sad and touching that our lives can – and will – be reduced to just a few lines of text. But those few words count. They can inspire you to find out more about the person, or appreciate the feelings of those they touched.