Meanderings through the old city of language (or the East London book of the dead)

The poet Stephen Watts has a theory regarding how the character of Austerlitz, the eponymous hero of WG Sebald’s novel, came to live in Alderney Road (or Alderney Street, as Sebald has it). Sebald, who was a close friend of Watts’, used to take the train into Liverpool Street Station from his home in East Anglia; often the train would halt not far from the terminus, and through the window he might have seen the Jewish cemetery at the intersection of Bancroft Road and Moody Street. The Bancroft Road cemetery was opened in 1811 for the congregation of the Maiden Lane Synagogue in Covent Garden, but in the twentieth century it has been the victim of bomb damage and vandalism. It is a sad scrap of land, until recently unloved and uncared for (although there has been a local movement to improve and maintain the cemetery, as documented in this recent piece on the Spitalfields Life blog:


The Bancroft Road cemetery does not feature in Sebald’s novel, but it could be said that its very existence, its inevitable reminder of the not-so-distant past of this place and its people who have moved elsewhere, is a metaphor for the restless travellings of Austerlitz, in search of scraps (often physically contained in architecture) that might link him to his history – the history of the Jews all but erased from certain corners of Europe.

From that brief glimpse from the train, Sebald was keen to tour the area on foot, and with Stephen as his guide, he discovered many of the locations which have entered the novel. With Stephen as our guide, a small group of us arrived at the cemetery on Alderney Road, a place that Sebald describes as ‘a plot where lime trees and lilacs grew and in which members of the Ashkenazi community had been buried ever since the eighteenth century’.

Austerlitz cannot see the cemetery from his fictional house just along the terrace, but one day finds the gate in the wall open, and enters ‘a fairy tale which, like life itself, had grown older with the passing of time.’ There is indeed something magical about this space, hidden from view by a high wall. As we entered, it was like gaining access to a secret world. Unlike Bancroft Street, this cemetery is orderly and well-kept. As the Jewish East End site mentions (, several celebrated eighteenth-century rabbis are buried here, including the Cabbalist Samuel Falk, who reputedly had mystical powers. It is in the house next to this cemetery that Austerlitz suffers from the first of a series of breakdowns. As an architectural historian, Austerlitz describes the panic that gripped him in terms of a cityscape:

If language may be regarded as an old city full of streets and squares, nooks and crannies, with some quarters dating from far back in time while others have been torn down, cleaned up and rebuilt, and with suburbs reaching farther and farther into the surrounding country, then I was like a man who has been abroad a long time and cannot find his way through this urban sprawl any more, no longer knows what a bus stop is for, or what a back yard is, or a street junction, an avenue or a bridge. The entire structure of language, the syntactical arrangement of parts of speech, punctuation, conjunctions, and finally even the nouns denoting ordinary objects were all enveloped in impenetrable fog.

From one secret world to an even more secret world: over the wall at the back of the Alderney Road cemetery, you can just glimpse another older cemetery, the Velho Sephardic site. The poet and urban historian David Roberts (who accompanied us on our walk) is about to publish a collection of poems informed by this incredible place:

Our walk took us from the quiet rows of terraces and council blocks parallel to the Mile End Road, and onto the campus of Queen Mary college. Suddenly, we were surrounded by students, and noise and activity. Extraordinary then to find yet another burial site, the Novo Beth Chaim cemetery (which replaced the Velho cemetery in 1733) another trace of the Jews who made this part of London their home. It seems an odd survival, surrounded as it is by modern university buildings, until you discover that the a large chunk of the plot was sold to the college by the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation in the 1970s, and thousands of graves were exhumed and reinterred in a site in Essex, prompting fierce protests from the Orthodox community. Only a quarter of the cemetery remains.

Back to Austerlitz, who leaves his home in Prague on a Kindertransport and is sent to live with a couple in Wales, who give him a new name, and erase any trace of his past. He grows up without any knowledge of his roots; he never sees his birth parents again. I thought of this erasing of the past, the removal of all those graves, as we stood on the little footbridge over the Novo cemetery, students passing, hardly acknowledging this strange place of the ancient dead in the centre of their campus.


We continued along the Mile End Road, past the edifice of St Clement’s, where Austerlitz is temporarily hospitalised after collapsing in the street near his home. From the window of the hospital, he can see the vast expanse of Tower Hamlets cemetery. And here our walk ended, at the monument which appears in the book, where Stephen read us the following passage:

In the twilight slowly falling over London we walked along the paths of the cemetery, past monuments erected by the Victorians to commemorate their dead, past mausoleums, marble crosses, stelae and obelisks, bulbous urns and statues of angels, many of them wingless or otherwise mutilated, turned to stone, or so it seemed to me, at the very moment when they were about to take off from the earth. Most of these memorials had long ago been tilted to one side or thrown over entirely by the roots of the sycamores which were shooting up everywhere. The sarcophagi covered with pale-green, grey, ochre and orange lichens were broken, some of the graves themselves risen above the ground or sunk into it, so that you might think an earthquake had shaken this abode of the departed, or else that, summoned to the Last Judgement, they had upset, as they rose from their resting places, the neat and tidy order we impose on them.