Vici MacDonald

Among the tombs

Readers may recall I blogged about a fascinating walk I did last year, in the company of the poet Stephen Watts, exploring hidden corners of the East End that appear in WG Sebald’s novel Austerlitz. Keen to revisit some of those locations, my Hercules co-publisher Vici MacDonald and I took a small group of generous sponsors of Heart Archives (including author Sue Rose) on a short perambulation around the old Jewish cemeteries of Mile End. We were fortunate in meeting up with Susie Clapham, architect and chronicler of lost street furniture She has taken a special interest in the cemeteries, especially the one at Bancroft Road. More on that later.

We began in Alderney Road, where Stephen also began with his group some months back. As I mentioned in my previous post, Alderney Road is the location of the oldest Ashkenazi cemetery in the UK. Although Sebald chose to situate his protagonist in a house adjacent to the burial ground, he is unable to see into over the high wall. This seems to me to be a typical Sebaldean device – to give us a glimpse, a speck of knowledge, so that the quest becomes as crucial as the discovery. But just as Austerlitz is one day lucky enough to come across the open door in the wall, we too were given access.

 It is, as I’ve said before, a beautiful and moving place, as Austerlitz says, ‘a fairy tale which, like life itself, had grown older with the passing of time.’ It may have meant more seeing as a fair proportion our little group, including Sue and myself, have Ashkenazi roots. Standing there I was reminded of a line from one of Sue’s poems, ‘Mahler 9’, in which she writes: ‘we all carry our dead / with us on a quest for new homes, the klezmer dance / in our head propelling us forward, the fiddle pulling us back.’

Susie took us round the corner into the Bancroft Road cemetery, which I had previously only seen from the street (many only glimpse it momentarily from the train, as they arrive into London via Liverpool Street), and what struck me most was how vulnerable that small plot feels amid the council blocks and early Victorian terraces of Stepney. The apple tree stranded at the far end by the fence, its fruit rotten and spoiled on the ground, seemed a metaphor for what has happened to the place, bombed in the war, vandalised in later years. There were a few stones still standing, some still legible. We were moved by the grave of a child, his stone although toppled, intact.

That ‘quest for new homes’ is something too that struck a chord with our group, assembled as we were from America, Canada and the Czech Republic. We found ourselves next on the Queen Mary campus, surrounded by bleary-eyed weekend students, viewing the Velho Novo Cemetery, a desert of the dead amidst the stark brick architecture of the modern university. I have written about the history of the Sephardi cemeteries when I visited with Stephen, but it is worth mentioning how strange these sites are in their modern context, especially the one bang in the middle of campus.

But it was the Velho Old which was most hidden, most secret of them all. A security guard escorted us through back alleys of the campus to a gate on the side of one of the dormitories, then through a courtyard enclosed in a metal fence, before finally opening a gate at the end. There is a fascinating history of the Velho Old site here: It is the oldest Jewish cemetery in the UK, the land gifted to the Sephardic community by Oliver Cromwell. It must be one of the most peaceful locations in London, but also one of the most alien. The traces of Hebrew and Portuguese (most of the inscriptions have been rubbed clean by age and pollution), the foreignness of the names we could still make out – all seemed to belong not only to another age, but another land altogether.

Possibly the oddest moment of our tour was when a local resident on the other side of the fence (ironically, an American) started speaking to us, shocked to find anyone in the cemetery (‘no one is ever in here’, he said). ‘Don’t worry, we’re not ghosts’ one of our party replied. But actually, it felt as if we were, as I always feel when visiting a cemetery, that strange exhilaration of being alive, with the dead under my feet, and thinking of the famous epitaph as I am now so you shall be.

Matters of the heart


Followers of Invective will recall the chapbook Formerly, my first project with designer and photographer Vici MacDonald. The success of Formerly demonstrated to us that there was a niche we might fill, as we discovered there were very few publishers willing to take on poetry/ photography collaborations (although since then there have been a few brilliant ones: I Spy Pinhole Eye by Philip Gross and Simon Denison and Wordless by George Szirtes and Kevin Reid to name two). And so, our press, Hercules Editions was born. 

There was never any doubt what our next project would be. Back in 2010, Vici, me, and our friend, the poet Sue Rose, went on a trip to Paris. During our stay, we visited Personnes, Christian Boltanski’s Momumenta installation at the Grand Palais. I was familiar with Boltanski’s work – so much of it a statement on loss and memory, the great atrocities of the twentieth century, particularly the Holocaust – but this was devastating, overwhelming. The vast halls of the Grand Palais were filled with rectangular plots, like graves, filled with old clothes. Further into the hall, a picker on the end of a crane grabbed more piles of clothes and dropped them on a burgeoning heap, like a burial mound, like the piles of bodies, dead or nearly dead, that were discovered when the Allies liberated the camps (it is particularly poignant that I write this a few days after Alice Herz-Sommer, the last survivor of the camps, died at the age of 110). Laura Cumming summed up the experience in her review at the time:

You were in a necropolis, now you are in purgatory: balanced between heaven and hell, witnessing the hand of God. Except, of course, that you are in a freezing, cacophonous place surrounded by secondhand clothes and probably eager to be gone. That is the exceptional achievement of the piece. All its elements are frankly simple and apparent, you see how they combine, how it all works. Yet none of this stifles its resonant truths, that in the midst of life we are in death, that man’s inhumanity to man continues beyond Auschwitz, Srebrenica, Rwanda.


And into the huge echoing space came the sound of heartbeats; Boltanski’s other great work, Archives du Coeur, is an attempt to record as many heartbeats as possible, so that they might be eventually stored on an island off the coast of Japan as a permanent record of human existence. At Monumenta, you could have your heartbeat recorded to be part of the installation. Sue immediately queued up.

We were all moved by the work, but it was Sue who carried away not the recording of her heart (you could get a CD, but it was too late in the day by the time she’d had hers recorded) but the seed of an idea that would grow over the next three years, from a few initial poems that drew directly on the installation, to a whole sequence which formed her own ‘heart archives’ – poems about the people she loves. Vici and I watched the sequence grow and develop, out of that incredible experience that Boltanski gave us.


And so the book, Heart Archives, was launched in London last week. Rather than use images from the installation, Vici commissioned Sue to take her own photographs, on her iPhone (the technology which allows us all to be our own archivists), of things and people who matter to her. The result is a book which is intensely personal, but also very moving – we can all connect with the need to preserve those we love, to keep their flames burning even once they are gone.

I will end with a few words from Sue, from her introduction, on the process of making the images for the book:

It was a strange process, rediscovering and revisiting so many of our family’s valued objects which, despite being within easy reach, had been forgotten and ignored, gathering dust in dark places. I was saddened that many of them had either been damaged by the passage of years and neglect or stripped of their identities and resonances to become once more objects devoid of meaning and history. It reminded me again of the importance of preserving and documenting the artefacts from our own personal archaeology. If we don’t, we risk losing our heritage and, by extension, ourselves.

Heart Archives is now available. You can order it here:


That the science of cartography is limited

is the title of an Eavan Boland poem (and a point I wish to prove).

In that poem, Boland is walking with her husband in the woods. They come to a track that her husband identifies as a famine road, a place of forced labour and suffering. ‘Where they died, there the road ended,’ she writes:

and ends still and when I take down
the map of this island, it is never so
I can say here is
the masterful, the apt rendering of

the spherical as flat, nor
an ingenious design which persuades a curve
into a plane,
but to tell myself again that
the line which says woodland and cries hunger
and gives out among sweet pine and cypress,
and finds no horizon

will not be there.

The poem broke my heart the first time I read it, but it wasn’t until much later that I was able to find an explanation for its impact. It was at a talk by Rebecca Solnit on the subject of maps. At the time, she was embarking on a project called Infinite City, a radical remapping of her hometown, San Francisco. Her proposed ‘alternative’ maps included ones locating Butterfly Species, Murders, Zen Buddhist Centres, Queer Sites. ‘What we call places are stable locations with unstable converging forces,’ she said, and it hit me that this was a way of summing up what Boland is saying in her poem. A place can be altered by time, fate, a random meeting. These alterations are not evident, they cannot be expressed by coordinates, they are simply known and felt. One of my older students told me that as a child during the war she saw an entire London street levelled by a bomb. I could walk down that street, and to me it is another street, because it carries no personal associations, but she retains the image of the street in ruins, and nothing of its present can wipe away that past.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about this issue of ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’, ‘personal’ and ‘public’ maps, as Vici MacDonald and I have been revisiting the places we charted in our Formerly project. Our field trips took two whole days to complete, as we journeyed south, then east, crossing the river at Woolwich, heading west, then north. What struck me in our travels was how much London changes; whole blocks are toppled in the name of progress. But if you have been here long enough, the folk memory of what was there before is somehow ingrained in you. What struck me too was how some things never change; there are certain aspects, buildings, streets that connect me with strangers, fellow city dwellers, who walked the same steps and saw the same sights hundreds of years before. The official maps can tell you how to get somewhere, how to plan your route, but the unofficial ones tell you how you felt while you were doing it. Solnit spoke too about the personal map, created when one has lived in a particular city for many years. On that map are sites of liaisons and break-ups, streets of friends and lovers – a series of unofficial (and deeply internal) blue plaques.

Formerly is an attempt to erect some unofficial blue plaques. The exhibition is looking lovely in its spot high over the Thames in the Poetry Library. From next week, we will be inviting visitors to create their own psychogeographical texts, based on their own wanderings, their personal maps. Watch this space.

Exhibition has now been extended until 3rd February:

Eavan Boland poem in its entirety:

Rebecca Solnit:

The Great Bear is an altered map of the London Underground by the artist Simon Patterson

The cloverleaf map of the world, with Jerusalem at the centre, was created in 1581 by Bünting

Number 13 Hercules Buildings, Lambeth

A few people have asked myself and my co-founder, Vici MacDonald, why we decided to call our new press Hercules Editions. The simple answer is that we both live in Lambeth (although in the last four years I have strayed further South in the Borough, all the way to Stockwell), and that the presiding spirit of our part of the world is William Blake, who moved to Number 13 Hercules Buildings in 1791 (there’s a blue plaque on the side of the 50s council block that stands there now marking the location of his house).

Stanley Gardner writes of Blake’s Lambeth address:

Number 13 Hercules Buildings, Lambeth, was a comfortable two-story house with a garden front and back. The Blakes lived there, at least from the summer of 1791, until they moved to Felpham on the South Coast in September 1800. The first three years in Lambeth redirected Blake’s thinking on the follow-up to ‘Songs of Innocence’, and from here he launched his attack on the broader conspiracies of place and power, which perpetuated oppression and conflict.

The follow-up, as we know, was Songs of Experience, which contained some of Blake’s most famous poems, ‘The Sick Rose’, ‘The Tyger’ and ‘London’. What was it about the ‘exclusive gardens of Lambeth,’ as Gardner calls them, that produced this extraordinary work?

Gardner says:

Lambeth itself, convenient to Westminster Bridge, had long been a place of commercialised charity, tough factories and seedy pleasure. The land downstream from the bridge, between the river and the marsh, was lined with a half mile of timber yards, Lambeth Waterworks, barge makers and a patent shot manufactory. Across and around the marsh, on twenty-nine acres leased from the Prince Regent, were dye-houses, storehouses, cranes, brewhouses, stables, Mr Beaufoy’s vinegar manufactory, and among the ponds and water courses across the marsh, seventy dwelling houses. Sentinel over all, the new shot-tower was dropping into wartime production as Blake pulled together ‘Songs of Experience’.

It was the London of small industry and great poverty, a place of pleasure gardens and hard labour. The old Hercules Hall became the Female Orphan Asylum, and Blake would have been familiar with the charges of that institution when he was writing ‘The Little Girl Lost’. He was down the road from the Palace of Lambeth and the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who himself was downwind from Vauxhall Gardens, the most notorious place to indulge in any imaginable sin.

I wouldn’t dream of comparing ourselves with Blake, but the project Vici and I undertook was all about London’s hidden histories, the tough & tattered cheek by jowl with grand mansions and leafy squares. Much of it is set in SE1, the quarter of town we know well. In addition, Blake was his own poet, his own illustrator, his own printer, his own book designer, and so we wanted to follow his early model of DIY publishing. Our product will be a bit rough and ready compared to Blake’s beautiful books, but we hope it is in keeping with the Lambeth we inhabit today.

Formerly, our first publication, will be hot off the press to coincide with the exhibition of photos and poems from the book at the Poetry Cafe from 18th June to 14th July.

Here’s our website:


This month marks the end of a project I started with Vici MacDonald (whose new blog is here: ) last spring. Vici has been taking photos of unloved parts of London for many years now. You could say we are both connoisseurs of urban blight; we’ve been known to go on expeditions to look at far-flung pumping stations and railway sidings. The grottier, the better. But these are the bits of the city which are being rediscovered, celebrated, especially when it seems they might be lost forever, to huge building projects like the Olympic Village or any number of sprawling developments of luxury flats. A lot of the places captured in Vici’s photos are already gone.

Our project ‘Formerly’ charts those urban sightings. My goal was to write 14 “loose” sonnets to accompany 14 of her photographs. This is the first poem from the series. Vici collects signage, and something about the chunky 70s certainty of Capacity House obviously appealed to her. My poem developed from a play on the name, a place that looks like less than its moniker suggests. Oh, and the last word I confess is a pretty obvious nod to the end of Berryman’s Dream Song number 14.

There will be more of these to come. Watch this space.


Fat chance you’ll ever break out of here,
this depository for great mistakes
you’ve made your home. Just enough room
for a bed and a stool, a cell of sorts,
for a man of thin means. Lean times.
But I’m a girl who’s capable
and culpable, who knows the value
of a pound. You can’t resist the give
of my carapace, my caterpillar lips,
my capacious thighs. I’ll never sell you
short. You’ll never let me down.
For the first time, you are full
to the very brim with the milk
of human kindness. Moo.