A fifteen-minute walk from my house. Perhaps a bit less, if I’m in a hurry: a cut through the narrow streets of the old East End, towards the ordered border of the City. These days the neighbourhood is fashionable, the warehouses turned into swanky flats and their ground floors sporting artisanal coffee and denim jeans at £200 a throw. But look up at the street names, and see them argue with Mammon: Clere Street, Tabernacle, Worship. And then hop across the City Road and enter an older, an altered world.
Bunhill, Bonehill. Once this place was a plague pit; it is said that so many cartloads of bones were dumped here that a windmill might have been built atop them. And still, behind their iron fences, the graves are hugger-mugger, crowded up close together, as if the dead would need to huddle for warmth. Or at least, for refuge -- for this is the Dissenters place. This is unhallowed ground, where those who chose to argue with what the State, and the Church, allowed, found themselves at the very end of their days.
It seems a tranquil enough spot. Indeed, as the City’s own guide has it in the blandly anodyne language of the tourist trade everywhere, it is “a popular lunchtime spot for office workers wishing to escape the hustle and bustle of the surrounding City.” So it is. Planes and oaks, limes and ash shade the graves and the benches; the wren and the robin sing here, and in the spring crocuses spring up everywhere like hope.
And so they should. For this is a place of hope. Look at the names carved on the stones. Here is John Bunyan, that great pilgrim; here is Daniel Defoe; here is Susannah Wesley, mother of Charles and John, whose chapel is just across the road. And here too is William Blake, that great lover of liberty, that burning heart who had the nerve to seek Jerusalem in his own backyard. There are always flowers by his grave, and sometimes coins laid as offerings on top of the stone -- although no one knows where his bones truly lie. They were scattered somewhere, back towards the end of the last century but one; he could be anywhere. In you, in me. Singing of liberty. A fifteen-minute walk from my house. I go there often. If you cannot go on your feet, you may find the place in your heart.
Erica Wagner was born in New York and lives in London; in 2014 she is Eccles British Library Writer in Residence. She has judged many literary prizes and is judging the Man Booker Prize this year. Her short stories are frequently anthologised and she is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4 and a regular reviewer for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Economist and the New Statesman, and she is the author of three books, Gravity (short stories, Granta); Ariel’s Gift, a book about Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters, (Faber and Faber/ W. W. Norton) and Seizure (a novel, Faber and Faber/ W. W. Norton). She is at work on a new book, The Chief Engineer, A Biography of Washington Roebling, the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge, which will be published in the US and the UK by Bloomsbury.