One day shy of achieving my biblical allotment of years, and hearing the sad news of the death of my younger namesake, Iain M Banks, this seemed the right morning for a cemetery outing. Then the viral democracy of the London Overground railway kicked in: the waiting-room hacks and splutters of public transport, the low-level paranoia fizzing from a necklace of busy electronic devices. In truth, it was probably the best day to give up such indulgences. My fetish for melancholy strolls among forests of angels with missing arms.
Major developments – fences, expulsions, surveillance systems – kept me away from the Lower Lea Valley and the disputed eastern fringe of London. The city was undergoing a change of emphasis as dramatic as the realignment of Ahab’s compass in Moby-Dick, when the ship has been struck by lightning and north becomes south. Trying to find new beacons set me off on a walk in the traces of this recently completed Overground rail-link. We were told, ahead of completion, that property values would soar once Peckham was connected to Clapham and Willesden to Highbury. What I noticed, as I moved between retail parks, prisons and football grounds, was how altitude affected the social demographic; that sudden transition from the lively caves and stalls of Peckham to the café-bars and street furniture of Peckham Rye would give you a nosebleed.
Brompton Cemetery, a lime-avenue short-cut between Fulham Road and Lillie Road, was a genuine oasis for wildlife and certain specialised categories of the human tribe: amateur antiquarians, canine accompanists, relatives paying their respects to the departed, gay cruisers, barefoot vagrants setting down their burdens in shady alcoves. What attracted me was the unfamiliarity, the sense of being somewhere with a rich history about which I knew very little.
The dead have always been a nuisance in expanding cities. They offer poor returns for short-term property investors. In Brompton the pitch was grand-project architecture; an aspect stressed by the designer Benjamin Baud, so that this metropolitan enclosure could compete with the rustic attractions of suburban necrophile parks like Nunhead and Highgate. Brompton Cemetery was a city of the dead for 250,000 souls. It was dressed with 35,000 eccentric monuments to the wealthy and the established (almost all of whom are now forgotten).
The aspect of Baud’s plan that appealed to me was the circle of colonnades (with catacombs beneath) at the approach to the Anglican chapel. This lidless open-air temple, enclosed by elevated walkways with memorial tablets now dense with occult geometries and tenderly perverse sexual solicitation, is a Dante wood of calcified classical figures: stumps, pillars, crosses. The carbon-encrusted skulls on the fading stones are a useful vanitas, a reminder of the reward for preening self-regard. Looming indifferently over the cemetery is the skeletal hulk of the Stamford Bridge stadium, whereat this very moment the local messiah, José Mourinho, is announcing his Second Coming with an immaculate display of false modesty. Black suit, grey hair. Rhythms of speech abrupt but pianissimo.
Meanwhile, carefully positioned by a confident female photographer who treats the Brompton colonnades as a studio set, a senior Shakespearean actor, at the point in his career where he might be moving from Polonius to Prospero, freezes in position, holding one of those large silver sun-reflecting disks. A man expected to catch his own head after it has been guillotined. “You must tell me about the hair,” he says. “Don’t worry. I can always retouch.” White tropical jacket for an uncivil day, deep-blue shirt.
The Jacobean theatre of the colonnades, figures vanishing into alcoves and secret exits, broad steps leading down to the underworld, makes Brompton Cemetery one of London’s most haunting retreats. The empty grave of the Sioux warrior, Long Wolf, confirms this special quality of otherworldliness. The burial site, on the left-hand side as you approach the chapel, is a bed of lavender. Long Wolf, who is reputed to have fought against Custer at Little Big Horn, died when he was performing with Buffalo Bill Cody’s troop at Earl’s Court in 1892. In September 1997, the grave was opened. There were two caskets interred on top of Long Wolf: Star Ghost Dog, a two-year-old Sioux girl who fell from a horse in Cody’s show, and an anonymous Englishman. After the proper ceremonies and a feast of venison and buffalo meat, Long Wolf was returned to South Dakota, to the Pine Ridge Reservation of the Oglala Sioux tribe.
Iain Sinclair’s 70th birthday-year season of 70 handpicked films that relate to his work begins at the Hackney Picturehouse on July 15 with The Sorcerers. His new book, American Smoke, will be published by Penguin in November. For more in our editorial series on London & The World please visit www.ft.com/reports/london-world-2013