yasmin chopin | Victorian burials
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Victorian burials

British Library Warrington church 1859 secrets of chancel and crypt 1100x

Victorian burials

Dark crimson and brown leather-bound tomes, and others like them, emerge every so often from the blackness several stories deep beneath the reading rooms of the British Library; on demand the volumes rise up from London’s bowels.

British Library leather bound newspaper collections relating to St Pancras 1100x

A young man with a faraway look in his eyes moves slowly and deliberately from behind the counter. He leads me towards an opening through which I observe a wooden contraption on wheels, similar in size to a small coffin. The contraption must have been pushed and pulled countless times across the gloom of grey carpet for its edges are marked, engrained by finger grease. The man, who I now realise is far from young for I can identify shadows on his skin, presents the books I’d ordered a week earlier with a dramatic flourish of his hand.

The path to desk number 3672 is long and complicated but it gives me time to think as I manoeuvre the trolley towards my allotted space. I imagine myself an expressionless mortician, one who moves bodies in silence, takes few breaks, has no friends. It becomes necessary to rearrange the books several times on this curious mobile before I can take my seat with any degree of satisfaction. Once planted on the wooden chair made from English oak and squarely upholstered in an olive green leather exhaustion sets upon me, it permeates my body. I notice that beneath the reading room’s subdued lighting in this thought-laden atmosphere the tooled leather book-jackets shimmer with what I fancy to be anticipation. 

Stirring accounts of the holocaust re-told by the German-born author W. G. Sebald creep into my consciousness as I investigate nineteenth century tales from the crypt. Many hours are lost in the consumption of words and images. Yellowing newspaper cuttings arranged and glued into bound pages describe histories of cruelty in Victorian London. Deaths by misadventure mistake and misdemeanour have been meticulously collected over years and here they are pieced together in a patchwork of print. Each turn of the page releases more horror and with it the faint whiff of wet-rot. The sweet sickly smell produced by a fungus whose hyphal strands are seldom visible accompanies a meandering dark brown stain, perhaps made from moisture lurking between the leaves, it heightens the pervasive quality of mustiness and decay. With this stench in my nostrils I study descriptions of long forgotten methods of embalming and illustrated maps of burial places.


This is an extract from a longer piece of work. I hope you enjoyed the hints of Gothic and anyone who has read W. G. Sebald (1944 – 2001) will see some similarity in style. He was a wonderful writer who cloaked his words in mist and grey, and turned all experience into mystery. 

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