Wednesday 27 January 2021
Thursday 7 January 2021
It was a few years ago now, whilst on a trip to Paris to see The Stranglers at the Cigale in late November 2017. The gig was great, as was the company, and much wine and beer flowed during the course of the day of the show. Despite the late night my wife, Gunta, and I were due to return to the UK on the Eurostar in the late afternoon of the following day, so a lie in was considered to be a shameful waste of time when one could see something new of Paris.
What better possible way could there be to blow away the cobwebs of the night before, so to speak, than to spend a couple of hours within the walls of the Père Lachaise Cemetery.
The Père Lachaise Cemetery was opened in 1804, the year in which Napoleon proclaimed that "Every citizen has the right to be buried regardless of race or religion". A considerable distance at that time from central Paris, the uptake was limited and funerals were few until a piece of macabre marketing bolstered the popularity of the site. The remains of the celebrated French poets, Jean de La Fontaine and Molière, were uprooted and relocated at Père Lachaise. From a position of ‘If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me’, the grounds of the cemetery began to fill.
Now containing over one million burials and countless other persons cremated and housed in the Columbarium, an 1894 addition to the cemetery, Père Lachaise stakes the claim to be the most visited necropolis in the world (something that the Valley of The Kings could contest perhaps?).
An especially macabre feature in this veritable theatre of the macabre is the Communards’ Wall in front of which 147 Communards were executed by shooting on 28th May 1871. This was the day that ended so called ‘Bloody Week’ and saw the crushing of the Paris Commune, a radical, revolutionary government that very briefly ruled Paris in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war.
With a map in hand upon which the locations of the graves of famed singers, writers, poets and politicians were marked we entered the largest graveyard in Paris. Within 10 minutes we were comfortably lost amongst the irregular criss-cross lay out of the garden’s many avenues. Any systematic attempts to locate a famous interment were soon abandoned as it became clear that Paris’ best cartographer must have been ‘en vacance’ when the map was produced. Furthermore, beyond the mausoleum lined avenues the burials are placed over the land in a pretty random fashion, adding greatly to the difficultly in locating a particular tomb. It is also a consideration that the still present effects of Kronenburg 1664 and red wine did nothing to enhance our powers of detection!
Truely they could claim that their next door neighbours were 'Bigots'
The weather was fine and bright, if cold, the perfect winter conditions for a cemetery saunter. So, it was no hardship just to walk and take in the sites of all that we saw and to hell with celebrity status! The main thoroughfares are lined family memorials that could well be described as ‘gothic greenhouses’ or ‘Bauhaus beach huts’, that would be the ‘80’s band of ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ fame rather than the Weimar Art School of course! Some of these structures are fabulously decayed as if the elements and the fauna have conspired to bring the masonry down in a concerted effort of reclaimation.
My highlight of the trip was seeing the tomb below. Judging by the effigy that topped his grave, resplendent in death in a frock coat, waist coat and top hat, in life he may have been something of a dandy and perhaps a bit of a ladies man. A reputation retained in death? Over the years his image in bronze has oxidised to beautiful and uniform verdigris…..well almost uniform. There is a tradition that touching statues can convey good luck to the passer by (compare with the bronze sculpture of Winston Churchill in the Houses of Parliament whose highly polished (and now protected from the caressing hands of the public) foot was for many years at stark visual odds with the rest of him! So it is for Monsieur Amour (not his real name) whose manhood would likewise appear to be lucky to some visitors if its shine were any kind of proof!
It was entirely in keeping too that our path within the depths of the cemetery should cross that of a living resident of the area, a rook or a crow, sporting an iridescent black plumage of which Queen Victoria herself would have been envious.
With apologies to Jim, Oscar, Marcel and all of the other illustrious residents of Père Lachaise, we located but one plot which, in company with the above, attracts so many visitors to the cemetery and who could be more apt when in Paris to pay our respects to than France’s ‘Little Sparrow’, Edith Piaf.
If in Paris, a visit to this tranquil space is more than deserving of a couple of hours of your time.
Friday 1 January 2021
Back in August 2020 the family decided to take a drive out of Bishops Stortford for a drink and something to eat in a country pub. At the time pubs in the area were under what became the Tier 1 restrictions. In the event, a farm shop intervened and I didn't get my pint, but we did pay a visit to somewhere new that has made a grisly contribution to the County of Essex's history.
A friend had recently mentioned the existence of stocks and a whipping post in the area of Helmans Cross. Lying at a junction in the road, Hellmans Cross is at the centre of the Parish of Great Canfield in Essex. By virtue of its central location and I dare say visibility to people passing through the area, it was the site for those common tools of corporal punishment and public humiliation for those breaking the laws of the day, the stocks and the whipping post.
As indicated by a sign fixed on the railings enclosing these grim reminders of our past, the replicas were returned to the site by the Parish Council to mark the millenium.
However, of more interest to me was the second piece of information imparted by the plaque which stated that this was also the site at which a local woman of Hellmans, one Elizabeth Abbot, suffered the horrendous fate of being burned at the stake in 1683, having been convicted of practising witchcraft.
Witch trials in Essex had been common place, peaking at the time of the English Civil War. Poor unfortunate women (in the vast majority) were brought before County Assizes by Matthew Hopkins and his assistant John Stearn. Hopkins, the self-proclaimed 'Witchfinder General' and his team of 'investigators' were responsible for the conviction and execution by hanging of an estimated 100 'witches', many having been resident in the towns and villages of Essex.
Witch trials petered out in the middle of the 17th Century with the restoration of the monarchy, so in this respect Elizabeth Abbot's conviction and punishment would have been one of the last in the area. Another peculiarity of Abbot's case is the means employed for her execution. Under English law the penalty for witchcraft was death by hanging and not by being burned at the stake. It may be the case that after the sentence had been carried out Elizabeth's remains were burned in order to destroy the body, an act born out of fear perhaps? Of course this is just speculation on my part but this could explain how this manner of execution has passed down through the last 350 years.
Internet based efforts to learn more of Elizabeth Abbot's case have come to nothing as far as I can see which is rather sad.
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