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Here's my identical twin Candy Gourlay and me hanging out at Highgate Cemetery to hear a talk by Audrey Niffenegger and Tracy Chevalier after I'd spent the late afternoon jumping on the giant trampoline in Candy's back garden.

The location was particularly relevant because the two of them had set novels in the cemetery Her Fearful Symmetry by Niffenegger and Falling Angels by Chevalier. Both had trained and worked there as guides and Chevalier had also done a lot of gardening for them. I painted up the sketch I'd been working on, although I was a bit naughty and gave it a little longer than my usual morning sketch time. But I think Niffenegger appreciated it when I gave it to her. I don't normally get shy but I did a bit when I met her, and all the things I'd wanted to ask her sort of flew out of my head.

Final painting: the scene in Her Fearful Symmetry where the ghost Elspeth realises she has some effect over electrical appliances, and accidentally kills the twins' television.

I thought both books were a great read: The story in Falling Angels begins at the time of the death of Queen Victoria, and features two families who own plots next to each other at the cemetery. The book picks up on the Victoria fascination with death and all its trimmings, the busy goings-on of the cemetery and the various friendships and liasons made there. Chevalier said that she likes to write about things in a state of change, and she chose this period because of the changes that were taking place, not only in people's attitudes to God and death, but in the cemetery itself. Just about that time, people were starting to accept cremation as a burial alternative, women were fighting for the vote (the book's main character longs for change and becomes a suffragette) and the cemetery itself looked very different to how it looks today. It used to be very open and tidy, with very few trees, and now it's kept in a lovely, tangled, wild state of 'managed neglect'.

Her Fearful Symmetry is partly set in the cemetery, but much of it's set in a block of flats next door, where one of the cemetery tour guides (and its historian) lives downstairs from his lover, Elspeth, who dies right at the beginning of the novel. Elspeth is strong-willed (stronger than her estranged twin who lives in America) and refuses to leave the world, and finds she's stuck haunting her own flat, unable to escape. In her will, she's left everything to the twin daughters of her sister, who can claim their inheritance if they agree to live in the flat for year. The pair move in and we get to watch lots of different strange relationships evolve. I absolutely loved this book, its strangeness and the fact that it's so gripping even though there's not one character with whom you can entirely sympathise, and lots of ambiguity.

Here are the notes I took from the evening:

And I'll post a few photos from a trip that Stuart and I took to Highgate Cemetery about a month ago, when I found out about the talk and managed to snatch up the last two tickets. I found it interesting when Niffenegger said that she really thinks people should go around the cemetery the first time without their camera, just to soak it in. She found herself looking through the viewfinder the whole time and trying to 'collect' the cemetery to take home with her, just as I did. My camera battery ran out halfway through, and I suppose it was a very different experience after that.

Here's the grave that Niffenegger mentioned as her favourite to talk about when she leads cemetery tours, of George Wombwell the menagerist:

The graves of Douglas Adams (and close-up of visitor gifts), next to the son of former Children's Laureate Michael Rosen, whose death compelled him to write The Sad Book.

This marker reads: 'Stony' Richard Smith, 16 February 1836 - 28 August 1900
Of Stone in Staffordshire, Macclesfield in Cheshire and London. After years of patient investigation he patented on the 6th Oct 1887 his improved treatment of the wheat germ and broken wheat which made the manufacture of Hovis bread possible.

Two more recent graves, that of Malcolm McLaren (with a temporary wooden grave stone) and poisoned Russian journalist Alexander Litvenenko.

The Egyptian Avenue. (Our guide told us that The Valley of the Kings had just been uncovered, and Brits were crazy for all things Egyptian. It took awhile to catch on because of it's 'pagan' look, but then became very fashionable.)

The founder of Foyles bookshop:

Karl Marx draws lots of visitors:

The family grave of painter John Constable.

And a horse sculpture, just across from one of a famous prize fighter with a huge dog, and a beautiful sleeping angel... but my battery had run out.

Niffenegger commented that no one's written a history of Highgate Cemetery, and hoped some day someone would take it up. I can imagine a graphic novel history could be incredible, all the stories you'd be able to tell! It's really too much for one person, perhaps it could be done as an anthology, with different artists researching different eras of the cemetery and the people who have been buried there.

Edit: See other write-ups of the event by Candy Gourlay and The Fallen Monkey! Here's the short video Candy took on her phone - Chevalier talking about her work at the cemetery and meeting Niffenegger - posted over on 'Notes from the Slush Pile'.

YouTube link

Not sure how long this link will work, but you can listen to the two of them giving a Highgate Cemetery tour on Radio 4's Front Row here.


( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 27th, 2010 01:38 pm (UTC)
Ooh. Nice idea about the graphic novel! count me in :P

Gary, your long, lost studio-mate.
May. 27th, 2010 02:43 pm (UTC)
Hello, long, lost studio-mate! I hope you are just lost, not long.
May. 27th, 2010 02:06 pm (UTC)
You should check out photographer John Gay's pics of Highgate. He was pretty tireless when it came to the conservation there. I think you can see a lot of them on the English Heritage "viewfinder" website which has tons of his photos. He took a famous photo of that lion -- it was used on a poster that was all over the Underground.
May. 27th, 2010 02:43 pm (UTC)
Cool, thanks for the tip! :)
May. 27th, 2010 02:24 pm (UTC)
it was a great evening sarah. thanks for giving me your spare ticket - and i'm definitely reading those books now (yes, dear reader, i hadn't read them yet)
May. 27th, 2010 02:44 pm (UTC)
I'm so glad you could come, that was a fun evening!
(Deleted comment)
May. 27th, 2010 02:44 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much! :)
May. 27th, 2010 03:27 pm (UTC)
I'm really curious about her new novel because it looks so much better then 'The time travelers wife' which I really hated!

I also really love the illustration you made. :D
May. 28th, 2010 09:18 am (UTC)
Yes, see what you think of it! I actually loved 'The Time Traveler's Wife', but it's a very different kind of book, the characters in it are much more sympathetic perhaps than those in 'Her Fearful Symmetry'. And in our book club, a lot of the male readers got bogged down in the section where Clare's trying to have a baby, I think they couldn't really relate to it. I found myself having massive crushes on the TTW characters, but not particularly liking the HFS characters, even though I had a lot of pity for many of them. I was fascinated that I still really enjoyed the book without liking the characters, I think it's a great skill for an author to be able to do that. I think it's something to do with the strange world she builds, I love being in her world.
May. 28th, 2010 09:58 am (UTC)
I didn't like her persistent trying to get a baby, but I did feel sorry for her that she had to go trough all those miscarriages. It also surprised me because I know a mother of a close friend of mine had a miscarriage and it's something she didn't want to go trough twice, because it's the worst feeling ever. (Which I understand)
I think what annoyed me most was when Claire finally met Henry in the present time, they automatically end up sleeping together and that Claire was surprised when it seemed that he had another girlfriend. I also didn't think Henry was such a nice guy towards her. Still, there were certain aspects of the story that I really liked. It's strange, but I've also had this with Neil Gaiman his book 'American Gods'. I didn't liked any of the charachters, but the entire plot is brilliant and he still kept me interested.
So yes. I'm really curious now because I want to give her writing another try! It's indeed fascinating how authors are able to keep you interested in the story while actually not liking the characters. :D
May. 28th, 2010 10:07 am (UTC)
Cool! I suppose I liked the characters in the sense that I was intensely interested in them, but not in the sense that I'd want to share a flat with them, or even meet up for lunch (except maybe Robert and Marikje).

With Clare and Henry, I wanted to be part of their lives, but I think if the twins lived in my block of flats, we probably wouldn't pay much attention to each other, and they might even act a bit snotty unless they wanted something. And I don't blame Marikje one bit for leaving Martin. My studio mate and I were also saying how refreshing it is that Niffenegger didn't feel it necessary to comment or reflect on the big age differences between characters who were attracted to each other, she just has us accept it, which many writers wouldn't do.
May. 27th, 2010 04:24 pm (UTC)
If you do a graphic novel about cemeteries, be very careful what you say about it, or you could wind up like Neil Gaiman.
May. 28th, 2010 09:19 am (UTC)
Ooh, I would just hate to be a well-paid writer who can chose whatever projects he likes, that would be so horrible. ;)
May. 27th, 2010 05:02 pm (UTC)
Great post. I love the idea of a graphic history anthology on Highgate.
May. 28th, 2010 09:24 am (UTC)
Thanks! Yes, I wonder how difficult it would be to pull off. I'd hate to have to spent ages on e-mail nagging people to finish their chapters.

But it would be such a great story starter and I think people would get really into it. I'm sure Marx and Douglas Adams would get snatched up right away, and the menagerist with the lion tombstone. I wonder if Audrey and Tracy would contribute strips or writing for it, they must be awfully busy. And maybe Michael Rosen, I wonder if it would be too close to home to write a comic strip about his son, or he might think he's already said what he needs to say with his Sad Book. Ellen mentioned it to Paul Gravett last night when we were at the Comica Social Club and he was very enthusiastic about the idea. I wonder what the cemetery people would think about it.
May. 27th, 2010 07:27 pm (UTC)
I was there as well!
Hello! I stumbled on your post when looking for a link to the event for my blog and am so impressed with your visual and textual coverage of the event. It really was an inspiring evening, wasn't it? I must've said the lamest things to Audrey and Tracy when it came time to get my books signed...there was so much I wanted to ask them as well, yet I found myself incredibly shy and tongue-tied. I've read their other works, but not these particular novels, so I'm quite eager for my upcoming reading.

May. 28th, 2010 09:28 am (UTC)
Re: I was there as well!
Hi, Colleen! Thanks so much for leaving a note! I agree, it was a great evening, and such a perfect setting for it. This was the first Tracy Chevalier book I'd read, so I must find more of hers. I want to have a better look at Niffenegger's graphic novels, I've only read them standing up in shops and so not very closely. They're very beautiful, I just don't know if the stories are as gripping as her text-only books, I'm curious about that. Happy reading to you! :)
Jun. 5th, 2010 06:43 am (UTC)
I like the lion
Thanks for posting all those great photos! I now have another destination for when I visit England (whenever that may happen).

Your sketch of the ghost in the machine is AWESOME!

I have Tracy Chevalier's "Burning Bright" on my nightstand (along with 50 or 60 other books, it's kind of a mess) and look forward to reading it. It's about William Blake. Was interested to hear the title "Her Fearful Symmetry". Is Blake mentioned in that one?

You might be amused to learn that I purchased "Burning Bright" at my neighborhood QFC -- of all places! Sometimes they even have authors appear to sign books at this QFC. I have no idea why. Their book section is limited to a few spinning racks and a sale table. It seems kind of awful for the authors -- to travel many miles for a signing in Seattle, only to find that it's happening in a grocery store...
Jun. 5th, 2010 08:47 am (UTC)
Re: I like the lion
I don't remember any overt Blake references in the story, but the title suits the book perfectly.

Wow, I don't remember QFC selling books when I was there. A lot of the supermarkets here are selling books and there's always a big controversy over them, because they often sell books at a loss (subsidised by the rest of their sales), to get people into the store, and the bookshops can't compete with their prices. At the same time, people who might not normally go into a book shop might see them and buy them, so perhaps it makes us a more literate society? I'm not quite sure where I stand on this, I like the bookshops. I think it's the same thing with Costco in the USA.
May. 4th, 2012 12:06 pm (UTC)
thanks 4 the photos
hai.. my name is melly from indonesia
i just finished HFS yesterday..and i still dont believe that the story is end. i dont like the ending. and i think the plot is too slow. i really wish valentina ended up with robert (which in my imagination is dylan mcdermott :D ). i like TTW better.

but the book raised my attention to highgate cemetery. that's why i googling it and come accross to your photos. thank you. it explain alot. and make me want to re read the book.
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )


Sarah McIntyre

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