On 18 April 2013, two Goldsmiths research students, Bill Psarras (Computing) and Sarah Feinstein (Sociology), walked from the Romford Road to the Barking Road, ending up at The Boleyn Ground (Upton Park), home of West Ham Football Club. Calling it a ”sensorial ethnographic walk”, Bill and Sarah noted the sounds, smells and sights they passed along the way, taking photographs and writing notes about their experiences. These notes, together with photographs and a video showing the step-by-step progress of Bill and Sarah’s walk, can be found on the pages shown above (entitled Bill’s field notes and Sarah’s field notes).
As Irma and I enter the cemetery I see a receptacle of used plastic bottles next to several taps. There is the sound of chimes blowing in the breeze and the running water of a fountain.
I realize as we walk that the bottles and taps are there for people to water the flowers and wash the markers of the graves they come to visit. I see a woman pouring water over a headstone and then scrubbing. It reminds me that though I think of cemeteries as a place for dead people, they are really places for the living. A place to make an absence present, to give loss a material form that can be touched and tended to.
We walk around we come across another woman sitting silently in front of a large tomb with a statue of the Virgin Mary. She has parked her car alongside with the doors open and sad, slow country music is coming out. Her children run about, but she is still and her head is down. I don’t think she is praying, just overcome with sadness.
We talk to the caretaker who has worked here for seventeen years. What is it like to see people buried every day? He shrugs. His answers to most of our questions include the refrain, ‘It’s just part of life.’ At one point he adds, ‘It’s not as morbid as people think.’ He is from the area, and has seen lifelong friends buried here. He describes the cemetery as a ‘small family cemetery.’He notes the diversity of those buried here, that they come from all religions and cultures and all ages,‘from zero to one-hundred.’
There is also, of course, in those who occupy the space a temporal diversity that is perhaps unique to cemeteries as social spaces. One of Jack the Ripper’s victims is here, the caretaker tells us. The local women and children who drowned in 1898 at the Blackwall launch of HMS Albion are buried together in a mass grave. Alongside these ‘Historical’ markers, the personal historical traces of families that live/lived in this community are laid down in stone, remaining even when there is no one left to visit who knew their names and faces in life.It is like an archive of bone and cement.
The caretaker tells us that people, many people from the community, come back here. People who grew up in the area but have moved away from London or even abroad, come back to be buried here in the end.
Queens Market lies on Green Street, home away from home for all West Ham United fans.
The market itself, based on the site since the Victorian times, sells a mix of fabric rolls, exotic foods and home ware goods with nail shops scattered in between. Venturing out to Upton Park on a sunny Saturday seems like the most obvious way to spend the afternoon.
After parking down one of the side roads that connect Katharine Road and Green Street, I made my way up towards the station. Passing Paan shops and window displays filled with colourful clothes. I stopped just before the station at an off-licence, one of few in this area. I noticed that the shop was awash with a collage of post-it notes in its window. Each note stated the same thing “Bedroom for rent” in a hand written scrawl.
Is this the result of the ‘bedroom tax’ from the newly implemented Welfare Reform Act 2012? The tax means that housing benefit claimants will receive a reduction in their claim if they have a spare bedroom. This can be partially subverted by taking in a lodger. Although housing benefit payments may still be cut, homeowners will be able to keep all of their rental income from the lodger.
Isn’t it strange to use cut flowers as a gestures of remembrance? After just a brief time deprived of water the blooms wither and quickly fade like this bouquet. Perhaps freshly cut flowers are a symbol of the beautiful and fragile nature of life itself.
Walking past Upton Park, West Ham United’s home ground, on Green Street there is a garden of
remembrance near the entrance. Sally, who is having a cigarette break, explains that fans can
have their ashes scattered there. “Jeannie Bell ashes were scattered there, she worked for the
club. The priest comes and blesses then and everything” Sally says.
I explain what I am doing and that we are helping Richard House find out more about the area. Sally is very helpful and says that I am more than welcome to take some pictures of the garden.
9.45am Upton Park. It’s striking how few people there are on Green Street on this cold bright Saturday morning. The silver shutters are still down on most of the shops as I walk north from the station. Slowly Green Street starts to wake up. One by one silver shutters get raised on shop after shop like eyelids. The street is quiet, calm and relatively empty. A shop keeper advises me if I want a cup of tea I should turn around and head back to the station.
At 10.30am the quiet is shattered by the wail of sirens as four police cars with flashing blue lights
speed past followed by a police van. The street is awake now and by 11.00am it is full if people
Saturday shopping. Above the Halal Meat Market there is a large flashing red sign. “You buy we
deliver… Marinated tandoori… Jerk Peri Peri… Smokey Barbeque… 100% non-stunned”. On theopposite side of the street The Queens pub has a sign on the door “Toilets for customers use
Sitting in Percy Ingle’s Bakery making notes and drinking warm tea to combat an hour spent in
the cold. The three young women working behind the counter are comparing London styles of
driving. “In my country (Nigeria) people drive on the right hand side. They drive like crazy” she
tells her eastern European colleague. Another police siren sounds in the background.
Looking up from cabinet of illuminated pasties and sausage rolls there is a sign describing the
various kinds of bread on sale. One is dedicated to “Cholla – Traditional Jewish bread made with
added sugar and eggs, hand moulded and topped with sesame seeds.” East End cockney voices
hang in the air with the sound of Polish words. The radio announces today is Grand National Day.
Tea is getting cold. On the pages of the annotated A-Z is a quotation from Italo Calvino: “The city
does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets,
the gratings of the windows.” I suddenly realise that for the first hour of today’s fieldwork on
Green Street I have been using the back of my hand like a page from a notebook.
Everyone was struck by the careful thought and detail of the My Newham map that Sairah Maryum drew for Richard House…”Aah the Town Hall. Our very own Big Ben. Life wouldn’t be the same without the dramatic chimes echoing through our house…’
So of course we asked if we could interview Sairah. During the interview she told me (Yasmin) about her aunt who works at the funeral services at her local mosque in Newham. And so Sairah became the interviewer. Here is an extract from a short interview, mainly in Urdu, that Sairah did with her aunt Mrs Rifat Parvez. Mrs Parvez has been working at the mosque for seven years and has given ghusl (ceremonial washing of the dead) to over 300 women.
Sairah: What brought you to doing this work?
Mrs Parvez: Uh, I’ll be honest with you, at first I didn’t know this would be such a good and rewarding job…And I had an interest, I used to talk to other women, so after that I used to go and just pour some water. I spoke to a woman, spoke to the mosque people, they said “Fine come”. So slowly, slowly, slowly, I found out what life is until you reach this point (death). One day we have to leave this place. And it’s rewarding and the heart is at peace… I have a lot of mental peace and you become less attached to worldly life and your attachment towards Allah increases and this is the most important thing.