Nunhead Cemetery: one of the Magnificent Seven set up by the London Necropolis Company on what were then the semi-rural edges of London. The stench from the parish graveyards in the City, Holborn, Covent Garden had become too much; noxious gases filled the streets, entered homes, sometimes killed people. It had become time to shift the dead to pastures new. Nunhead welcomed its first body in 1840—a 101 year old grocer from Ipswich—and closed its ornate iron gates in the 1950s. Unlike its cousins in Highgate, Brompton and Kensal Green; the soil holds no famous or historically significant folks but it is second largest of the lot. By the 1970s when we used to play over there, it had gone from a lawn to a meadow to woodland dotted with headstones like knackered teeth.
We were in our early teens so most of our play was strictly innocent: climbing trees, smoking fags, drinking neat Blue Label Smirnoff, shooting birds and animals so Tommy’s taxidermist dad could stuff them—that sort of thing. Dark forces were at work there, though. Totters would rob the graves of their lead, pentangles appeared on the walls of the roofless chapel, tombs and memorials got vandalised and there were rumours of Hell’s Angels holding mad parties in the larger mausoleums.
Of course, we wanted some of this. We loved a bit of vandalism.
We would explore the mausoleums using our Clippers to light the way. They had adjustable flames back then and you could get a ten-inch flame off a good one. The further you ventured in, the mustier the air became until it extinguished your light and you were left in the pitch black in a room lined with shelves stacked with ancient cadavers. That was when we’d all panic and bundle outside, breathless and laughing.
One day, in the undergrowth, we discovered a freshly vandalised tomb, its bricks smashed in and the end of its coffin ripped off to expose a mummified man. He had cartoon goofy teeth and long, grey wispy hair. His chest was a sort of grey-brown and covered in pockmarks (we called them wormholes), his nipples were tiny. We couldn’t see his legs. We named him Godfrey—despite his real name being engraved on the tombstone—and would sit by him, including him in our conversations and occasionally sticking a lit fag in his mouth.
It was just my luck (whether good or bad I wouldn’t like to say) that the day I didn’t turn up to hang out would be the day they pulled his head off. Someone had managed to get hold of a length of thick rope; they then tied it around his neck and heaved and heaved until they’d decapitated the poor fellow. It took six lads to pull old Godfrey’s head off and they all went flying and landed in a heap, swearing and giggling. The skull had gone flying off somewhere into the thick underbrush and took some time to find. When they eventually did, Jason had the bright idea of suspending it from a lamppost in the creepy alley that ran between the cemetery and the neighbouring reservoir. As a result, despite its obviously ancient condition, the whole area was crawling with Old Bill for days. They love a good murder hunt despite the evidence of their eyes. I harboured mixed feelings about the whole episode. I was throbbing with jealousy because I wasn’t there to witness my mates’ shenanigans and so excluded from there retellings, and at the same time smugly relieved that I had nothing to do with the whole affair.
Whilst things cooled off around the cemetery we took to hanging out in Peckham Rye Park. Our favourite pastime was snogging, titting-up and fingering (girls that is) in the park shelters, difficult to do over the cemetery because the girls—except tomboy Janet—wouldn’t hang out there and there were no shelters. The girls all attended Friern Road or Honor Oak Grammar that sat either side of the park. Our second favourite thing to do was getting the brown-uniformed parkies to chase us. We would taunt them from some distance, questioning their sexualities and insulting their children and/or parents. We also liked to aggravate the meths drinkers that haunted Peckham Rye Common back then. The common is outside the park and had been a stopping-off place for gentlemen of the road since time immemorial. We didn’t get too close to them, you could smell the sweat and the piss from several yards away and they had talons that looked like they could tear your face off. This is where William Blake saw “a tree full of angels”.
The park is a typical, decent-sized one like many others that dot South London in great abundance. It’s got rose gardens, football fields, an adventure playground, a café and a duck pond. Legend had it that a giant one-eyed pike named Nelson lurked there, surfacing now and then to pull a mallard or a mandarin duck to its death. We would poach fish using an old-fashioned hand-line. I remember Dave O’Connell pulling a good-sized perch out of the murky water. He held it up for us to see, its red and green colours sparkled in the summer sun as it struggled on the end of the line, its spiny dorsal fin flattening and flexing.
“That’ll teach you to be a fish,” he said as he threw it to the floor and stamped on it.
Blood and guts oozed onto the tarmac and into my memory.
Jason, that rarest of things; a good-looking hard nut, approached me one time. “I’ve got a fucking bone to pick with you!”
“What have I done?” I quavered.
I’d recently come unstuck with him by threatening his cousin with a broken bottle but I’d already been punished for that. Was I in for some more comeuppance for the same transgression?
“Nothing,” he laughed as he pulled a human thighbone out of a plastic carrier bag. He waved it in our faces for a while then threw it, spinning end over end into the duck pond. One day they’ll dredge that pond and it’ll be the Godfrey episode all over again.
Once the hubbub about the suspected murder had died down, we drifted back to the cemetery. The bastards had re-built the broken fence forcing us to climb over it after our attempts to vandalise it failed. They’d done a good job on the repairs. We went to check out Godfrey’s headless body. It had gone. In its place were globe-shaped black candles and eerie symbols were daubed in and about the tomb in black paint. We stuck to the streets and the park after that.