I know that many of you have enjoyed the writing of Pete Silverton on photography and photographers posted on this website. As you may know Pete recently died and we marked this by reading some of his writing on an episode of the A Photographic Life podcast. Well, typical of Pete he wrote some thoughts on his own death and the place of his own cremation, an extract of which was read at the service by his son Daniel. I post his words here for those who enjoy Pete’s writing. Pete always liked his writing to be published at some point.
I can promise you that… it’s my intention to start and finish in the same place. And that place is Hoop Lane.
Like many an other of my age and postcode, I’ve spent a good deal of time at Hoop Lane. It’s a short drive up over the Heath, through or round Hampstead village, down towards the Middlesex Ditches. Skirt the western edge of Henrietta Barnett’s garden suburb. Turn left down the road opposite. Drive through the black iron gates of the building on your left and into its red-brick walled quad. Park up on the grey dusty tarmac. There’s always space. People rarely stay long. Half an hour, give or take.
Or they never leave. Hoop Lane is what locals call Golders Green crematorium, the brutality of that truth softened by the metonymical use of the name of the tree-lined avenue on which it sits, across the road from a large, flat Jewish cemetery. Even non-believers and doubters can fall into squeamish euphemism.
Then it’s past the principal mourners, gathered around the bonnet of a shiny black hearse, with faces and bodies decomposed into grief or composed into a presentation of grief — not always less genuine than the decompositions. The crowd is often smaller than I expect. Age does wither attendance.
Next, it’s up the few steps to the side entrance to the chapel. (There are, apparently, three chapels, but it’s always been the same one on my visits.) It’s a modest building, brick and Romanesque in fashion, I’d have thought. Then I looked it up and found it’s actually Lombardic, an architectural style whose star rose and fell in mediaeval north Italy at a time when London was home to the Middle Saxons and ruled by Essex. Not that the crematorium is that old — it only opened for business in 1902, just seventeen years after cremation was legalised in the UK. So I guess you’d have to describe the building as neo-Lombardic in style.
Now take a seat in a wooden pew or, on the occasional busy day, stand at the back. It’s not a big room. On the western wall, there is a plaque — of marble, I think. I’ve stared at it many, many times without knowing whose life it memorialises. I looked that up, too. It’s a bust of Sir Henry Thompson, founder of the Cremation Society of Great Britain.
On the eastern wall is, well, a hole — the gap, both joltingly real and pleasingly symbolic, through which the dead pass from us to not-us. Writers: Kingsley Amis, Enid Blyton, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, Denis Norden, Bram Stoker, HG Wells. Scientists: Sir Alexander Fleming, Ernest Rutherford. Psychoanalysts: Freud, both Sigmund and his daughter Anna. Playwrights: George Bernard Shaw, Sean O’Casey, Joe Orton. Poets and lyricists: Lionel Bart, TS Eliot, WS Gilbert, AE Houseman. Pop singers: Marc Bolan, Ian Dury, Gary Holton, Johnny Kidd, Matt Monro, Ivor Novello, Amy Winehouse. Musicians and drummers: Jack Bruce, Tubby Hayes, Paul Kossoff, Keith Moon. Football players and managers: Leslie Compton, Alex James, Don Revie. Architects: Erno Goldfinger, Edwin Lutyens, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Train-robber: Ronnie Biggs. Actors: Barry Evans, Joyce Grenfell, Ian Hendry, Jack Hawkins, Henry Irving, Gordon Jackson. Vivien Leigh. Comics: Bernard Bresslaw, Bud Flanagan, Irene Handl, Tommy Handley, Sid James, Jimmy Jewell, Bernie Winters.
Club owners and band-leaders: Ronnie Scott, Snakehips Johnson. Cross-dressing music hall artistes: Ella Shields, Hetty King. Locals: Peter Sellers, Peter Cook, Peter O’Toole. Adventurer in Wonderland: Alice Liddell. Politicians, princesses, generals, admirals and kings, too. All have passed through that hole, en route to eternity’s uncaring, unimpressed democracy. The same hole in the wall that I’ve seen friends and family pass through, on rain-sodden February mornings and on lustrously bright, chill Autumn days. Like many visitors to Hoop Lane, both living and not, I’ve never been much taken by belief or after-lives. I do appreciate the ceremonies of passing, though.
It’s a prosaic, even domestic, kind of place. I’ve heard actors and directors and writers and tv moguls speak. Ordinary people too. I’ve never heard a bad speech there. I’ve cried and hugged and held hands. I’ve sat alone in my car crying a shuddering river. The prosaic-ness of the place.
It was here, in the Hoop Lane chapel, that I first heard funeral music. Not funereal music. Not hymns, choral music or Mahler. No, I mean regular music, music you already know, music that has been repurposed for the ceremony. A full stop for a life. A familiar song or tune for an end of days.
Pete also wrote this about death:
As a child — an anxious, fearful child, all too often— I was terrified of death — so terrified that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I could never find comfort in the Irish Catholicism of my family. Simply, I could never believe. I was always the atheist at the back of the church, keeping shtum about my doubts. But every night, in my bed, as I tried and failed to fall asleep, I churned through thoughts and questions. Nothing special, just the usual stuff that five-year-olds ask themselves. What’s God got to do with it? If God made everything, who made God then?
Eventually, I was given sleeping pills. That’s my memory anyway. Those who were around at the time tell me I’m wrong but that’s how I remember it — and that the pills worked. Well, I got to sleep. The death thing, though, that hung around. Rare was the night I didn’t think about it before falling asleep – or failing to, as a result of my deathly thoughts. I often talked about death with those closest to me — I can’t say they appreciated it but they did come to tolerate it. And then, at some point, things changed and, having changed, never changed back. Death, for me, had, quite simply, if surprisingly, become part of life.
© Peter Silverton 2023
You can read all of Pete’s writing on photography via this link https://unitednationsofphotography.com/?s=pete+silverton