The 17th century English poet Thomas Noel famously wrote about “a grim one-horse hearse” carrying a pauper’s body to his grave. “Rattle his bones over the stones, he’s only a pauper, whom nobody owns!”
Who could have thought those darkly-written lines would resonate in 21st century London — capital of the fourth largest economy and home to some of the wealthiest men and women in the world. But they did: Last month the city was aghast to learn that the unprotected body of a destitute baby had been pulled out a common grave by a fox — an animal that is as urban in London today as poverty.
Common graves? Destitute babies in London? To many Londoners the words recalled the novels of Charles Dickens, who revealed the horrors concealed by the streets of Victorian London — a city that then ruled an empire spanning much of the world.
Then, poverty was ubiquitous in London. Now, it is far less so, although inequality continues to graft itself in the things by which we measure the quality of our lives — health, education, housing, food — and in death too.
On a sunny Sunday I went down to the tree-lined New Battersea Cemetery, set over some 30 acres of land in the south London district of Motspur Park, where the body had been dug up. In a corner (marked U2 on the cemetery map) there lay a few unmarked graves of children, amid a sprinkling of flowers, teddy bears and cheap plastic toys.
There was Noddy in his yellow car, a red mover’s truck, a plane of fading white. A seated winged stone fairy watched over a little child.
Elsewhere in the cemetery, there were special remembrance enclosures — small gardens with flowers that shone on a spring day.
A cemetery worker stopped by, introducing himself as Philip. “The press played it up,” he said. “Unfortunately, there are these animals about…”
The local council has now decided lock down paupers’ graves with metal covers but, Philip said, “I suppose you could ask why they did not do so before.”
Dickens would ask such questions in 2010. But I doubt the answers would console the baby’s parents — reported to be African migrants.
Their hopes could be plucked from the lines from one of the gravestones of a child: “Between the sun and the rain is where we can find you, in the rainbow and clouds and the beautiful rays of the sun.”