Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Stepney Ginger

My name is Sam Redlark. I am a carrier of the LonB gene which enables me to perceive parts of London that exist outside of the normal sensory range. This blog is an account of the Capital as I experience it. I hope that my writing here will encourage those who find themselves in London, whether it is as a visitor, or as a resident, to seek a deeper appreciation of their surroundings. You don’t need to be a LonB carrier to experience the best of the city. All you need to do is open your senses to what is around you.

Stepney Ginger...

To get to Bullman Wood Prison Cemetery in Stepney, Garry Leggett and I had to walk through the Canarvon Lane Industrial Estate. A service road, bordered intermittently by a narrow pavement, first on one side and then the other, snaked at angles past a pair of competing new car dealerships, a cash and carry warehouse, a timber yard, and the acutely zigzagged roofs of some light manufacturing units. On the corner of the first big bend, a corrugated iron shed, the size of a four-bedroom house, amplified the grating metallic snarl of a circular saw blade biting into stone tiles. The metal roof was rusted a deep reddish-brown. From a distance it appeared to have the texture of abraded velvet. Streaks of corrosion filled the vertical rills in the walls where a television aerial had been bolted onto a barred grill mounted over one of the side windows. A thin film of water meandered through the wide open doors and across a fine layer of white dust, faintly marked with overlapping boot prints, that coated the cement driveway outside. 

We paused at a truncated intersection where the bleached, patchwork asphalt of the bisecting road petered-out after a few metres on either side of the junction. A clapped-out lorry was executing a laboured three point turn, its exhaust spewing diesel fumes in oily clouds. Opposite, a large signboard, lazily tagged with orange spray-paint, announced that we were entering the Shepherds Row Business Park. A rectangular four-storey building with a facade constructed from rough concrete panels, faced the pavement side-on. Behind a grid of plate-glass windows that stretched from the ground to the roof, a deserted stairwell zigzagged back and forth. Hanging down from one corner of the block, a yellow plasticised banner, the length of two floors, advertised office space for rent.

Its neighbour was a smaller brown brick building set away from the road at the back of a well-attended car park, hemmed in with neatly trimmed hedges and flower beds sparsely planted with marigolds. A placard on the wall of the main entrance identified it as Canarvon House and claimed a link to the local NHS trust.

The cemetery was located appropriately enough at a dead end. The road terminated abruptly in front of a ten foot high barrier made from wooden boards painted a matt white and capped with loosely coiled rolls of barbed wire. To our left, an unruly hedgerow, overrun with giant stinging nettles, screened-off the fast-moving traffic on the busy A13. The tangled vegetation closest to where I was standing had been flattened by a cluster of bulging, black refuse sacks, some of which were torn open and in the process of haemorrhaging a putrefying miscellany of slimy Clingfilm, rusting tin cans and soiled ready-meal containers into the undergrowth. Through the collage of dusty leaves I caught mosaic-like glimpses of the turquoise-painted, faux-oriental metalwork of an ornamental footbridge that crossed both lanes of the road.

Garry handed me a pair of shovels, their business ends both caked with dry cement. I waited while he fumbled with an enormous bunch of keys attached to his belt on a long chain, until he had located the one that unfastened the rust-speckled padlock holding the metal latch in place. The wooden gates were slumped on their hinges. He raised the panel closest to him a few inches clear of the ground. Taking small shuffling backsteps, he half carried, half dragged it open before allowing the well-worn corner to fall into a shallow depression in the soil.

Behind the wooden wall there was another barrier – a slouching diamond-wire fence - and another pair of gates, held together with a length of thick chain and another rusted padlock.

The cemetery occupied an immense tract of rugged waste ground, utterly void of monuments and headstones. A light summer breeze that had been restrained by the buildings on the industrial estate took flight across the open terrain. Long gusts of wind cut temporary pathways through the knee-high seed grass, pushing down the silvery blonde tips, that reflected the sunlight, to expose sodden brown stalks, still damp from the morning rain. In numerous places the ground had erupted, the clods of parched soil pushed-up into fragmented mounds bedecked with tiny, white wildflowers.  

Garry unfastened the second padlock. He threaded the chain through the weatherproofed mesh and dragged open the stubborn gates.

Insects lifted into the air ahead us as we picked our way between the knolls of broken earth. Our pace was slowed by tough thread-like tendrils, bearing small white flowers, that threaded between the stalks of grass. They snared around our legs and were wrenched from their moorings by our forward momentum. so that we ended up trailing these broken garlands along behind us.

The ground underfoot was uneven and rent apart with cracks large enough to swallow part of a shoe and turn an ankle. A pungent miasma emanating from these fissures settled acridly in base of the throat, stimulating the gag reflex. I noticed that Garry was attempting to counter this by walking with his head inclined slightly upwards. Every so often he would slow almost to a standstill while exhaling deeply.

By the time we reached the centre of the enormous field my summer allergies had driven my body into open mutiny. My eyes were ratty with pollen, my sinuses tingled and the roof of my mouth itched unbearably. A tender island of skin on my right arm glowed bright red, as if begging to be scratched. Instead I settled for rubbing it vigorously with the heel of my palm.

We stood in silence, perspiring in the humidity, the distant throb of the weekend traffic, a muted canvas for the parched chirp of grasshoppers. A pair of cabbage white butterflies danced in unsynchronised tandem over the swaying meadow like puppets tangled in each other’s strings. Overhead,  a lone of swallow wheeled in a blue sky patched with grey and white clouds, making a sound like glass marbles being rubbed together as it dived towards the ground before abruptly veering sunwards, as if repelled by an invisible force field. I raked my tongue over the stubble on my top lip and tasted sweat mixed with the faint residue of orange juice.

For over century the dead from Bullman Wood Prison were buried here anonymously in unmarked graves. The cemetery was abandoned following the closure of the prison in 1978 with the last burial having taken place there the year before. The gaol was partly demolished in 1981. In the ensuing decade the industrial estate and the business park grew up on the derelict site as part of a government-sponsored enterprise scheme, dreamed-up to stimulate the stunted local economy.

A small section of the prison was preserved as a borstal for young offenders. It was here that Garry spent most of his teenage years. “A right little fight club,” he told me one evening, raising the shirt of his replica Westham home kit, unveiling a welt of purple scar tissue three inches in length, etched across his belly, tapering off at one end.

In 1992 the borstal was reclassified as a Searchlight Centre for young offenders. Garry works there now as an anger management counsellor.

“Anna Milne wants to shut us down...” he confided during our walk, referring to the recently elected Conservative MP.

“...It’s no secret. She fucking campaigned on it. Her cronies want to develop the land. The last lot were just as bad, mind. They wanted to cash in on the Olympic games property boom but it’s a bit too late for that now. You know the Chinaman bridge we came across to get here? They want to pull that down. You think how many people on the Tar Houses Estate are employed at the Tesco, or in them offices we passed, and use that bridge to get to work. How are they supposed to cross a busy 60 mile-an-hour road with a metal crash barrier in the middle of it. You either have to walk down to the pedestrian crossings or go in the other direction up to the roundabout and try to get across there. Either way adds ten minutes to the journey.”

During Garry’s rant my attention had drifted across the field towards a far-off skyline that I took to be the city of London. Suddenly I became aware that he had stopped speaking and was looking directly at me.

 “How will we find the graves,” I said “Are their markers?” 

“You can get a general idea from where the ground is broken. The bodies draw all the moisture out of the soil and capillary action gradually brings them to the surface. They’re burrowing upwards at a rate of a few centimetres every year. You see these white flowers we’ve been walking through. Wherever they form dense patches is a good indicator of a body."

“So when Graeme turns up we can get started?”  

I fumbled in my satchel. The crumpled white exhumation order had become separated from its pink and yellow carbon copies in transit.

“He’s nor coming mate. He knows we’re here but he’s got stuff on. I’ll give him the forms when I see him on Monday.”

He took the crumpled top sheet from me and stuffed it into the side pocket of his jeans in a manner that suggested that he had no intention of passing it on to anyone.

I handed him one of the spades. He paced the earth mound nearest to where we stood as if he was trying to get a sense of its circumference. I was suddenly cognisant of what we were about to do and waited from him to make the first move. 

After the first scrapes of metal against loose, dry soil I joined him, working at the opposite end of the grave, shovelling clods of earth so dry that they partly disintegrated into clouds of brown dust as we them cast them over our shoulders.

“Should we be wearing facemasks?” I asked him.

“Probably. It’s a shame I didn’t bring any.” 

Four feet down I felt the tip of my spade strike something denser than the soil that surrounded it. We stopped digging and scraped away the crumbs of earth to reveal part of a bulbous, pale-brown tuber. A wet fibrous wound marked the area where I had broken the rough tan skin. 

After about ten minutes of further excavation we had exposed something that resembled a giant piece of root ginger. It was roughly 6 foot in length and humanoid in appearance, like an abstract wood-carved sculpture of a man. A misshapen arm with bulbous sausage fingers lolled across the bloated chest. Part of a human a jawbone still bearing teeth was partially embedded in what I took to be the head. Wiry tendrils similar to those that we had walked through earlier spouted from hairy patches dotted around on the surface. 

When the British first encountered Cuckoo Root in India they were fascinated by its ability to colonise organic material and loosely take on its shape. Early experiments with the plant were conducted on corpses in the prison cemetery at Bullman Wood. It was this and the end  appearance of the contaminated bodies that led to it becoming known as Stepney Ginger. 

“I’m warning you now it will weigh a fucking ton” said Garry as we stood at either end of the body and prepared to lift it out of the grave. We had lengthened the trench at both ends to  allow some standing room. Our first attempt left us breathless and staggering from our exertions as we paused to reconsider our strategy.

Three more goes and we had the body almost upright with the head and torso propped against one side of the grave. A further joint effort with both of us each lifting a leg and pushing with all our might sent it out of the hole and into the long grass.

“Those teeth...” I said as I climbed out, panting in the heat. “Are they all like that?” 

“It can’t really absorb bone. Usually when you cut into them you’ll find ribs and pieces of the vertebrae. Sometimes you’ll find the root and a big pile of bones next to it where they’ve been pushed out." 

He cast his eye over the body like a coroner coldly assessing a body on a slab.

“You see these two big lumps here,” he said, indicating a pair of bulbous growths occupying the swollen midsection.


“Those are his nads.”

“You’re joking.”

“Seriously those are his bollocks. The bacteria swells them up.”

“Are all the bodies buried here like this one?”

“Yeah, I would have thought so. It’s quite an invasive species. Sometimes if they’re buried close to each other they fuse together and you get these huge lumps forming. I saw a photograph of a mass grave in India where that had happened. It took a crane to lift it out of the ground.   

He stared down at the grotesque specimen that lay before us.

“I know that it was all done in the name of science, but you can’t tell me that when they decided to use prisoner's bodies as guinea pigs there wasn’t a consensus that they deserved it for being criminals. It was a pretty cuntish thing to do, taking revenge on the dead like that. I mean look at this poor bloke. Whatever he did when he was alive somebody somewhere must have loved him...”


Kisses for George

Sam Redlark: “Tell me about Stepney Ginger.”

Grandma Lillian: “The prisons used to dig up the bodies of the convicts that had been taken over by the Cuckoo Root. They used to sell them as scarecrows. When you went past Bullman Wood Prison you would see them lined up for sale at the side of the road.”

Sam Redlark: “Did they make good scarecrows?”

Grandma Lillian: “They made very good scarecrows. The birds don’t like the smell you see. There was a man called Mr Dutton who lived six doors down from us. He used to sell the bodies off the back of his wagon. The farmers and the allotment owners would buy them from him. I knew a woman who bought one for her husband as a Christmas present. She wrapped it up in newspaper and put in under the tree in the front parlour.

“There was one ginger man that Mr Dutton couldn’t sell because it was badly damaged. Nobody wanted it. Eventually he turned it into a mascot for his business. It used to ride next to him in the wagon. He dressed it up in all kinds of costumes. In December he’d put it in a Father Christmas outfit!”

Sam Redlark: “I remember you telling me about a Stepney ginger man in the fields near to where you grew up.”

Grandma Lillian: “There was one in the farmers fields behind our house called George. I can’t remember his last name. I think it might have been Seagrave. He was a murderer when he was alive.

Sam Redlark: “How did you know his name?”

Grandma Lillian: “When you bought them they came with wooden tags around their necks that told you their name and what crimes they had committed. Sometimes at the weekends, after the dances were over, the local girls used to visit George in his field and kiss him goodnight.”

Sam Redlark: “Was it like a dare?”

Grandma Lillian: “It was a silly thing really. We all thought that if you kissed George after dark and wished hard enough, you would end up marrying the man of your dreams.”

Sam Redlark: “You don’t see these scarecrows anymore. What happened to them?”

Grandma Lillian: “They were sold at Bullman Wood right up until 1951 when the law changed. After that you still saw them in fields in out of the way places, right up until the 1970s. You probably don’t remember this but when you were two years old we went fruit picking with your mum. As we drove up the track to the farmhouse I saw a ginger man watching over one of the fields.”  

Sam Redlark: “What happened to George?”  

Grandma Lillian: “The parish council gave him a Christian burial in the churchyard at Saint Marys. They had to put him in a special coffin so that he wouldn’t infect the other people who were buried there. I’ve never seen so many young girls at an old man’s funeral. By that time I was engaged to your grandfather so I was happy to see George being laid to rest. He had to wait a bit longer for it than most of us do!


Garry and I decided that the only way that the pair of us would be able to return the body safely to its final resting place would be to orientate it alongside the grave and then unceremoniously roll it sideways over the edge.  

“Okay, gently does it,” he said as we coaxed it into position. Granules of dry earth cascaded into the hole as the lip of the trench supporting the huge knotted root started to collapse under its weight. 

“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”

The body wrenched itself out of my grip. A second later it hit the bottom of the hole with a tremendous thump, sending up a huge cloud of choking dust.

“Whose idea was this again?” said Garry, shaking his left hand which had been briefly  trapped under the corpse. His T-shirt was soaked in sweat. Beads of perspiration had formed a glistening sheen on the inky tendrils of the tribal tattoos that lapped around the base of his neck.

I felt a pinch on my arm and flicked a caramel coloured into the grass.

“You told me that when you were a traveller you used to drink Cuckoo Root Beer.”

“We  were new agers and considered ourselves a bit fucking spiritual. I’d read that the Agoris in India drank it. It helped them to commune with the dead. We were all up for a bit of that.”

“Did you make it yourself?”

“There were cemeteries that we knew were colonised with Stepney Ginger. They started off seeding it in the prisons but it spreads really fast. It’s pretty much everywhere now. Most churchyards in the south of England are overrun by it.”

“How did you know before you dug up a grave that weren’t going to find a decomposing corpse?”

“You can tell by the white flowers that come to the surface in the spring. Then there’s the smell and a few other signs. We’d dig up the bodies at night, carve the root into manageable pieces and then boil it up in one of the old caravans.”

“You were consuming a drink whose key ingredient was human flesh.”

“Well I would argue that it had undergone a transfiguration and was closer to plant matter.”

“What about the one we’ve just exhumed? There are pieces of bone in it, so it’s still a body in some sense.”

“Yeah, I know. The irony is that, at the time, we were all militant vegans.”

“So what did it taste like?”

“Have you ever had snuff?”

I nodded.

“It’s like taking a massive pinch of snuff. It feels like your brain’s disintegrating...”

He made an involuntary retching noise. I noticed that his eyes were watering..

“Sam, it’s fucking rank. Just thinking about it now makes me want to vomit... It’s like... it’s like inhaling mould. And it makes you fucking mental. You just want to go around fucking punching people. We used to drink it before we went on Poll Tax demos.”

“But did you feel spiritually enlightened after drinking it?”

“No, not really. It just gave me a massive fucking hangover.”

He swallowed and took a deep breath as if purging himself of the unpleasant memory.

The mutated body of the unnamed prisoner lay before us in a hole five feet deep. As we shovelled the powdery earth back over it, I thought about George. And about my grandmother and her friends, running barefoot in the dark across the ploughed field to press mouths heavy with lipstick against the cold, unyielding face of the long dead murderer.

Garry and I were weary with the aches and pains of encroaching middle age. We walked away from our own George in exhausted silence, with no particular hopes or dreams for our respective futures. Our clothing was streaked with dried mud. The shovels that we dragged along the ground begin us made a dull metal scraping noise that paused intermittently whenever one of the blades bounced off the uneven terrain and momentarily became airborne.

As we retraced our footsteps through the industrial estate, the fractured plastic exoskeleton of a ballpoint pen, lying partially crushed on the asphalt, got caught on the tread of Garry’s shoe. It ricocheted between his footsteps for a few paces before flying off into the gutter.

NEXT... Beamer, Mayblush, Ragsail, Nersha

1 comment:

Steven Augustine said...

I now feel alert and alive to unnamed (and strangely pleasant) misapprehensions!

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