and the Memorial to Heroes of Self Sacrifice
Hello. This post is about Death & Birds. Please be mindful that it contains the details of a fatal accident.
While on a train into London this week, I took out my noise cancelling ear buds in an effort to acclimate myself to the barrage of sound that the city brings. I’m sensitive to noise. It has a habit of sending my nervous system into overdrive and joyously the vineyard that sits some 500 yards from where we live has decided to employ a ‘Bird scarer’—a machine that lets off what sounds like a nearby shotgun blast, every thirty minutes. This means that, while at home, alongside a skeleton-jarring jolt of adrenaline flooding my body, I have to allow the dark and unstoppable fantasy of going to the vineyard with a sledgehammer and beating the Bird-scarer into a small and unrecognisable pulp play out in my minds eye—every thirty minutes.
So, when my Tuesday unexpectedly opened up, I hotfooted it to the train station to take myself into the city and, as I was saying, I took out my ear buds en route. The transition from lush countryside into the dull uniformity of the cityscape is a harsh one, so the determined little plants and flowers that grow, against all odds, out of railways tracks and brick walls are a welcome softening.
An almost imperceptible, internal armouring takes place during this part of the journey, as though some terribly kind part of myself knows that my skin needs some reinforcement to withstand the incoming. There is a toddler, idly practising screaming in a carriage further down the train. There’s a couple near me, explaining finances to their son. He’s maybe 11, clearly uninterested, and the man keeps talking over his wife. I wonder if that’s a habit this boy will emulate, or rebel against. I say a little prayer that it’s the latter, as I tilt my head in search of something animate outside the window. A Crow—success.
As we near Victoria station, I reach into my wallet for my ticket. There’s a passport photo of David inside, and a small, black & white photograph from 1936 of a young woman in a winter coat, standing in front of some trees, looking down and to the side. I don’t know who this woman is. I was sent this photograph, along with various other treasures, by the wonderful musician, after becoming a paid subscriber of his. He found the photograph some time ago in a charity store, and felt the time was right to pass it on. So, now she lives with me, and we make our way around together. I often wonder what WWII was like for her.
In London, following an unsuccessful hunt for a waterproof coat, I buy a sandwich and go to sit in Postman’s Park: one of the cities best kept secrets. The park is small, and raised a little above ground level, a fail safe way of knowing that it was once a burial ground—that’s if the gravestones stacked around the periphery aren’t suggestion enough. It’s a peaceful spot filled with city bods, also eating sandwiches, and it is home to a wall of tiles which make up ‘The Memorial to Heroes of Self Sacrifice’.
Unveiled in 1900, the memorial was conceived and funded by artist George Frederick Watts. He was moved by, and collected, stories of people risking and losing their lives in effort to save another’s. The result is a wall of fifty or so tiled memorials—each naming, and briefly detailing the circumstances which led to the untimely Deaths of ‘ordinary’ people.
It’s strange to be faced with even one of these tributes, because they each speak to an event which would have had such a colossal impact. The earliest memorial references an incident from January 24th, 1863 when, “Sarah Smith, pantomime artist at the Prince’s Theatre, died of terrible injuries received when attempting in her inflammable dress to extinguish the flames which had enveloped her companion”.
The tile reflects what the newspapers of the day reported, but a little googling finds that the incident actually occurred on the evening of January 23rd, and 'Sarah Smith’ was in fact Sarah Gibson—she used her mothers maiden name as her stage name. The inquest into her Death tells us that she was seventeen years old, a ballet dancer, and was mid-performance at the Princess’s Theatre when another dancer, named Annie Hall, passed one of the six ‘fire-pans’ illuminating the stage, igniting her dress. Annie ran passed Sarah which, in turn, set her dress alight.
There were little to no laws regarding safety in theatres back then. Some kept damp blankets on either side of the stage, but not the Princess’s theatre. Instead, stage hands attempted to tear off the girls blazing dresses and, eventually, extinguished the flames by wrapping their own jackets around them. According to the stage manager, they got to Sarah last, so her burns were more extensive than Annie’s. The pair were taken to Middlesex Hospital, where Sarah died five days later, on Wednesday, January 28th at 5.45pm. Her Death certification lists “exhaustion produced by extensive burns” as the cause of Death.
This is one tile. Of over fifty.
The complexity and intensity that a single one of these 18 x 12” memorials represents is difficult to contend with. As I sit in the park I find the overwhelm of the tiles spanning out. I see each person sat on a bench as a universe. The result of so much history. So much birth, so much Death. So much life, and so much loss. Each individual the most extraordinary coming together of atoms and circumstance.
Sarah’s memorial contains just 28 words, but the little I know of her will stay with me.
Yours in aimless flight,