Crying & Laughing: the annual Clown’s Memorial Service

The Tears of a Clown: the annual Clowns’ Memorial Service

Sad Clown

Towards the end of The Eighteenth of November, Alice, one of the main protagonists finds herself back in Joseph Grimaldi Park, the tiny North London park, where she had encountered Fabriel, some hours after the fire. As she stands distraught by the railings round Grimaldi’s grave she becomes aware of shadowy figures gathering round her. These are the ghosts of clowns long gone. But their comforting presence is soon replaced by something much more sinister.

This scene was inspired by research into the life of Joey Grimaldi and the discovery of the Clown’s Church and the annual memorial service that was held there and that continues to this day, though in a different place. On the first Sunday in February each year a colourful and motley crew assembles in East London. Clowns from all over Britain, and even further afield, gather in Holy Trinity Church, Dalston, East London. They come to remember and honour friends and colleagues lost but not forgotten. And also to renew friendships, remember, perform and laugh together.

The tradition began in 1946 at the original Clown’s Church, St James on Pentonville Road when the first service was held in memory of the legendary Joseph Grimaldi, the ‘clown of clowns’, who is buried in what was once St James’ Churchyard, but is now a park named after him – Joseph Grimaldi Park. The church suffered bomb damage in World War II and was decommissioned in 1959, when the service was moved to Holy Trinity in Dalston.

Grimaldi was born in Clerkenwell in 1778 and lived in and around Islington until his death in 1837, aged only 59. His father had performed in pantomime and Joseph made his own debut at the Sadler’s Wells theatre when aged barely three. He continued to delight audiences at the theatre, and in Drury Lane and many other London theatres. Despite his fame, his life was not an easy one, with more that its fair share of tragedy. Sadly, this is rather fitting for a clown.

Next year the service will once again be held at Holy Trinity Church, Beechwood Road, London E8 3DY. As always, on the first Sunday in February. If you are going, be sure to get there really early to get a seat. After the service there is a performance in a nearby church hall. Altogether an experience not to be missed.

History as inspiration


I always find it helpful to have a back-story for my characters. Even if none of it actually appears in the book, it informs me as a writer. It took me some time to figure out Fabriel’s status but, once I had done so, I needed to create a backstory for him. In his particular case it was essential to the plot, not just for his character. Who was he? Where did he come from? What had happened to ensure that he would be at King’s Cross on the exact day, at the exact hour that the fire broke out? Did it have something to do with the distant past?

When playing around with different ideas, it became obvious that a common link between his present and his past had to be fire and that led me to witches and witchcraft. Not surprisingly, the Internet is a good place for witches. There are many specialised sites dedicated to all things Wicker, as well as sites such as Wikipedia (no pun intended!) and more general sites.

What I was looking for was a specific story, a true story that I could use as the basis for the events in Fabriel’s past. I found some of it in the story of Agnes Bernauer, though I needed to adapt it quite drastically. The final story of Fabriel’s past is only very losely based on Agnes story, though I did borrow her name. For instance although the real Agnes was condemned for witchcraft, she was actually drowned – as common a death for witches as was hanging or death by fire. In the end her story served as inspiration rather than being mined for facts.

Agnes Bernauer was born around 1410, the daughter of the Augsberg barber-surgeon                 Kaspar Bernauer, although some accounts describe him as a baker and others say his existence has never been proven. After meeting her, it is supposed at a tournament in February 1428, Albert, Duke of Bavaria, took her off to Munich. There is a possible reference to her on the Munich tax roll of the same year. Within four years she had become an integral part of the court. There is no doubt she was Albert’s mistress and it’s possible she was married to him secretly.

Duke Ernest saw Agnes, a commoner, as a threat to the succession and, egged on by the Palatine Countess Beatrix, Albert’s sister, he took steps to get rid of her. On 12th October 1435, while Albert was away on a hunting expedition, Duke Ernest had Agnes arrested, accused of witchcraft and drowned in the Danube as a witch. When Albert returned and discovered what his father had done, he endowed a perpetual mass and an annual memorial celebration in the Straubing Carmelite Cloister in her memory. The following year Duke Ernest erected the Agnes Bernauer Chapel in the cemetery of St Peter Straubing. Probably to appease his son. Memorial masses are said to this day, though these are now an annual event, rather than a daily one. Agnes’ story not only helped provide a framework for Fabriel’s story. It has famously inspired many dramas, operas, poems and plays and is even celebrated in a unique cake - the Agnes Bernauer Torte.

Sunshine and Shops – researching the recent past


Marchmont St

Marchmont Street, where Alice remembered

I am drawn to books that set fictional worlds in real places, real streets, real neighbourhoods. Ruth Rendell, for instance, places the main action of The Keys to the Street in and around Regent’s Park. Writing as Barbara Vine, she set The House of Stairs in Notting Hill and King Solomon’s Carpet in West Hampstead. Charles Dickens uses London as the background to his books.

These and many other writers have had a great influence on me, so perhaps this has played no small part in my own writing. Thus in The Eighteenth of November, the events and the places are real although the characters are fictional. I find it very important to get the settings, as well as the events, exactly right. I was going to say that that’s relatively easy with places, but not necessarily. It depends on how much detail you want and when the action takes place. I have discovered, for instance, that the recent past can sometimes be more difficult to research than the historical past. What shops, for instance, were on the King’s Cross Road or in Marchmont Street in 1987?

Shops are difficult. There will be records somewhere but finding them would take more digging that was warranted. I only needed a typical café so it was more appropriate to create a fictional one albeit based on the many greasy spoon caffs to be found in London. The same went for the shops on Marchmont Street, though I kept the eclectic mix of shops that exist today. I imagine the street was not so trendy in 1987, though the eighties were pretty trendy so maybe it was. Of course the once rather seedy Brunswick Centre, at the Russell Square end, has changed beyond all recognition. Not entirely for the better.

It also required quite a lot of searching to establish the weather on the day of the fire and the days that followed. It may be a tiny detail but I didn’t want to describe something as taking place on a bright sunny day when it was in fact raining. The further in time I got from the fire the harder it was to establish the conditions; in those cases I just didn’t mention it or made the date nebulous, so that it didn’t matter.

The scene in Russell Square was more critical as I needed to describe it as it was in November 1987, scarcely a month after the Great Storm that had downed so many trees in London. As I thought, the trees in Russell Square had been cleared and chopped up but not yet removed, just as they appear in the book. However, many places remained relatively unchanged, Postman’s Park for instance and Parliament Hill. Neither has altered a great deal and remain much as they would have been when Fabriel and Alice searched across London, each on a desperate quest for answers.

The photograph of Marchmont Street comes with the kind help and permission of Silver Tiger. A great site to visit for diverse and delightful photos of London and useful advice, a bit of  philosphy and much else too.