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

AgnesBernauer

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.

The Clowns’ Church

 

ClownGraveThe ‘Clowns’ Church’, the backdrop for a couple of key scenes in The Eighteenth of November, was a real church; the park surrounding it still exists. Having lived in London for ages, a great deal of it in Islington and Camden, I know the area well. So when I was looking for somewhere for Fabriel to find himself, after the fire, I remembered the little park on the Pentonville Road – an unlikely place to find a park. It is in fact the area around what was formerly St. James Church.

When I went to check it out I found this little grave, surrounded by painted railings, which bore at the front the twin masks of tragedy and comedy. At the back a ‘pitted curved gravestone’. The inscription was faded, almost indecipherable in places, but enough to read the name Joseph Grimaldi. Here in this small park lay the bones of the most famous clown in the world. The man whose name lives on today in the generic name for a clown – a Joey. This sparked the idea of the ghostly clowns who appear later in the book.

The original church suffered bomb damage and was deconsecrated and demolished. At the time I was writing an office building was being erected on the place where it had stood and which, misguidedly, was designed to resemble the church. It was a nice idea, but somehow it doesn’t work. There was a playground to one side, as mentioned in the book, but apart from that the place was a building site and ‘dark with overgrown bushes and overhanging trees’.

The little park bears the name Joseph Grimaldi Park, in honour of this iconic clown, who
was born in Islington, where he lived for much of his life. The park has recently been remodeled, smartened up and the grave renovated. Rather strange, musical, coffin shaped ‘installations’ are now set ‘on top of the grave’, which is a bit confusing as they are outside the small enclosed area I think of as the grave. I can only assume that they cover the actual plot where Grimaldi is buried, but how do they know?

For many years St James was the venue for the annual Clowns’ Memorial Service. When the Church was demolished, the ceremony was moved to Holy Trinity, Dalston. Where it is still held. I will be posting an article about that separately.

Grimaldi Plaque

Directions: Joseph Grimaldi Park is sandwiched between Cummings Street and Rodney Street – about a third of the way up the Pentonville Road, if you are coming from King’s Cross/St Pancras, The postcode is N1. I can’t find a more precise one but if you look up either of the streets mentioned and find their postcodes, that will be enough to pinpoint the park.

 

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.

 

St Pancras Chambers – from cosy to cool

 

Booking Hall

Flikr.com – The old booking hall

In The Eighteenth of November Fabriel and Alice take refuge in the derelict St Pancras Chambers after the fire. It becomes their home for the duration of the story. I have always loved that wonderful mock-Gothic building. I bless Sir John Betjeman for his part in getting it listed Grade I, thus saving it from being demolished. Despite its listed status, when I was writing the book the building was still in a terrible mess, both inside and, perhaps a little less so, outside.

St Pancras Chambers, now carefully restored, has transformed into the magnificent St Pancras Renaissance hotel, with luxury flats above it. Many of the sumptuous, original Victorian features have been preserved; it bears no resemblance to the wreck of a building that I explored. And the old station itself is now a typical, and expensive, mall type shopping area, with the Eurostar check in on one side and local services at the back. The Eurostar trains are one level up, where you will now also find some additional bars, including the long, narrow champagne bar.

I still miss the dirty, somewhat tatty and romantic old station. When you walked into the old Booking Hall you could easily imagine you had been transported back to Victorian times. The station itself was sort of cosy, if you can say that of a station. It held so many memories for me. It was from the old station that we caught the train to Sheffield every week when I was doing my M.A.; it inspired me. That’s all changed. If you travel to Sheffield nowadays you have a long hike through the new squeaky-clean malls to reach the repositioned St Pancras station. Totally devoid of any atmosphere or interest, it may be clean and modern, but it’s boring and hasn’t a romantic bone in its body.

The Mystery of Body 115

The search for identity

Cover: The Eighteenth of NovemberThe title of my novel, The Eighteenth of November, is inspired by a tragedy that touched many lives. For it was on 18th November 1987, at around 7.30 in the evening, that a devastating fire broke out at King’s Cross underground station. One of the busiest interchange stations on the whole London Transport network - 40,000 people pass through it daily during the two hour peak period alone.

A number of things sparked my interest, which grew as I researched the fire, its causes and the consequences. Above all, I was incensed at the degree of corporate negligence that had allowed the fire to happen in the first place. And I was intrigued and disturbed, in equal parts, to discover that one body was still to be identified at the time I was writing, thirteen years after the fire.

An ethereal being?

One of my friends suggested that maybe the body wasn’t really a person but an ethereal being. This proved to be the inspiration for one of my main characters, Fabriel. Nevertheless Body 115 (or ‘Michael’ as he was called by the police and forensic investigators) had indeed been a real living person. The question remained though – who was he?

While many of the victims were untouched by the flames, dying rather from the poisonous fumes, ‘Michael’ looked ‘as if he’d been thrown on a bonfire. ‘ Despite this, the police thought he’d be one of the first to be identified as there was a wealth of forensic information. Among the distinguishing features were his height – 5’2” – the facts that an unusual metal clip had been inserted in his brain and he possessed a unique set of dentures, which had the initials EH or FH etched onto them. To top it all, the police had a couple of fingerprints.

What was in the ‘left luggage’ locker?

However, two years after the fire, despite unprecedented publicity, including the wide distribution of a realistic facial reconstruction, the quest had got nowhere. Despite over 6,000 hours of painstaking investigation, led by Superintendent John Hennigan and Detective Sergeant Ray Turner, they were no closer to an identification. Then a suitcase was found in a left luggage locker at King’s Cross station; in it wage packets, denture powder, tobacco, clothes that would fit a man of 5’2” and an old Merchant Seaman’s ID card.

The name on the card was Herbert Rose. The face on the photograph resembled the reconstruction. They thought they had achieved their goal; their hopes were dashed. The fingerprints on the ID card didn’t match the fingerprints on ‘Michael’. Despite this enormous setback, British Transport Police continued to follow up the hundreds of enquiries. Getting nowhere but refusing to give up.

Was this ‘Michael’?

As the tenth anniversary of the fire approached they began to focus on a missing man named Alexander Fallon. He had suffered a breakdown after the death of his wife in 1974 and moved to London where he lived a rootless life. He did however have four daughters, with whom he kept in touch from time to time. At first he had been eliminated from the enquiries as his family put his height at 5’6”. In addition, he was 73 whereas it was thought that ‘Michael’ was between 40 and 60 years old.

Nevertheless, there were significant ‘matches’. ‘Michael’s’ body had shown signs of heart and lung disease; he had been a smoker. There were the fingerprints. There was also the unusual clip in the brain. Alexander Fallon had suffered an aneurism in 1980 and been treated at the Royal London Hospital. His medical records led to the surgeon who had operated on him – and yes he would have used that distinctive clip. The dental records matched. New techniques allowed the marks on his skull to be matched with scars visible in photographs taken years before.

The long search is ended

Another telling piece of evidence. Although he had kept in touch with his daughters, albeit intermittently, all contact had ceased from the date of the fire. Equally significant, he had not claimed any of the benefits to which he was entitled since that date. Something that it seemed was quite out of character.

The family asked that his body be exhumed so the DNA could be tested; in the event it proved unnecessary. The British Transport Police considered it but, among other complications, was the fact that the body had been buried with Ralph Humberstone, another homeless man. In the event the weight of the forensic and other evidence was compelling. Body 115 was formally identified as Alexander Fallon of Falkirk in January 2004, over sixteen years after the fire.

For further information, there is an excellent article in the ES Magazine (the magazine of London’s Evening Standard newspaper) dated September 11th 1998 – over ten years after the fire but still some years before Alexander Fallon was identified. There is now an excellent book – Body 115 – by Paul Chambers. A detailed, thorough and informative examination of the painstaking work that led to the final identification. It’s highly readable and I just wish it had been written before I wrote my book – it would have saved hours of research!

The Eighteenth of November is now available on Amazon Kindle

How it all began

When I started the novel writing element of my MA at Sheffield Hallam I hadn’t decided on a subject for the book. I only knew that I wanted to do something completely different from anything I’d done before. In common with many writers I have a ‘sandpile’ –people give it different names but in essence it’s a file, folder or just a drawer full of jotted ideas, articles and press cuttings. Things that have caught our attention but which don’t fit into the piece we’re working on at the moment, things we want to go back to at some stage.

Everyone else in my group had decided on their theme and time was moving on. So I did what I always do, went through the sandpile. I found some notes I’d scribbled years before, about the Kings Cross tube fire. The train for Sheffield leaves from London’s St Pancras station, which is adjacent to King’s Cross. This plus the sheer romance of the old Midland Grand Hotel inspired me. (The building was by then called St Pancras Chambers and had yet to be restored – the shiny new St Pancras International Station and the posh hotel and loft appartments were still some years ahead.)

I went to the British Library’s newspaper archive and to the main library too and read everything I could find about it, including the Fennell report into the causes of the fire.  I discovered that the fire was yet another example of corporate negligence. This is something that both interests me and enrages me. I’m all to well aware of the devastating effects a culture of negligence can have on individuals and families, with the people in the firing line often blamed for something that eminates from the boardroom. I also discovered that apart from the many life changing injuries, the fire killed 31 people and that one poor person was still unidentified (he remained unidentified for a further seventeen years). That was the starting point.

During our train journey up to Sheffield, we often discussed our writing, exchanged ideas, tried out plots on one another. I told the group about the fire and the unidentified person, at which one of my friends remarked that she had always thought that the unidentified man was an ethereal spirit, not flesh and blood at all. It was a wonderful concept and it became my starting point.

That was how Fabriel was born. Then some magical things happened – the baby just arrived and the baby led to Alice and so on. Mr Aitchison appeared briefly early on, though I had a feeling that he’d play a larger role, which he did. Later, as I was trying to get to grips with Fabriel’s character, Mr Aitchison suddenly took on more importance. Fabriel’s status changed several times during the writing, but Alice’s character was set from the beginning.. The elemental also came out of the blue. As the work progressed, the fire became simply the catalyst, with the story of Fabriel and Alice going somewhere else entirely.