The cabbie dropped me off where Redcross Way meets the far wider and busier Southwark Street. A broad Victorian railway bridge passes overhead exactly where these two roads meet, casting everything beneath it into permanent shadow. Redcross Way’s narrow entrance – just wide enough for a single car – is topped by a brick archway helping to support the bridge and flanked by two banks of coloured lights which blink forlornly through the gloom. (6)
It was a cold, foggy October evening, already dark and that month’s vigil at the gates of Cross Bones was due to start at 7:00pm. I had about ten minutes to spare as I entered Redcross Way and I could see a dozen or so winter-coated pilgrims already huddled round the gates, waiting for something to happen. They were mostly women, mostly middle-class and looked like the sort of respectable crowd you might find at a Guardian newspaper event or an upmarket crafts fair. Behind them, The Shard thrust skyward, its tip sheathed in fog. (7)
People began decorating this old burial ground’s gates with candles, ribbons and other offerings in October 1998, when John Constable led the first of his Halloween processions to the site. Constable himself had discovered the gates only two years earlier when, consumed in a frenzied night’s writing at his home nearby, he realised he was no longer alone. He’d been writing that night in his persona as John Crow, a trickster poet figure who first appeared in Constable’s 1995 Edinburgh Fringe show I Was An Alien Sex God. “When I wrote as John Crow, I was writing in a slightly different persona and going places I wouldn’t normally go,” he told me a few days after the October vigil. “By about 11:00 o’clock that night, I was in full spate as John Crow, this sort of slightly rogue prophet holding forth. And then…”
And then he sensed another presence in the room. “It was as if a fleshed-out, fully-formed character walked into the room and started telling me her history, in my head, in verse,” Constable told me. “I was quite scared by it. I thought I’d pushed the boat out a bit too far that night and we weren’t coming back. So I started writing it all down.” (8, 9)
The medieval prostitutes who worked the streets of Southwark had the Bishop of Winchester as their landlord and hence were nicknamed Winchester Geese. These were the women first consigned to Cross Bones and Constable quickly came to think of his visitor as a voice for them and all the others buried there. What else could he do but name her in their honour: she was The Goose. He’d read some of the Winchester Geese’s history while researching Southwark for another project, but never heard it told in such urgent and vivid terms as he did that night.
“It was things I knew, but they seemed to be coming out in a much more radical form,” he later wrote. “With this narrator, with her own voice. The Cross Bones graveyard reference – ‘And well we know how the carrion crow / doth feast in our Cross Bones graveyard’ – was like the hidden part of the jigsaw. I was seeing all these visions of places and, for that, when I wrote it down, the vision was of a graveyard – but I was thinking pirates, really. I pictured The Goose with a knife in her garter in case one of her johns got out of order. Later, I thought it was as if she’d deliberately kept one card hidden to impress me.” (10)
Most people didn’t know Cross Bones existed in 1996 and Constable is adamant he’d never heard of it either. But he’s content to let others interpret his experience however they will. My own suggestion was that he must have already known about Cross Bones long before The Goose’s visit, but that the information had since slipped so far to the back of his mind that he no longer knew he possessed it. Surely The Goose was simply a product of his own brain, teased into an altered state by the John Crow process, finding a way to haul the burial ground’s name back into his conscious awareness? “I can’t say I’d never unconsciously seen some little footnote in a paper,” he replied. “Whether that’s true or not, I just don’t know. What I know is that, the way it presented itself to me that night, was as a completely unknown thing. When I wrote those lines, I saw it almost as The Goose trying to scare me. And I was scared: it was a frightening night.”
What’s undeniable is that something happened that night and whether we call it a ghostly vision, a resurfaced memory or a neurological event, Constable’s life would never be the same again. The two birds – Goose and Crow – laced their wings together on the first night they met, they’ve flown in tandem ever since and many changes in the concrete, tangible world around us have directly followed from that.
By now it was the small hours of the morning, but The Goose hadn’t finished with Constable yet. As her fragments of poetry accumulated, he realised they were building towards a verse journey through the streets of Southwark, with The Goose leading John Crow through the Borough’s dark history. It was obvious what he had to do next. “By now, it was after midnight and this was a rough area, but I felt completely fearless,” Constable told me. “Maybe it was The Goose saying to me ‘Don’t worry, dearie: we’re the scariest thing on the street tonight’. So we went on this long walk.”
Southwark in 1996 was a far more dangerous place than it is today, where taxi drivers often refused go and the police warned residents against showing their cash in the street. Redevelopment of the area had hardly begun, and its poorly lit alleyways still led through a maze of derelict warehouses and Dickensian railway arches, in neighbourhoods which Victorian reformers had reckoned among the worst in London. Progressing first through the local history sites Constable did know – The Cathedral, Chaucer’s Tabard Inn, the site of Shakespeare’s original Globe Theatre – The Goose eventually led him up from Marshalsea Road, under the trees towards a fenced patch of anonymous waste ground in Redcross Way. “I remember walking up there having a very particular, perhaps a Blakean, sense of eternity,” Constable said. “That was the place where I felt ‘I’m John Crow, walking in eternity – now.’
“We ended up at the gates of Cross Bones. I didn’t know what they were, but it seemed like there were these voices coming through – they started singing. There were lots of cans rattling, papers blowing. There were all these sounds that were making me very jumpy. And somehow, out of that, John Crow’s Riddle almost sang itself there at the gate. I was kind of singing it, but not knowing where it came from. So I wrote more at the gates and I carried on walking and I came home and I wrote more. Finally, I went to sleep at dawn.”
I knew the bare bones of this story already as I entered Redcross Way last October, taking in the crowd outside the gates, the office workers arriving at The Boot & Flogger pub directly opposite and the two old charity schools which lay ahead of me towards the Union Street corner. I’d been here five or six times before and watched the vertical bars of the tall, locked gates become more and more crammed with offerings of all kinds: costume jewellery, crocheted flowers, dream catchers, poems, scraps of ribbon from a child’s dressing-up box, a silk stocking. All those objects were still in place, plus a thousand more besides. (11)
I didn’t know it at the time, but that night’s event was to be the 101st vigil held at Cross Bones and the last one its celebrants planned before taking a break from the custom. Perhaps that’s why they’d made a special effort to decorate the gates, hanging a long string of red and gold bunting showing Our Lady of Guadalupe along the top of the gates and a truly beautiful quilted portrait of Santa Muerte next to the graffitied wooden fence. A row of flickering candles in glass jars ran along the gates’ base, next to a child’s cheap bracelet, a bird-shaped wicker basket and a bottle of Gordon’s gin. Through the bars behind the the Santa Muerte quilt, I could see Cross Bones Mary, the battered Madonna statue standing guard just inside the site entrance.
The crowd had grown to about 50 people by 6:55pm, when a tall, white-haired man wearing a long velvet cloak and beads round his neck strolled up. John Crow had arrived and we were ready to start our ritual. (12)