Quite the title, Are you a Ghost Hunter? An Audio Trail of The Old Church, but also Ghosthunter N16 for short, features the only surviving Elizabethan churchyard in London and is a self-directed audio trail which pieces together fragments of multiple stories.
When things get too much for me, I put a Zoom H4N and a handful of cashew-nuts in my pocket and wander around awhile in one of the London’s old graveyards. Some are cities of the dead, some are gardens of sleep, some are forests of stone, as the brilliant Jean Sprackland says in this audio trail, but only one resembles an old lady wrapped in a jumble of patchwork clothes. That’s the Old Churchyard of St Mary’s where Ghosthunter N16 unfolds.
A little set back from Stoke Newington Church street, framed by a curly iron gate with a lantern, sits an Elizabethan jewel. The Old Church of St Mary’s is too fragile to open her heavy wooden door except for Sunday service and special events, but the surrounding acre of ground is open at all hours of the day and night.
I follow an overgrown path into the interior of the churchyard, where the sounds of Stoke Newington are softened by yew-tree and holly. Celtic crosses. Modest box tombs. Gaping family vaults that threaten to swallow careless walkers. A granite bedhead flanked by skulls. An alderman here. An abolitionist there. Inscriptions spit-polished by the centuries. Legions of unknown and unknowable dead.
Invariably, for some reason I don’t know and don’t want to know, after I’ve spent a couple of hours in here, looking at gravestone designs and peering at epitaphs and scaring pigeons out of the long grass and reflecting on the end that awaits me and awaits us all, my spirits lift, I become quite cheerful, and then I can finally go home and sleep.
Why is it that so many of us are drawn to these otherworldly places? Perhaps because they help us tune into our own world? Most days the Old Churchyard is deserted, but I knew other wanderers were out there somewhere. Night creatures like me. Singers like Sam Lee. Poets like Jean Sprackland and Abstract Benna. A veterinarian (and Renaissance man) like Charles Foster, who gives voice to the fox-cubs burrowing deep into the unsealed vaults. These people are the principle narrators of Ghosthunter N16.
I was visiting a lot last year, when secondary school students seemed to be the only guardians of the Old Churchyard. They admonished the occasional heavy-footed rambler who was trampling over graves; faithful to an 18th Century epitaph that you hear in the audio trail. “Stranger whoe’er thought art that visiteth these silent mansions of the dead, here pause. Contemplate the ashes of a man who was ever generous kind and good….” The teenagers also kept track of paranormal activity. “Excuse me, are you ghosthunting? I love a ghost! I love ghosts!” they shouted, as a Skepta grime loop pumped out of their Bluetooth speaker. I had to give them the first and last word, and so I collaborated with some wonderful students and teachers at Stoke Newington School.
I enjoy being nicknamed Ghostbuster No. 5 by witty 16-year-olds, particularly because, in the 1980s Dan Ackroyd movie, female characters like me were possessed by ghosts rather than possessors. I also concede that my audio recorder – Zoom H4 – is a little like a Ghost box. It looks like a paranormal research device, and, let’s not forget that sound, to borrow David Toop’s phrase, has a sinister resonance. Sound is our way of tapping into the world of invisible forms, of the recent past, of the distant past, of the imagination. The younger people I met knew that instinctively.
With that in mind, our sound design allows you to listen in on aspects of the old churchyard that may be inaudible now – clairaudience. The church door creaking open. The folk-song of Sam Lee echoing round the fretted steeple. The floodwater beneath St Mary’s carrying away the coffins as if they were lost boats on the river Acheron. The wind whispering through the leaves of the evergreen oak. The deep hollow note of the church bell breaking each hour the stillness of the day, as Edgar Allen Poe wrote, from a time in his boyhood when Stoke Newington was still a misty-looking village.
And that’s the mediumship of the audio trail-maker. We can drape many gossamer-light layers of sound over the present visual environment; different decades, different tones, different textures. Of course, we have to direct our audience using the relative stability of the visual world, or else people would get terribly lost. But with a little deft signposting, we can take listeners back and forward in time, towards the metaphorical and back to the real again. And, because sound is always emerging and vanishing, with one voice decaying into another, it is the perfect ghost.
Ghosthunter N16 features people born in many different layers of space-time, from 14 years’ old to 50-something. You hear the eloquent voices of real people (not thespians pretending to be dead Georgians nor coldly objective historians). For the spoken content, we drew on personal sense memories and life experiences that connect the narrators to the dead. Let me give you an example of this. In the remotest corner of the churchyard, through a crooked gate, lies a most unusual monument…
Died 11 December 1781 Aged 23 years
In consequence of her
Cloaths taking Fire
the preceding Evening.
Jean Sprackland, narrator, shuts her eyes in front of Elizabeth Pickett’s tomb, until she can almost picture her own grandfather pulling the paraffin heater in from the garage. A winter evening, a fire hissing and popping in the grate, a young woman. You can hear the reverie in her voice as Jean tells us:
Sometimes it’s so still and quiet here that you feel as though you’re not quite in the present day anymore, and I imagine Elizabeth Picket at the age of 23, standing by the fire, maybe reading a letter or maybe just thinking her own thoughts. And it’s as if a door has swung open on the past and I can see her there. Just for a moment, time is kind of suspended. And then a car goes past, and that door slams shut, and I’m back in the present.
The final part of the Audio Trail highlights the tomb of James Stephen; the principle English lawyer associated with the abolition of slavery, and Anna Barbauld; a poet, a feminist, and a fellow abolitionist. We make it clear that James Stephen was real about taking his inspiration from black activists such as the Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture. The point being that even places full of dead white people are made up of relationships to elsewhere; connected like the mushroom roots below ground. I hope that Ghosthunter N16 conveys this idea sensitively throughout.
I chose Lay this Body Down by Sam Lee as the theme music. This is a version of a black spiritual, originally sung by an oarsman in the marshy plantation lands of Georgia, who in turn portrays himself as Charon, the oarsman of the Greek Underworld. Lee, an Extinction Rebellion activist who sings to protest against the drowning of the world, performs this song within a church that was once itself saved from sinking into deep floodwater. Layers of time and place, joined through sound.
Earlier in the Trail, we hear Black British poet Abstract Benna resurrect Edgar Allen Poe’s story William Wilson; which includes many details from Poe’s days as a schoolboy in the parish. William Wilson – the spooky doppelganger in the story – has sometimes been interpreted as the figure of conscience within a Western mercantile capitalist society. Indeed, Poe’s epigraph to the story is: “What say of it? what say (of) CONSCIENCE grim, That spectre in my path?” So, there is the still small voice that speaks from within. But there is also, in Benna’s performance, double consciousness; the sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, which W.E.B. Du Bois identifies in the souls of Black folks. The splitting is audible. Benna uses a vernacular youthful voice for the exposition (Poe’s / narrator’s), and code switches to a more formal register for the doppelgänger.
Dead people never stop talking and sometimes the living hear them, says Abstract Benna at the finale; here paraphrasing Marlon James, paraphrasing William Faulkner, paraphrasing countless Black Southerners. Dead people never stop talking through the living. Poets like Edgar Allen Poe lifted words from gravestones, while funeral orations steal from poets. Without the voices of absent others – those who have died and those who we’ve made into ghosts – we could not speak, much less make audio trails or write poems. As Elena Ferranti writes, our whole language enacts a stunning resurrection of the dead, just as we ourselves hurtle towards death.
The nice thing about St Mary’s Old Church, and about churchyards in general, is that they remind us of this interconnection. We could see the headstone of Anna Barbauld or James Stephen as the last page of the last chapter in someone’s story, or, we could see it as a portal into something else. Say not goodnight, but in some brighter climb bid me good- morning.
This text is the 11th in a series of the artists shortlisted for the Sound Walk September 2022 Awards talking about their work.