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‘Marooned at a tangent to the everyday’: Katrina Palmer’s The Necropolitan Line

By Bridget Penney.

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[Photo: Jerry Hardman-Jones]

Katrina Palmer’s installation, taking its name from the dedicated railway service that once ran between Waterloo Station and the London Necropolis (Brookwood Cemetery near Woking), occupies three ground floor galleries at the Henry Moore Institute. The voice of the Platform Announcer over the public address system engages the visitor as they walk from one side to the other of the first, large room to examine three undated, uncredited black and white photographs of semaphore railway signals at the trackside and a 1936 publicity image of an illuminated diagram of all the tracks coming out of the platforms of Waterloo Station. This diagram clearly shows the two platforms of the separate Necropolis Station at the lower edge of the complex of lines. The second room, opening at right angles to the first, has been hoarded off to create a corridor through to the third gallery. This corridor is occupied by a railway platform. At first glance, the monumental form of the Platform delivers something of a shock.

Although the visitor would not expect to encounter a railway platform in a gallery or from this unexpected angle – travelling by train, the passenger usually experiences the platform as a surface, ground-level, rather than a three-dimensional object – once the initial surprise is overcome it feels familiar enough for the visitor to consider entering passenger mode. A fairly steep ramp with a rail on the right hand side leads up to the Platform, which is furnished with shiny new metal seats. A strip of tactile paving set into its surface warns feet away from the platform edge. It’s not made clear if the seats are a model to be found on regular station platforms but they look and feel as if they could be. No distancing aesthetic – either that of the everyday object repurposed, labelled and guarded as an artwork, or the elegiac state of mind associated with ‘lost’ railways – appears to be in play. There is an empty space in front of the Platform so the visitor can walk straight past it if they choose. At the back of the Platform is a fence; the slats are set just far enough apart to make peering irresistible. One image is visible to the right of the space beyond the fence, but it is set too far back to make the experience of seeing it a rewarding one. At the end of the Platform, on the wall to the left of the entrance into the third gallery, is a signal light that switches between white and red.

From the seats on the Platform the main visual focus is the visitors who have not chosen to mount the Platform and sit down but instead are walking straight past, on the trackbed of where the line would be if the Platform was part of a railway network. This flow of movement past the Platform has a surprisingly melancholy effect on the visitor seated there. Perhaps it is akin to the experience of watching trains not scheduled to stop at the station passing by. The sense of being left behind makes the visitor seated on the Platform question why they chose to mount the Platform in the first place when it’s perfectly clear that the Platform is ‘marooned at a tangent to the everyday’ as Palmer writes in The Line, the giveaway newspaper piled up in the third gallery. Why did they sit down on the uncomfortable metal seats? What exactly have they chosen to wait on the Platform for? Sitting there on the platform, apparently waiting for something which can never arrive, what do they represent for the visitors who have chosen to walk straight past?

‘Detailed investigations of the Platform have revealed that it is simply a prop, setting up expectations that are unfulfilled.’

It is relevant to the experience of visiting Palmer’s installation that the rapid, haphazard development of the railway network necessitated a new way of experiencing and representing time. A timetable, in which so many elements were interdependent, required the standardisation of time-keeping across places connected by the network and also refined the concept of waiting from a personal experience, dependent on the behaviour of other individuals, to a communal one, caused by a chain of events over an increasing distance about which those waiting will have little idea and can exercise no control. The state of mind of people who wait is one of expectation. The would-be passenger doesn’t wait for a train they don’t actually believe will arrive. When the train doesn’t turn up, the would-be passenger’s belief may become stretched, but to relinquish it would entail abandoning their role. With the introduction of uncertainty, confident expectation is downgraded into hope, with a correlating intensification of anxiety.

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To coordinate the safe movement of trains at speed over a network with a massive number of connecting nodes requires careful signalling. One of the texts included in The Line explains that signalling procedures changed over the years so, as it is unclear when and where the photographs on display in the first gallery were taken, there is no way of knowing what the positions the signals stand at originally meant. The other aspects of these photographs which Palmer invites us to consider is that the form of the signals, as their name makes clear, was based on the shapes made by a man signalling with flags. As a man with his arms out would not be visible from a distance to an engine travelling at speed, the signals were translated into mechanised form. Palmer develops these technological metaphors mapped outward from the body with absurd and terrifying implications. Taken literally rather than conveniently glided over, these meeting points of language and technology provide infinite potential for the confusion of metal, mechanised beings and human flesh.

It is observed that one of these signals looks like a man’s extended arm or ‘a mannish erection’. The ‘Coupler’ who is interviewed on p 2 of The Line has a metal surprise – a patented device indeed – up one of her sleeves. Palmer merges the usage of ‘uncoupling’, used to describe the detaching of carriages, with the experience of human couples parting. ‘The True Story of Brief Encounters at the Platform Edge‘ rewrites that most famous station platform romance with a cast of professional leave-takers who haunt the Platform, engagable by those passing through the station who desire the emotionally charged farewell scene – or a dangerous flirtation with the platform edge. But perhaps these rather gothic, erotically-charged incidences of the new flesh point most meaningfully to the unspoken and absent. The most everyday marriage between flesh and metal in a railway context is the one that can never take place at the Henry Moore Institute, because a train can never arrive at the marooned Platform and the visitors who, consciously but without quite knowing why, take on the role of would-be passengers by occupying the seats, are never going to experience the fulfilment of boarding a train and becoming, albeit temporarily, part of it, one of a number of human bodies enclosed in a metal, mechanised entity.

Another of the headlines in The Line reads ‘Platform Announcer Exposed as Disembodied Automaton’. The passenger passing through a railway station with the aim of making a journey pays a particular kind of attention to what is broadcast over the public address system. Travelling by train in south east England, the disembodied voice of the public address system is frequently soft, pleasant and female – and evidently programmed from pre-recorded phrases with their fixed formulae, delivered in language that can seem outdated and a little quaint. It announces directions to assist the passenger on their way and apologises when things go wrong. Palmer’s texts are delivered in a manner which does not parody that of the station announcements: instead she has developed a parallel idiom which is simultaneously familiar and completely disconcerting. She foregrounds the awkwardness of communication by drawing attention to the curious linguistic adaptations by which humans assimilate new things into their experience; engaging with habituated forms of writing such as headlines, reports, handbooks and a classic ghost story to develop an environment in which the way humans use language to interface with their experience of the world is under intense scrutiny.

As station announcements are preceded and interspersed with sounds designed to gain the passengers’ attention and deliver the information in a way that makes it easier to understand, Palmer’s texts are delivered over the speakers at the Henry Moore Institute with a setting of sparse, pleasant keyboard interventions as accompaniment. Again they aren’t really like the sounds a passenger would hear passing through a station but the impression of not quite familiarity is simultaneously calming and unnerving. Working a fine line between muzak and minimalism, these notes function as aural punctuation or add a sense of perspective to the disembodied voice of the announcer, introducing the idea of response and distance into the text as experienced by the auditor. But whereas stations are usually noisy, abuzz with voices and all the human and mechanical sounds generated by trains arriving and departing which make announcements difficult to hear, the Platform is practically silent. In the hushed atmosphere of the gallery where visitors, if they talk at all, tend to do so quietly, the only background noise, hardly at a level to distract from the Platform Announcer’s unremitting delivery of text, is the footsteps of people walking past.

Further engaging with the increasingly non-metaphorical relationship between the human and mechanical, the Platform Announcer is criticised by her human colleagues, the Conductors, for her unprofessionally emotional tone and increasingly random announcements. The disembodied automaton is accused, as a consequence of her ‘non-human condition’ of ‘giving false hope’. The Conductors have withdrawn their labour in protest but acknowledge that the Platform Announcer’s malfunctions may be the end result of their own inadequacies in dealing with passengers. Their failures in applying ‘the human touch’ upon which they prided themselves, ‘leaving an excess of humanity, stranded’ may have produced ‘the morbid surplus of neglected thought, trapped in the system’ to which the Platform Announcer gives voice.

Sitting on the Platform, experiencing the sense of being marooned and the impossibility of being conveyed anywhere, the absence of bustle seems appropriate for a line that is dedicated to the dead and their mourners. The Platform Announcer’s frequent iterations of ‘We are sorry’, the opening formula instantly recognisable to anyone used to travelling by train and usually followed by ‘for the delay to your service/any inconvenience this may cause’ here hang in the air, re-contextualised as grief for the coffins and the bereaved friends and relatives accompanying them on the Necropolitan Line. Palmer writes that coffins were referred to as being ‘displaced’ when they travelled on the train. Only human passengers were ‘moved’ – exposing another linguistic awkwardness with grim relish. An uncomfortable emotional charge is experienced by the would-be passenger alongside the realisation that sitting there, waiting for something that will never arrive, you are actually on the Necropolitan Line, journeying passively towards the time of your own death. In this frame of mind, the Platform Announcer’s murmur about proceeding towards the white light – the clear signal, as opposed to the danger signal – seems to suggest ‘near death’ narratives with their images of heading towards a bright light.

Watching people from approximately thigh level up walking past, the would-be passenger starts to think about the mass of the Platform they are seated upon, how its monumental quality could have a memorial aspect and what on earth is actually underneath it? The manmade form which the marooned Platform most closely resembles is that of the barrow or burial mound. ‘Indeed, [the Platform] is a form overly involved with absenting. Bodies and messages pass through or over the Platform on their way out. We therefore suggest that the only practical function of this structure is to raise the ground. We recommend considering more economical, less materially profligate alternatives, such as lowering the track, in which case the ground can remain where it is.’ Thanks to the bridging medium of the messages delivered by the Platform Announcer, those whose absence is recorded become intangible presences. The relationship between what has been removed and what remains is ongoing. In the environment of the Necropolitan Line, this could be read metonymically as referring to individual mourning: the bereaved unable or unwilling to unlink their thoughts from a person they loved who has died.

Whether or not the Platform can in any sense be seen as a giant tombstone for the defunct Necropolitan Line, it serves as a convenient vantage point from which to contemplate the manifold entanglings of railways and cemeteries Palmer’s installation so skilfully encompasses. Both were created under the aegis of a plethora of private companies that sprang up in the 1830s and 1840s and have, to different extents, shaped the experience of urban living and dying ever since. Railways were associated with death from the outset; on the reasoning that no publicity is entirely bad, the accidental death of politician William Huskisson at the opening ceremony of the Liverpool-Manchester railway in 1830 at least attracted a great deal of attention to the fledgling technology. Both railways and cemeteries, along with other forms of infrastructure being created at the time, deeply disturbed the ground, displacing large quantities of matter and intensifying curiosity about what lay underneath the visible surface. The ‘Railway Mania’ of the mid 1840s resulted in the construction of 6,220 miles of line in the years 1844-46, in the process uncovering a large number of ancient sites and burials, before the market abruptly collapsed in 1847. A family grave in one of the new private cemeteries might be dug eighteen feet deep to allow three or four burials on top of each other: at Tower Hamlets, mass graves were dug to a depth of thirty feet. Both trains and cemeteries are designed to accommodate the human body by enclosing it. Whether these bodies are considered individually or en masse, they provide both blueprints for technological innovation and, ultimately, some of the matter which forms the ground.

Palmer explains that by the 1830s, London had experienced ‘a massive expansion in the population and a correlated increase in deaths, creating an excess of decaying matter’. The limited space available for interments meant graves were quickly reused and the ground level in inner city churchyards and burial grounds often rose several feet higher than their surroundings. When a series of outbreaks of cholera were found to have been spread by contaminated water sources, this ‘decaying matter’ and the ‘miasmas’ it produced shifted abruptly from being perceived as a nuisance to a major public health hazard. The ‘Magnificent Seven’ suburban cemeteries that opened in the 1830s and 40s sought to reassure the public that their hygienic management of corpses and the carefully planned drainage of their sites could not contaminate the water supply, so the dead buried there posed no danger to the health of the living. The attractive appearance of these garden cemeteries, which, until they started to fill up with burials, would have appeared more park-like than some thought appropriate, encouraged visitors and drew attention to the desirability of providing public open spaces for recreation, ultimately having some influence on their design. Yet as these new cemeteries were quickly absorbed by the city’s exponential growth outwards, and the overfilled inner city burial grounds continued in use (until they were finally closed by the Extramural Interment Act of 1852), the pressures of a rising population, the rapidly increasing price of land developers now wanted to build on and another major cholera epidemic necessitated a rethink. Initiated in 1849, when burial was the only way of disposing of the dead (the first legal cremation in the UK would not take place until 1885) the directors of the London Necropolis chose to site their cemetery – which was designed to contain all the people who would die in London in the foreseeable future – far enough beyond the limits of the city that it would never be swallowed by its anticipated growth.

Linking the metropolis and the Necropolis, cities of the living and the dead, the whole of the Necropolitan Line can perhaps be considered a liminal zone. The diagram of intertwining tracks emerging from Waterloo and Necropolis Stations, on display in the first gallery and reproduced in The Line, represents the London Necropolis Railway’s original function as a technologically-driven solution to the problem of the disposal of the dead in mid-nineteenth century London. The newspaper also includes a photograph of its tracks, still visible today behind the former offices of the LNR on Westminster Bridge Road. This contemporary photograph is presented as a stubborn trace of something that has almost vanished, but in the context of The Line, it appears as grainily black and white as those of the undated, unlocated semaphore signals. It’s as if both modern and old photographs have escaped from the moments at which they were taken to become equally mysterious. But whereas the semaphore signals could once have been read unequivocally, it just happens that their meaning has been lost, the operating language within which this photo of the tracks is to be decoded is that of the texts in The Line, seeded with ambiguities.

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With a rather magnificent sleight-of-hand, Palmer imports the Necropolitan Line into Charles Dickens’ ghost story ‘The Signalman‘, first published in 1866, at which point the Line between Waterloo and the Necropolis had been running for just over a decade. ‘The Signalman‘ is reprinted in The Line with the word ‘line’ capitalised throughout. Where better to consider the phenomenon of the Necropolitan Line, that ‘tangent to the everyday’, than inside a ghost story, where the supersensible is often revealed to be a consequence of matter displaced in time? Reading Dickens’ story again, it’s evident railways, death and cemeteries ran closely together in his mind, hardly surprising as he had been involved in a fatal rail crash the previous year and the excavation and emptying of Old St Pancras Churchyard, a location he’d evoked in A Tale of Two Cities, to make way for the British Midland terminus was ongoing. The signalman inhabits a deep railway cutting into which the narrator clambers down; (a bit like a mirror image of the Platform). The two protagonists mistake each other for ‘spirits’ and the attitude of the warning figures described by the signalman is likened to a mourning figure represented on a tombstone. By the end of the story the cutting has actually become a grave, for the signalman lies dead. In another text in The Line, the tiny model signalman arriving through the post inside a mass of packaging is described as a ‘barely discernible being’: indeed form is almost immediately eclipsed by function as he apparently disappears after producing a blinding light and is threatened with burial should he ever be found. The text ends ‘Do you think the glow coming from his light could shine up through the earth and reveal his interment? I’ll stamp the mud in on top of him. The little sod.’ The image of illumination deep in the earth carries over from the signalman’s hut in Dickens’ story: the pun on ‘sod’ draws a groan from the reader even as it invites them to consider images of enclosure and awkward persistence.

As well as transporting the recently dead whose relatives had elected to bury them in the Necropolis, the Necropolitan Line was used to convey the human remains excavated from some closed inner city burial grounds for reburial in the new cemetery. Once the ground had been emptied, most of these spaces disappeared under new buildings or railways. A feeling that the dead belonged elsewhere, leading to their removal from the centre of the community and taking them what would have been, before the advent of cheap mechanised mass transport, an unthinkably long way from the spaces they had inhabited when they were alive raised several issues for those still living there. Among these may have been an increased sense of the fragility of their own tenure in the city and a feeling of disorientation at being cut off from what had previously been public open space and the memories it contained. When an act prohibiting building on former burial grounds was passed in 1883, many former churchyards were landscaped as public gardens, transforming what had formerly been a threat to public health into an amenity with positive benefits in an increasingly built-up environment. Monuments reckoned to be of historical or aesthetic interest were repositioned to the walls of the space where they would not obstruct the living but with the destruction of their context, a repository of community memory was lost. Much of the open space in the City of London is provided by these former churchyards, often feeling overshadowed as the buildings around them increase in height. In an intensely built-up metropolis, it can seem that the only spaces allowed to remain green and open are those formerly set aside for the dead. Feelings that the dead should be respected and the health of the living protected are thus often met, not entirely satisfactorily, by the same tiny spaces. People eating their sandwiches and children playing should not be expected to think about the ground underneath their feet containing a large number of human remains.

Palmer chooses to focus on Cross Bones, the ancient inner London burial ground owned by London Transport near London Bridge. This is an interesting contemporary example of a site where the living have imaginatively engaged with the dead and, while actively campaigning to save it from obliteration, are trying to create a space in which this continuity is valued. With her headline ‘Inner City of the Dead Transformed into Wild Garden’ Palmer reasserts the presence of the dead within the metropolis and draws attention to the pressures exerted by commercial development on space that is seen as unoccupied or under-used. The black and white photograph of Cross Bones on the front of The Line features the towering presence of the Shard in the background. Should the value of a piece of land be determined by what happened there in the past or the potential uses to which it may be put? Who counts for more, the living or the dead: and is it more important that businesses should be allowed to develop with the idea of making a profit within a system still paying lip service to the idea that economic growth will at some unspecified point in the future provide better living conditions for local people or to preserve open spaces which contribute to people’s well being right now?

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The history of Cross Bones as a burial ground is not quite typical: as an unconsecrated site where those regarded outside the pale of respectable society were interred in mass graves, it embodies a particularly disturbing narrative of the politics of death and burial. Palmer cites a description of Cross Bones (which could probably have been applied to every other inner London burial ground) ‘as completely overcharged with dead’. After its closure in 1853 some of those buried there were disinterred and transported to the Necropolis on the Necropolitan Line. In 1897 Arabella Holmes wrote in her book The London Burial Grounds ‘[Cross Bones] has frequently been offered for sale as a building site, and has formed the subject for much litigation’ – a pattern that has been repeated right up to the present day. That it’s currently owned by London Transport may dispose people to regard it in some sense as ‘common land’. At any rate it is part of London’s ancient infrastructure, and at a time when the thrust of development is ever upwards, so it can seem like the city trying to escape the ground, it’s interesting to reflect on what lies underneath, because the city is built on people’s lives as well as their material remains. In Palmer’s words, Cross Bones represents ‘An inner city of the dead in the centre of twenty-first century London, its citizens are an unthinkable, nameless conglomeration, absorbed by darkness and anonymity.’

Cross Bones has attracted attention precisely because the dead who were buried here over a long period of time were outcast and unmemorialised. They were not treated during their lives or after they died with any respect. Palmer writes that a very high proportion of the interments were women and children: many of the women had worked as prostitutes and all would have lived in poverty and died as a consequence of its diseases. Bodies from Cross Bones often ended up on the dissecting tables at nearby hospitals. As the photograph on the front page of The Line shows, ribbons and small tokens have been attached to the fence that surrounds Cross Bones, marking out what might otherwise escape notice as a derelict bit of land as a special place worthy of protection. These ribbons and tokens are often inscribed with the names of people known to have been buried at Cross Bones, raising interesting questions about what the recovery of memory might mean both for those who attempt it and those, long dead, who are thus invoked.

Eschewing the undeniable pathos of these individual stories, Palmer prefers to focus on the significance of the site’s survival against the odds and draws a lesson in history and resistance from the oddly anthropomorphised trees that ‘somehow reach up with misshapen limbs that wave at us from the medieval city’s heavily compacted earth. Perhaps the women have finally stirred, rotating concomitantly, only now reeling to the carefree tones of the fairground that was sited above them in 1884.’ Elsewhere in The Line, tree branches outside the Necropolitan train windows are interpreted by those travelling – it’s unclear whether they are alive or dead – as waving them goodbye. Most trees outlast humans: simultaneously growing down and up in the same place, they link what’s underneath the ground with what’s above it and are easily read as symbols of continuity. Yet like all matter they are continuously transforming and it might have been this awareness which initially led to identifying aspects of the natural world with the human form, producing the awkward language clusters which could be seen as the result of megalomania, laziness, a desire for simplicity or just slippage. If Palmer’s arboreal images are read literally, they coalesce around what seems unthinkable, adding it to a space where perhaps, at some level, it can be considered.
Walking down off – or straight past – the Platform into the third gallery the visitor sees a pile of copies of The Line to which they are invited to help themselves. At the right of this gallery is a large lift usually used for transporting sculptures to and from street-level. Just before each hour, a whistle blows. This is the signal that the lift is about to descend. With an appropriate sense of occasion, the attendant announces that we are about to be transported ‘six feet under’. This brief experience of communal transportation may or may not be what the visitors think they have been waiting for, but it happens on the hour just the same. Discharged into the street, it feels hard to leave the Platform behind. In The Necropolitan Line Palmer has created an extraordinary space that provokes thoughts with all kinds of ramifications outwards from its apparent themes. Briefly resting on the Platform at ‘a tangent to the everyday’, the most visceral of these realisations is that the everyday is all we have.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Bridget Penney is the author of Index (2008), reprinted by Book Works last year.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, February 13th, 2016.