Just south of Old Street, or Silicon Roundabout as it’s known to London’s techies, is the small cemetery at Bunhill Fields. (The name Bunhill is said to derive from Bone Hill, possibly linked to the area’s early use as a clearout ground for bones from the overfull graveyard at St Paul’s.) The Fields, once the fens of Fensbury, have been rearranged a few times over the centuries, but are still here in spite of all the curvy towers battling it out to grab the best skyline. Bunhill Fields can be seen to the right of this aerial picture showing the locations of Silicon Roundabout’s tech companies. As you can see, there’s nothing very science-parky about London’s answer to California’s Silicon Valley. Indeed, were all the techies to gather for a picnic one day in Bunhill Fields — now there’s a flashmob idea — there might be problems squeezing them in.
When I worked near Bunhill Fields, I’d take a short cut through it every morning. My story ‘All Times Are London Time‘ is set in the area. It’s about two would-be sports-show presenters competing to get ahead. Here’s the main character in Bunhill Fields on his lunch hour:
“Ryan cuts through the graveyard on a York stone path crusted with dried lichen, walking past the melting gravestone of a cult poet buried as a pauper. By the time an admirer got it together to shell out for a cheap headstone a century or so after his death, no one knew where the poet’s bones lay, so it was inscribed, ‘Somewhere near by lie the remains of the poet-painter William Blake.’ The simple grave is dwarfed by Defoe’s whitewashed beacon, a monument to the benefits of journalism and reality fiction, of living well and dying famous.”
The cult poet (who was also an artist and printmaker) is William Blake, and his better off neighbour is the author of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe. In fact neither grave had a stone promptly, but Blake had to wait over a century, leading to some confusion about the correct burial spot, while Defoe’s fans stumped up for his rather fancy monument a mere 31 years after his death.
I get the impression Defoe in particular would feel at home among today’s software cowboys: after all, he was an entrepreneur, if not always a successful one, as well as a writer. To be a real entrepreneur you have to be able to dream, to see some problem that your product (or software) can solve. And you have to be able to dream again if Plan A does not work. Defoe started up a number of businesses (including a tileyard in Essex that did very well after a major storm) but is best remembered for his writing, which bends the boundaries of fact and fiction so that it’s hard to tell where truth ends and fiction begins. I’m thinking especially of his open-sourced account of the 1702 hurricane that took a wrong turn mid-Atlantic and hit London (The Storm, 1703). Supposedly he created it by placing a newspaper advert asking people to write and tell him how the storm affected them. An early example of citizen journalism. Yet with Defoe in charge, it is hard to feel entirely on safe ground; are these genuine accounts, or only as genuine as book endorsements on Amazon.com?
More famously The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe… was in early editions credited as ‘Written by Himfelf’. No doubt many readers who opened the book on this first page , from the first edition in 1719, thought it an autobiography, not a novel.
The gravestones of Blake and Defoe are among those at Bunhill Fields that have been Grade I listed by English Heritage, whose website worryingly welcomes it to ‘an elite group’ of seven such cemeteries in London. Is this the end of the Fields as an open space to cut through? Will you soon need to buy a ticket and pay for a guided tour? What a terrible thought. I hope the Fields are not poshed up too much, and that they remain open to the public, not restricted to ticketed access as happened at Highgate Cemetery. Rather than close off this pocket of the past to passers by, it should be left open: a place where new mixes with old, bones with code.