Visited the exhibition of skeletons of London’s dead at the Wellcome Institute this morning and was blown away with thoughts of mortality, love, death, disease and ghostliness of the past living in the present. Laid out in cold clarity, underneath clear perspex cabinets, the jaws and eye sockets of London’s dead gaped and stared at me, reminding of where I would be soon and making me think about the lives of previous Londoners. Most harrowing of all was the eaten skeletal frame of a child that had died of inherited syphilis in the eighteenth century, his skull bubbled and crenellated with the disease, making me recall the lines from William Blake’s poem, ‘London’: And the youthful Harlot’s curse/Blasts the new-born infant’s tear’.
The coolest thing though were the photos that accompanied the skeletons: they were contemporary photographs of the places where the skeletons were found. A scribbled street sign and a bleak brick wall, bollards heralding a dead end street, a cul-de-sac in Spitalfields, the garden wall of a block of flats. Ordinary, drizzled places invested with the dead. Places I know well. Changed utterly now, now that I know the truth about London’s dead.