Of all of the dead poets I’ve found so far on my way around London’s Magnificent Seven cemeteries, William ‘Spring’ Onions is the one that seems to have arrived in life via fiction. Onions was arrested over 500 times for various misdemeanours in the East End and eventually used poetry as a replacement for the alcohol which had sustained the first 70 years of his life. One newspaper reporter wrote:
ONIONS IN BAD ODOUR
William Onion, the old man whom the Thames magistrate yesterday allowed to go free on a charge of drunkenness, went to the Shadwell Police station last night and broke the window. He told the magistrate this morning that policemen followed him about to lock him up for being drunk, and that he smashed the window to save himself from being locked up.
Mr. Saunders said: ‘The Court stinks with your name, and you stand in such bad odour that all policemen look after you, knowing you are a dangerous man.’
Between 5-7 December 2016 I performed three evenings of site-specific work in Tower Hamlets cemetery. This was part of the Spitalfields Festival‘s 40th birthday celebrations. My response draws on my research in finding the dead poets of London’s Magnificent Seven cemeteries, and will be included in the next book in the series (2018) which will focus on Tower Hamlets cemetery.
The performances in Spitalfields were curated by Penned in the Margins and included John Canfield playing an acting part and reading poems, and Nick Murray who added intricate and moving musical layers and live viola. The evenings also contributed from essential input from Ken Greenway, Park Manager at Tower Hamlets cemetery, and the team at the Spitalfields Festival.
The text for the performance combined a mixture of my own poems, the poems of the dead poets in the cemetery and a short play debating who the ‘true’ William Onions might have been. Here’s a short section of the play which explores the idea of how justice might be done to a dead poet, especially one who was known as a criminal:
John: It was a common enough place for criminals
Chris: Criminal? Onions was a poet.
John: He became a poet when he gave up being criminal.
Chris: Being criminal made him a poet. The 200 criminal convictions was his education …
John: 500 I think you’ll find.
Chris: The numbers don’t count. He never hurt a soul.
John: December 1898: Doncaster, damaging a widow.
Chris: [check his notes]: That was damaging a window.
Expanding on my interest in cross-arts work each audience member was given a badge showing a visual poem which I had written for the events:
All three evenings were sold out and ended with hot drinks in the Soanes Centre, kindly made available by the Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery. My forthcoming book on Tower Hamlets Cemetery will be the third in the series, following In the Catacombs: A Summer Among the Dead Poets of West Norwood Cemetery and Cenotaph South: Mapping the Lost Poets of Nunhead Cemetery.
Penned in the Margins have made a limited edition map of my project available, beautifully illustrated by Frances Ives.
photos by Harpreet Kalsi