Posts Tagged ‘History’

Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris & the Desecration of Oscar Wilde’s Grave.

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I’m not in the habit of hanging around graveyards, but on my recent trip to Paris I made an exception. I stopped by Père Lachaise, the city’s biggest, and most famous, cemetery. It’s nearly 109 acres, receives over 1.5 million visitors each year and houses, in the final sense, Chopin, Marcel Proust, Edith Piaf, Gertrude Stein, and Jim Morrison of The Doors, among others.


It’s an odd thing we humans do, to continually celebrate certain people, to keep their fame alive, even when they have passed. The famous graves drip with flowers, graffiti, and the tokens of love people leave for those who have inspired them. You can’t escape the uneasy feeling of one-upmanship. It’s a shrine-off. A sensitive ghost might worry about their stature in the hierarchy of visitor numbers. For among the startling architecture, the family tombs, the memorials to those who lost their lives in World War Two, there’s popularity contest going on. X Factor for the dead. Three yeses. Congratulations, you’re immortal! Or at least your memory is.

Not that I can talk, I came to make my own pilgrimage. I came to visit my favourite writer.

I remember when I discovered his work. I was trying to pick a text for GCSE English Literature, scratching around in the library. My brother, three years younger – he was always smarter – said he’d watched a black and white film that morning. He thought I’d like it, knew it was based on a play, suggested I check it out. That was The Importance of Being Earnest, by the inimitable Oscar Wilde.

I love Oscar’s wit. But then, everyone does. It’s reproduced on tea towels, mugs, posters, spread wide, but still thick with style and substance. I love Oscar’s use of language. His ideas. His theories. His observations of human behaviour, his satirical takedowns of society’s pomp and prejudice. I love the way he lived his life: generous, fearless, foolish. When I graduated from sixth form, my English teacher gave me an inscribed collection of Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime. I was not quiet about my passion. Oscar and I hung out again at university; he cropped up in my dissertation. Oscar and his exploration of decadence, his dedication to aestheticism influenced my career decisions, helped me find my way into the fashion industry. L’art pour l’art. The cult of beauty.

So I came to say thank you. The guidebooks told me Oscar’s grave would be festooned with lipstick kisses, smothered with flowers. I rounded one of the stone corners of Père Lachaise. The sun came out. Bright blue sky provided the backdrop… for the horror. Oscar’s tomb was scrubbed clean. The flying nude angel Jacob Epstein sculpture, which denotes his resting place, gleamed. Around it was a tall glass barrier. No kissing. No touching. Around that was a crash barrier; between it and the tomb were two metres of churned mud. Dead flowers trodden into it. Someone had traversed the lot and managed to get a small candle inside the glass barrier, at the foot of the tomb. I cried.


I’m not in the habit of visiting graveyards. I’m also not in the habit of Googling or reading about them. A quick Internet search revealed a smattering of newspaper articles about how in 2011 the descendants of Wilde, the French authorities and the Irish government jet washed away the lipstick kisses people gave their idol. They decided to “protect” the grave by encasing it. Badly, I would say. The top of the glass bisects the statue. It jars. I didn’t know. I came too late.

Others have obviously written about this, but it is fresh to me. I have felt the cold glass against my cheek. I have kissed my fingers and passed my hand up and underneath to touch Oscar. I have shed a tear for a man who was contained in his life, most cruelly at the end in Reading Gaol for the crime of homosexuality, and who is contained once more. Like a museum curiosity. Like an animal in a zoo cage. Far from preserving something, they’ve put Oscar Wilde in a box.




A swimming pool in a church and other St Petersburg secrets.

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The Lutheran Church of Saint Peter & Saint Paul, St Petersburg.

Today was odd. I’m in St Petersburg, Russia with a friend who is researching Georg Wilhelm Steller, a German scientist who accompanied Vitus Bering on his Second Kamchatka Expedition in 1740. The expedition was organised by the Russian Academy of Sciences, St Petersburg and took Bering’s crew from St Petersburg to America, via Siberia, over nearly ten years of travelling.

We’ve been conducting a treasure hunt round St Petersburg, with no ability to read or speak the language, looking for references to Bering or Steller. It has led us down some interesting rabbit holes.

Today we visited the Lutheran Church of Saint Peter & Saint Paul, which was built on the site of the original Lutheran church of the same name. Steller was likely to have been a member of the congregation. We were looking for his story, but we found someone else’s.

Nevsky Prospect, St Petersburg.

The church is on the Nevsky Prospect, St Petersburg’s buzzing main thoroughfare. It’s a stone’s throw from what must be a contender for the world’s largest Zara store. As soon as we entered the quiet foyer of the large, symmetrical yellow building something felt wrong. Instead of stepping into the nave of the church, we were funnelled to the side and into a small exhibition. Here we discovered something unexpected: during the soviet regime, when religion was banned in Russia, the church had been converted into a swimming pool.


Image of swimming pool, with diving boards, in the church. (Postcard image).

The exhibition was written in Russian and German so, as I’m away from home, the following dates have been largely sourced from Wikipedia. Do tell me if you know more.

The present building was built in 1833 – 1837. By 1917 the church had 15,000 members and ran a school, a hospital and an orphanage. By the 1960s it had become a swimming pool.

Staffing the small exhibition was a white-haired man who spoke Russian, German and a few words of English. To our shame, my friend and I mainly communicated through pointing and miming (typical Brits). Perhaps he could sense our interest in the building (my friend was ecstatic at finding references to, and drawings by, Steller), or maybe he had a story he wanted to tell, I’m not sure. But what happened next will stay with me forever.

He signalled for us to follow him. Intrigued and still on the Steller hunt we trailed him through a corridor and several doors until we reached a room, where a lady with tight curled hair and glasses sat behind a desk. There was a brief heated discussion in Russian, and then the white-haired man took a key from a metal box on the wall. At this point I felt excited and anxious: what were we about to see?

We continued up a winding concrete staircase, the sound of a church organ growing nearer, until we came out into the main body of the building. The church is still there. Set up with pews. The new floor is clearly in the shape of the interloping swimming pool. The raised wooden spectator seats, complete with the metal bars of a lido, cascaded down. A strange combination of recreation and religion. The church is being reclaimed.


How the church looks today. Note wooden ‘spectator’ seats and metal bars round the edge.

We thought our tour was done, but the white-haired man beckoned for us to follow him again. Back down the winding staircase, through another exhibition, down further into a cellar. Down through a locked metal door, through fractured layers of foundation, concrete and metal. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust. The swimming pool is still there, underneath the church. It is still covered in blue tiles, and you can see the struts in the ground from the diving boards. We were standing in a very unique layer of history.


Sarah standing in the remains of the swimming pool, which is now beneath the church floor.

Then another door, more metal steps, down deeper, until we were beneath the swimming pool itself. There were holes hacked into the ceiling, explosions of plaster up into the base of the pool, to let the light through. On the wall was a series of recently painted vignettes. I don’t know who painted it, perhaps the white haired man. In broken English, mixed with German he told us the story of the mural, the story of his community, the story of his life.

There was a scene of the church we were standing in; women were crying as Soviet officials pulled the cross from the top. A banner of Marx’s statement: ‘Religion is the opium of the masses,’ was brandished by people and men in military uniforms. The next painting showed a train packed with religious dissenters bound for Siberia. Then there was a depiction of a clandestine religious meeting of the Lutheran church.

At this point the man indicated he remembered attending these meetings as a small boy. He would tug on his mother’s coat and she would tell him to be quiet. They were frightened. Persecuted. Scared. The next scene showed a hard labour camp.

The final painting was of a concentration camp: dark, hostile, a military watchtower, barbed wire, snow falling. The white haired man pointed and said: “East Germany. Camp. Mother, father. I born here.” He tapped the wall.

Scattered around this hidden layer, this witness to what happened to a persecuted community, this shrine, were bibles and candles. I did not take any more photos, it did not feel right.


With thanks to @geowriter, Wikipedia and the Lutheran Church of Saint Peter & Saint Paul for allowing us access, photographs and postcard images.