Monday, 20 July 2009

You & Yours - BBC Radio 4

Read another essay on today's programme, this time on memorial plaques. Listen here, or read script below.

142 years ago, the Society of Arts erected a plaque in Holles Street, London, the birthplace of Lord Byron. Now the capital alone has 800 such memorials, and all over the country, towns and cities have set up blue plaque schemes commemorating their most notable sons and daughters.

But that’s not all they do. Consider for example, another plaque that went up in 1867. At 1c King Street, Westminster, it was noted that “NAPOLEON III, Emperor of the French, lived here, 1848.”

He wasn’t born there, he didn’t die there, he didn’t even do anything particularly notable there. He just lived there for less than a year. Is that really so impressive?

Apparently, it is. It seems blue plaques and other similar memorials are not really about history, but the almost superstitious frisson we feel when we realise that the space we currently inhabit was once filled by a legend. Knowing that James Joyce lived at 28 Campden Grove, London in 1931 doesn’t make the perplexing prose of Ulyssess any clearer – not that much does. But that’s not the point. He touched this earth with his magic, and now his magic touches us.

The former poet laureate Andrew Motion echoed these mystical sentiments when he spoke in support of listing the seaside shelter in which TS Elliot probably wrote some lines of The Wasteland. “To anyone that cares about poetry,” he said “the shelter is a shrine, a temple."

Once you start down this road, how far can you go? If “lived for a bit” is as important as “was born”, then why not commemorate someone simply passing through? Some blue plaques do just that. For instance, at 35 Russell Road, London, you’ll discover that Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Founder of Pakistan, “stayed there” in 1895.

Association with a great dead famous person is so powerful that the mere possibility that a locale might one have sheltered a celebrity is often used as a claim to fame. Great House Farm in Leigh-on-Mendip, for instance, boasts that Henry VIII is believed to have stayed there when he came to hunt in the area. The Old Black Lion in Hay-on-Wye boasts as “an earlier visitor of note”, one Oliver Cromwell, even though it too can claim no more than he “is believed to have stayed here whilst the lads laid siege to Hay Castle.”

I am as much in the grip of this irrational vice as anyone else. When I visited Athens, I walked miles through uninspiring residential streets just to stand on the site of Plato’s Academy. Not somewhere he once stayed, mind, or “is believed to have once had a glass or two of retsina”, but the forerunner of the modern university, which he founded and ran. If it were in Britain, there wouldn’t just be a blue plaque, there’s be a visitor centre, a cafĂ© and a souvenir shop. In Athens, you wouldn’t even know what it was.

If we are too impressed by the magical thinking that connects us to people long gone by mere coincidence of geography, then it’s a vice that comes at a small price. But perhaps we should question whether the spell it casts is too strong. The plaque at Byron’s birthplace was not enough to stop it being later demolished, and nor should it have been. “TS Eliot was here” is a romantic and stirring thought, but it is not a blessing that can consecrate a humble shelter and make it sacred.