Ysenda Maxtone Graham

Blue plaque blues

One of Britain’s great pleasures has been devalued by cheap imitations

Blue plaque spotting is one of the mind-broadening pleasures of British life. A walk to the dentist can be transformed into a serendipitous encounter with a forgotten genius from the past. ‘Luke Howard, 1772–1864, Namer of Clouds, lived and died here,’ says the blue plaque on 7 Bruce Grove, Tottenham. Even if you’ve never heard of Luke Howard, you instantly take a liking to him — and never again will you hear the word ‘cumulonimbus’ without thinking of him. ‘Lived here’ is the key: you’re passing the very house where the person woke up for breakfast each day, and the intimacy of that is what makes the encounter so much more affecting than merely reading about him or passing a statue of him.

But do you get the feeling that plaques are more ubiquitous, and therefore less frisson–inducing, than they used to be? They seem to be popping up all over the place. Most city councils now run blue plaque schemes and erect hundreds of the things. Last month a blue plaque was put up in London to commemorate the soft-porn star Mary Millington, ‘one of the hottest British sex film stars of the 1970s’, as Mail Online put it, combining a sense of salivating outrage with an excuse for dredging up photos of Millington in busty bikinis. On Midsummer’s Day 2013, in Brighton, a blue plaque to commemorate Doreen Valiente, ‘poet, author and mother of modern witchcraft’, was unveiled on the high-rise council block where she lived. The ceremony was attended by the mayor of Brighton and by hundreds of wildly celebrating pagans, some of them dressed as trees and banging green tambourines.

‘What is the world coming to,’ the purist blue plaque spotters among us fret, ‘if sex-film stars and witches are now being commemorated along with Winston Churchill and William Makepeace Thackeray? I’ll write a letter of complaint to English Heritage…’

But before you write that letter, halt! Have another look at that Mary Millington plaque.

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