23 April 2009

Blue Plaque Special

The launch of Project Bookmark Canada today, an initiative that brings to mind a recurring question: Where are our blue plaques? Even the most dozy and inattentive visitor to Greater London is familiar with these simple, yet elegant fixtures. They number over eight hundred, marking historic sites and former residences of great figures like Jimi Hendrix and George Frideric Handel — next-door neighbours separated by 208 years. A personal favourite is located at 24 Onslow Gardens, once home to Andrew Bonar Law of Rexton, New Brunswick, the only British Prime Minister to have been born outside the British Isles. The success of the 142-year-old scheme is such that there are tourist guides devoted not to Greater London, but to its plaques. Next week will see a new coffee table book, Lived in London: Blue Plaques and the Stories Behind Them, published by Yale University Press.

Despite all good intentions, and a great deal of effort, we have nothing that compares in this country. I imagine developers don't much like the idea. They've had a hard enough time ripping down venues like Montreal's Seville Theatre without a fixed reminder that Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Peggy Lee performed on its stage.

And so, I choose to blame developers and indifferent city councillors for this embarrassing admission. Early in my work on John Glassco, I enjoyed a pint at a Bishop Street pub, entirely unaware that the very space in which I was sitting had once served as his pied-à-terre.

Update: Expat writer Mark Reynolds, who posted the interesting comment below, shares further thoughts on the matters of historical markers and the naming of our streets and schools on his blog View of the marching fishes.

1 comment:

  1. In France (or at least Strasbourg, where I am now) they do even better: notable professors and historians are honoured alongside the usual authors, generals, and artists, no matter their popular acclaim. Of course, the markers are not at all standardized as in London - they seem largely to have been mounted by enthusiasts. Maybe even the "honourees" themselves, for all I know.
    But it does raise the point: do plaques need a official sanction? I lean to no, but that's because I'm tickled by the idea of rogue historians "tagging" significant buildings like academic graffiti artists, as they seem to here.