by Kiana Rezakhanlou
There are 13 English Heritage plaques in Highgate. I would know—I pass several on my way home from the bus stop; the remaining others I make up for at the weekend on a specially devised walk, almost apologetic in having neglected them. Housman, Coleridge, Betjeman—miraculously one after another as you walk down West Hill, a breadcrumb trail leads me along this “literary pilgrimage”, my feet heading pointedly towards the promise of institution, found in the four-cornered Heritage logo, my eyes drawn to that prestigious flash of blue.
Living here, you come to appreciate culture and art as an intrinsic product of its geographical origins. Your musings over what Housman, the newly appointed Professor of Latin at UCL, would make of his characterisation in Stoppard’s play seem more actual when you pass his cottage on your way to the high street; drinking beer in the same pub frequented by Coleridge, the so-called sage of Highgate, might give you the slight delusion as to your own poetic abilities. There are tours around the local cemetery where Marx and George Eliot are buried. On the cusp between Tube Zones 2 and 3, you’ll find a place more akin to an 18th-century village, a bohemian charm that lures you in with its music appreciation sessions and tree identification classes. It is this kind of unadulterated romanticism which fuels the plaque scheme, a cultural consensus that those memorialised were important contributors to the idea of Englishness. By occupying a similar residency, we assimilate their greatness, and become just that bit more important.
Heritage plaques were the brainchild of politician William Ewart (1798 - 1869), whose own commemoration in Belgravia simply labels him a “Reformer.” His idea was a simple one: to have ‘inscribed on those houses in London which have been habited by celebrated persons, the names of such persons.’ Ewart was motivated by a fundamental desire to preserve the ‘ornaments of history’ integral to the nation’s collective identity. Yet the blue plaque stands out as so distinctly British, or even specifically English, amidst what is a universal desire: to commemorate departed greatness and a nation’s cultural past.
The plaque of Samuel Johnson in Gough Square has a special place in my heart, particularly as a self-proclaimed lover of both words and Blackadder the Third. Tucked away minutes from St Paul’s, it’s far from the main attraction in a bustling London city centre. I stumbled across it a few years ago when I had the energy to chase after the secret sights of the capital city. Visiting it since has always made me think of the importance of language to society and nation building. To me, Johnson’s contribution to England, to its standard language, is an achievement truly worthy of commemoration, a supreme work in lexicography and celebration of English literary giants. It stands out as a humble plaque in its unassuming brown, made of encaustic wax. Though more an administrative stumble than anything, it delights me that the Society of Arts erected his plaque, rather than the Corporation of London. His achievement goes beyond the confines of the city: it is as indebted to the building wherein it was composed as it is meaningful for a people at large. Johnson’s plaque combines the textual analysis of Housman, the literary bent of Coleridge, and the irreverent wit of Betjeman.
And if all this sounds like a warped love letter to my neighbourhood, you’re half correct. English Heritage states that the plaques are as much about the buildings in which people lived and worked as about the subjects being commemorated, the extraordinariness of the past conjoined to present existence. I feel an immense comfort in retracing the steps of those gone before. But my admiration is if anything a symbol of conformity. When I walk past Highgate’s Victorian headstones, 19th-century churches and the endless supply of Georgian terrace pubs, I feel I belong to a place worth something to cultured Englishness. However warped that perspective may be, I feel I am worth something in the English perspective because I live here.
Now, you may question precisely just which kind of English perspective it is to which I refer. My parents were born to influential artistic and literary Tehrani families who made their way here through Switzerland and the US, and these plaques give me people to look back on—a twisted, mirage-like lineage which satisfies that lack of familial Britishness. They have their canons, I have mine; and the intersection is not always as great as I would wish. But with Highgate there is an overlap: I am in love with a place I hope will make a relic of me, as with everyone else who passes through.
Amidst a wonderfully culturally widespread family, to be found in Paris or LA, Tehran or Lausanne, wherein French fluency and deep knowledge of the Russian novelists are commonplace and would not go amiss at the dinner table, my heart sometimes longs to cast the Anywhere tag it has been born into and live the life of the Somewhere, the English Somewhere. This problematic divide between homogeneity and heterogeneity factors into my sense of self more than I like to admit. Grounded by my “literary pilgrimage”, these signs of English cultural hegemony are mine to observe, to relate to. They become mine alone to deeply understand.
Take the example of Housman, nowadays more recognised as the poet of A Shropshire Lad, I’d wager, but nonetheless one of the foremost classicists of his age. As a student of such a Western discipline, it’s not as if I can look back onto a family history of the study of Latin and Greek or even much acknowledgement of it, though some parallels to education in Classical Arabic can be found at points along the line, when that lineage does seem to come much more easily for the white classicists. What claim can I have to the Iliad and Odyssey when the Shahnameh is right there? And that’s where Housman comes in, because beyond my great personal interest and the educational history to back it, I cannot deny that occupying the same space as the renowned textual scholar of Propertius, Manilius, Juvenal gives me that nod of approval which I would not get from anywhere else. It is a silly notion, and an association nearing hubris to suggest that just because such a great English classical scholar lived five minutes from me, I can justify my study of the same subject. I’d be lying however if I said that link had never crossed my mind.
I wonder if this sense of possession is what drives others to love these blue markers, that these great people either were English or made their great invention, discovery, their chef d'oeuvre on English soil, so we can hold onto their names and achievements as if our own thereafter. For me this recognition of possession is felt even more strongly and desperately, both unique and isolated in my English role as I am. In some sense, though, this attitude makes me as much an object, a product, as the names I revere for validation: this act of adoration is also me asking to be auctioned, ranked and classed by those with a (supposedly) better claim to the English identity than I.
And what constitutes this claim? In the Merseyside Town Planning Review, on the subject of the journal’s first editor receiving a plaque of his own, Gerald Dix noted the ‘stringent’ conditions for plaque commendation, specifying that the person ‘shall have had such exceptional and outstanding personalities that the well-informed passers-by immediately recognise their name.’ In the years spanning Ewart’s pitch in 1863 to Dix’s writing in 2002, the principle of the “right” people acknowledging the value of the Heritage plaques has remained at the scheme’s core. To Ewart, any intelligent, sensible, self-respecting (male) citizen of this country would treasure these names displayed; in current regulations, anyone well-read enough in the realms of art and literature, anyone in possession of enough Penguins and Oxford World Classics and who regularly visits the Tate Britain forms their esteemed audience. An acute element of snobbery must be involved, in the same way Penguin Classics covers can decide whose writing they want to adorn with their stamp of approval.
There are rumblings of change, even in Highgate. Among them: the Pink Plaque Project was launched by the Highgate Festival in 2019, its aim to ‘reclaim pink and reclaim the past’. Showcasing remarkable women from the area’s past on a new kind of plaque formed a welcome change when women make 14% of the names commemorated on the original blue circle. Amongst these once forgotten ‘movers and shakers’, you now have the sisters Sharpe, who established Channing School, and famed Restoration actress Nell Gwynn, who join the original blue plaque ethnologist Mary Kingsley. A mere yard from Dickens is Christina Rossetti, marked there for her volunteering at the Highgate penitentiary, though you’ll have to forgive the ‘i’ being accidentally missed off her surname. It’s a noble effort. The pink is as eye catching as the original blue, the card-like plaques are not necessarily directly attached to places of residence and so proliferate the village centre more visibly. There is more emphasis on explaining exactly who the woman commemorated was, how her connection to the area came about, potentially owing to how much less recognisable to the untrained eye the author of Black Narcissus would be compared to that of ‘Kubla Khan.’ (It’s Rumer Godden, by the way.)
The colour pink is deliberately subversive, encouraging us to ask why the original plaques are pointedly blue—symbolising (for the most part) the distinguished male. Why should we be so dismissive towards having tradition displayed in a colour associated with the feminine? Conversely, why is English Heritage so dismissive towards accepting women into its own tradition, giving them their deserved commemoration in blue? It is not a full ‘commitment to the story of England’ if external intervention like this (however welcome) is needed to redress the balance. The Pink Project’s website expressly states that ‘colour really does matter’, and while an obvious allusion to a colour dichotomy, it’s then that I can’t help but think of a different kind of colour involved, or in this case, excluded. Just over 4% of the some 900 blue plaques in existence are dedicated to BAME figures, the percentages for minority ethnic groups more specifically defined are unavailable. For a scheme based in such a diverse capital city, it’s disappointing; for a scheme designed to cling onto the picturesque 19th-century English world of Turner and Gainsborough, or at least our conception of it, it’s far from surprising.
In his 1809 ‘Essay on Sepulchres’, the philosopher and historian William Godwin proposed a simplicity of decoration for funerary monuments, an early iteration of markers on the resting places of notable individuals. He noted the aim was ‘to mark the place where the great and excellent of the earth repose, and to leave the rest to the mind of the spectator.’ In the years since his remark, English Heritage has opened itself up to suggestions from the public on whom to commemorate next, before using a shortlisting process: our nominations are the “life blood” of the scheme. On the surface, it seems the ‘mind of the spectator’, the resident of London and sometimes its visitor, is valued most of all. We can, in theory, choose who of the great and excellent we want to see decorate our streets, and yet it is a very narrow definition of Englishness we manage to decide on every time. A case of our imaginations falling short is perhaps not the reason, it is that it is only within a specific frame that we can imagine commemoration. And the onus is not necessarily on the spectator to completely revitalise a scheme which prides itself on exclusion, using a panel and selection method open to the public, but not always swayed by it.
There have been suggestions for improvement: English Heritage has working groups to focus on underrepresented ethnic communities, plaques whose object of commendation is contested morally are to have extra information placed about them online, to facilitate debate and allow for discussion. But there is something so permanent about a Heritage plaque, whether it’s made of beeswax or enamel, that makes it seem etched into a place’s history, and I wonder whether the mere existence of one and its attribution to an individual is enough to legitimise all their actions—good or bad.
Measures to tackle representation are undoubtedly needed, not least because I know how keenly some, including myself, use history to assess an area’s present. But I wonder whether this is a healthy way to think of the past at all. Plaques can be an educational tool, a gateway to a movement or event you’ve never heard of before, a welcome diversion in a sometimes-alienating city. And yet, how much of their comfort comes from civic pride, and how much of it is an act of self-gratification or assurance, at least in my own case. Perhaps it is time I took a step away from the alluring blue, and learnt to love my area for what it is, rather than what it used to be. My contribution to British society can come through my existence. It does not require a twelve-pronged square as its legitimising factor.
KIANA REZAKHANLOU reads Classics and German at Merton. She’s still waiting for the day someone asks to see her Google Doc compilation of Voynich manuscript theories.
Art by Rosa Bonnin