Blue Plaques of London. Who are these people? No, I mean really, who are they?
I run entirely on caffeine and sarcasm. In that order. So as I have been strolling the streets of London with a venti latte in hand I have been seeing these blue medallions or plaques all over the city with names and sometimes professions that I have never heard of. For those of you that don’t know what a Blue Plaque is let me give you a very brief description. Blue Plaques (not always blue but mostly) are given out by the London Heritage Society to recognize people of importance (not always British) who have lived, died or done something big in London. It usually marks a home, place of business or site where this notable event occurred. They are everywhere around London and currently there are over 900 Blue Plaques adhered to the walls of buildings commemorating that special person who spent time there. They are kinda a big deal. There is even one across the street from me, writer James Joyce (him I know) which I guess is what started my curiosity for these plaques.
So how is it that of over 900 names I have absolutely no idea who most of them are? That is not to say just because I don’t know who they are doesn’t mean they are not worthy of such a distinction. Maybe it is I who needs to brush up on my British history. But I think most Londoners don’t’ know these names either unless of course they are either massively noteworthy i.e.) Winston Churchill or Mozart or are directly tied into a local Quiz Night question and answer, then at the very least my English cousins absolutely would know who they are. I think the reason most people don’t recognize these Blue Plaque names (assuming that they don’t) is that a lot of them lived a very long time ago plus some, as I have discovered truly are very obscure. Lets start with Luke Howard 1772-1864 “Namer Of Clouds”. What an interesting profession (caffeine is in full effect and now the sarcasm). I could and would happily name clouds and proudly accept a Blue Plaque for doing so. I even know what I would name my first cloud, “Bam Bam”, a name quite suited for a cloud I think. Named after my first family cat (not Barney Rubble’s son, although that technically is who the cat was named after).
Who could deny the contribution of one Joseph Grimaldi, Clown. Check out his picture. Maybe he was the first creepy clown to start scaring children? Or Queen Victoria's dentist Sir Edwin Saunders. I am guessing that back in Queen Victoria's day it was dentists like Sir Edwin that helped give Britain the reputation they still have to this day for perfect teeth. Another “interesting” one is Tom Cribb, “Bare Knuckle Fighter”. I can only guess that in the time of Mr Cribb's dedication (early 1800’s) there might have been a serious shortage of candidates who fought with covered knuckles.
But in amongst the obscure and ancient there are some that I not only know, but adore. People who made a little dent or impression on me personally. So I went in search of my own "Blue Plaque Walk of Fame" looking for those that made a difference... to me.
The first on my list is one of the newest inductees this year, Queen’s lead singer Freddie Mercury. He just got his plaque almost 25 years after his death. Can you believe it has almost been 25 years? The London Heritage Society has a 20 year rule before they will consider giving a Blue Plaque. They want to make sure that the person is still relevant years later, just like Joseph Grimaldi, Clown. I first saw Queen back in high school with Dave Bradshaw on my very first concert-date (where are you now Dave Bradshaw?) That was a few summers ago. Even now a generation later you would be hard pressed to find someone who can’t shake his or her head in perfect timing to Bohemian Rhapsody a-la Wayne’s World or sing We Are The Champions at some sporting event. The plaque was put on his childhood home in Feltham, west London where he first lived as Farrokh Bulsara when he and his family immigrated to England from Zanzibar.
But what I found puzzling is that they didn’t put the Blue Plaque on his home in Kensington, the house where he lived and died in as “Freddy Mercury”. It was rumoured that when he knew he was dying Mercury and band mate Brian May wrote the song “The Show Must Go On” in this house, foreshadowing Freddie’s impending death. There was even a question if Freddie would have been even able to sing this song as he was very sick at the time. But Freddie was quoted as saying, “I'll fucking do it darling, vodka down”. And did it he did, he lacerated that vocal. Clearly Brian May really meant the show must go on as he is currently touring Queen again with American Idol finalist Adam Lambert taking on lead vocals. Great vocalist Adam but sorry Brian May, Queen is not Queen without Freddie Mercury.
So I visited Mercury's house in Kensington and now almost 25 years after Freddy died people are still there, leaving hand-written notes, writing on the brick wall that surrounds the mansion with lipstick (or a Sharpie), leaving flowers at the very unassuming gate surrounded by an 14 foot wall, marked with graffiti by a thousand different fans. When I came to check it out there was a small group of people there signing the wall, taking pictures. One woman wiped a tear from her eye, looked at me and smiled. Almost 25 years later the shrine created by his fans still lives on! I walked away very touched thinking that no one should never, EVER underestimate the power of music.
Only a few blocks from this house was another house that Mercury use to live in. What I also found odd that not only was there no mentioned of Freddie at this house but rather there was a plaque for someone else. A one Mr. Edward Linley Sambourne, a cartoonist who lived there between 1844-1910. I am certain that if Mr. Sambourne had he been living he would have happily and proudly shared some wall space with Freddie Mercury.
Next on my tour was the infamous horror and suspense film director, Alfred Hitchcock. He was on a very busy street not far from Freddie but truly a world away. What was so fantastic about Hitchcock’s house was it looked like something out of one of his horror films. It looked like if Norman Bates had a flat in London this is where he would be living. It was dark, rundown and gave me the creeps. How totally prefect.
I then went off in search of Oscar Wilde in Chelsea. He lived in a much finer neighbourhood and street than Alfred. I have to say that I love everything about Oscar Wilde. There were a few other unknown plaques on his street but honestly it was too much effort to find a place to rest my latte to take a photo as I was there to see Oscar. Interesting that his plaque did not say "writer" but rather, "wit and dramatist". I am guessing Wilde for sure knew a little something about drama in his life but not to say he was a writer? Seriously? How did that happen? On a similar theme American actress Ava Gardner recently got her Blue Plaque. Her plaque doesn't refer to her as an "actress" even though she acted in over 60 films, but rather a "Movie Star". I guess unless you are quoting Shakespeare the Heritage Society doesn't consider it acting.
I quote Oscar Wilde more often than I do any other "wit and dramatist" with the single possible exception of Dr. Seuss who sadly could not be part of this tour. My favourite quote of Wilde’s and it likely summed up how he lived his life is, “once is curiosity twice perversion”. So true, especially if you have ever been to Vegas. When I was in Paris a few years ago I visited his grave in the Père Lachaise Cemetery. His tombstone was a large Egyptian-like sculpture and it is now protected by a giant enclosure of plexi-glass. On the plexi people would kiss it deliberately leaving their lipstick marks. I was not able to find out what the significance of the lipstick on the tomb of a gay man was but if you ever get a chance you must visit this cemetery, it was fascinating. The Doors frontman Jim Morrison is also buried there. His gravesite is littered with empty Jack Daniel's bottles. That I get.
I then went off to Marylebone in search of John Lennon. I had my ear-buds in and “Imagine” was the soundtrack that accompanied me. This tour really is enhanced with music. Randomly a song by Julian Lennon (John’ son) called “Lucy” came on that I didn’t even know I had in my music library. It played as I was standing outside of Lennon’s house. How serendipitous. It is crazy how much Julian sounds like his dad and I wondered if the chorus “we still love you Lucy” had anything to do with Lucy in The Sky With Diamonds? The house was a typical but lovely English row house, well kept and somehow I think the plaque saying John Lennon lived there immediately increased the property value.
Have a listen.
I then walked to Mayfair to see the two neighbours who lived next door to each other hundreds of years apart. Composer George Frideric Handel of 25 Brook St and at number 23 and a totally different type of musician to Handel, rocker and member of the 27 Club Jimi Hendrix. It certainly took away some the “edge” that I associate with Hendrix that his house was in Mayfair, a very posh upper-crust neighbourhood. You would have thought based on his persona and clearly how he lived (and died) he would have been in a neighbourhood that was artsy and have a lot more edge, like Shoreditch. Not in the heart of the most expensive shops and exclusive hotels in London. There is now a Jo Malone store on the street level of his former house. He would have not approved but I am guessing it smells much better now than it did when he lived there.
Finally, and this visit was mostly inspired by Bruce and my dad, I went to Belgravia to visit the home of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. More personally significant to me was that Ian Fleming also wrote "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" (clearly I am not a Bond girl). I loved Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and was very afraid of the evil villain the Kid-Catcher as a child. He still is in my opinion one of the greatest villains of all time. Fleming lived on a very nice street in a very wealthy neighbourhood and he too had a few Blue Plaque neighbours that I have never heard of. The London Heritage Society has come under fire lately for being a prominently white, male panel that allegedly tends to favour white, male honourees. Does this not sound just like the Oscars? I think Jada and Will Smith would happily fight against this injustice too if they had even the slightness thing to gain from this.
I will continue to explore and learn about these Blue Plaque people who I am certain at some point, in some real way contributed to the world of London even if was to name clouds. There is still Vincent Van Gogh, Mozart, Charles Dickens, Keith Moon, Charlie Chaplin or Noel Coward (for my mom) that are on my list to find, see and take a moment to remember. For in the words of the incredible and very quotable Dr Suess, “oh the things you can find, if you don’t stay behind”.