Blue Plaque Heaven: Instant Culture15th January 2012
Tourists never come to Shepshed, Leicestershire. And why would they? Apart from a brief mention in the Domesday Book Shepshed has little to offer the culturally minded. True, it once boasted the highest number of pubs per capita in the UK, whilst also being the largest village too, but even these trivial medallions have been lost in recent years, as the big village became a small town and the pubs morphed into apartments to capitalise on residential appeal. It might be twinned with Domont, a suburb of northern Paris, but don’t be fooled by that. Domont is to Paris what Crouch End is to London: it’s on the periphery of the action and disappointingly inoffensive. When it comes to my hometown of Shepshed, I used to advise people against making a special journey, such was the normality of the area; such was the banality of residential No Surprises England. It’s an unremarkable rather than unpleasant town, homely rather than historic. Yet mundane urbanity is precisely what artist Marcus Cactus seeks with his latest project, Blue Plaque Heaven, a clandestine memorial scheme that appears to be a satire on the heritage industry or perhaps an ode to the magic of that simple marker, the blue plaque.
On the morning of 13 December, the people of Shepshed woke to see their streets decorated by twenty-five wedgewood blue plaques. Overnight, the town was awarded a puzzling and unofficial cultural status, with plaques declaring famous people once lived or died there, dating from 1485, when Henry Tudor stayed prior to victory at Bosworth Field, to 1964, when Python Graham Chapman purchased an unhealthy-looking parrot from a pet shop that still operates today (for the record it’s called ‘The Dog House’). Like me, you’re probably wondering what evidence there is for this and how Shepshed can be associated with any cultural icon, least of all royalty. But judging by the waspish Cactus, this seems to be missing the point. “Historical evidence is secondary”, he tells me. “The location of Bosworth Battlefield was revised two years ago, which means everyone’s been standing in the wrong place all this time. But so what? Was it detrimental to their experience, of their imagining of the past?” Perhaps not. But there is more to Shepshed’s would-be history than this.
As I walk the streets of a familiar town, I begin to appreciate what Cactus has done. Shepshed feels new, eccentric, and for the first time, interesting. Moreover, the plaques are plausible, as I realise the historic links have some credibility after all (Chapman came from this area, Bosworth Battlefield is close by). So suddenly vernacular houses and unassuming shops are stamped with meanings that could be true. “Edward VIII stayed here in 1936 whilst hunting”, reads one, and though I know he didn’t (he did hunt in Leicestershire though), one can’t help but conjure an image of the troubled-King, dressed in tweed, straightening his cap, worrying about the abdication crisis. This, it would seem, is one of Cactus’ aims for Blue Plaque Heaven: “I want to transform humdrum places into something historical, with links to a factual past now placed in an unlikely, yet somehow believable setting”. Cactus, then, is a verisimilitude artist rather than a con artist, and he’s given Shepshed something it never had – a cultural heritage.
Though some residents have removed their plaques, one homeowner, Rob Bentham, has decided to keep his. “I wondered why everyone kept doing a double-take in front of my house. It would seem some joker’s decided Tony Hancock lived here in 1968, and I quite like that”. Cactus tells me this plaque is homage to an episode of Hancock’s Half-Hour, where Hancock and Sid James pretend their house was once the property of Lord Byron. So tenuous historical links are not the single model for this project then. On the next street, the concept is tested even further with a plaque informing us that Humbert Humbert, the paedophile protagonist of Lolita, was arrested here for an unnamed crime in 1955. Humbert is of course a fictional character, so suddenly the blue plaque is not only a fake designed to confuse or captivate residents, but also one that allows a fictional villain to become a real person; someone who can be imagined, not just via the page, but now by tangible means too. I look at the house in question and imagine Humbert living there, perhaps with a Shepshed nymphet, a precursor to Lolita herself.
“The blue plaque represents our trust in official history and the germ of our imagination”, says Cactus. “I abuse people’s faith in the veracity of the plaque, but this gives a sense of authenticity to the dullest of places. And the abuse can’t exist without trust, not that it’s even abuse really – let’s think of it as subjunctive history instead”. All of this might be ephemeral, but Shepshed is now part of our national heritage, a nowhere town made fantastical by the power of the plaque, causing me to imagine a convoy of coaches exiting Junction 23 of the M1, complete with camera-clicking, rucksack-carrying, tourists, each of them standing beneath the blue discs to pose for photos. I recommend you make a special journey before they do.