Class conscious

There is a house near where I live that bears a blue plaque reading: "Charles Dickens, AUTHOR, stayed here in 1832." Seems a bit tenuous to me, although I suppose it's better than: "Charles Dickens, AUTHOR, walked past this house in 1832."

It is a nice Georgian house, and the implication of most plaques is that, to achieve anything worth commemorating, you have to live in a nice Georgian house, because that's the kind of property they tend to adorn. Speaking as a chippy sort of person who does not live in a nice Georgian house, I find this pernicious.

Even the people one would assume, despite their posthumous glorification, to have scraped by quite humbly in their lifetime, appear to have lived in nice Georgian houses. Take Edward Lear, for example. He is commemorated with a blue plaque outside the very nice, and enormous, Georgian house at 30 Seymour Street W1, which always prompts a bout of bitter ratiocination: how could this writer of works that were, by his own admission, nonsense have afforded such a property, especially given that the last line of his limericks was always disappointingly similar to the first?

The humblest house that I've ever seen with a plaque - and this, significantly, was not an English Heritage blue plaque but a Dead Comics' Society one (not half as beneficial, I suspect, for the value of one's house) - was the home of the young Peter Sellers. But even this is a characterful early Victorian cottage convenient for the excellent shopping facilities of Muswell Hill, and probably worth a couple of hundred grand in today's money.

In its final years, the GLC was responsible for administering the English Heritage blue plaques in the capital; in that time, some attempt was made to commemorate egalitarian heroes such as Sylvia Pankhurst . . . but where did Pankhurst's plaque go? Outside her house in Cheyne Walk, the swankiest street in Chelsea.

When Ken becomes king of London once again, I urge him to set up a new scheme distributing red plaques, preferably to be mounted outside council flats, with inscriptions along the lines of: "Fred and Mary Bloggs raised six well-balanced kids here on next to no dosh, 1953-72."

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Englishness: who cares?