Immortal discs

Blue plaques - Natalie Brierley on English Heritage's ceramic markers

A spectre is haunting London, the spectre of English Heritage. You will have seen it, surely, for its apparitions are numerous and distinct. Over 700 souls who no longer roam the streets of our great capital are presently tied to their former abodes under little blue haloes, a moment of their lives frozen in ceramic. They are reborn as icons of a cherished past, turning an ordinary wall into a wall of fame. It could happen to any of us, as long as we've been dead for 20 years. Until that point, we rest in a state of limbo, otherwise known as the files of the Blue Plaque Selection Board.

But who are the people to emerge as these saints of heritage? Not exactly any of us. In order to qualify for blue plaque status, one has to be regarded by the English Heritage selection committee as "eminent", as having made "a positive contribution to human welfare or happiness", and as possessing an "exceptional and outstanding personality". On average, about 50 to 60 nominations are put forward by the public each year. Most are discarded immediately, failing to meet the selection committee's regulatory criteria. The rest are "cogitated and deliberated" over by current chairman Loyd Grossman, and about 12 actually make it to the wall.

We are cajoled into believing that English Heritage is not only working for the benefit of the nation, but also representing "established taste". The plaque to Jimi Hendrix (in Mayfair's Brook Street) is, we are told, evidence of the selection committee's responsiveness to the general will. But the rejection of Coco Chanel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the novelist J G Farrell (whose long-term reputation apparently could not be decided) points to a process that is both whimsical and incapable of yielding to more imaginative perceptions of the relationship between people and architectural structures. Marco Goldschmeid of the Royal Institute of British Architects believes that there should be a blue plaque on the bus shelter where Stephen Lawrence was killed. But because Lawrence died, rather than lived, at the bus shelter, the suggestion fails to meet English Heritage's rigorous criteria.

The bias towards a subjective notion of "national importance" is not going unchallenged. In the land of the living, people are bringing attention to a system that refuses to acknowledge the ordinary element of our society. In 1999, a blue plaque was discovered in a shop doorway in Newcastle bearing the words, "Nathan Walker sheltered from the rain in this doorway, July 5, 1848". Who was this man? And who decided that he deserved such recognition? Not English Heritage. An investigation revealed that a whole series of plaques had appeared in northern streets, commissioned and affixed by a community art group who were "poking fun" at a system of elitist preservation.

In the same way, Gavin Turk's famous blue plaque - "Gavin Turk Sculptor worked here 1989-1991" - which caused him to flunk his Royal Academy degree in 1991, targets national icons by playing ironically with the idea of authority. English Heritage's response - that his piece simply served to illustrate that "blue plaques have a claim to iconic status" - seems rather to miss the point: Turk was using the ceramic disc to challenge rather than approve of a system which distinguishes between work deemed lasting and work destined for the ash-heap of history. We will have to wait, of course, to see if there will ever be an official plaque dedicated to Turk himself.

Who among us has not, at one stage or another, marked our presence in some form? It is not only freshly cemented pavements or toilet walls that have borne witness to our capricious passing. But English Heritage has chosen to manipulate and fetishise our history by making selective and permanent markers to its existence. It has also created another strange phenomenon, of which it is particularly proud: "the blue-plaque spotter", a cross between a pop fan and a train- spotter. He roams the streets in a frenzied attempt to see, first-hand, every plaque erected since their invention in 1875. He will stop at nothing, the idea of seeing and touching fame too much to restrain him. But, ironically, his very existence is in total opposition to the proclaimed intentions of English Heritage. It is the brush with fame, not the quest for historical knowledge, that provides the inspiration for his pursuit.

If English Heritage's aim is to inform passers-by about the history of an area, and to recognise achievement as well as fame, then there must be changes to the blue plaque system. Our obsession with intangible nostalgia has to give way to something more real and more readily accessible to the general public. Local people should have a say in the way their history is represented, and local names must start to make their way among the list of the prestigious.

"Nora Batty hung her stockings here" could well be the plaque of our future. Ordinary people of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your anonymity.