What is one to make of the shrines that are now regularly erected in the aftermath of fatal car crashes? It may be a failure on my part but I can't remember these extempore street furnishings being part of the British landscape or urban environment until the late 1970s. Indeed, the first shrines - such as the one in Barnes that sprang up after Marc Bolan's accident - were an obvious outgrowth of the hero worship their subject inspired in life. It followed that depositing flowers, cards and handwritten poems at the site where he died had a certain logic: these were funerary gifts suitable for a pop star, adulation to sustain him in the netherworld.
I think it highly likely that this is the sort of cosmology cleaved to by serious fans, whose belief in the quasi- or wholly divine nature of guitar-pickers, and even actors, supports an entire iconography, complete with relics and - after Elvis - resurrections. The religion of fame is a syncretism, of course, between deep-seated animism and whichever monotheism happens to be locally dominant. If a 20th-century boy such as Bolan was accorded a kind of sainthood by virtue of his notoriety, then it also made sense to pray at his shrine for a similarly glittery and platform-soled career.
Princess of wails
However, during the 1980s and 1990s the practice of anointing death spots began to spread from the famous to the obscure. A wilting bunch of daffodils cinched with nylon twine to a buckled railing; a sodden teddy bear propped against a kerb; a Clinton condolences card, its kitsch sentiments weeping ink - these are the basic constituents of the common shrine, but as the mania gripped the commonality, so the theme became embroidered with photographs, toys and even driving accessories. (This latter does have a certain macabre purity about it - like worshipping an effigy of a man nailed to a cross, when that man really was crucified.)
As with so much else in the realm of collective delusion, we can point to Diana Spencer as the moving spirit behind the democratisation of death shrines. You may not have liked Bolan's music but there was no denying his talent. The so-called People's Princess had no talent at all save for hand-holding, neurosis and self-promotion, and so the blowing out of her candle in the slipstream of the zeitgeist released a floral tidal wave. The blooms started being deposited outside Kensington Palace on the day of her death and by the time of her funeral a week later the flowery rampart was five feet high and its lowest level was composting. Three people were arrested for stealing cutesy tokens from this berm of mulch and tat, and the rehabilitation of the monarchy from its torture of the sainted self-harmer was widely considered to have begun when the Queen herself came out from Buck House to "inspect" the suitably monumental Mall-side shrine.
So, after 1997, the practice became increasingly ubiquitous as the group mind judged that all and sundry were worthy of public remembrance. Now not just car-crash victims were so honoured, but in my neck of the dark urban woods, murder victims, too. There have been six murders in the immediate vicinity of my house in the past half-decade, and the shrines for each of the killed have become increasingly elaborate. The 21st teenage victim of 2008's epidemic of knife crime was stabbed immediately outside my front door, then staggered up the road to where he died on the corner.
His shrine featured his name spelt out in tea lights, copious amounts of rap poetry on laminated cards, T-shirts, and even plastic water guns (he had been at a mass water fight in - of all places - Kensington Gardens on the day of his death). To begin with, the shrine was a scene of regular impromptu remembrance services: a nightly vigil, then a weekly one. Unlike at some shrines on busier roads there was never any danger that drivers slowing down to look at this one would, in turn, cause further accidents, but nevertheless I was amazed that this elaborate structure stayed in place as long as it did. Indeed, I think its removal was only effected after six months because a second teenager had been murdered nearby and his death site had become an alternative cynosure of grief.
In London, besides the Interflora-boosting expiration of the Princess of Wales, two other catalysts for the wayside death-shrine suggest themselves. First, there is the increasingly multi-faith population. Although shrines, as idolatry, are anathema to Muslims, there has been a rise in the past 25 years in numbers of Hindu, Buddhist and Catholic Londoners - all of whom have domestic and wayside shrines as integral to their religious practice. Then again, as Steve Roud notes in his excellent London Lore, there is the tradition of "grotto-building" by London children, whereby beehive structures of shells and clinker were erected on the pavements and topped off by flowers. A sign would ask passers-by to contribute a few pence to "remember the grotto".
Grotto-building died out in London by the 1950s, but I think it not unlikely that the buried memory of it has surfaced in the contemporary car-crash shrine. However, this doesn't explain the countrywide phenomenon: we can only attribute it to a resurgence of the "old religion" - and not simply pre-Reformation Christianity, but the Druidic beliefs in sacred sites that it happily accommodated.
All of which goes to prove that Richard Dawkins et al can rant until they're as blue as woad, but popular superstition will never be eradicated. On balance, then, I'm with the shrine-builders, whose spontaneous structures call our attention to the transcendent piercing the mundane - and if this is a madness of crowds, we'd all do well to refuse our medication.
Madness of Crowds runs fortnightly. Next week: Will Self's Real Meals