Thursday, 4 February 2010
Clough and The Blue Plaque Business
To North London yesterday for the unveiling of a plaque to the poet Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-1861) at the house in St Mark's Crescent, NW1 where Clough lived from 1854 to 1859. According to Clough scholar, Sir Anthony Kenny, pictured here, the poet didn't, er, actually write anything while he was here, but anything that raises the profile of this excellent and astonishingly modern-sounding Victorian poet must be a good thing. Talking afterwards to someone from English Heritage, the body that masterminds the plaque-business, I thought I sensed some scepticism about Clough's status, not so much in the canon of English poetry (the poet Christopher Reid who was there agreed with me that he is one of the best half dozen English poets of his period – which seemed to astonish the heritage people) as in the canon of The Higher Celebrity. When I suggested en passant that there should be a plaque to William Empson, author of that classic of 20th century literary criticism, Seven Types of Ambiguity, on the house at 65 Marchmont Street, Bloomsbury where the book was written in 1929-30 I was the recipient of one of those oh-God-here's-one-of-those-loony-obsessives looks. I can see that it's hard for the adjudicators to judge who is deserving of this kind of honour but I had that feeling I often get in these situations of sudden gloom induced by the mournful tolling of the great lugubrious bell of English cultural populism. Just like being in a publisher's office and suggesting a life of Arthur Hugh Clough, for example, when embarrassed faces turn to the window and someone suddenly finds there is a phone to answer. In a culture of lists and rankings and "no one reads people like X" how can the heritage industry buck the trend of sticking with what's safe and consensual?