While tumbling through Holborn Circus and a meandering conversation with my old mate Francis at around midnight last Thursday, I was delighted to discover that there is a statue of Ignatius J Reilly in New Orleans. Not just on account of his magnificence as a character, but as a happy reflection of the imagination of Americans in commemorating an entirely fictional person. And why not? A quick google of his name (particularly an image search) reveals scores of cartoons, fan shots of fat moustachioed men in hunting caps, souvenir photographs and articles verging on the absurd (one page on a current affairs website is entitled ‘what Ignatius J Reilly tells us about Pakistan’). In Ignatius’ status as a cult figure and apparent sage, the fact that he never existed seems fairly immaterial.
So I have been thinking that London should follow suit, and start broadening its repertoire of statues and its commemorative plaque scheme. Currently the only made-up characters I can think of who possess such memorials are Sherlock Holmes and Paddington Bear, and there must be others equally deserving. Just on Caledonian Road there’s a plaque on the side of an ugly university halls of residence (named Piccadilly Halls after the tube line that the poor bastards are going to have to spend half their lives rattling through the sewers on), dedicated to some bloke with an Italian name who once had a store house full of Norwegian fjord ice on the same spot. To me that sounds no less absurd than, say, sticking a sign on Big Ben saying ‘Richard Hannay, adventurer, dissolved an international spy ring around the time he dangled from this clock face’ (yes, I realise that only happens in the film, but I feel the 39 Steps works better including this incident and excluding that unfortunate plot twist in the book where it is all the fault of the Jews). History is all just dubious stories anyway.
They’d be so much more interesting than the real plaques about worthy sorts who wrote pamphlets leading to inefficient public services, or statues on columns of princes who never did anything much apart from gamble, fornicate and get nursery rhymes written about them (bad example perhaps), and you’d also be saved the trouble of strict accuracy as to location or date. I can see a blue plaque on the side of a pub in Earl’s Court: ‘George Harvey Bone, split-personality alcoholic, sat here in 1939 and contemplated the murder of Netta Longdon’, or one somewhere in St James’ Park: ‘Harry Palmer, black marketeer and spy, did not enjoy listening to a brass band here in 1964’. Then of course there would be the classic on the side of the Reform Club: ‘Phileas Fogg, returned here 21st December 1872 after journeying around the world in 80 days’. One to Philip Pirrip in the Royal Exchange might be on the cards too.
What would be really exciting would be to merge fact and fiction sort of half together. Like maybe sticking a plaque somewhere round Senate House saying ‘Joe Chill, murdered near this spot, but not by Batman’, or popping one on the Vic Naylor pub in Clerkenwell saying ‘Gordon Sumner, musician, operated a bar here in 1998’ (though you’d have to wait until Sting died for that one, I think the posthumous memorial rule should definitely still stand). You could even take a more proactive approach in the progress of fiction and history by strolling five doors down the street to the house from which I am almost certain the local parking wardens operate, opposite an estate where bored men in oversized clothes prowl with their incontinent Staffordshire terriers, and putting up a shiny blue oval saying ‘paedophiles live here’. The possibilities are endless.