How leaving padlocks became a modern-day romantic ritual

A couple cross Cologne's Hohenzollernbruecke bridge in 2011. Image: Getty.

Cities as distant and varied as Moscow and Manchester, New York and Newport, Beijing and Blackpool all have one striking feature in common. Masses of padlocks, engraved with the names or initials of love-struck couples, bedeck notable landmarks such as bridges and fences – sometimes to the ire of local authorities.

The exact origins of the “love locking” practice are unknown, but it rapidly gained global momentum after emerging in Rome and Paris during the 2000s. The locks have become romantic tokens – universal symbols for the commitment, strength and constancy of a relationship.

Yet this symbol of unity has proven ironically polarising. Many authorities view the custom negatively, and collections of love locks have been removed from bridges following safety concerns. Such worries are not misplaced: in 2014, a railing on the Pont des Arts in Paris collapsed under the weight of its love locks.

Pont Des Arts: smothered in love. Image: Nik Boiv/Flickr/creative commons.

The following year, the bolt-cutters were out in force, and over one million padlocks (weighing 45 tonnes), were removed from the bridge to prevent further damage. Similar responses have been seen worldwide, from Leeds to Melbourne.

Forbidden love

But in many cases it’s not concern about a bridge’s structural integrity that sees authorities reaching for the bolt-cutters – it’s anxiety over aesthetics. In many cities, love locking has been classified an act of vandalism. Signs are erected on bridges to discourage the practice.

In Florence, the city’s council went so far as to criminalise it, sparking controversy in 2005 by threatening a fine of €50 for anyone caught attaching a padlock to the Ponte Vecchio.

Residents of some cities also disapprove of the practice. In Paris, two US expats founded the vociferous No Love Locks campaign, pushing for a ban on what they called a “destructive force”. And recently, in Bristol, an anonymous local resident fronted an online crowdfunding crusade to “lose the locks” on Pero’s Bridge.

Where is the love? Not in Leeds. Image: Ceri Houlbrook/author provided.

Members of the media have likewise boarded the anti-love lock bandwagon, with the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones proving particularly disparaging. The world’s cities, he lamented, are suffering from a “plague of padlocks”, thanks to a custom which he cuttingly condemns as “one of the shallowest, stupidest, phoniest expressions of love ever devised”.

And yet.

The one million love locks removed from the Pont des Arts amount to two million people who disagree with Jonathan Jones. And this is just the figure from one site – there are hundreds, probably thousands, around the world. Rather than regarding love-locking as a vapid act of vandalism, I’d argue that it’s a form of modern-day heritage.

Lock it down

Since 1972, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has defined sites of world cultural heritage as being “of outstanding universal value from the historical, aesthetic, ethnological or anthropological point of view”. Surely, these masses of love locks – which represent what is probably the most widespread ritual deposit of the 21st century – constitute sites of outstanding universal value. So, why aren’t ethnographers, anthropologists, and cultural heritage specialists clamouring to preserve this custom, either in practice or in print?

Ageism is the likeliest culprit. Antiquity is often viewed as a virtue, lending “authenticity” and “value” to any object with a good few centuries behind it. The only thing that distinguishes love locks from other ritual objects such as Bronze Age river deposits, votive offerings on the Athenian acropolis, or Roman coin hoards is age. Patina ensures protection.

Love is timeless. Image: Sharada Prasad/Flickr/creative commons.

Yet UNESCO claims that “heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations”. The objects and sites of today are just as much a part of our heritage as those of the past – perhaps even more so. The global spread of love locks makes them a part of everyone’s heritage: not exclusive to particular regions, cultures or classes, love locks can be attached anywhere, by anyone. Surely, this is culture at its most democratic.


I’m not suggesting that we encourage the practice – especially where it poses a safety risk – but we should be doing more to preserve this unique piece of our global cultural heritage. Heritage specialists should be engaging with love lock sites on a case-by-case basis; contemporary archaeologists should be cataloguing these ritual deposits before they’re disposed of. Rather than waiting for love locks to develop the heritage “value” that comes with age – so that future generations will have nothing to ponder over but remnants – we should be engaging with this custom now, while it’s still thriving.The Conversation

Ceri Houlbrook is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Hertfordshire.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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