Heritage has long been a hot topic in the UK, expressed both in the love for old buildings and in the business of regeneration. Less attention has been given to the complicated relationship between historical figures and place, particularly how placemaking makes use of them.
This goes further than the Blue Plaque scheme; the dead both etch their ghostly presences on the character of localities, and can be self-consciously chosen to help retell a story of place.
I want to look at how the dead and place interact through the two case studies – William Morris in Walthamstow, and John Ball in Colchester. I’ll be looking at how the dead intertwined themselves with place, how history becomes contested as they are made use of by placemakers, and what works.
Ghosts of place
The psychogeographical tradition in urban life directs our attention to the relationships between person and place. Prominent individuals leave traces of their selves and their legacy on the local vernacular.
One such relationship is between William Morris (1834-96), socialist and artisan, and Walthamstow in east London. Morris only spent about seven years of his youth in what is now the William Morris Gallery in Lloyd Park, E17; yet Walthamstow has claimed him as its own.
Both Morris's arts and crafts movement, and his socialism, are now closely aligned to the character of Walthamstow itself, an area of community-based socialism and thriving hipster artisanal businesses. Morris might even be claimed as the first hipster (minus the beard oil, of course), combining radical politics with autonomous entrepreneurialism.
The relationship between the dead and place becomes even more interesting when ghosts are called upon to reshape space. Campaigners in the Essex town of Colchester are currently evoking the long forgotten figure of John Ball (1338-81), radical priest and one of the leaders of the Peasant Revolt 1381, into a symbolic representation of equality and diversity.
The campaign itself began as a result of a press campaign and petition to get a "piece of bronze" representing John Ball erected in Colchester. It has evolved into an interrogation of the town's historic legacy, and its identity today as a nascent zone of feminisation, equality and diversity. It may even seek to become a Sanctuary Town.
The reframing of place in Colchester is something that resonates in its cultural and alternative arts communities. Essex. Colchester and nearby Wivenhoe have seen a sizable “punk poetry” renaissance, all John Cooper Clarke and Martin Newell. The area is also celebrating its historic rebels, with Castle Museum devoting a whole section to Boudica, who led an uprising against the Roman Empire around AD60. More recently, Gee Vaucher, a female artist in Crass, had her own Introspective in Colchester’s Firstsite Gallery.
What gets left out?
Inevitably, calling on the dead to remake place involves some falling away of historical realities. In Walthamstow, the Willam Morris Gallery, renovated in 2011-12, focuses on Morris’s status as an artisan, rather than as a socialist (though there is some representation of “soft socialism”). This mutating focus is also characteristic of a locale which could fall victim to a loss of community cohesion through gentrification. Is Morris shifting uncomfortable in his grave? Perhaps, but he might have been excited by all the craft beer.
Similarly, the figure of John Ball is imbued with very diverse aesthetic and even political values. Will he be carved out in bronze, his religious non-conformity absorbed by the very active Colchester churches? Or will he be etched into the nascent contemporary arts and politics scene of the new Colchester?
That this ground is contested is a point acknowledged by Sally Shaw, the director of Firstsite, the key partner in promoting John Ball Day on 15 July and a plethora of related arts activities in Colchester. “But that’s what makes it interesting,” she says, “and very much representative of the broader cultural struggles facing UK society today.”
Placemakers always try and prove historical figures lived in a place, but that link can often be quite incidental – a matter of a few years in the case of both Morris and Ball.
But there is a creative relationship too. In the case of Morris and Walthamstow, there is a natural congruence between the well-processed history of Morris, his ideas and artistic practice, and how the locality has evolved.
Much less is known about John Ball, which makes sketching a pathway to the contemporary values of feminisation, equality and diversity something of a tricky issue. But Shaw suggests that "creating lines of connection between Ball and the present is an ongoing and inclusive creative process, about remaking meaning”. In other words, the John Ball project will be a way of imaginatively rethinking place, both past and present.
“We are the dead” said McCrae, Bowie, and Orwell before them – referring to the exhaustions of the present. But the dead are also helping us think about our culture and shaping the landscapes of place. We are the dead, but they are us.
Deborah Talbot is an ethnographer and journalist writing about culture, society and all things urban.