There aren’t any commemorative plaques on benches in either Gordon Square or St Helier Open space, maybe they’re just not ‘heritage’ enough locations, or don’t have the kind of classic view that a mourning relative would choose as a reflective space. But when talking to people about benches it’s surprising how often people talk about liking commemorative plaques, either they know one which has a personal memory for them, or they like the sense of being surrounded by hints of stories of people past.
But two different stories about bench plaques came my way recently; both with a more irreverent take, which suggests that there can be more to bench plaques than meets the eye. Are subversive bench plaques now ‘a thing’?
The first is from that authority of urban wisdom, Buzzfeed.
It shows a photo of a plaque on a wooden bench that reads:
In memory of Roger Bucklesby
Who hated this park,
And everyone in it.
The question posed was ‘was it real’?
Apparently, due to the powers of photoshop, the vast majority of witty bench plaques are simply photoshopped. Disappointing.
The conclusion of the Roger Bucklesby plaque came to a ‘half-real’ conclusion. It is an actual physical plaque installed on a bench, somewhere in a park in north London. But the name and persona of Roger Bucklesby is a fiction, made up by author Jamie Maslin before emigrating to Australia. Leaving a story behind him.
That was a couple of years ago. But last month a bench-fake-plaque story broke in the town of Chester, with a far more pointed intention.
One plaque states: “If you shut your eyes for more than ten seconds whilst on this bench, you may be deemed asleep, and risk facing an ASBO. By Order of Public Space Protection Orders under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014.”
Another says "This bench is dedicated to the young, beautiful and affluent. If you are old, ugly or poor please sit elsewhere."
The plaques were installed illicitly by a group of anonymous artists, protesting against a proposed Public Space Protection Order under consultation for the central zone of Chester. The order is specific in prohibiting certain activities (including rough sleeping and street drinking) with fines if people continue after being asked to stop. The protesters are concerned that this could be used to target and move on vulnerable and homeless people as a broader move to ‘tidy up’ the town for tourists.
These plaques were moved fairly promptly by the council, though not before the photos were circulated by social media and caught the attention of the national news.
Why are bench plaques the perfect form of protest? You don’t need the artistic talent of Banksy to carry this off. The small brass rectangle is unassuming. Bring your small screwdriver. Their undercover nature is attractive; it could be days or weeks before anyone even notices. By hacking the urban bench, you ally yourself with the humble, the mundane, the sociable, the inclusive.
Make a short point, a tweet-worth of words.