Thursday, December 29, 2011

London remembers, with modesty

There's an excellent site I have not yet written about: London Remembers, with the broad brave ambition, touchingly modestly worded, of "aiming to capture all memorials in London". The page on Mary Wollstonecraft gives a brief biography, with dates, categories ("seriously famous" - love it!), a picture*, and a list of places where Our Lady is commemorated. Note: not places she is associated with, such as the church of her baptism, or, at a stretch of the imagination, the Women's Library. To populate the website with the associations of historical figures would cast the net unfeasibly wide; I quite see that. So only three memorial places appear: the newest plaque, at Newington Green; the oldest, at Somers Town; and the nearby mural on the school wall.  St Pancras Church and churchyard do not feature: graves per se don't fall within the project's purlieu, or it would become impossibly unwieldy. (It is plain gravestones that don't count as memorials: impressive memorials do, hence Soane's family tomb, and so does the St Pancras sundial-spire commemorating the churchyard's other Famous Dead Bisexual Woman, Angela Burdett-Coutts.)

The page has an embedded Google Map (another blogstuff thing I've been meaning to do for a year), and, perhaps the most intriguing box, "Related Subjects". It turns up both gems and puzzles -- alluring, distracting, a way to while away an hour very happily indeed. Frances Mary Buss, of Miss Beale and Miss Buss, the pioneering educators of girls, I can totally understand, but William Johnson Cory? Why -- because his name includes "Johnson"? The Royal College of Opthalmologists? Mary didn't even wear glasses. Call in the algorithm-tweaker! (Now *there's* a necromancer's modern trade!)

London Remembers has its lacunae (not all the MW plaques, for instance -- Southwark is missing) and some teething problems limitations (why are comments restricted to Facebook and Hotmail users?), but it can only grow in strength. It's another great resource for exploring one of the world's greatest cities, even if you are in the Kenyan rainforest or the Vietnamese snow, both places pulling me in this grey dim winter.

*Opie, credited only to Spartacus, which is weird.
Update, mid-January. The more I nose around this site, the more I find to fascinate. I love its sense of humour! "Caveat: Be aware that London actually has more cars, more rain and less sun than our photos show." And, as above, its humility: "we don't think we will ever achieve but we will enjoy the attempt" of trying to find all the memorials. I've tweaked the entry above, to reflect changes made, and to correct my own ignorance. London Remembers is deliberately a work in progress, "doomed to remain incomplete (where does London stop?) but certainly will grow and grow", and "so far we have found 9,744 subjects (people, events, etc.) on 2,321 memorials, at 1,815 sites." The site is not new at all, as I had originally thought, but about ten years old, with a wealth of data collected. It is newly relaunched, and I have only just discovered it.

From the page "Do we need your help?":
By now you either think we are crazy to be doing this or you're fascinated and would love to help. In the past we have thought we’d like an army of volunteers doing all the desk research, leaving us free to get out on the streets and do what we really enjoy – finding the memorials and in the process getting to know this cranky old city. But organising people, teaching the system, the house style, etc, it all takes time, and we’ve come to the conclusion that it's best for us to do the whole job. But if you can provide information for any of the war dead about whom we know nothing then we would be delighted. Pictures especially welcome.

Who are these crazy people anyway?
It probably doesn't need stating, but this website is not a commercial concern; it is a hobby. We started collecting data about London memorials in 1999, because we enjoyed walking and cycling around the city, finding out about its history, geography and architecture. We plotted them on maps because we find maps endlessly fascinating and enjoy using them.
The team behind London Remembers is a mysterious "we", but bound to be small: I am utterly in favour of amateur endeavours, and Mary values modesty. They are so much not a commercial endeavour that the site is entirely free of ads. Charming, compelling, educational, visually appealing, easy to navigate... I could go on. I am reminded of what Robert Louis Stevenson said affectionately of Modestine at the end of  his Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes - "Her faults were those of her race and sex; her virtues were her own." The faults of London Remembers  are those quirky oddities we all recognise in a labour-of-love website; its virtues are its own.

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