Sunday, 13 April 2014

Connecting With the Literary Past

In the UK, there is a scheme whereby places linked to famous/historical figures are marked with a commemorative blue plaque. The main criteria for inclusion is that the place has a strong link to the person (ie - they were born/lived there) and that the person has been dead for 20 years or passed the centenary of their birth.

There are several in my home city of Portsmouth and in each case, I came about them by chance, whilst on my travels around the city. Quite fittingly (for me, at least) these include some notable literary greats.

The first plaque that I found is located just a two minute walk from my front door and it marks the childhood home of Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book.









He and his sister lived at this address with a couple who took care of the children of British nationals serving in India. Though the house proudly wears the blue plaque as a badge of honour, Kipling himself did not look upon this place quite so fondly.

In the author's own words: "I have known a certain amount of bullying, but this was calculated torture—religious as well as scientific. Yet it made me give attention to the lies I soon found it necessary to tell: and this, I presume, is the foundation of literary effort" (Kipling, Rudyard (1935). "Something of myself". public domain.)

So for what are not-quite-the-right reasons, the place did leave an impression on the would be author. Though not a positive influence, it was an influence nonetheless.

The next notable residence I came to was the birthplace of actor and comedian, Peter Sellers (perhaps most famous for playing Inspector Clouseau, as well as being a part of The Goon Show).

Most people are born in a hospital or at home, in keeping with his surreal Goon Show persona, Mr Sellers was born in a Chinese Restaurant (although it may have been converted after the event - I have not checked).










Unlike with Kipling, this time there are no negative connotations associated with the childhood home, although again, it did shape their future career. Peter Sellers made his stage debut at the King's Theatre in Southsea when he was just 2 weeks old!






The next and most notable of the blue plaques in Portsmouth is dedicated to the early childhood home of a writer second only in fame, to Shakespeare and that is Charles Dickens.


Despite the fact that his family moved to London very soon after his birth and that the man himself failed to locate the house upon returning as an adult (I cannot think how he failed - it is extremely well signposted), the house has been converted into a museum and is a local tourist attraction.

And although Dickens had no memory of the place, the city itself does to this day suffer from many of the social problems that he highlighted and strove to change through his writing. Only recently, the naval dockyards closed, adding to what was already one of the UK's worst employment black spots.

He does at least add a certain amount of pride to the city and his literary legacy is often used to promote the arts within the city.

Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle (creator of television's Sherlock and US spin-off Elementary) also has strong ties to the city, but if he has a plaque - I could not find it. However, any article on famous former Portsmouth residents would not be complete without a reference to the most legendary of all. Sadly, there is no blue plaque this time. This is for several reasons; the person is still alive, they are not British and finally, it may just be a legend. I did, at least, find the following mural, painted on what I assume to be a disused public toilet block.


It is, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Terminator lived and trained in the city for a brief period in the seventies. Now THAT is a famous resident.

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