Wednesday 22 February 2017

In defence of flowers taped to lamp posts

The tree, which stands alone on one of the gentle slopes of the park near my home, not far from the boundary of the local comprehensive, is entirely covered with hundreds of cloth flowers fixed to its bark with drawing pins, graffiti, gifts tucked in its nooks, laminated Christmas and birthday cards, letters. Beads and trinkets hang from its branches. A bouquet of flowers lies at its roots.

A name – I don't think it's fair to tell you his name, it feels intrusive, somehow wrong – appears several times, the name to whom the letters are addressed. A boy died. I think he was in his teens, he must have been, the way that the quality of friendship is expressed, the tone of the communication, the presence, heartbreakingly, of a note from his parents: it all points to someone young. Whoever he was, he was loved and he is missed. The tree maintains itself. You can see from the pinholes in the wood that when tributes become old or too decayed, they're taken down and new ones are put there.

The tree's sad cheerfulness, the brightness of it, stands outside of traditional funeral customs. It extends beyond any question of vandalism; at sites like this, ideas of taste are a tyranny, become brutal negations of the tree's power. The people who maintain the park thankfully leave this boy's tree well alone. You can't efface grief with a clean-up operation, and I think that if they even tried they'd have to face the implacable outrage of the people who had kept him alive in the tree. Removing the tributes would be beyond vandalism: it would be desecration.

It's one of the most beautiful places I know. I sometimes wander by this place when I'm out walking, and I always stop and look at the tree, and send all the good will in the world to the people who miss him. It's here to remind the world that he was here. That he is missed. That he leaves a gaping hole in dozens of lives.

I wonder if the fabric flowers were left by individual people, one flower to one visitor. And I wonder what the first tribute was, and who organised it, and how many there were of them, and what gave them the idea, and why they picked this tree as the place to make their shrine to him.
Flowers laid at the root.
On the road between the city centre and the football stadium, I often pass a Liverpool supporter's scarf tied around a lamp post; the head of a small red teddy bear pokes out from its folds.

Not far from one of the larger box junctions in my hometown, a powder blue bear, becoming increasingly bedraggled by rain and cold, remains taped to a post beneath a regularly replaced bunch of white flowers. I always drive more slowly, more carefully as I pass it, imagine losing one of my own children like that.

And down at the bottom of town, not far from the Admiral building, there's a lamp post that has a bunch of flowers, regularly replaced. I wonder if it's for the young man I used to know, who died in a horrific accident on that stretch of road. I suppose it doesn't matter. When I pass there, and I see the flowers, I always think of him.

Lawmakers in England and Wales have had, over the last two decades, a great deal of trouble trying to deal with how to approach sites like this. None of the county councils have a consistent policy. Many don't have a policy at all. I rang Swansea County Council, it being my home town, and spoke to a very nice lady who explained that Swansea doesn't have a policy: as long as they're not causing a physical obstruction, the council leaves them be. I think that's the best possible policy for a council to have.

Some do, however, have quite strict policies. In 2011, Bolton tried to discourage the placing of spontaneous shrines by making a public site a place for people to leave flowers for victims of road accidents, and remove roadside tributes at the site of an accident after 30 days. Inevitably, Bolton Council's 30-day rule provoked negative reactions among those who had lost loved ones in road accidents. The whole point of these memorials is that they are there. They mark the place. You can't just say, "If you must mourn, do it here." Grief doesn't work like that.

Hillingdon Borough Council is more generous; its policy on the subject says that "so long as a memorial does not give rise to any hazard or nuisance, it can be allowed to remain for a period of 13 months (to allow the marking of the first anniversary of the accident), after which time, Council officers can contact the relatives or friends of the bereaved and arrange for any items that are still wanted to be temporarily stored at Breakspear Crematorium, or returned."

Surrey County Council's guidance accepts that "the laying down of flowers can be an important part of the grieving process and people should be allowed to express their grief in this way" but "A religious memorial is best placed in a religious setting, e.g. a churchyard or cemetery" and "Memorials, plaques or signs (eg Remember Me - RoadPeace) placed on the highway, on a wall or existing street furniture may add to clutter."

I can't help wonder about how they define clutter. The Surrey Council site admits, in a perfunctory manner, that these tributes neither impede accessibility nor create traffic congestion, and it isn't like they're reluctant to allow advertising boards all over the place. And yet, what they seem mostly upset about is that spontaneous memorials make the place look untidy.
A letter and a card.
This idea of "clutter" seems to me to be important. Grief is a messy emotion, and I suppose that the swift decay of flowers might be, if you're obsessed with the order and cleanliness of your streets, untidy. The idea that religious tributes might be better served being in a church seems almost churlish, particularly given the overwhelmingly secular nature of roadside shrines in Britain: they seem more than anything to present things you couldn't put in a churchyard. You can't put "Daddy" on a gravestone. You can't deck a tree in a churchyard with thumbtacked flowers or trinkets on strings.  

I can't help thinking that this antipathy towards spontaneous memorials as "clutter", as messiness, is really a sort of snobbery against the sort of people who, councils seem to think, make a town look untidy. And the untidy people are the most secular. Britain's under thirties largely represent a generation who have no Christian background at all, and don't see it as a thing to be particularly sad about missing. It's not always class-bound, but people who are not churchgoing (and in the UK, that's the vast majority) are more likely to leave them.The traditional funeral has lost its meaning for many. In America and Australia, a little white cross usually sits among the flowers and the knicknacks, but it's very rare to see a British roadside memorial that includes any religious content whatsoever.

In fact, the people I've spoken to who have strong religious beliefs have been the ones who have felt the most antipathy towards spontaneous memorials. On the other hand, the general feeling among the people I spoke to who have left roadside flowers is that this is the more significant memorial, that a burial site matters, but that this serves a more profound purpose.

JD, who left flowers by the road for a patron at the pub he once worked at who died in a crash, told me that he still remembers the man every time he drives past that spot: "More memorable than any tombstone, it speaks of experience."

The significance of these places is fragile; as much as there's an unspoken rule about placement, there is an etiquette to how these places are treated, and local authorities can be horribly insensitive when it comes to what to do. Clearly, looking at the various guidelines out there, authorities struggle with how to apply consistent rules on sensitivity, not seeming to realise that sensitivity by definition is something you can't encode in a policy. TS sent me this story:
"My mum's boyfriend's motorbiking mates used to leave tributes to him by the roadside where he died. Not flowers usually, stuff that said something about their friendship with him - I vaguely recall seeing things representing his biker forum handle and pink mugs which they used to take the piss out of him for using. Then the council put a safety sign there saying how many motorbike accidents there are every year, which I remember pissed her off. I think it went from being a place where she remembered him to a place where she remembered how he died."
By co-opting the site of this man's death, the county council had soured it, somehow ruined it for the people who missed him.

Perhaps authorities are so cold about these things because they fail to recognise their validity. In the UK, the one sure measure for validity is time, and the apparent novelty of the phenomenon is often seen as a reason not to take it so seriously. So in the guidance from Surrey County Council, it says, "Roadside memorials are a relatively recent development in the UK, [sic] there is no tradition or deep cultural reason supporting this practice."

And I suppose that if you read the editorials on the subject, the placing of spontaneous memorials is a phenomenon of the last twenty years. Received wisdom has it that it kicked off in the late nineties. When Diana died, Britain lost some of its famous reserve, and we had a year of ostentatious public grief. Hand-made shrines to the People's Princess appeared everywhere on the streets, much to the irritation of journalists and pundits. Granta 60's tagline was "the fascism of flowers", as if performative grief like that, like leaving a wreath or a bouquet or a portrait on a street corner were really an act of oppression – as if it were the oppression of tasteful people (who were of course too polite to tell you to your face, because the whole point is that they don't do this sort of thing). Blake Morrison wrote in 2005 that "before 1997, they were almost unknown in this country" and ends with this:
"With our one-minute silences, Aids ribbons and flowing tears, we are said to have become a mawkish culture, post-Diana. But perhaps, deep down, we always were mawkish and the sober rituals that most of us grew up with (the black ties and pursed lips) were just a passing phase. In roadside memorials we have rediscovered our garish heart."
– Blake Morrison, "Saying it with Flowers", The Guardian, 3rd November 2005
I think, like many essays in The Guardian, it reveals more about the writer than about its subject. Morrison has the attitude of one who thinks he's above it all. "Mawkish" is a word you use to describe a grief with which you have no sympathy, to dismiss it as shallow. "Garishness" comes back to that concept of taste again, and of course issues of good taste are entirely irrelevant to grief. We cannot legislate our reaction to loss. We grieve how we grieve, and as society's rules develop so too should the etiquette of our grief. 

Every tradition was new once. It's a mistake to think that in the present day new traditions can't be born, and that they can't be valid. All traditions started somewhere, and the assumption that we're no longer in an age that allows for traditions to arise is false.

And anyway, while it's really since 1997 that this has become almost expected, spontaneous public displays of mourning are not new.

I might have, in my younger days, occasionally seen flowers left at a spot for a child, say. In the mid-1980s, my dad wrote a short story (I currently have the manuscript in my possession) which ended with a teddy bear being left as a memorial for a child in a public place, and this based on experiences he himself had had in the 1960s.
A memorial at Fairy Glen (photo: Janina Kranas)
At Fairy Glen in Sefton Park, Liverpool, local people have placed memorials and tributes there, particularly for suicides, for, supposedly, over a century. And people have been leaving flowers anonymously at Jay's Grave, an unmarked burial at a Dartmoor crossroads not far from Bovey Tracey, since the late nineteenth century at least. 

William Wordsworth's poem "The Thorn" (1789) describes a thorn bush visited repeatedly by a woman whose child died, the gossip of people who claim she killed the baby herself, and the uncertainty of the narrator. Of course no one can find a way to ask her sensitively, and the poem leaves the question of what happened open. I can't help but think of the way that these spontaneous memorials, which have a deep meaning for the people who placed them, leave the people who don't know only aware that there is a grief, that something terrible has happened.
At all times of the day and night
This wretched Woman thither goes;
And she is known to every star,
And every wind that blows;
And there, beside the Thorn, she sits
When the blue daylight’s in the skies,
And when the whirlwind’s on the hill,
Or frosty air is keen and still,
And to herself she cries,
‘Oh misery! oh misery!
Oh woe is me! oh misery!’
If the death of Diana had an effect, I think it was an effect of permission, a critical mass of public behaviour that subtly changed the way we behaved as a society. It became OK to leave spontaneous memorials in public places. It went from being a thing that happened sometimes to something we just did, because the entire nation had spent twelve months doing it for someone we didn't even really know. How can it hurt? 

Who does it hurt to leave flowers taped to a lamp post?

That's a tricky question. Although it's almost expected now, some families consciously hate the idea of having a memorial. One person told me:
"My mum died in a car accident a few years ago. None of my family wanted to go to the place where she died or put flowers down. For me, the thought of doing that would have been just awful. In fact I wanted to avoid the road where she died."
For this family, the leaving of flowers would have been acutely painful. No one has a book of rules as to whether or not a family wants a memorial like this; but people still seem to know. The question of who lays the flowers down varies from family to family, but just as I was the only instinctive choice to do the reading at my father's funeral, there is someone who makes the decision as to whether a tribute is left, and of who leaves the first flower. There is always someone to whom that duty naturally falls.

You hear arguments, mostly from authorities, that memorials are a road safety hazard. The lady at Swansea Council I spoke to mentioned the possibility of a RTA but when I asked if she knew of anyone who had ever had a crash because of a memorial, she couldn't answer and suggested I try the police. I suspect that if it's ever happened at all, it's an incredibly rare occurrence.

The main danger, I think, is the danger of being reminded that someone died here. Memorials for road accident victims, particularly, often serve as a rebuke as well as a memorial to the motorist (and if anything in my experience motorists drive more carefully at the sight of one). Activist groups take this further. Cyclists in the US started the practice of leaving "ghost bikes", cycles chained to lamp posts or bollards, painted white, often with a sign attached, saying simply, "a cyclist died here". You can find them in Britain now.

RoadPeace offers grieving families the option of placing a plaque at the site of a road accident, again as a corrective to the motorist. If anything, local authorities are even more hostile to plaques of this kind than they are to flowers and teddy bears.

But these organised placements of memorial tributes exist in the context of a tradition that already exists. The media and our governments don't take it seriously, and yet it persists and grows and has become a true part of our culture. It is a folk tradition, real and living. It doesn't matter whether it's twenty years old or the continuation of something much, much older – and I'm inclined to think the latter – it has become part of who we are now. You cannot legislate grief.