Ordinary Heroes: The Watts Memorial

Yesterday I took a day out with a friend and went to the Museum of London for the Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men exhibition, which I’ll post about later. I also spent five hours in the Centre Page again, down by St Paul’s, drinking Aspall and putting the world to rights in a vague and noisy way around a burger and some diversions relating to Kindle books. Which I won’t be posting about later.

Somewhere between these two points I ducked into Postman’s Park, since it’s on the way from the London Museum to St Paul’s (if you’re in the area sightseeing that’s worth knowing, I think), and since I’d read about it in a guide called Secret London: An Unusual Guide, which I recommend just as reading material: the copy is surprisingly humorous. The reason Postman’s Park features in the guide is what is variously called the Wall of Heroes, The Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice, and The Watts Memorial.

The Wall of Heroes, Postman’s Park, Little Britain, City of London

The memorial consists of a series of tile plaques painted in a distinctive style and colour, commemorating the efforts of “ordinary people who perished in the attempt of saving others”, shielded from the elements by a sloped roof. It is not impressive, nor is it the display of stark and dignified solemnity that most war memorials are. At its core it is little more than the kind of tabloid or local press headline displayed outside shops, recording “Mum of 2 died saving baby’s life” or the opening of a magazine article in a publication called “Natter” or “Relax” which is 50% horrifying stories of mutilation and 50% advice on how to be thinner and more neurotic.

I’m not usually a fan of the use of the word “hero”, either, usually because it is applied with such ubiquity that it has almost no meaning any more. Men who can kick a ball in the direction they want to kick it in are heroes; children who are slightly more stubborn about the political convictions they’ve inherited from their parents are heroes; being fortunate enough to survive cancer with good medical care makes you a hero. It levels the playing field to the point at which it becomes insulting to refer to someone’s behaviour as an act of heroism because it’s belittling what they’ve done to put it alongside someone who remembered to take their medication, and now we’re left in need of new terms (or of letting facts speak for themselves, something most news sources have been loath to do almost since their birth).

The nature of those stories in those publications and even the idea of voluntary self-sacrifice have rarely been of much interest to me – I’m more drawn to narratives of involuntary sacrifice, which is why I spend such an inordinate amount of time crying over books about WW1 and generally making an overemotional nuisance of myself in the Imperial War Museum – but the Watts Memorial was oddly moving. Partly because it is in a quiet, secluded space which has been carved out of an area of very busy city, a transformed garden raised above the street by the bodies of the dead, and partly because of the odd permanent/impermanent impression of the plaques: they seem as if they could be weathered away by a strong shower of rain, with their translucent blue paint. And yet some of them have remained under their awning, proclaiming their bald facts, for over a century: they are the eternal versions of the daily headline on the street, somewhere between gravestones and billboards.

John Cranmer Cambridge, drowned near Ostend whilst saving the life of “a stranger and a foreigner”

The precise and yet florid nature  of the wording, quintessentially Edwardian in most cases, is another blow to the sensibilities: people were “engulfed” or “scorched”. Evocative descriptions of terrible ends as the souls commemorated struggled (sometimes in vain, which adds another layer of pathos) to rescue friends, relatives, coworkers, and sometimes complete strangers from canals, burning buildings, sewers, oncoming trains and so on: the salutatory lesson is largely “children stop swimming in canals please” and “fire alarms are a really good thing”. On a quiet day, away from the hullabaloo of children rampaging through the Museum of London, it’s possible to find a moment’s contemplation amid the suicidally brave. Questions for your consideration, in that environment: confronted with a burning building, would I run back inside to save an elderly widow at the cost of my own life? What characteristic makes people dive in front of a train to shove a coworker out of the way? Is it gallantry to rescue an attempted suicide (as a couple of the men commemorated here did) or is it unjust interference with their acts as a free agent?

Cynical visitors will note that almost all of these events might have been averted by a good coast guard or people not arsing about in the first place, better communication, better housing, and stricter safety laws: in the absence of such, however, it’s perhaps just a little bit touching how many people are motivated not only by the ties of kinship but by basic human instinct to save our fellow hominids from unnecessary death. And stilted and formal though the language is, it’s quite hard not to be moved by the quoted words of the excellently-named and youthfully-expired Soloman Galaman, whose plaque I photographed and texted to Miranda because everyone needs a bit of turn-of-the-century sadness at work now and then:

not the photo I took, that’s still in my phone.

“Mother I saved him but I could not save myself.”

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