For some while now the city council has been carrying out an ongoing programme to replace lampposts all across the city. Grim concrete has given way to sleek, tall, commanding steel.
The replacement programme reached our nearby park this week, and as I walked along the road running through it yesterday morning, I wondered what had happened in the process to the various totemic roadside memorial lampposts which have sprung up across the city over the last decade. You may well have some near you: flowers are poignantly left at the roadside to commemorate the horrific death of a loved one, but the heartfelt gesture is often brutally overwhelmed by the plastic, string and ribbon invariably left on these roadside offerings, causing the flowers to rot and decay in a sadly unattractive matter. An apt metaphor for death, I suppose, although I’m pretty sure it’s not meant that way. I remember the first time I became aware of this peculiarly 21st century fashion of leaving flowers to rot in plastic following the death of the Princess of Wales. I find it hard to forget the carpet of discoloured wrapping and darkening foliage strewn in front of Buckingham Palace.
I sort of understand this compulsion of the bereaved to remember the departed at the scene of the tragedy. Many years ago our dog was killed in a roadside accident. The aftermath was (to phrase it delicately) subtly visible for months after. Passing by regularly, I found it strangely comforting in a way I can’t begin to articulate. Some months later the council carried out works on that section of pavement and the last traces of the dog were gone for good. I felt strangely bereft.
So in the case of much more serious human tragedy, I suddenly became very curious as to what the Council was planning to do. Some of these lampposts have held memorial status for a decade. How would bereaved families feel about ‘their’ lampposts heading for the scrap heap?
As I approached the old memorial lamppost, I saw an unusual blue sign on the replacement post a couple of yards up the road. It was reminiscent of a Parisian street name plaque, and so I crossed over to read it, and realised that it was a memorial notice for the young man killed there almost 10 years ago. I was surprised but touched that someone had taken the trouble to deal with the situation in a sensitive and presumably acceptable way for the family concerned.
And yet I’m still not sure how I feel about this contemporary way of remembering the dead and departed. I find graveyards strangely comforting in their peacefulness and tranquility. I like to wander and read the names of those long departed. But these roadside memorials leave me slightly uneasy and I don’t know why. Maybe it’s a degree of selfishness on my part not wishing to be confronted every half a mile by searing and painful reminders of mortality and the awfulness of chance in this context. It certainly acts as a grim warning and reminder to all of the inherent dangers of driving, and maybe that’s a very good thing. But I suspect most youngsters pass by without a backward glance, and it’s only those of us starting to become aware of mortality and the passing of time who take heed over and over again.