The Pirate Plaque

Posted on 09 August 2012 | Narrative

This story is of five interconnecting mysteries – so some would think it specially suitable for 2012, an Olympic year.

The first of the five mysteries is primarily artistic, one is criminal and anti-social, two could be thought pro-social, though possibly also criminal and the last one I do not know the nature of at all. In fact, I am only really well informed about one of the five mysteries – perhaps others will tell supplementary stories to add to what’s here – but, first things first; first there was the artist.

The artist was commissioned to make a bronze statue of the Emperor Constantine and mysteriously chose to show him contemplating a broken sword. The broken sword is a little like a cross, and the most famous legend about Constantine tells of his seeing in the sky a Christian cross and the message: “In this sign conquer” –but this scarcely makes the symbolism less mysterious.

This Constantine sits just outside the South Door of the Minster, close to where the headquarters building of the Roman fort once was, very possibly close to where Constantine was first declared emperor by his troops.

Close by the statue was once a bronze plaque. I think the plaque once said that the path there, the one that links the space outside the South Door to the space outside the Great East Window, commemorated a visit of the Queen to the Minster or was opened by the Queen – or, possibly, both.

The criminal and anti-social mystery is simply an unsolved crime because, like a number of others around York the plaque was torn off its concrete stand and presumably sold on to be melted down to make more plaques or statues.

You could say it is not much of a mystery that some people took an opportunity to make money, especially when they could see that no individual would be much hurt by the taking of the opportunity – but it would be interesting to know what the person who took the plaque thought of the ugly plaqueless concrete stand they left in one of the most attractive and visited spots in England.

The third mystery could also be thought of as similar to littering. It happened about half a mile out of York from Constantine’s bronze and the bronze-less stand.

It took the form of a low, heavy oak-veneer table on the side of the pavement with a note attached to it. The note said something like: “please take this if you can use it, I don’t want it to go to landfill”.

Like the theft, this is not deeply mysterious; people do get rid of good tables, the person with this table thought it was too much trouble to try to get rid of the table to the Community Store or by using Freecycle – or perhaps they had tried this and there was no demand for such tables.

Technically, they were probably breaking the law, but the risk of being caught was slight and they could see that no individual would be much hurt by this low effort, no cost try at re-homing their table.

To some it might seem more of a mystery that the try worked. It worked for five loosely connected reasons: a passer-by disliked litter, deplored the carbon emissions that would come from getting the table collected as litter, shared its previous owner’s wish to avoid its going to landfill, could often use wood and was amused by the note on the table so he picked it up and carried it, with some difficulty, home.

What followed shortly after is no longer a mystery to me, but perhaps others were puzzled by the sudden appearance of an oak-veneer board propped up by the concrete stand close to the statue of Constantine.

The board in careful – but clearly amateur – white painted lettering said it temporarily replaced a stolen plaque. Instead of describing the origin of the nearby path, this board said a little about Constantine and his statue, including the lack of any tradition linking him to a broken sword. The board is dated and labelled “PPR” – I believe it stands for “pirate plaque replacer”.

The replacer thought the board was an improvement on the plaque-less concrete stand and might stimulate some further improvement. Some sort of stimulus seemed to be needed as the stand had stood there plaque-less for some time, a sad, unsightly mute witness to the theft. The change of inscription was partly an accident of forgetfulness and partly a wish to instruct, the statue seemed to need a little more explanation but the path needed none.

The fifth mystery was apparent by mid March 2012. After some months in the open, the board’s surface was showing some wear – this may or may not be part of the explanation for its new behaviour. The board is often not there in the evening but it is nearly always there in the morning.

Usually there is nothing mysterious about mobile plaques –but I am told this plaque’s new movements are a mystery to the mysterious “pirate plaque replacer” – and that is odd – has the unofficial plaque now been officially adopted by Minster staff or is there a pirate protector of pirate-plaque-replacements?

- Anon