How does history decide who will be remembered? And – perhaps more pertinently – how they will be remembered? How do we know who is great enough, wicked enough, famous enough, clever enough, loud enough – to be remembered? Does a person have to make a big impact to find their names written indelibly upon the pages of time?
This is quite a big question and one that started from just a little thing. That most innocuous of things, a thing that more often than not is at the very beginning of all the really big things. A conversation – between colleagues, most of whom are Northamptonians born and bred, all of them intimately familiar with the mostly unremarkable town. And there were some of them – prepare yourself, now – who had never heard of 50p Lil.
Can. You. Believe. It.
One explanation for this travesty is undoubtedly age – 50p Lil has been dead some years now and it is reasonable to assume that younger residents may never even have come across her. Or perhaps some didn’t spend as much of their youth loitering around Abington Street as the rest of us.
But hold on – you don’t know who she is either, do you?
I shall explain. 50p Lil, in short and basic terms, is Northampton’s most famous prostitute. You can guess the price of her favours, but she would also happily oblige the less fussy gentlemen of the town for a cigarette. A diminutive, wizened old Asian lady, she was known for using the main streets of Northampton as a bathroom as well as plying her trade wherever and whenever the mood took her. She was a harmless character, although would give as good as she got to anyone unwise enough to mock or jeer at her. Everyone knew who she was and the vast majority of the town kept one eye out for her – she was much a part of the place as The Racecourse and river Nene and no harm should come to her.
The story behind the legend is somewhat hazy and subject to conjecture, but it is certainly not a happy one. Local lore has it that she was the daughter of a well-to-do family who abandoned her when she developed severe mental health issues. In a less understanding world, she slipped through the gaps of what passed for care in the community and started on her path to become an unlikely local icon. Although the phrase ‘much-loved’ would be inaccurate, she was without doubt a unifying figure of sorts, a subject of ridicule but also fiercely protected by locals as a bizarre sort of town mascot. Perhaps the real tragedy of this tale is that no one knows her real name and I expect now no one ever will.
It felt obscene to me that people didn’t know who she was, or – worse – had forgotten her. She had done nothing of note in her life, either good or bad, so what sparked this insistence within me that she remembered? Perhaps it is her mundane quirkiness, a little patchwork of colour splashed across a near-empty town centre, or maybe her ability to gain such fame and notoriety whilst being the antithesis of the thing people try to become to achieve those things. Or maybe it’s just good, old-fashioned sentimentality on my part. But it is her and others like her (every town has them) that capture the social history and essential fabric of a place far better than the dry facts and figures or bone fide celebrities they produce, ever could. Contemporaries of 50p Lil are the equally renowned Maureen the Cat Lady, who played her electric keyboard outside the Grosvenor Centre for many years, asking only to receive cat food in order to feed the entire stray population which lived in her house, for some reason. And then there was Phil, so named because he looked like Phil Mitchell and danced like Phil Collins. Phil was allegedly one of three brothers who ran a building firm, who sadly all became alcoholics after the death of their mother. Only Phil remains, dancing and shuffling around the war memorial, always with two or more bottles of White Lightening that he takes great care to ensure always have exactly the same level of cider.
So even if you never knew her, just remember for a moment 50p Lil (and Maureen and Phil) and those half-known, semi-mythical characters of your own town. We may not know their backstories or the real reason they ended up how they did, but one thing is for certain – there but for the grace of luck go any of us and these figures of mild amusement and passing curiosity are our fellow human citizens. Be grateful for the quirks they bring to our everyday and remember them for the small and quiet legends they are.