Someday my plinth will come…

Or welcome to my Hall of Shame

I have often casually wondered about statues in an uninterested kind of way. 

Ever since I was a kid, I was subjected to a forest of the bloody things.  There seemed to be one on almost every street corner in central London; the parks and public spaces were full of them, but they held almost no interest for me whatsoever.  As far as I was concerned, they could have been any old Tom, Dick or Cecil.  Some sat on horseback, some held books in the crooks of their arms, or maybe telescopes, and many looked out towards some distant horizon. Pretty much all of them were just plain boring to a young boy.

Boys’ Book of Heroes

On the other hand, I particularly revelled in my copy of the Boys’ Book of Heroes. I can’t remember where this came from, but I lapped it up.  It was not for faint hearts. 

To read it was to know that we Brits were a truly magnificent race: All-conquering; making discoveries left, right and centre; colonising the world; champions of all we set our minds to; pushing the boundaries of civilisation. There was no worthwhile achievement that wasn’t down to us, one way or another!   

Empire day

Sadly, I am also old enough to remember “celebrating” Empire Day at school with flags and songs and talk of Britain’s glorious Empire that spanned almost a quarter of the Globe.  Sentiments abounded about the sun never setting on the British Empire, our glorious history bringing civilisation and peace to the world, how Britain ruled the waves, and so on.  Thankfully, even at a very tender age, this all left me a pretty unmoved.

This jingoism all seemed to stem from Queen Victoria, a mysterious figure who was related to almost every other “Royal” in Europe.  Blimey, she was so famous that she had her silhouette on the rare “Penny Black” postage stamp, and they named a railway station after her…and there were still old penny coins in circulation with her face on.

We used to hear stories about other famous Brits too.  About Captain Cook, Dr Livingstone and his “Presumed” meeting with Henry Stanley, Gordon of Khartoum, Wolfe of Quebec, Clive of India, Field Marshall Lord Roberts, General Lord Kitchener, Cecil Rhodes, Lord Baden-Powell, Florence Nightingale, and so on and on.  Heroes one and all.

It was all about British courage, grit, endurance, endeavour, success, responsibility, virtue, duty, and amazing self-sacrifice.  Even our disasters and defeats were somehow great victories, or so we were led to believe.

My point is, that in spite of all this brainwashing about “heroic” figures, I was still barely aware of who stood on the lumps of stone that we danced around as children playing in London’s parks. There was the odd exception; the prime one being Nelson, but even then, his column was more remarkable than his statue, as were the pigeons that swarmed around Trafalgar Square.

These graven images certainly engendered no sense of pride, awe, gratitude, or anything other than indifference in me and that continues to a fair degree to this day.

So to the modern day…

Do statues matter?

They clearly act as a focal point for dissent, which in itself is quite useful. However, I suspect that there are few of us who could even name who dwells on many plinths near us, let alone exactly what they were erected for.

The people most aware of statues are those who are likely to be offended by them.  Not out of any sense of bloody-mindedness, although in many cases that would seem a perfectly reasonable reaction, but because their own lives, their own sense of history, has been blighted by the figures “celebrated” on these plinths: The exploiters, the slave traders, the amassers of great wealth at the expense of many; who cleaned up their acts in later life through endowments and contributions to civic and social works of one kind or another in an attempt to build a rainwashed, brainwashed legacy. Not good enough I’m afraid; It wasn’t then, and it certainly isn’t now.

Surely our sensibilities must extend to recognising this and taking appropriate steps.

So where do we go from here?

For many of us, I suspect that statues are a matter of supreme indifference, but for some, they are deeply significant, so let’s deal with it.

I really object to the way I was brought up to revere these people and I want to make sure that this is identified, rectified, and where possible, remedied. It is not about “erasing history”, rather it is about filling it out, making it more complete.  The history I was taught at school was shallow, culturally biased, jingoistic, and totally inaccurate.  It laid the foundations for a patently absurd belief that The World owes the UK a living, when the opposite is true.   These attitudes also underpinned the foundations for great dynasties and companies which continue to live off the backs of the poor across the world to this day.

These figures should be preserved, be presented together in an historical context with balanced information about what they did, when and how they went about it, what the outcomes were, who benefitted, who suffered, and how their actions fitted into the attitudes that were common in their time.   There are lessons to be learnt here as many of our present day attitudes to race, gender, belief systems, and our basic lack of humanity and world understanding seem to me to have moved on very little.

These things are worth so much more than sound bites. 

I don’t believe that these men, and they were mainly men, were inherently more evil than many roaming our streets today, or skulking in the shadows of electronic manipulation and misinformation.   We need to see them, see what they did, appreciate how it impacted on others, see how they justified themselves to other members of their society, and take note.  Only then can we have much of a chance of understanding where we really are now and what we need to do about it.

It seems to me that we can only do this by providing a sensible context for these works to be gathered together, with accompanying matter so that we can use them as material for proper scrutiny and historical education, and as warnings about the kind of society that we are in the throes of creating today.

I remember seeing the delight in the crowd when Colston was toppled in Bristol and the way it reminded me of the figure of Saddam Hussein crashing to the ground in Baghdad.  There is clearly something deeply symbolic here: these icons provide a focus for anger, disruption, civil disturbance, disobedience, disorder, maybe even revolution.

On the other hand, sipping coffee by St Martin-in-the-Fields at the foot of Charing Cross Road, I noticed a monument to Edith Cavell. I didn’t know the lady, so I checked her out. She truly deserved her place on a plinth.

So, on balance perhaps there are things to be said for just leaving them where they are as annotated and maybe reviled symbols of exploitation, repression, and transgression or beacons of hope and belief in the possibilities of humanity.

We should think about them, about why they are where they are, decide what we want to do with them, and get on with it.

If we decide they belong on the dung heap lets put them there in some kind of visible pile of ruinous mortality where they can be seen for what they were, as a message for the future.

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