Thursday, 30 August 2007

London's statue status

Yesterday a statue of Nelson Mandela went up in Parliament Square, and it got me thinking. In a city with more statues than dentists, at what point do we start reevaluating the ones that are already here?

I mean logic would tell you that, on a practical level, if this city keeps putting up statues at the rate it has been they’ll be no room left in the public parks for anyone to walk around. But on a more sentimental level, one has to note that the kinds of people we’re chiseling into stone today are quite different from the people we immortalized a century ago.

Take the new Mandela statue for instance. When I went to visit it last night I saw that it faces a statue of Jan Smuts, who was the South African prime minister at the inception of white rule. Winston Churchill, perhaps the most well-known statue in the square today, helped to draw up the du-jour segregation plan at the outset of South Africa’s independence.

In fact Mandela wrote in his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” about a time in 1962 when he and a fellow exile, while in London on the run from South African authorities and walking through Parliament Square, that he contrasted himself with South Africa’s first leader. "When we saw the statue of Gen. Smuts near Westminster Abbey, Oliver and I joked that perhaps someday there would be a statue of us in its stead," he wrote.

No doubt the Westminster Council had this passage in mind when they chose Parliament Square as the site for the statue. But the irony of having a man the UK once regarded as a criminal praised in front of Westminster Abbey is probably not lost on anyone. Margaret Thatcher, herself recently immortalized in bronze inside parliament across the street, referred to Mandela's African National Congress as a terrorist organization during her leadership. It just goes to show how today’s “terrorists” can be tomorrow’s “freedom fighters.” Hell, the IRA is now a voting block in Northern Ireland.

The juxtaposition of Smuts and Mandela made me think about the contrast between the statues London puts up today and the ones that have been here for decades. Recent statue erections have included one in Trafalgar Square of the quadriplegic artist Alison Lapper pregnant (it’s quite a sight), gay playwright (famously imprisoned for his sexuality) Oscar Wilde near St. Martins-in-the-Fields, legendary footballer Bobby Moore outside Wembley Stadium and Gandhi, also once outlawed by the British, in Tavistock Square.

Contrast these individuals with the lives of some of the older statues in London. Take the statue of Earl Haig in Whitehall, near Banqueting House. Haig was probably one of the most inept generals in modern military history, and his stupidity during World War I kind of sums up the whole ridiculous war in general. As commander of the British forces in France in 1916, Haig decided to break through the German lines at the Somme. He ordered his soldiers to advance in line over the top, but the mud and the 66 pounds of equipment on their backs made them a sitting target for the German machine guns that Haig had proclaimed “much overrated”. The 60,000 British casualties were the heaviest loss in the shortest time by any army in the First World War. The Somme was followed by an equally disastrous battle at Paschendaele in Belgium the following summer. In all Haig sacrificed over 700,000 British soldiers, dead or wounded. But because the British eventually won the “great war” (thanks to the US stepping in), Haig got a statue.

Or how about the amusingly plump statue of George IV at the Northeast corner of Trafalgar Square. The son of the notorious “Mad King George” of the movie’s fame, George IV was probably the most glutonous ans wasteful king England has known after Henry VIII. If you’ve ever been to the Royal Pavillion in Brighton (built by this rotund monarch) you’ll know what I’m talking about. He gambled and drank excessively, and often drank three bottles of claret before sitting down to an enormous dinner. For working people the useless, wasteful life of the king’s eldest son contrasted sharply with the hardships of early industrial society. When the famines of the 1790s lowered their deathly shroud over workers, when laws against basic freedoms were signed by the king, a cartoon of his son being taken home drunk from a brothel expressed the indignation felt by the poor. After the French Revolution broke out in 1789, the rich rallied behind their monarch, probably the most hated by the common people in the history of Britain. As the plight of the industrialised poor worstened, expenditure on royal palaces shot up. It’s hard to see what George IV achieved other than by coincidence being the prince regent when Britain won the Napoleonic Wars.

Some of the other statues of reviled men around London include that of Oliver Cromwell at Parliament (the notorious puritanical dictator during the fall of the monarchy in the mid 17th century), Baron Napier of Magdala at Queen's Gate in Kensington (who brutally suppressed an Indian attempt to gain independence in 1857), and the statue of Prince Frederick Duke of York at Carlton House Terrace (brother of George IV and relentless persecutor of Catholics, particularly in Ireland).

Of course to knock these statues down would seem absurd. They are part of British history, for good or ill. But perhaps we need to move away from the modern concept of the statue’s purpose to celebrate and inspire and rather look to it as a mark of a persons importance to history. Few would argue that Oliver Cromwell was a good man, yet his impact on British history can’t be understated. And if a statue in a park prompts someone to ask “hey, who was this guy?” and go check wikipedia (maybe even on his mobile phone! Has anyone else done that or am I just unbelievably dorky?) then more power to it. But people should keep in mind that statues reflect only a persons money, power or prestige at the time they were erected. Just because the UK has now given Nelson Mandela a statue doesn’t absolve them from all guilt for their attempts to sabotage his movement. After all, look at the other men and women they’ve given statues to over the past centuries!

Who knows what people in 100 years will think of the statues we are erecting today. Perhaps that statue of Britney Spears giving birth on a bearskin rug will be considered our greatest achievement.

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