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How should we honour “Our sheroes and heroes”?*

The British, so it seems, love a statue. Over the last few months we’ve seen Edward Colston’s toppled, Winston Churchill’s protected and Robert Baden-Powell’s moved to a place of safety. Much of the narrative around these particular statues (and others) has recently been contextualised in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement, as though nobody had ever criticised the subjects before. Colston, one time resident of Bristol and slave-trader was deemed worthy of commemoration some 174 years after his death and 62 years after the abolition of slavery. Likewise, one-time military man, accused of war crimes, homophobe and support for Nazism, Baden-Powell suddenly needed to be memorialised in 2008, almost 70 years after the second world world (and his death) and over 40 years since the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967. For both of these men profound problems were clear before the statues went up. Churchill, seen as a “hero” by many for his leadership in World War II has a very unsavoury history which is not difficult to locate in his own writings. His rehabilitation also ignores that his status for many of his contemporaries was as a warmonger. His passion for eugenics and his role in decisions to bomb Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki can be wilfully swept under the carpet. Hero-worship is a dangerous game, it is also anti-intellectual. Churchill, like all of us, was a complex human, thus his legacy needs to be explored deeply and contextualised and only then can we decide what his place in his history should be. His statues and soundbites from speeches on repeat, do not allow for this.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this debate is to witness the inflamed defence of individuals who have a clearly documented history as slave owners, or as enthusiastic proclaimers of eugenic ideology, racism, homophobia and so on. As long as they have been ascribed “hero” status, we can ignore the rest of the seedy detail. We are told we need these statues, these heroic men, to remind us of our history….strangely Germany is able to reflect on its history, without statues of Hitler.

It seems as a nation we far prefer these individuals, responsible for so much misery, harm and violence in their lifetimes, than to present Black Britons and British Asians on a plinth. When we are reliant on South African President, Nelson Mandela to take up two of those London plinths, it is evident we have a serious racial imbalance in those “we” choose to commemorate.

Furthermore, the British appear to love an argument about statues, for instance, the criticism levelled at the artist Maggi Hambling’s statue to “Mother of Feminism” Mary Wollstencraft and Martin Jenning’s artistic tribute to Nurse Mary Seacole. For Wollstencroft, much of the furore has been directed at the artist, rather than the subject. There appears to be no irony in women attacking other women, in this case, Hambling, all in the name of supposed defence of The feminism. In the case of Mary Seacole, racially infused arguments from The Nightingale Society have suggested that this statue should not be in sight of that of Florence Nightingale. It seems that even when all important parties are long dead, it is deemed appropriate to use barely disguised racism to protect the stone image of your heroine. Important to remember that patriarchy has no gender. It is evident that criticism revolves around women’s representation in statuary, as well as women’s involvement in sculpture. When statues of men are said to outnumber those of women by around 16 to 1 (and that’s only when Queen Victoria is counted) it is evident we have a serious gender imbalance in those “we” choose to commemorate.

If there’s one thing the British love more than statues, it’s war commemorations. Think of the Cenotaph, standing proud in Whitehall, a memorial to ‘The Glorious Dead’ of firstly, World War I and latterly, British and Commonwealth military personnel have died in all conflicts.

Close by in Park Lane, we even have the imagination to create a memorial to Animals in War. We love to worship at these altars to untold misery and suffering, as if we could learn something important from them. Unfortunately, the most important message of “Never Again” is lost as we continue to thrust our military personnel and their deadly arsenal all over the world.

There is a strong argument for commemorating the war dead of all nations in the two World Wars. All sides, both central powers/axis and allies were comprised in the main of conscripted personnel. These were men and women that did not join the armed forces voluntarily, but were compelled by legislation to take up arms. With little time to consider or prepare, these people, all over the world, were thrust into life-threatening situations, with little or no choice. The Cenotaph and other war memorials mark this sacrifice and to some degree, acknowledge the experiences of those who served in a uniform that they did not consent to, without the compulsion of legislation. Unfortunately, civilians don’t feature so heavily in memorialisation, yet we know they experienced life-changing events which have repercussions even today. From children who were evacuated, to families who experienced fathers and husbands with short fuses, to those whose fear of hunger has never really left them, those experiences leave a mark.

To me, as a nation it appears that we don’t want to engage seriously with our history, preferring instead a white-washed, heteronormative, male-dominated, war-infused, saccharine sweet, version of events. But British people, both historically and contemporaneously, are a diverse and disparate group, good, bad and indifferent, so surely our statues should reflect this?

I recognise the violence which runs throughout British history, I learnt it, not through statues, but through books and oral testimony, through documentary and discussion. I also recognise that I have only begun to explore a history that silences so very many, making any historical narrative, partial, poignant and heavy with the missing voices. I recognise the heavy burden left by slavery, discrimination, war and other myriad violences, understanding the desire to commemorate and celebrate and tear down and replace.

What we need is a statue that recognises all of us, in all shapes and sizes, warts and all? We are living in a global pandemic, the death toll is currently standing at over 2.5 million. In the UK alone, the death toll stands at close to 100,000. Why not have a memorial with all those names; men, women, children, Black, white, Asian, mixed heritage, Muslim, Catholic, Buddhist, Christian, atheists, gay, straight, trans, lesbian, young, old and all those in between. People that have been coerced, through financial impetus, caring responsibility, career or vocation into dangerous spaces, who have not chosen to sacrifice their lives on the altar of bad decisions taken by governments and institutions (reminiscent of the world wars). Such a commemoration would be a way to recognise the profound impact on all of our lives, as drastic as any world war. It will recognise that you don’t have to wear a uniform or conform to a particular ideal to be of value to Britain and every person counts.

* Title borrowed from ‘Our sheroes and heroes’ (Maya Angelou ; interviewed by Susan Anderson in 1976)

The pandemic and me – Lessons I’ve learnt from the #lockdown

This lockdown has certainly given us time to think and perhaps reflect on a variety of topics and situations. I’ve shared a few thoughts below and I wonder just how many are universal in some way.

I need to ensure I have a structure to my day and week.  I think we all need some sort of structure to our lives and that structure is often given to us by work and perhaps other sociable events such as going to the gym or going to a coffee shop.  It may be that the weekly shopping provides us with an anchor, Saturday may be a shopping day or religion might dictate a visit to a place of worship on a particular day.  At times I’ve found myself getting confused about what day it is, Groundhog Day, I think.  However, for the most part, I think I’ve got it sorted out.  My wife and I discuss our schedule every morning over a cup of coffee.  We have sorted out a routine of work, daily chores, fun bits and exercise.

My willpower is tested but I can be determined.  I have never been a heavy drinker, the occasional binge, yes but then who hasn’t?  It is however, quite easy to slip into the habit of having a glass or two of wine in the evening, every evening and perhaps a gin and tonic or two.  I can’t go anywhere so thinking about having to drive the next day is not an issue. It’s not until you start totting up the consumption that you realise maybe you might have to reign this in.  ‘School nights’ are back again, no drinking in the week.  I make up for it at the weekend though.

I’m not risk adverse, I just like to think I’m logical.  I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist or in fact any scientist to work out that the government (particularly a Conservative government) would not enforce the cessation of most business in the country without a very, very, very good reason.  Stay in has been the mantra and of course we all know how difficult it is and we all know that as usual, the most vulnerable in society have been hit the hardest by this pandemic. Logic dictates, well at least to me, that going out to any store anywhere carries a risk.  Some risks are necessary, for instance a trip to the chemist to pick up a prescription, but a trip to a DIY store, really?  I’m sorry but given the risks, I think it’s a no brainer. Not only do I not want to catch the virus, but I would be distraught if I thought that through my own selfishness I had passed it onto someone else.

I never really thought about all those people that are truly special.  We clap every week for the carers and the NHS and all those involved who are truly remarkable. I do ask myself though, would I want to turn up to work in a supermarket? Would I want to be out delivering parcels or the post? Would I be a NHS volunteer?  Would I be happy working on public transport or emptying dust bins? There are so many people doing ordinary, even mundane jobs and volunteering roles that I now appreciate more than ever.  And I would go far as to say I am humbled by what they do and continue to do despite the risks.

I appreciate the world around me. Not being able to go out and socialise in some way, be that work, or friends or family has provided more time for other activities.  Our walks to the next village and back on roads devoid of most traffic has revealed an astonishing array of wildlife to be gazed upon and appreciated.   That is of course if you’re not gasping for breath following a walk up a steep hill (well I call it steep but in a car its barely noticeable).

Some things don’t change.  I’ve also noticed the gate to the footpath across the fields near our house has gone. A heavy wooden gate which, apparently has been stolen.  On our walks we have noticed the increased number of cyclists whizzing along the road.  Most give a wide birth, but some don’t seem to have a care for others, one nearly colliding with us as he flew around the corner. It seems with the reduction of cars; the idiotic driver has now given way to the idiotic cyclist.

What will a ‘new normal’ look like.  At some stage we will get back to normal but its difficult to contemplate when that will be and what it will look like.  Maybe getting back to the old normal is not what is needed.  I’m trying to envisage how I will make changes in consideration of what I have learnt during this lockdown.  What changes will you make? 

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