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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)
I have blogged before on the way in which society seems to choose what to remember and what to forget. Similarly, I have mused on remembrance, the poppy and the increasing militarisation inherent in paying homage to Britain’s war generation. In the current crisis, despite the despair, I sense a change in our understanding of the term heroism, which I will explore further below.
In the 20th century there was concerted focus on idolising the military man and his function within British society. This is unsurprising, it is not for nothing that Camus describes this period as ‘the century of fear’ (1946/2007: 27). This period was, and remains remarkable, for the two world wars, as well as a variety of other conflicts, within which Britain was involved (along with many other nations). The two world wars provide foundations for the way in which the twentieth-century is discussed and understood, with substantial periods of time often delineated into the short-hand of pre-war, inter-war and post-war.
Although only twenty years in, it is clear that the twenty-first century, cannot be described as peaceful. Rather it has continued with the same approach to international relations, often argued to be immoral, if not illegal, of using military violence to obtain, what Britain views as, reasonable and tangible gains. Whether we focus on Afghanistan, Iran, Iran, Libya, Sierra Leone or Syria, British military might is deemed appropriate, proportionate and necessary (as least in Britain). Certainly, a number of authors have already dubbed our current century, as being in a perpetual, ‘war without end’ (cf. McAlister, 2002, Tertrais, 2004, Schwartz, 2008).
However, in 2020 the world is facing a far more challenging enemy, one which threatens us all, Coronovirus, or as it is more scientifically known, Covid-19. More importantly this is an enemy that cannot be shot, exploded, tortured or conquered in the traditional, well-worn ways of warfare. Instead, this crisis calls for a different kind of hero, one who does not have recourse to an arsenal of increasingly, terrifying weapons.
As with the war, there are two distinctly different experiences, those on the front line and those who are not. Each group has a role to play, for some they will take their lives in their hands, on a daily basis, to tend to the sick, to deliver supplies to organisations, communities and individuals, to maintain vital services. This group will see things, again and again, that are upsetting, that will test their resolve, their empathy, their patience, good-humour and their confidence. For others, their role is to stay out of the way, to stay indoors, to ensure that the disease does not spread further. Each group will have their own tales to tell to each other, as well as to the generations which will follow.
Once this is all over, once we emerge from our enforced isolation, we will have a return to some kind of “normality”, yet this experience is unlikely to disappear from our individual and collective memories. As our forebears, had the war experience to shape their lives, and that of those who followed them (in many unexpected ways), so shall we have a similar defining moment. Whilst the hero of the twentieth century was indisputably a white, straight, able bodied, (nominally) Christian man dressed in khaki, the hero of the twenty-first century will appear in a variety of diverse guises. From the supermarket worker to the school teacher to the carer to the paramedic to the police officer to the undertakers to the cleaners to the small business owners to the scientists, to the nurses, paramedics, doctors, surgeons and all the others, each are serving on the front line of the fight against coronavirus. They are women, men, Black, Asian, white, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Christian and atheist, they are young and old, they are experienced professionals and those just starting out on their working lives, they are well-renumerated, they are poorly paid, they have fears and anxieties, families, friends, and those that love and fear for their safety.
These people have little in common but their humanity and they are redefining heroism second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day.
Calhoun, Laurie, (2002), ‘The Phenomenology of Paid Killing,’ The International Journal of Human Rights, 6, 1: 1-18
Camus, Albert, (1946/2007), Neither Victims Nor Executioners: An Ethic Superior to Murder, tr. from the French by Dwight Macdonald, (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers)
McAlister, Melani, (2002), ‘A Cultural History of the War without End,’ The Journal of American History, 89, 2: 439-455
Tertrais, Bruno, (2004), War Without End, (New York: The New Press)
Schwartz, Michael, (2008), War Without End: The Iraq Debacle in Context, (Chicago: Haymarket Books)