Tuesday, July 28, 2009

veneration and defecation

Jim Bliss recently marvelled at what we can learn about a culture from its choice of statues. London, he notes, has a great diversity of figures,

But mostly it’s soldiers. Lots and lots of soldiers. Men who excelled at killing people from beyond the city walls, or who were cruelly killed by people from beyond the city walls. And we invite them back to stand silently among us. One of them stands atop a pedestal so high, you can’t really see him clearly.

He explains that Dublin, by contrast, has revolutionaries and perhaps the zenith of modern statue making, Phil Lynott.

But there is a backhandedness in statues that, whilst not making me enjoy being surrounded by giant models of killers, does give a bit of subversive balancing.

George Melly was once asked where he'd like a statue of him to be erected and he said he hoped there wouldn't be one. As those who do get them are inevitably and unendingly shat on in effigy by pigeons, a visitor from another planet might think they were the ancestors we most revile.

As Malcolm Reynolds said

It's my estimation that every man who ever got a statue made of him was one kind of sonofabitch or another.

But there's a hierarchy element too. George Orwell declared

What I like best is the careful grading by which the honours are always dished out in direct proportion to the amount of mischief done – baronies for Big Business, baronetcies for fashionable surgeons, knighthoods for tame professors.

By the same token, it's not only Reynolds' point that the bigger a fucker someone was the more likely they are to have a statue of them, but also that we'll make the statues on a greater scale and in greater quantity.

The plethora of grand guano targets of Queen Victoria and the Duke of Wellington mean they're probably the most shat on people in British history.

There was a great hoo-hah about disrespect when a Mayday demo gave the Churchill statue a grass mohican. Yet this sort of thing is standard treatment for statues. Again, that martian might think that all statues were a form of bonfire Guy, seeing the founder of the NHS Aneurin Bevan with a traffic cone on his head. Or the one in Leeds where, in addition to his perenially repainted boots, the puffed up pomposity of the Duke of Wellington has just been augmented with a Homer Simpson mask.

Wellington statue with Homer Simpson mask

It's as if Two Minutes Hate would be too genuinely angry, these figures are more dismissed than that, they get a Few Seconds Arsing About.

Wellington's statue is one of four on Woodhouse Moor, and collectively they spell out another form of disrespect. Wellington, Victoria and Robert Peel originally stood in Victoria Square outside the town hall, but were moved in 1937 to make way for a car park.

The fourth is Victorian industrialist and mayor of Leeds Henry Marsden whose statue gives the name to the area called Monument Moor. It was called Swing Moor prior to Marsden's arrival in 1952, when he was moved there from a city centre road junction where he was a hindrance to the increasing amount of motor traffic.

As I recently said about these statues on my Hyde Park History blog,

we used to venerate these folks in the city centre, but we've sidelined them to a peripheral park in order to make way for increased traffic. Collectively, then, they stand as a monument to the motor car.

Their moving is not a sign that we've stopped venerating things, just a physical acknowledgement of the change in what we worship.

1 comment:

Dunc said...

One of things that most pleased me was when someone (I think it was Bob Harris - the writer, not the radio broadcaster) observed that my beloved home city of Edinburgh has nearly as many statues of artists, poets, novelists and scientists as as it does of military men and politicians. I'd like to think that we've got some exceptions to Captain Mal's dictum.