I love a good statue. A good statue can be appreciated on many levels. It can be a thing of beauty. It can make you think. It can tell you a story. It can remind you of something. Not all statues do all of this. Not all statues are good statues.
What is the purpose of a statue? Depends, doesn’t it. It could be a modern art reclining thing of curves and vacancies. Which may be based on a person but the person isn’t really the point. The statue is. It may be based on a figure from antiquity or the bible or so on – and be a sculptural masterpiece, so again, the person isn’t really the point. Or isn’t any more. A statue of Nero, for instance, is appreciated in a different way than a statue of, say, Lincoln. Or Margaret Thatcher. Or Berlusconi. Are there any statues of Berlusconi?
Most statues of real people are put up in some way to celebrate, or commemorate them in a positive way. To say this person was great, or meaningful, or powerful. Significant. Some people are so admired by their peers that their statues are funded by subscription. Some statues are vanity projects. Some are deliberate political acts.
As the statue of Edward Colston toppled into the water, echoing the fall of many other statues felled in rebellion – Stalin, Saddam, – and I pondered the rights and wrongs of it, a phrase started to tickle my memory. Something from Virginia Woolf. I’ve since tried to find it and failed, though I found something similar in the London Scene. Maybe it is from her diaries. I will have to keep looking. It wasn’t about statues. It was about buildings. Architecture. Someone (I don’t know whether it is Woolf herself reflecting, or a character in a novel or essay) is in London, shopping. And they see the changing landscape. Buildings being demolished, new ones rising in their place. And there is a comment on how some will mourn the loss of the old, and wish to protect, keep the ancient city in aspic, never changing. But that life is change, and while we might wish to keep the world as it was when we were young or in our prime, and see that as how it is meant to be, all change being detrimental – the fact is that “our” city, may itself be unpalatable to our parents and grandparents. And that while some element of conservation is desirable, to hold on to some of our history – we also need some space for each generation to build a new world. That we all deserve to shape the world we live in, have new styles that speak to us. And also to get rid of that which is old which is unsafe or not fit in some way – things do not necessarily warrant protection just because they are old. (Maybe unless they are really old – and few and far between)
So too it must be with Statues, surely? Each generation must be able to choose who to celebrate. To put up new statues. And also demand that some be removed from prime position. Those statues which are in public spaces, which any of us might come across unexpectedly – should be subject to review. That if it becomes apparent that public opinion or social mores change to the extent that their continued presence is offensive or painful, then we move it. If the person, however problematic, is of note, significance, in the history of a town or nation – then their story should be told properly. Not the edited highlights. Let them be moved to a museum, an exhibition, which shows the full extent of their life, for good and ill. A statue with a name in the end says little. People at the time may have known some of the significance but eventually it is just a man in a hat. A meeting place. A landmark. If you really care about notable characters in a town’s history, you should be encouraged that people want the true story told.
We’re all complicated people. Complex. Different eras had different beliefs and norms and ideas. I am conscious that even my inner thoughts and feelings would not hold up completely to the scrutiny of some of the expectations of young campaigners today. And I am the loony lefty social justice warrior of the family. Perhaps it is a bit of a characteristic of Generation X – we care but we’re a little irreverent about things. We’re also quite a cowed generation I think. There is probably a psychological reason for it – many of us have been talking about environmentalism and fighting racism and homophobia in our way for decades. But the momentum took time to build up. And these millennials and zoomers have more energy, and more methods of organising and communicating than I could have dreamed of in my youth.
But we are all complicated humans. While the removal of a statue of a slave trader seems a pretty obvious move in a world where slavery is illegal and indeed we fight against modern day slavery and human trafficking. There are maps of others who have similarly profited from human misery, and those who received compensation when their slaves were freed. There will be lists of those who owned slaved. And then there will be other evidence of reprehensible views and acts on the part of others.
There is a line somewhere. It’s foolish to say there shouldn’t be. In fact there are lots of lines. As I said – how old does a statue have to be before we do not judge the subject in the same way? Or rather, we judge, in a “he was a bastard apparently” kind of way, but it doesn’t make us think, actually that shouldn’t be there. Nero for instance. Caligula. Not nice in lots of ways and probably had slaves. Slaves whose descendants probably still exist. Is the difference that we can’t know? Or is it just time? Is it that the civilisation / empire that profited from those slaves exploitation no longer exists? Some of those who profited from or owned slaves in the trans-atlantic era, are heads of state. Kings and Queens. Archbishops. Presidents. Do we remove those? (I am not giving an answer really.) Is there some level of significance which grants a pass? Churchill for instance. Won’t have owned slaves because it was no longer legal (I do not doubt he might have done if it were) – but he certainly did some horrible things and held views which were vile. But he was also head of state at a significant time. And as others have pointed out – some people we celebrate for the good they have done, are also awful in other ways. Something we are reminded of again and again in the #metoo movement. Those we think of as saintly may have done or thought or said things in life which were horrendous – just these things remained secret or private or unrecorded.
There is a line. I don’t know where it is for me. I don’t want to see slavers celebrated. But equally I think it is important that we look at them properly. Not just as a pretty or indifferent block of stone or bronze.
Most people view the destruction of statues which do not fit a particular religious worldview as barbaric to some extent. Similarly we see the chopping off or covering up of exquisitely carved genitalia in the prudish Victorian era, or the defacing and eradication of the statues and even carved names of certain Pharaohs – as at the very least regrettable from a historical and artistic interest perspective.
I am not completely in favour of cancel culture. Of people committing sins or offence or crime and then being thrown completely in the bin – their works discarded and career ended. It would be odd if I were, seeing as I believe passionately in the right of people to rehabilitation and forgiveness and to building a decent life no matter what they have done. I don’t support the death penalty, or even life imprisonment. I think it’s lazy. I believe in treatment and rehabilitation.
I also think we pick and choose. People may be quick to boycott music or film or tv because an artist has done something appalling. But do we similarly say, I will not use the electric light, take this life saving medicine, or use this invention because the person who made it was a monster. It doesn’t make sense to me.
What does make sense is using horror – which we cannot unmake – which has happened and is no longer avoidable – to teach. To learn from. Learn how to prevent in future. Why did this happen? To learn what lasting impacts this horror has, whether it be sexual harassment in the present day or slavery in the past.
And this brings me on to school. Along with tumbling statues there is a cry to decolonise our curricula – to teach more comprehensively about our history relating to empire and slavery and exploitation across the globe. Which I wholeheartedly support. I don’t know what children learn these days – but my history (and I studied to A-Level) was remarkably poor on this. Indeed it was poor on anything of real use and significance. Kings, Queens, and War. We need to and should learn about the causes and horrors of war, I think. But more comprehensively again – not in some bizarre way that suggests wars ended in the 1940s. And I don’t see a need to learn about battles and strategy – in mainstream history. If you want to learn about it or go into the military – then that should be a separate A-Level or Degree level specialism. I was frustrated by the lack of real normal people in my history education. Initially I had signed up for AS level history – which was European – war – related. So I expanded to A level so I could do the British Social History element – which was slightly better – we covered the expansion of suffrage, the Irish question, the introduction of National Insurance, pensions etc. But we stopped before the first world war.
I think we started right. With Anglo-Saxons, Romans and Vikings and Normans. I fondly remember colouring in pictures of longships. But then we go off and get distracted by kings and queens. Which also make for fabulous colouring in exercises – and provide useful bookmarks for periods in history – but for real useful, meaningful history we need to understand the lives of real people and the things which changed them significantly. The endless tracing of threads through life and time. It’s such a fascinating story. But we need to make sure that people understand the world they live in. Politics. Rights. Finance. Employment Law. Immigration. Health. Mental Health. The pain experienced in the past, and still being experienced by different groups of people. Understanding our own situation, but also the situation of those different from us in many ways.
I teach mental health first aid. I have learnt so much since doing this course about managing my mental health that could have helped me avoid 30 years of pain, had I been taught it at school. I have peers who don’t know how to cook, to change a plug, to manage money (though I am proof you can understand very well and still not put into practice). I have had conversations that reveal a wild lack of understanding of how taxation and government works. People living in ignorance and obliviousness – which is fine if that is how you choose to live – but then who go to vote and campaign for things which they have never thought or read anything about, and go on to say “experts” know nothing – potentially causing devastation in people’s lives.
To be fair, some aspects of my education were good. My school doesn’t have a good reputation to some, but I think it was great. It was at least good for a reasonably clever person who wanted to try – maybe less so for those who struggled or did not engage. It was ethically mixed. It was socio-economically mixed. I learnt about different religions. I also had an excellent term or year of history which taught us about evaluating sources – we looked at the Kennedy assassination and the Bermuda triangle – to see how events were reported in different ways and why – to look at primary and secondary evidence. To know the difference between fact and opinion.
In this day and age – I think schools have a difficult job – but they should be helping people navigate the world we live in. Safety online. Sex, Relationship and Interpersonal education which discusses consent, appropriateness, the developing understanding of sexuality and gender which gives language to help us express who we really are – Understanding working life – what our rights are, how we should relate with eachother and build our confidence to get the most out of our working lives and not get stuck being exploited by bad bosses. Mental and Physical health – Nutrition. Understanding psychological development, and also the background to societal problems.
No one should be looking at the Black Lives Matter protests and not getting it. You can disagree with the methods or the timing – but you should as a human being see the long history behind this. The cries unheard. The polite requests and petitions for change. The generational trauma. The real and present danger experienced by BAME people in our society. The prejudice and discrimination faced. BAME people are not the only people who experience disadvantage. But they are who we are speaking about at the moment. Because we have been shutting down these conversations for too long.