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Thursday, 16 September 2021

Lord Frost and Imperial Measures

 

This is a short extract from my book The Best I Can Do (2016), available from Amazon and Blackwell

….. The UK has a pre-modern political system - a Ruritanian monarchy with the usual trappings of odd local rights and privileges (ownership of swans and such like); an unelected and completely corrupt second chamber; a first chamber designed to remind its Members of 19th century public schools. Those members have their own unbreakable habits - in the UK, the House of Commons, despite modest changes, remains submerged under fatuous rituals designed to create a backlog of real work and thus to stop as much change as possible. It is made tolerable to Members of Parliament only by the availability of large amounts of subsidised alcohol, recently revealed as the secret ingredient in the famous rowdiness of the House of Commons.

But even where politicians are open to change, they have to contend with the electorate's resistance. Voters are people who stand there, fold their arms and tell you that they always have done and always will do it THIS way. Urged to change, they will stamp their feet and cry, Shan't! Can't! Won't! As a result, for example, the United Kingdom has no coherent system of weights and measures which everyone uses. For a number of years, the European Union tried to get us to Go Metric. But teachers had no intention of going metric (they didn't understand these foreign ideas) and market traders saw the chance to become Metric Martyrs, and like the pound sterling, wasn't it part of our Tradition and Heritage to have fourteen pounds to the stone and , er, eight stones to the hundredweight (which is not one hundred but one hundred and twelve pounds ) and, your turn, how many hundredweights is it to the ton unless it’s a short ton ….and so eventually the European Union gave up in the face of irredeemable stupidity. We were granted yet another opt-out.

As a result, the UK remains pre-modern, with an incoherent jumble of systems in use. Just visit any supermarket. Here you can find pints for some liquids, litres for others. Grams and kilos on one shelf, ounces and pounds on another. In Cornwall, maybe they still sell potatoes by the gallon. Weigh yourself on the bathroom scales, and some of us will use pounds and stones and some kilos. Medications are normally measured in milligrams and grams, millilitres and centilitres and not everyone understands what that all means so there are occasional disastrous results. Go to a fabric shop and you may find meters or you may find yards. Buy petrol and it's in litres, but distance measurement is in miles not kilometres. And, to rub it in, road signs show fractions of miles rather than decimal points of miles - as you approach the Channel Tunnel, you are counted down from two-thirds of a mile to one-third of a mile, a final flag-waving Work-That-Out-If -You-Can optout from new-fangled and, above all, foreign systems.

Two hundred years or more ago, as countries entered the  modern era, so they unified, simplified and extended the reach of systems of weights and measures. Local and highly particular traditions disappeared as did local currencies. The decimal system and the metric system are the expression of this move to the modern era, and their near-universal adoption is one of the enduring achievements of the French Revolution. It was a political achievement but the actual work was done by mathematicians and scientists of the first rank – Condorcet, Laplace, Lavoisier. They tried to work with British and American colleagues – Thomas Jefferson notable among them – but both those countries turned up their noses at what the French were proposing. It took Britain until 1971 to decimalise its currency and 1984 until the anomaly of a ½ penny coin was removed.

 But we still haven’t made it into the modern era. Children learn how to use bits of different systems and none of them very well. They have no idea of how powerful a tool a unified system can be. They simply become good at bodging which is fine for a nation of bodgers. It’s obtuse to expect children to be good at maths when their culture constantly tells them to muddle through with anything to do with numbers.

The moral is this: dysfunctional and, more generally, sub-optimal states of institutions and practices can persist indefinitely. They don't necessarily get eliminated any more than do pandas (who are terribly ill-adapted to their environment and generally miserable in consequence). All that happens is that people are generally miserable as they see their societies and economies grumbling and stumbling along, their politicians still aspiring to nothing more than an Opt Out from the modern world.

But people won’t do anything about it. They made their vows long ago.

Friday, 10 September 2021

A Church of England Christening: Ultimate Wokeness?

 

The newspapers tell me that Harry and Meghan want to have Lilibet baptised into the Church of England, ideally in the private chapel of Windsor Castle; Godparents as yet unnamed.

The Church of England, despite its status as a state church and its enormous property empire, is very much down on its luck, and has to trim with the winds - fortunately, it has a lot of previous experience. So the words it now uses  for the Christening Trade aren’t quite those it used back when I was given no choice in 1947. Here are the instructions handed out at the time to my godparents and which would also have been those in place for Prince Charles in 1948:



Click to Magnify



It's all different now and I have cut and pasted from the C of E's website the latest version, rather more Laura Ashley and chilled white wine than the 1947 version -  notice the nice generic "themselves", unfortunately attached to a singular "child".

https://www.churchofengland.org/life-events/christenings/guide-godparents/godparents-promises 

In the christening service, you will make some big promises to support your godchild throughout their life. You could talk to your own vicar about what these promises mean, or join with your godchild’s parents when they explore what a christening means. If you’re wondering what these promises might look like in practice, or how you can begin, explore our links for some simple ideas.

These are the first things you’ll be asked in the christening service:-

  • “Will you pray for them, draw them by your example into the community of faith and walk with them in the way of Christ?”
  • “Will you care for them, and help them to take their place within the life and worship of Christ’s Church?”

To the questions above, the parents and godparents answer: “With the help of God we will”.

You will then be asked some questions which you answer on behalf of a child who is too young to answer for themselves:

  • You will be asked to turn away from all things that are against God – the wrong in our own lives and to stand against the wrong in the world.
  • You will then be asked to turn positively towards Jesus, the companion and guide for the amazing journey ahead.

Alongside your godchild’s parents, you will

  • Give your time to your godchild to talk to about the bigger questions of life – questions about hope, faith and love.
  • Model and encourage them to develop Christian values – being kind and compassionate towards others, being generous towards others in need with time or money and standing against things in the world that cause injustice and suffering.
  • Pray for your godchild through the ups and downs of their life and their faith journey.
  • Show them practically how to make good choices in life, for themselves and for others. This might mean talking to them about how to stay healthy, how to resist temptations that can harm us and other people, how to care for God’s amazing world and how to handle peer pressure as they grow older.
  • Help them to learn more about the Christian faith, through their church and in other ways. Going to church with them, talking about what the Bible shows us and helping them learn how to pray are all brilliant ways to support your godchild.
That whatsoever king may reign, Still I'll be the Vicar of Bray, sir.


Friday, 13 August 2021

Mikhail Eisenstein and Sergei Eisenstein: Father and Son

In the mid 1990s, I made a trip to Riga and wandered the streets taking photographs. The photograph above shows detail from a Jugendstil building in Elisavetes iela. The building was designed by the architect Mikhail Eisenstein (1867 - 1921) - you can find better, more recent images of the same building on his Wikipedia page. Mikhail Eisenstein was the father of the Soviet film maker Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein (1898 - 1948) who began his career as a student of architecture, but parted ways with his father during the Russian Revolution. Looking at the enormous heads atop the building in Elisavetes iela, I imagined that despite their political differences, the son owed to his father the idea of using - in Battleship Potemkin and other films - images of vast and sometimes grotesque heads.

(Republished from an old Blog to answer someone's question)

Tuesday, 27 July 2021

A Day Trip to Boulogne 1958




 


I was born and grew up in that part of north west Kent now disappeared into south east London, most obviously as London’s Thamesmead which overlays what were once separately named marshes along the south banks of the Thames. On old maps they are blank spaces overwritten with Plumstead Marshes and Erith Marshes; I guess that the new development was not designated Thamesmarsh because suburban planners prefer to evoke the quaint.

The people most familiar with the old marshes were the large population of gypsies who, once the Kentish fruit and hop picking seasons were over, settled there for the winter and turned to hawking and scrap collecting to tide them over until spring. Rag ‘n’ Bone! Rag ‘n’ Bone! cried the man atop the cart pulled by some skin and bone old nag. It was a way of life largely destroyed by the great North Sea flood of January 1953 which swept away the gypsy homes and forced most into modern housing.

The gypsies had a champion in a local Labour MP, Norman Dodds, whose autograph I collected at a fete to celebrate the Coronation of Elizabeth the Second in the summer of 1953. Earlier in the year, the new Queen had visited evacuees in Erith, the borough’s streets crowded with people hoping to catch a glimpse; I was one of the hopefuls. The centre of Erith, with its modest set of jetties and wharves, abutted the river and separated the western marshes from the eastern Dartford Marshes, also blank on maps except for the isolation hospital at Long Reach, built directly onto the riverside and thus enabled to receive smallpox patients brought down by barge from London. The hospital was spoken of in my childhood as if some haunted house not to be approached.

Dartford itself was my birthplace and until the age of eighteen I lived there and in neighbouring Crayford, Slade Green, and Lower Belvedere. The last had a fine view across the river towards the Ford of Dagenham, at the time the largest neon sign in Europe. The river was busy with ships destined for London’s docklands, but small ports downriver still handled cargo. Ford had its own deep water dock and a short railway to handle the coal for its power station and steel for its foundry which arrived by ship. Its neon sign faced directly onto the river. But despite the Clean Air Act of 1956, thick fogs on the Thames were still common, the booming of foghorns background noise in the everyday life of those who lived along its equally shrouded banks, the giant neon light often no more than a blur.

London was easily accessible by train for a day trip, though the journey was not particularly pleasant. Trains were worn out, and the great metropolitan terminus of Charing Cross had lost whatever past glamour it may have possessed. Travel in the opposite direction was reserved for summer holidays. If you lived in the arc of north west Kent, then the holiday destination of choice (if choice there was) would be one of the resorts scattered along the east Kent coast, starting at Herne Bay and proceeding clockwise through Margate, Broadstairs, Ramsgate, Folkestone, and even down to Dymchurch with its caravan sites.

In the summer of 1958 - I was eleven in the July - I was taken on holiday to Folkestone, staying in a sea-front boarding house, un-named in my memory though I recall it as coming complete with meals taken in the front sitting-room. I passed the first week with my mother and the second with my father - they took turns because there was a pram and toy shop in Dartford to be kept open; today’s version of the premises opens for much longer hours as a kebab.

On his own, my father was free to be more adventurous and came up with a scheme which would have horrified my mother: we were Going to France, which would be an entirely new experience for both of us. He had discovered that on offer from Folkestone were Day Trips to Boulogne, the voyage to be effected aboard the MV Royal Daffodil built in 1938, knocked about a bit on Channel crossings during the war, and now returned to its original purpose of providing outings for English holidaymakers. The boat has long since gone to meet its maker but, of course, it Googles.

Also of course, neither of us had passports. That did not matter: you did not need one. Your day trip ticket came with a one-day disposable “passport” which was not even a proper identity card since it did not bear a photograph; you simply filled in the flimsy bit of card which came with your ticket. This scheme had been introduced in 1955 in the interests - modest as they may now seem - of the East Kent and Nord pas de Calais transregional economy, though transregional economy was not a term then in use.

My father sent his wife the obligatory postcard: black and white, view over the beach and out to sea, not quite a panorama. He records that we are outside a café, that I am eating a huge Ham Roll (long) with coffee - presumably not the Camp coffee which we had at home - and that he has a pocket full of Francs which will pay for the meal billed at an astonishing 570 of them. The stamp on the postcard claimed from his pocket another eighteen.

I had Francs in my pocket too and spent them on a toy car which was different to those we had in the shop back home: it had plastic windows and doors which opened, very advanced features I can assure you. I was wearing a raincoat, rain being a permanent possibility on English seaside holidays, and disembarked at Folkestone, hand in pocket, clasping tight the car, not declaring it to the officers of Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise, sternly present to greet us. I was excited to be carrying contraband. But the booze cruise and tobacco cruise had yet to be invented and I have no recollection of my father carrying anything or other passengers struggling with overloaded bags. A Day Trip to France was a bit of an adventure, that’s all, and did not require even a word of the language.

We had been to France and I had discovered that, if you lived in Kent, you had a Near Abroad where they do things differently. It had been the Near Abroad for generations of English people and - belatedly it’s true - became even nearer with the advent of the Hovercraft and, much more importantly, the Channel Tunnel. But for an eleven year old boy from a modest background, a 1958 Day Trip to Boulogne provided the introduction to a wider world.

*

For a less pastoral account of childhood, see my memoir I Have Done This in Secret (2018) available in illustrated hardback from Amazon or at a discount from Blackwell's:

https://blackwells.co.uk/bookshop/search/author/Trevor%20Pateman

 

Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Ceci n'est pas un Headline

 

Young woman brutally beaten by thugs while defending friend from heinous homophobic abuse

 

 

This headline from Pink News of 21 July 2021 puzzles me. Is the paper worried that readers won't end up on message unless supplied with the brutally and the heinous? Well, that was a concern they had in the old Soviet Union where readers had to be guided, rather clumsily, to the right response. And it was indeed true, you could not entirely rely on Soviet citizens to be on message, especially as the message did change fairly frequently. But I doubt that is really a problem for Pink News. Very few people are in favour of women being beaten by thugs (though they may have  no specific issue about young women); nor are they sympathetic to those who shout homophobic abuse, even if it's because their objection is a general one about shouting abuse rather than specific to homophobic abuse.  So I wonder what is the function of the brutally and the heinous? Perhaps they are just the nervous tics of an insecure intern? Or maybe the tics take their inspiration from television's Canned Laughter, still in use after all these years just in case you don't find American comedy all that funny.

Soviet-style control anxiety also shows itself in British celebrity gossip magazines which never, but never, print a photograph of Prince George; they only ever print an adorablephotograph (it’s one word, really). All royal babies are by definition adorable though that does not prevent the fact being spelt out. But, perhaps unfortunately, it does not serve to distinguish babies from dogs which - at least when owned by celebrities - are also adorable.

But what then is the function of adorable? I suppose it conveys a sense of the writer as someone who is permanently elated and effusive, rather like a party host who reckons that tonight is a wonderful occasion and everyone looks wonderful and isn’t it wonderful that you were able to come. The cleverness of Eric Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight is that it manages to reclaim a trite (over-used and unthinkingly-used) expression and make it meaningful again. But I don’t expect any celebrity magazine anytime soon to pull off the same trick with adorable. The word is totally fucked.


Added 31 July 2021:

Today Pink News is taking a different approach:

‘Beautiful’ queer woman and her dog both killed in ‘gruesome’ murder while walking in the park



Adding quote marks doesn't really solve the problem; it's still a control-anxiety introduction to the story. Compare and contrast with another murder reported in today's Independent:

Woman found beheaded on sidewalk in Minneapolis suburb


That's a news headline; and it does its work without suggesting  that this crime is newsworthy because the woman was young or 'beautiful'.


Saturday, 3 July 2021

That Diana Statue

The following letter was published in The Financial Times on 18 June 2021, uncut from the version I sent them:


Statues which reproduce the bodies of dead individuals in metal or stone are a bad idea, full stop. This ghastly genre has never produced anything of artistic merit or aesthetic value, which is a main reason why - to be honest - only dogs and pigeons take an interest. Neither the “wokes” nor the academics who feel under threat from government policy, as they appear in “The Battle over Britain’s history”, (FT Weekend, June 12), challenge the genre; they seem to think that introducing more “diversity” into this bizarre world of effigies and mummies would solve the problem. It won’t, not least because heroes are never saints and reputations wear out faster than stone or metal. So: No More Statues! Our public spaces are cluttered with too many of the damned things already and the more that can be got rid of the better. And just to avoid a mis-reading of my argument: Collective memorials, like the Cenotaph, are entirely different in character which is why they are more readily appreciated both as prompts to remembrance and as works of art.

Thursday, 11 February 2021

London, Statues, and Sadiq Khan: a contribution to debate

What follows is the complete text of one chapter in my book Between Remembering and Forgetting published in 2020 and easily available on Amazon and at Blackwells.co.uk  Buy the book and you will find a photograph of Coles's Truss Manufactory included ....

*

                                                                              Let Us Forget

 

We are afraid of forgetting. From school days on, we are chastised for it and as we sense ourselves ageing become terrified of any forgetfulness as if it can only be a premonition of much worse to come. At school, we got gold stars for remembering and now in our diaries dutifully note birthdays and wedding anniversaries shameful to forget. The diaries themselves are usually printed with reminders of dates we are expected to remember – Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day (such is modern romance). 


The United Nations encourages us to remember a quite different list, to be found at http://www.un.org/en/sections/observances/international-days/ and currently extending to one hundred and fifty six days, beginning with the International Day of Commemoration of the Victims of the Holocaust on 27th January and ending on 20th December with International Human Solidarity Day. The month-long breathing space before it all starts up again is partly owing to the congestion created by the different parties of organised Christianity who remember Saviours born on different Christmas Days. Partly also to the fireworks and inebriation obligatory at New Year. Some of the UN days have a tragic connecting logic: World Tourism Day on 27th September is followed on the 28th by World Rabies Day. Other juxtapositions suggest something else: World Philosophy Day on 15th November is shortly followed on the 19th by World Toilet Day, a delight for fans of Rabelais and Mikhail Bakhtin.

 

Our obsession with not forgetting anyone or anything is exhausting. We are trying to remember too much and we don’t know how to prioritise, as the time managers might put it. As a result, not only do we have over-stuffed diaries but - to take something I want to discuss - over-stuffed city streets cluttered with bronze and stone effigies, monuments in perpetuity to personages who were erected in order not to be forgotten.

 

Many tourists visiting London will already know that it is Nelson on top of the column in Trafalgar Square. But other characters are memorialised there, asking for whose names would put an end to anyone’s aspirations to become a TV quiz millionaire. Nobody knows, nobody cares, but if I have driven you to your smart phone you will discover that they include George IV (who contends for the title of England’s most dissolute king), General Sir Charles Napier (“the best way to quiet a country is a good thrashing”) and Major General Sir Henry Havelock (Memoirs of the Afghan Campaign). You don’t even have to make it up.

 

At the edge of the square, a backdrop to King Charles the First on the inevitable horse was once provided by large bold letters arranged downwards through three storeys and drawing attention to Coles’s Truss Manufactory. They have long since been removed, despite the apostrophe being correctly placed1. But take down those other monuments to past glories because we now no longer have any use or have simply forgotten?  Oh no. They are history, they are heritage. True, no one is corrupt enough to claim that the monuments have artistic merit. No one even tries that on. I defy you to find an aesthetically pleasing, artistically significant monument to a dead king or general bigged up on a plinth or a horse or doubly on both. You might, I suppose, try the Bronze Horseman – the equestrian monument to Peter the Great in St Petersburg. But then look again and you’ll see that it’s the nameless horse which is the success story, not the toy rider. One day they will erect Vladimir Putin and sit him on a motorbike; there will be much knowledgeable discussion of the bike.

 

I realise that there are people now who want to bring more balance, more diversity to our city streets and squares, people who want to big up a different kind of person. It’s been done recently in London, where in Parliament Square the bronze effigy of a suffragette now stands among the dead men: Millicent Fawcett holding a tea towel to advertise the firm of Gillian Wearing. It’s dire, and necessarily so. If imagination does not extend beyond bigging up in the traditional mould - bronze or marble, on a plinth, upright bearing, best foot forward, chin up, strong gaze towards heaven - then you reduce the challenge and energy of your revolutionaries, your radicals and feminists, to fit the smugness of your generals, your slavers and those famous only for their accident of birth. Get rid of them all. Have the courage of your own forgetting. But also have the courage to remember in different ways – how is it that we have limited them so disastrously?

 

Memory starts out as personal memory. He was killed in the war, and she remembers him and will remember him until she dies when all will be forgotten. In peacetime, if he had died in a car accident, then neighbours and friends would rally round. In wartime, it is quite different. Everyone has their loss, their losses. Likewise, in a mining disaster when many die it is a community which is affected as well as families and individuals.  So instead of those who have not suffered rallying round those who have, we have shared suffering, shared grief. In that context, it is not surprising that people should look towards shared remembering.

 

Grief fades with time, and so too does memory. If we are afraid of that, or guilty about it, then one function of a shared ritual of remembrance is to keep the memory alive, perhaps even revive the grief. In some ways it seems a bit perverse; in other respects, we might argue that nothing is ever truly forgotten, no grief ever truly exhausted and so it is better to return, from time to time, to the scene of the crime committed against our hopes and happiness. Or at the very least to show some respect, especially to the memory of those who died that others might live.

 

In New South Wales, the Mount Kembla mining disaster of 1902 killed ninety six miners leaving thirty three widows and one hundred and twenty fatherless children in the adjacent mining village. We can be sure that none of those children are still alive, but an annual commemoration of the disaster still takes place on the 31st July and the memorial erected still stands. Why? Well, probably some children of the fatherless children are still alive and their lives were no doubt marked in some way, probably a very significant way, by an event which preceded their birth. The disaster is part of their history, even part of the history of one or two further generations.

 

The last Holocaust survivor will die in the near future, but the Holocaust will take much longer to die in the lives of its children, grand-children, great-grand-children. Eventually, however, it will become one of those things which took place a long time ago and in another country, rather like the Conquest of the Incas which is not now marked by solemn occasions anywhere, though its horrors have been amply documented, and for centuries, in historical works.

 

But it is not just for short-term memory purposes that people want the monuments, the commemorations, the days of remembrance; they want them to remind us of something, to teach us a lesson. We learn early on that life is about being taught lessons. Mount Kembla reminds us of the negligence of mine owners, one of the most enduring negligences, still delivering its deaths on every continent. So the point of the commemoration, one might say, is directed beyond and outside the circle of those who were most immediately and intimately affected. That, of course, means that there is the possibility of a tension arising between the needs of those directly in line of the hit and the motives of activists and ideologues. It is a commonplace that suffering is hi-jacked, agitators heading to the scene, the current disaster cut and pasted onto the standard issue placard. The Holocaust is well on the way to suffering a similar fate, not so much remembered and grieved over as used to coerce.

 

Such mismatches between suffering and how it is made use of are most obvious in the ways in which nation states officially recognise the war deaths of those they have sent to fight and, sometimes also, the civilians who were victims of the enemy. In the old Soviet Union, the party line dictated that the twenty million casualties in World War Two could only be memorialised by huge and brutal installations which suggested the crushing might of Russia and the iron will of its fighters. But those memorials - lacking any elements of simplicity, intimacy and privacy - must surely have left those still grieving with feelings of awkwardness and confusion. It could have been done differently.

 

One day during a 1998 holiday, I walked around the National Gallery of Armenia in Yerevan. My attention was caught by a very large painting (196 x 250 cm) which depicts all kinds of simple but very colourful flowers stuck in jam jars, often only a few to a jar, lined up in rows as if on shelves, some pieces of fruit also scattered around. I smiled, felt warmed, but also felt that the painting expressed some sadness. I looked at the gallery description. It told me that the painting - by Martiros Saryan and dated to 1945 - was a tribute to Armenians who had fought in the Red Army, both those who survived and those many who died. I was astonished and moved. I now saw the jam jars placed on simple graves with whatever flowers were to hand, and imagined the actions and feelings of those who bent to place them there. Perhaps also, the flowers could belong in the centre of kitchen tables, set to celebrate a safe homecoming.

 

If that second way of seeing the painting is legitimate, then Saryan has done a very interesting thing. His painting allows for the expression of both sadness and joy. If we follow through that idea, it suggests that our habit of firmly separating celebrations from commemorations or remembrances, gaiety from solemnity, should at least sometimes be disrupted. It often is at modern funerals which try to celebrate the life of the deceased instead of mourning their passing. That has its dangers. It may work well for a professional colleague or even a friend of long-standing. It may be harder for those still punched into immediate grief and, worse, little more than denial if they seek to find laughter simply because too much embarrassed by tears.

 

But even with that caveat, we need to loosen up, be more imaginative about the ways in which we choose to remember as well as more willing to acknowledge and even welcome the fact that we forget. For the present at least, all new statues should be firmly off the plinth if the best we can come up with are effigies in the style of mummification originally favoured by the nasty party of humanity. Those old statues put up to forgotten bit-players of Empire should simply come down. They have had their day.

 

That a subscription was raised to put up a monument in perpetuity places no obligations on future generations. Let us continue to have the history books about English public school boys trained to put down Indian mutinies and Afghan defiance. But since we have forgotten their names and if, perchance, do remember but no longer admire, the statues should be cleared off the streets, out of the parks, and removed to some outdoor museum – or sent to the scrap yard since they have no artistic or aesthetic value. There would be no vandalism involved. Private graves in cemeteries are eventually bulldozed to make way for new coffins or simply to create public green spaces. No one much cares, though one might want to save for museum purposes the occasional drooping angel to illustrate how monumental masons have conceived drooping angels through the centuries. Likewise, one might reserve a few Queen Victorias and Lenins for the clinical gaze of the historians.

 

A private subscription or a centuries-old governmental decision cannot take away from us the right to control our own public spaces. We are the ones who have to live in them now and, if the corpses mummified in bronze or stone are forgotten or disdained, they should go. We redecorate our private living spaces, we re-furnish our rooms. There is no reason why we should not do the same with our streets and other public spaces. I know that the urge to clutter public space is very strong – municipal authorities abhor a vacuum and will never miss an opportunity to put up yet another street sign. But we should resist the temptation and if we want to install new things, then we should think more widely and look to the merits of temporary installations, of things which change through the seasons like plants and trees, of objects which are less literal and less static, like fountains -  almost everywhere a neglected genre of public art. We should be more willing to recognise that most heroes are local heroes and temporary ones too, more suitable for writing about in history books than parked on a plinth on our pavements, their only devotees pigeons and dogs. 

 

There is something to be said for a cityscape where all that is solid melts into air. It has been rammed into us from childhood that forgetting is a fault. We should challenge that. It’s only human to forget and we should sometimes accept our humanity. Those men on plinths had their time and now we have ours. If we are afraid of them, it is only in the Oedipal way that Don Giovanni is afraid of the ghost-statue of the Commendatore. From time to time, such fear is overcome and the statues of Stalin and Saddam Hussein are pulled down to public glee. Since we have largely forgotten them, there’s not much glee to be had in pulling down the bit players, the Napiers and the Havelocks. It’s merely a task for municipal authorities, charged to sustain public spaces which are a pleasure to share both with our friends and the ever changing cast of strangers who come and go. All might take passing delight in a less literal cityscape, furnished with fountains and avenues of trees but not with bodies in rigor mortis petrified on pedestals. For those who deserve to be remembered, there are much better ways of prompting our memory2.

 

1.      In Culture and Anarchy (1869) Matthew Arnold is horrified by the backdrop standing where it ought not which was reason enough to search for the photograph; Arnold has no qualms about Charles the First.

 

     2.   This essay was written before I read David Rieff’s excellent book In Praise of Forgetting (2016). Rieff takes a cue from Josef Yerushalmi’s Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (1982) and probes the idea that the antonym of “forgetting” is not “remembering” but “justice” (p. 91) and expands this by introducing the term “peace”. It is forgetting which often enough enables peace, even without justice; in contrast the demand to remember links easily to the demand for justice, understood in terms of crimes and punishments. Rieff mobilises some significant examples of historical moments when forgetting has been accepted as a way out from conflict, yielding peace even if it does not deliver justice. He references the end of white rule in South Africa, Spain at the time of Franco’s death, Chile in 1990, the 1995 Dayton accords in Bosnia, and the 1998 Good Friday agreement in Ireland.