Saturday, 24 December 2016

What Goes Up Must Come Down - On Public Monuments

In our country, we no longer allow the erection of monuments or memorials to anyone. Our history – which I do not need to rehearse, I am sure – eventually left our parks and pavements cluttered with masonry in which only the pigeons took an interest. A rather short period of reflection on our inheritance produced three conclusions to which we were, albeit reluctantly, obliged to assent:

1.      With very, very few exceptions – some said no exceptions –our monuments and memorials had no “artistic merit”. Even though many had originally cost a great deal of money – much of it raised by Public Subscription – the erections which resulted could all be classified as hack jobs, things towards which you would not address a second glance – or, if you did, only because you were struck by the ugliness.

2.      With equally few exceptions, no one could volunteer any spontaneous information about the subjects of the monuments and memorials. It seems that immortality is a very short lived thing. On closer inspection of the detail, it seemed as if had been a perk of the job to have a monument erected to you if you had once been a king, queen, prime minister, admiral, general, and occasionally scientist or poet. Apart from the queens, they all appeared to have been men though given the motives which existed in the past to pretend you were a man, some of the men may not have been. That is by the by.

3.      When we could put a name to the face and a bit of information to the name, we shortly discovered that we did not have a high opinion of at least half of those who had been monumentalised. Some had committed unspeakable crimes, others speakable ones. Some had said things about their fellow human beings which were not very nice, and some had clearly not been very nice people full stop. The Public had subscribed to some very odd causes.

So rather than repeat the mistakes of the past, we decided to put a stop to it. It would protect our parks and pavements from further depredations. But they were still rather crowded and in places – like the capital – ridiculously so. Some people said we should remove some of the erections. But which ones? Those which had the least artistic merit? Those about which even the most enthusiastic pub quizzer could not spontaneously generate an iota of information? Or perhaps we should focus on those which memorialised people whose conduct had been so distasteful that they really should never have got a statue in the first place?

After some debate, this is what we decided. All would come down but there would be a popular vote in which electors could write-in the names of up to ten monuments they thought should be left undisturbed. They would not be prompted by a list but when the votes were counted, the ten most popular monuments would be preserved. A reasonable percentage, it was felt. It is in this way that Nelson’s Column still stands. A lot of people have their doubts about Nelson, but they do like his Column.

It was proposed that we should look at street names in the same way. They didn’t clutter things up like the statues, but very few of them on inspection had anything to commend them. They were, for the most part, entirely and unremittingly unimaginative, which some argued was actually a merit. Where they mentioned names, it was very rare for anything to be known about the person they memorialised, though it was discovered that the majority were landowners who sold their land for property development but kept their name on the resulting streets. Finally, there were some baddies among those whose names we did recognise.

There are a lot of streets in our country and no one really had the enthusiasm to reform their names. A committee was set up as a way of putting the issue out to grass. Eventually, it reported. It had only one recommendation. Someone had pointed out that in the whole country, there was not a single Revolution Street. The committee recommended that there should be one but that it was unnecessary and undesirable to specify which Revolution – let people imagine it as they wished.

And that is why you can now walk up Revolution Street towards Nelson’s Column.

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