There’s a great scene in the 1990s Welsh teenage drama series Pam fi, Duw? [Why me, God?], where everyone has gone to London (can’t remember why) and the indomitable grandmother insists on dragging the family across the city to visit the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square – to their utter bemusement, as she’s a dyed-in-the-wool socialist, but you don’t argue with Mamgu. When they finally get there, she sticks up two fingers at it and says something to the effect of “That’s for Tonypandy, you bastard!”
It’s not always easy to distinguish between honorific statues and the person they commemorate, especially once the latter is no longer among the living. They feed into one another, but not in a straightforward, reciprocal manner. At least as far as the official, dominant discourse is concerned, the statue marks the fact that the individual has been honoured for his (generally his) achievements and contribution, the way that he (generally he) has encapsulated or epitomised some of the values of society as a whole, airbrushing out all the complexity and the parts of their life less worthy of honour and emulation – and the existence of such a statue then reflects back on the individual, showing them to be someone worthy of such commemoration and thus communicating the belief that their worthy deeds outweigh the unworthy, and should occlude them.
It’s a very unsubtle form of representation, and deliberately so; no shadows, no nuance, no possibility of weighing up the different and even contradictory aspects of a real life in the way that a portrait (at any rate the sort of sophisticated portraits offered by someone like Velazquez or Freud) can do, let alone an extensive historical or literary account. Churchill becomes entirely the great war leader, without any taint of the numerous other points in his career that could have disgraced him on a permanent basis. To take a more generally controversial example, the statue of Arthur Harris presents him simply as another military commander who did his bit for his country, indistinguishable from all the rest in anything other than facial features – completely ignoring the fierce debates about his decisions and tactics that, in wider discourse, mark him out very clearly from other military commanders. Hence the fierce opposition to commemorating him at all; there was almost certainly a long debate about the decision, somewhere, with the need for careful judgement about the balance of different factors, but that is not what then appears in public.
Cecil Rhodes is a much less ambivalent figure: a racist, an imperialist, someone whose views and actions were widely condemned in his own lifetime, let alone subsequently – but someone who left a large portion of his enormous fortune to support education and intellectual endeavour. The statue to him at Oriel College in Oxford expresses the view that this donation outweighs everything else, including the dubious sources of his fortune. To the best of my knowledge, no one is currently proposing re-naming the eponymous scholarships, which arguably acknowledge the identity of the funder without endorsing anything else about him; the focus of debate has been on the statue for good reason, as it represents him as unequivocally worthy of honour and emulation.
Obviously the presence of such a statue does offer a tangible focus for protest and opposition to what Rhodes stood for – and if it’s still there next time I’m in Oxford, I will certainly make the detour to stick two fingers up at it – but that really misses the point. Mamgu doesn’t feel pleased that she has the opportunity to insult Churchill, she responds furiously to the fact that that the English have accorded him this honour.
Would removal of the statue constitute the destruction or white-washing of history, as opponents of the idea have argued? Not really, unless history is understood purely in terms of physical objects and monuments (admittedly a not uncommon view outside academia). The white-washing has already taken place, in effect, by the honouring of a man despite his crimes, and adding an explanatory plaque isn’t going to help very much. History resides in the complex, nuanced discussions of historians and other commentators, which can acknowledge someone’s cultural contribution without ignoring everything else. The removal of such a statue would not be an attempt at pretending that things like Rhodes’ donation didn’t happen, but an insistence on the equal if not greater importance of the other factors. I feel equally uncomfortable with the prominence of the name of the slave-owner philanthropist Edward Colston in Bristol, and somehow changing the name of a building or institution feels like a bigger step than removing a statue – but plenty of buildings and institutions have changed their names over the centuries, without any implication that one should pretend they were never called that.
In fact, this insistence that no name should ever be changed and no statue or inscription ever removed represents a rather ahistorical, and specifically modern, idea of history, which would be better termed heritage. Anything old – or at least any grand elite building, monument, artwork or personal object – is deemed to be historic and worthy of preservation by definition. Such things are assumed to constitute ‘the’ past, completely neutral and not tainted by any political agenda, whereas those who question this are clearly importing politicised and hence suspect ideas into this safe, civilised, value-free world. This is obviously nonsense; this past represents a specific understanding and set of values that tries to present its elitism as a common heritage: stately homes not cottages, great figures not ordinary people, are what are felt to matter. This elitism isn’t exceptional, course; but its use as the foundation of an insistence on preserving everything is.
In fact, there is exemplary historical precedent for taking a more robust attitude to monuments that commemorate things which no longer sit comfortably with our values (or which shouldn’t do, at any rate). The Romans happily tore down statues or reworked them to represent someone else, defaced or erased inscriptions, and generally set about destroying the public commemoration of anyone who was deemed to have brought shame on the state through their actions. The conventional account of damnatio memoriae (as reproduced on Wikipedia, for example), claims that it set about trying to erase such an individual from history, but that seems very unlikely – there’s no indication of any pressure on historians like Tacitus or Suetonius not to talk about disgraced emperors like Caligula or Nero. Rather, what was attacked was public commemoration, because that implied state and communal honour and endorsement.
The Roman practice does suggest, however, that it’s not a straight choice between leaving the statue in place or removing it altogether. I rather like the idea of repurposing: not converting Rhodes’ statue into a portrait of someone else, as the Romans tended to do, but turning it into a genuine focus for discussion about the legacies of British imperialism in a way that a mere additional information plaque will never do. Remove the head, maybe; paint the hands red with blood and add some symbolic props around his feet. No erasure of history – it will be easy enough to see that the statue used to look different – but a sign of its always contested nature.
[Having written all this, I find that David Olusoga is making some very similar points about statues and history, and about Colston, in this morning’s Grauniad. But without any mention of Pam fi, Duw?, so I think it’s still worth publishing this post…]
[Also well worth looking at Ned Richardson-Little’s blog post on what happened to Communist monuments after 1989.]