When The Past Comes Down


Here the wearing of a mask is not a political act

(Today’s diatribe was inspired by watching statues toppled in Bristol and on university campuses.)

Growing up in Greenwich, South London, I would walk past the statue of General James Wolfe without even noticing it. So many ubiquitous statues of lauded military figures had been erected in the spirit of their time that they were no longer seen and had no relevance to anyone. They were hardly public art, and often celebrated British Empire conquests. Wolfe’s statue is modern. It was given to Britain by Canada in 1930. To this day I couldn’t tell you if Wolfe did good or harm, which is probably why the statue is still there.

To put yourself into the mindset wherein the looting of Spanish galleons was considered a noble and desirable thing is quite impossible now; acquisition by stealing worked for most Europeans, France and Spain and Italy, the Belgians and the Dutch. Subjugation and wholesale robbery – ‘the spoils of war’ – were part of the rules of engagement and existed alongside more ‘gentlemanly’ instructions like informing your enemy before firing upon them. We cannot fully understand the past from here without decades of study.

As a child I found the subject easier to avoid than engage with; we had no constitution, our civil war had been settled centuries earlier, having arisen from conflict between Charles I and Parliament over an Irish insurrection. Parts of the British Empire had been built on the traffic of slavery, which was finally abolished in British colonies in 1833 after a lengthy period of misgivings. Race was not a subject I felt equipped to understand simply because as a London child of the sixties I could see no conflict; our street had added West Indian, African and Indian families, and really all that meant was my mother had more interesting neighbours. The British were still insulate and prejudiced, but liked to suggest that these were working class afflictions.

If anything we suffered a reverse problem. When visiting the countryside (a rare event, admittedly) I felt uncomfortable around so many similar people. Without diversity it seemed to me that the world was smaller. Before this starts to sound like virtue signalling, I need to point out something; the other day I ran a Bryant & May quote on Twitter:

‘Stories are strange fruit that ripen and mutate,’ said Bryant.

An American lady politely pointed out that the phrase ‘Strange fruit’ stemmed from a powerful  song about lynchings sung most famously by Billie Holiday. I played it – I had never heard it before, or even heard anything by that singer. It’s not my culture or my country and would have meant nothing if I’d heard it cold.

The lady who tweeted was simply pointing out a fact, not saying its usage was wrong – there are no connotations attached to the phrase in the UK; it means something that’s where it shouldn’t be, a cuckoo. But the song moved me, and I probably would have rephrased the line now.

I was initially confused by the show ‘Hamilton’ because although I knew nothing about the subject and was even less interested – years before another musical had been made from the subject; ‘1776’ was stultifyingly boring, but sufficiently successful to be made into a film. I did do some reading up on Hamilton and raised an eyebrow when I saw this very white man staring back at me. Was this appropriation? What if a white actor played Martin Luther King? Then I realised that this was the whole point of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s piece, brilliantly realised.

Now the colourblind casting of the phantasmagorical ‘David Copperfield’ feels liberating, and while it would not work in a production going for total historical veracity it is the perfect way to make us realise what we have been missing and who we have been excluding. Education has involved re-examining the immediate past. Andrea Levy’s Orange Prize-winning saga ‘Small Island’, about two couples caught up in Windrush and London’s post-war West Indian influx, found new readers (and as a play, audiences) who were not aware of this recent chapter of London history. To me it was close enough to touch, not history but memory, but such tales must be retold to the young in fresh ways.

As a child I saw ‘Song of the South’ and saw an avuncular Burl Ives-type in a far-of fantasy land telling stories about a cartoon rabbit. While I oppose all censorship I believe many stories need contextualising, although putting ‘Song’ on YouTube and running police brutality statistics over it (as one clip does) probably doesn’t explain much.

This week an American friend was horrified by a photograph she saw of Londoners in a sunlit park. Where, she wanted to know, were their masks? I explained that people were using their own judgement about outdoor safety because here the wearing of a mask is not a political act. The idea that health might be affected by political affiliation is anathema; admiring the NHS doesn’t make you a Labour voter anymore. (The above photo shows a Republican congressman trying to prove some kind of point about the foolishness of masks).

In times to come when the Trump era is recalled, it will need to be linked to Black Lives Matter and be shown up for what it was; a political power grab that ignored everyone outside its narrow white 1% agenda. We hope America will come back, but unless the lessons of the falling statues are learned, the outcome is not guaranteed.


37 comments on “When The Past Comes Down”

  1. Brooke says:

    The 2 words, strange and fruit, were in usage long before Billie Holiday’s lyrics were sung. I read your tweet and thought; what a nice analogy–the link never crossed my mind. I hope this one comment doesn’t affect editing the US edition of Oranges and Lemons. Please consider your US audience as intelligent human beings–leaving aside our current government.

  2. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Another of Billie Holiday ‘s songs, ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Business’ seems to be in favour of domestic violence. Should we stop listening to it?
    I love her voice, and her interpretation of songs.
    My Nan would be saying ‘ don’t throw the baby out with the bath water‘ I think.

  3. Brian Evans says:

    What I have learnt with the (admirable) toppling of statues is that, in actual fact until I bought a digital camera and got snap-happy, I never noticed them. If I do take a snap I now read the plinth and I usually have never heard of them anyway. Therefore, how many other people are just the same as me? In most cases, they are of long-forgotten philanthropist buying immortality. It failed.

    Virginia Woolf, the great (some would say) author, not usually known for her sense of humour, was at the unveiling of the statue to Edith Cavell, First World War hero. It is situated in London at bottom of St Martin’s Lane, opp the National Portrait Gallery. At the “taarraaa” moment of unveiling, she was heard to comment that it resembled an advertisement for sanitary towels. It does, rather!

  4. Ian Luck says:

    Next thing you know, there will be people toppling Edith Cavell, because some uninformed, truculent youthwas appalled that she “Annoyed some Germans.” I would re-model Haig’s statue to depict him in the act of, as Blackadder states:
    “Moving his drinks trolley six inches closer to Berlin.”

  5. Ian Luck says:

    Apologies for no space between ‘Youth’ and ‘Was’. Oddly, that’s what I feel like. One minute, you’re Jack the lad, a man with an eye for the ladies (on a stick, as Vic Reeves would have you believe), and the next, you’re a pissed off wreck, with no hair on your head – it falls through your skull to emerge, cheekily, from your ears and nostrils – and a great pleasure in your life is returning from the shops with some good cheese, and a box of your favourite teabags. So: Youth. Was. Not as blunt as ‘Birth, School, Work, Death’, a record by the great Godfathers, but pretty close. Sorry. Fancy a brew?

  6. Brooke says:

    @ Ian. Was enjoying Connolly’s Charlie Parker until Covid-19, protest violence and general fatigue overtook me. Connolly is like Bruen; he sneaks up on you and knocks you down. Once rested, I’ll return to Parker’s adventures.

  7. Dawn Andrews says:

    The only pieces of civic sculpture I ever noticed were Eros ( nice one Gilbert) Peter Pan and Karl Marx. Most civic sculpture is ugly and badly cast. (easy to dislodge.)
    If I remember my history notes on Elizabethan religious ructions, Brooke, the term ‘strange fruit’ was used to describe the preaching style of non conformists. I prefer Billie. What a voice.

  8. Peter T says:

    Rather than topple statues, I’d rather topple the individuals in Lunartic House and UK Government who allowed or organised the Windrush scandal. They got away with Windrush and so far there’s nothing to stop them doing something similar again.

  9. SteveB says:

    I never saw a black (or Asian or otherwise ME) person except on TV till I was 15. Then one black guy came to our school as a refugee from what was then Rhodesia,
    Except for him, I never met or saw any BAME until Uni. No statues of any slavers or anything where I grew up either afaik. Most people thought London was foreign, never mind anything further afield.
    The other thing that’s changed is that when I was a kid noone knew anything about the Empire, it was already ancient history. We did know about slavery but not as a black / white issue, we knew about Africans enslaving the English and the English enslaving the Scots and the Dutch enslaving the hero of Moonfleet. We had very different perspectives.

  10. Roger says:

    General Wolfe was a Good Chap: he was ordered to kill a Scottish prisoner by the Duke of Cumberland and refused and the night before the Battle of the Plains of Abraham he read Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard to his assembled officers and declared “Gentlemen, I would rather have written those lines than take Quebec tomorrow.”

  11. Crprod says:

    When my brother and I were young and traveling through the rural Virginia countryside in the mid-fifties, we often saw Confederate statues in front of court houses. Our main interest was to walk around to the backside to see if we saw a paper wasp nest under the coat tails of the uniform.

  12. Jan says:

    Well Brian you are 100% correct about nobody noticing many statues really. These things have been ignored by generations of folk of every ethnicity.

    I can’t get too worked up about that Bristol statue ending up in the water – only to be in time resurrected in some museum after being rescued the following morning. Be interpreted in a different way next time he puts in an appearance so he will.

    Ian’s got a point though where does the line get drawn? At what point does the gr8 British public get the hump?
    Where’s too far? What’s too far? Easy to write all these( in the main X forces guys ) statue protectors off as right wing and reactionary but watching stuff being destroyed and damaged continually will start wearing a bit thin in time.
    I dunno what the answer is to any of this stuff is really – and fortunately it does not directly impact me any longer but there’s a few things to be worked out here.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    When we were in Greenwich I walked around Gen. Wolfe’s statue so I knew it was given in 1930. If you look at the plinth carefully you will find there is bullet damage. It appeared to have come from the River, but I’m not a scientist. There was a young couple sitting on the steps in case I wanted to take a picture but, “is he important?” was what they said. If you tour eastern Canada you will find you can follow him around. He is one reason English is the majority language in Canada and one reason the people of Quebec have fought back to keep their culture. That war didn’t even mention the First Nations except in so far as they had aligned themselves with France or England. The English troops were encouraged to take demobilisation in “New France” to help with “pacification” and that was when the first of my people came to Canada. Therefore Wolfe is of importance to me (1759).

  14. Peter T says:

    In the Black Country, statues were close to unknown in my youth. If you went to Birmingham, there were the three greats, Boulton, Watt and Murdoch discussing the design of a steam engine, and the inevitable Queen Victoria. A relative multitude have appeared in the last thirty years: heroes, workmen, distinguished footballers and Tony Hancock. Unfortunately, the quality of the work is mixed.

  15. SteveB says:

    Just glancing through all these posts. Honestly I think 99% of people couldn’t give a toss about all these statues tbh, certainly never heard of General Wolfe and scarcely know who is Churchill or Cromwell. These statues could all be pitched in the water today and in a week it’d be forgotten.

  16. SteveB says:

    Graham Linehan getting turfed off Twitter otoh…

  17. Richard says:

    I agree about the miniscule impact of statues when I was growing up. The only ones I took much interest in were Guy the Gorilla and the Dinosaurs at Crystal Palace. The ones of actual people were just boring things for the old.
    Recent reflection makes me think I was right. Much better to replace them all with things like the Angel of the North, direct links to emotional reaction rather than history. Look forward rather than back.

  18. John Howard says:

    I’m with Peter T. Sod the toppling of statues that refer to historical events. It is much more positive to learn from them, especially if it is learning about what not to do. Whitewashing (Sorry) history is a negative act.
    As Admin has made clear in the post, they generally are there for a reason that made sense in the past.
    If anything, we should be putting up more statues that are relevant to todays generation, the Windrush Generation, Stephen Lawrence to name a few but that is a positive thing so not likely to happen I fear.

  19. admin says:

    As a piece of architecture the General Wolfe statue is more interesting than most in that it interacts with its surroundings. Most don’t. I would melt down Maggie Hambling’s joke Oscar Wilde statue and the gargantuan ‘Kiss’ in King’s Cross Station (see articles passim) but there are any number of boring bronze men in waistcoats dotted around the city that merely venerate management.

  20. Brian Evans says:

    I’m with you totally on the vulgar kiss statue-though I think it is in St Pancras, not Kings Cross. However, do notice the very much welcome statue in St Pancras of Sir John Betjeman who helped save the station from demolition.

  21. Ian Luck says:

    Brooke – glad you were enjoying Charlie Parker. I did, once try playing some Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker as I was reading a Charlie Parker novel. Didn’t work. I either paid too much attention to the writing, or the unearthly brilliance of the music.
    Good background music to these books, i’ve found is the eerie music created by the group called ‘Boards Of Canada’.

  22. Helen Martin says:

    Ian – a Canadian group? Never heard of them…. Ah, I see, Scottish and electronic and strange.

  23. Andrew Holme says:

    Richard – back in the day at Uni, I had a friend who was convinced that Elton’s ‘Song for Guy’ was about the death of the famous gorilla. He took some persuading otherwise.

  24. Talking of statues reminds me of a chilling horror short story called Venus of the Isle by Prosper Merimee (1835) which is on a par with The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. Worth seeking out……

  25. Liz Thompson says:

    I can’t remember when I first heard Strange Fruit, but I know it was the Billie Holiday recording. It had a big impact on me, as did James Baldwin’s book The Fire Next Time. Brought up in a small Northamptonshire village, the only non white people I saw were travelling on the bus between Rugby and Northampton. There were no non white children at my secondary school in Daventry. Yet I bought Bob Dylan records, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, and knew from my father’s Daily Mail (!) of Martin Luther King and the struggles in the USA. I can remember the radio abandoning its regular programmes to play serious, solemn music after Kennedy’s assassination was announced. I knew all this, yet had no knowledge of Britain’s role in the slave trade. The British Empire was in my history lessons, not slavery. University and Leeds taught me what grammar school had not. Yet I clearly remember a BBC play called, I think, Fable, which showed England as an apartheid country where the whites were ruled by the blacks. I was still at school, and knew nothing of South Africa. My parents were (lower case) conservatives, we didn’t discuss politics. There really is a very strong case for including colonial history, black history, slavery, and historical and current racism in the school curriculum. The statues are a minor detail, and easily resolved, in comparison to our collective ignorance and selective knowledge of our own British history. But then, we are all easily distracted by the minor, photographic, events, so we forget to deal with the major problems.

  26. Simon Barnett says:

    If the folks hanging out on our beach are indicative of those in the park, nobody is wearing masks because they will leave distressing white patches in the suntan.

  27. Helen Martin says:

    You shouldn’t have to go to university to learn myth free history. Even the littlest ones should learn truth not fairy tales (except when we name them as fairy tales).

  28. John Griffin says:

    History lies not in statues but in books and testimonies. If you shut the libraries and silence the voices by controlling the media, what redress is left?

  29. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – yes. Their name comes from the ‘Film Board Of Canada’ credit at the end of many short animated, and sometimes experimental films shown often on UK TV. The music of ‘Boards Of Canada’ is classified as ‘Hauntology’.

  30. Ian Todd says:

    Sorry to tell you Dawn but the piece of civic sculpture you noticed wasn’t Eros. It’s his brother Anteros.

  31. Jan says:

    As long as no one chucks my favourite statue in London the “Boy and the Dolphin” into the Thames I won’t whinge. It’s down on Chelsea Embankment.

    Mind you The lad swimming with the Dolphin would be appropriate on the water…

  32. Helen Martin says:

    The “National Film Board of Canada” one of the few times we actualyl encouraged experimental artists and produced some really quite fine items. Still are, actually.

  33. The National Film Board of Canada produced one of Buster Keaton’s final films in 1965 – The Railrodder.
    Keaton was allowed to make a short silent comedy in the old fashioned way and it’s a sheer joy from first
    frame to last.

    More would have followed but the great man died that year.

  34. Sorry – he died in 1966…….The Railrodder is free to watch online !

  35. admin says:

    I remember The Railrodder – it seemed to run with every film I went to for a while, and I could not call it a joy. It felt like a very old man trying to relive his finest hour (and you can’t begrudge him for that). I’m prepared to take another look but I remember thinking ‘This looks a bit Canadian.’ In the way that you’d check the credits of ‘Les Bicyclettes De Belsize’and find it was British.

  36. Helen Martin says:

    Admin, does that come under the heading of damning with faint praise. Perhaps you were overexposed to the film. It is a journey across Canada in which Keaton misses everything you might want to see. (The high level trestle in Edmonton for example.)

  37. Helen Martin says:

    I thought about it overnight and think I know what you mean about it being Canadian: very well meaning, a touch amateurish (in the direction), and obviously sponsored by the Nation. I still love it. I won’t suggest you watch The Log Driver’s Waltz, although it is very popular here, but if you want something soothing and thought free try Sky which is just a day in the life of the clouds in the Alberta foothills.

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