This post was originally written last September after the huge global strike for climate; and was inspired partly by noting which statues the protesting children felt comfortable standing under and which they did not. Thoughts on the present moment at the end.
On the way down to last Friday’s climate strike and I found myself, not for the first time, staring up at the statue of Sir Douglas Haig in the middle of Whitehall.
Haig is sitting on a horse. He was a General and a cavalryman, so you might expect that. But there is something very odd about the horse. Haig looks as though he wants it to move on. He is leaning forward slightly, with a stubborn and bemused look on his face.
But his horse is an effigy of a horse. It has not been sculpted to show any sign of life, to look like a real horse frozen in a moment. It looks like a sculpture of a model of a horse, a statue of a statue. This peculiarly static quality might have been a subconscious expression of Haig’s inability to push his way through the trench systems at the Somme or Passchendaele; or possibly an ironic comment on his continuing belief in cavalry as a viable fighting arm right to the end of his life in 1928. He is riding a dead horse…as well as flogging one.
This is a bit like Diagalev’s comment to Ravel that his composition La Valse was not a ballet but a picture of a ballet. Composed as a tribute to Johan Strauss II and the classic waltzes of fin du seicle Vienna – the frivolous effervescence of a society in a condition that was “fatal, but not serious”- could not be anything else after the Empire that generated it was crushed into fragments by the First World War. The Habsburg Empire was dead. So was the Waltz.
So was the cavalry. The statue shows Haig as unaware – and he seems puzzled that he can’t make his horse move.
This is in contrast to the Blues and Royals trooper by Horse Guards Parade, who is sitting utterly rigidly, with the psychotic stare of the terminally bored – and the pornstache of thin men trying to be butch -with not a flicker of movement, but radiating hostility: while his horse takes a lively and friendly interest in the streams of striking school students pouring down towards Parliament Square.
Haig’s is the last equestrian statue on Whitehall. The last of the line. The final mounted military aristocrat after a thousand years of them. Behind him is the Duke of Cambridge. A plump late Victorian gentleman in full fig, commander of the British army for forty years, leaning casually back with complete self assurance; while his horse is showing signs that it is beginning to find his weight a bit too much to bear.
Haig is looking South towards the Cenotaph, memorialising all those men that he did for with his plans of attack. His head is bare, perhaps in penance: but his jaw is set and he looks stubborn enough to do it all again in exactly the same way because he does not have the imagination to think of anything else.
Looking back up at him are the craggier Generals of World War Two. Field Marshal Alexander is wearing jodphurs as a last echo of aristocratic horsemanship, his swagger stick behind his back, while Marshal Slim stands solidly with his huge slouch hat, grim jaw and mighty boots. Monty, on the other hand, looks straight across the road at Downing Street with a set and grim expression on his face – as though he doesn’t trust civilians to run the show.
In Parliament Square small children dance in the sun on the plinths of statues.
They seem to have chosen wisely – ones they feel safe on.
None are standing under Benjamin Disraeli, or Lord Palmerston, or General Smuts.
Some are standing among flowers, as though they have grown there.
Some are jumping up and down under the open hands of Nelson Mandela, giving them a protective benediction.
Other are doing the same under the spreading banner of Millicent Fawcett – “Courage calls to courage everywhere”- as Millicent stares sternly above their heads.
Ghandi has been left in peace, but someone has stuck an XR sticker on the hem of his shawl. He does not seem to be offended.
A few years ago I was showing a visiting South African Head teacher around London and, looking at the statues in Trafalgar Square, he murmured “Hmmm. Nation of warriors.”
I was quite shocked by that. Until that moment I hadn’t seen the message of these statutes. Had just taken them for granted. They had always just been there from when I was feeding pigeons as a toddler, part of the backdrop, somehow eternal, taken for granted, natural.
The messages that are most dangerous are the ones that are taken for granted, subliminally absorbed so they become just “what is”, common sense, normal.
What we choose to memorialise and honour in bronze and stone in our streets is a conscious choice. It defines our public space and who we think we are. They are like bronze bolts holding an oppressive reality together in our minds and making it seem inevitable.
The worship of the “heritage” that they represent is an endorsement of it. It does not mean an honest appraisal of Empire, but an attempt to cling on to its afterglow. Challenging their continued presence looming over us on their plinths is as freeing as clearing the air and roads of constant traffic has been soothing. It means the future need not be limited to the crimes of the past.
In acting together to take them down we are pledging ourselves to a future of possibilities beyond the limitations of the past, not an endless continuation of it “going forward.”