Pedestals? There has been a great deal of debate since the statue of Colston was knocked off its pedestal in Bristol and given an unexpected bath. Should later generations be invited to look up to figures from history at all? Should modern sensibilities be applied to the subjects of public art created in different times? How should subjects of public art be selected? What places some individuals on pedestals to be revered by the rest of us?
It is arguable that no person should be an object of hero-worship – for that is what a public statue suggests. What figures merit such unqualified appreciation? Which have no foot of clay? And yet there have throughout history been figures regarded at some point as being worthy to be examples to others. Religions have their saints and martyrs, armies have their leaders and warriors.
Inheritance, wealth and position
A census of public statues would probably list more monarchs and aristocrats, though, selected not by merit but by inheritance, wealth and position. Was it his wealth accumulated through slave trading that made Bristol look up to Edward Colston; or his philanthropic ways of spending it? Both were based on the corpses of fellow humans.
In Sussex, what was it about Dukes of Devonshire which places two of them, the 7th and 8th, on pedestals in Eastbourne? Was it heroism, humanity or talent? None of these. They inherited vast wealth from their predecessors, including much of the land on which Eastbourne was built under their aegis in the late 19th century. You might think that this would be memorial enough without added statuary. But there they stand, superciliously looking down on the mere mortals who actually made the community.
Today, the 12th such duke, Peregrine, still receives rent and has covenants over Eastbourne, thanks solely to his parentage.
Harry – have we been duked?
And Harry Windsor? There is another form of ‘pedestal’ for his ilk which he shares with monarchs and hereditary landlords: his unmerited title. This too sets him above the common herd, to be looked up to. The Duke of Sussex would probably struggle to locate his Duchy on a map or demonstrate any enthusiasm for it, for he has no historic nor proprietary connection with the county. Were the people of Sussex asked about this use of our place name? No. Did anyone want a Duke at all? Probably not. Has he come down to bond with or do any good to “his people”? No, he lives 5000 miles away. He is nonetheless placed above us all on his titular pedestal, the gift of his grandmother, another titled dynast, joining accidents of birth, slave traders, colonial pillagers and monarchs’ fixers in the elite stratum of our class-ridden society.
Whilst it would be tempting to advocate the abolition of all public aggrandisement of people who, in many cases, have merely had the right parents or done their jobs, it is clear that the public acclaim for some is strong, if temporary. Given the opportunity to select idols, how many would vote for 21st century royals, politicians or aristocrats as worthy of being looked up to, literally or figuratively?
Every hero is someone’s villain
The tribalism which so affects our discourse would almost certainly guarantee any choice of candidates for pedestals infuriating as many as it pleased. Brexiters might wish to celebrate the extraordinary influence of Nigel Farage in the politics of the last 2 decades, setting aside the damage done to millions of lives by the consequences of his effectiveness. To the anti-woke, the mere mention of Greta Thunberg, an example to many throughout the world, is enough to raise blood pressure dangerously. Every hero is someone’s villain, which is why such language should be used with great economy and why public celebration should be treated very carefully. Placing anyone or their image on a pedestal should be the prerogative of whom? Perhaps there is a need for celebration of some lives, but whose? What criteria should apply?
Patronage and privilege or inspiration and thought-provoking?
It may be unnecessarily mean-spirited to suggest that nobody should be honoured but it is questionable whether any are worthy of being placed above others on a pedestal, marble or nominative. Rural counties like Sussex are not heavily populated with stone or bronze figures. Those that there are fall largely into the category of patronage: Queen Victoria looks down on Hastings and Hove; Dukes of Devonshire on Eastbourne; George IV on Brighton. Chichester has its patron saint, Richard. All are there to remind us of our place but are largely ancient history. Perhaps more inspiring are notable local figures like Max Miller and Steve Ovett in Brighton. Such erstwhile neighbours have more relevance by virtue of their achievements and local associations but perhaps even professional success should not suffice for memorialising, when it is so often driven by personal ambitions. It is those whose merit transcends their chosen profession who set the most laudable examples; those who go the extra mile to do good but perhaps even their elevation should await the end of their lives, in case less worthy aspects of their lives may cause regret. Memorials can be inspiring and thought-provoking: the wonderful Windrush memorial; the unknown soldiers on war memorials; the Burghers of Calais and Lewes’s Tom Paine come to mind. These do not aggrandise their subjects nor look down on their viewers.
For most successful people, their life’s work is memorial enough; or perhaps a blue plaque in the right place at most. Oh, and Harry, if you do not want the limelight, how about jumping off your pedestal and dropping the Sussex title? You manage without the others you used to have; and many of us would say we can manage without you.