Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

How to rescue Trafalgar Square

Walking through Trafalgar Square recently, I was pleased to note that the incongruous statue of a naked pregnant woman with no arms had been removed from the ‘fourth plinth’, but disappointed to see that it had been replaced by something still more out of harmony with the aesthetics of the square: a multi-coloured glass sculpture (pictured above). For those who do not know, Trafalgar Square, in the very heart of London, has a plinth in each of its four corners, three of which have long been occupied by statues of King George IV and two nineteenth-century British generals, Sir Charles James Napier and Sir Henry Havelock, while the fourth was empty until 1999. Since that year, the fourth plinth has been occupied by a succession of sculptures by contemporary artists. Lacking the vision and the courage to choose a suitably worthy figure for a statue on the fourth plinth, the London authorities have simply turned it into the site for displaying pretentious artwork that rightfully belongs in the Tate Modern or on the South Bank, and that destroys the visual balance of our capital’s central square.

The best that can be said for this arrangement is that it prevents the fourth plinth from being permanently blighted by whatever monstrosity the Powers that Be would probably select for it. London Mayor Ken Livingstone is on record as having suggested the removal of the statues of Napier and Havelock as well, on the grounds that ‘I think that the people on the plinths in the main square in our capital city should be identifiable to the generality of the population. I have not a clue who two of the generals there are or what they did.’ Such a mentality really is beyond parody – one could joke that Livingstone would probably like to tear down Lord Nelson (‘Nelson who ?’) and replace him with the statue of an EastEnders star, a Big Brother contestant or a large-breasted ‘celebrity’ like Jordan or Abi Titmuss, but it would not quite do justice to the sort of wilfully destructive philistinism that his statement reflects, reminiscent of Chairman Mao’s assault on China’s architectural heritage in the Cultural Revolution.

Livingstone has, indeed, emulated Mao’s genocide of China’s sparrows with his own campaign to rid Trafalgar Square of the pigeons for which it was famous. Another of his innovations has been the scrapping of the traditional ‘Routemaster’ double-decker bus and the introduction of the widely despised ‘bendy buses’. The excuse that the Routemaster was unsafe for passengers and unsuitable for disabled people was never very convincing – Livingstone’s rival mayoral candidate Boris Johnson is apparently backing the introduction of a safer and disabled-friendly version of the Routemaster, an idea that appears obvious. But it is not just politicians of the Left who have shown themselves ready to destroy London’s heritage: the Conservative era saw the replacement of most of our red telephone-boxes with a hotchpotch of different but equally characterless phone-booths that, as I understand, are the consequence of the privatisation and breaking up of our telephone network.

The problem is not modernity or newness. London’s two most iconic landmarks are probably Big Ben and Tower Bridge, which are both relatively recent additions to the capital, dating only from the second half of the nineteenth century – the same period that gave us the statues of Havelock and Napier in Trafalgar Square and, indeed, Paris’s Eiffel Tower. A thoroughly modern yet beautiful building like the City of London’s ‘Gherkin’ can rapidly and rightfully become a treasured landmark. The problem is small-mindedness and philistinism. The most depressing aspect of the whole Millennium Dome fiasco was that such a unique and spectacular building should have been built with only a limited lifespan – the Victorians built great buildings that continue to define London today, while our contemporary politicians do not seem to think in such grand terms.

The danger of erecting a permanent statue on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth is that it might prove the occasion for an act of architectural vandalism. One of the oldest colleges in Britain’s second-greatest university – Oxford’s Balliol – has been architecturally ruined by the addition of modern extensions that jar with the older architecture. In Cambridge, one of my personal favourite pieces of the university’s architecture, Pembroke College Library, built in the 1870s, has been ruined by the addition of a modern extension, as shown in the image below:

Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth needs a statue that will merge both visually and thematically with the existing statues and with the square as a whole. Given the patriotic and military theme of the square, and the fact that two eminent generals occupy two of the other plinths, I would suggest a distinguished British military commander of our own age. One possibility might be Major General Sir John Jeremy Moore, who died last year at the age of 79 and was described by the Guardian’s obituary as having been ‘the most famous military commander in Britain’ and by the Daily Telegraph’s as ‘a household name in Britain, most of the English-speaking world, and in Argentina’. The choice of Moore might therefore satisfy even Mayor Livingstone. Moore commanded the British land forces in the Falklands War and received the Argentine surrender. This was, of course, a decisive factor in the overthrow of the military dictatorship in Argentina and the restoration of democracy.

The Falklands victory is often viewed by liberals and leftists, in their all-too-typically self-centred manner, simply in terms of its supposed role in keeping Margaret Thatcher in power (‘Stuff the Falkland Islanders – all that matters is that Maggie loses’). Even though the Labour leadership itself supported the military campaign to liberate the islands. Even though it is a myth that Thatcher won her second election victory because of the ‘Falklands Factor’ – the Conservative vote actually declined in the post-Falklands 1983 general election in relation to the previous general election in 1979. The Conservative victory in 1983 had much more to do with other factors, above all the weakness and unpopularity of Labour and the split in its ranks that gave birth to the Social Democratic Party. It is a disgrace that even a genuinely defensive war against a fascist aggressor, waged cleanly and with minimal civilian casualties, should be condemned purely on sectarian domestic political grounds. Erecting a statue of Major General Moore on the fourth plinth, quite apart from honouring a distinguished British soldier and visually rescuing Trafalgar Square from its current aesthetic martyrdom, might help to give the Falklands campaign the profile it deserves.


Wednesday, 2 January 2008 - Posted by | Falklands, London, The Left, Transport

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