That Boris Johnson is a fool hiding under the cloak of intellectualism is not in dispute, but sometimes he utters a nonsense that is actually worth interrogating. Take his defence of statuary and condemnation of the very concept of maybe removing some of them.
We cannot now try to edit or censor our past. We cannot pretend to have a different history.
Let me tell you a story.
My grandfather, who died long before I was born, was the sort of person I’d imagine Johnson would admire. He was awarded a medal for bravery in the First World War. In the Second he slept in the factories of Birmingham as an ARP Warden, on the front line of the Birmingham Blitz. Between the wars he established Ashton & Moore a metal finishing company with a wealthy business partner which still trades in Birmingham today.
Like I say, I never knew him. The Ashtons lost their share of the company when I was a young boy and the Moores were bought out in 2004 so I have as much connection with the business as I do with the totally unconnected Ashton Engineering in Digbeth. It’s technically part of my history but it doesn’t affect me in any way. I wasn’t brought up in Birmingham - that I live here as an adult is purely coincidence and nothing to do with family.
Ashton & Moore was based for a long, long time on Legge Lane in the Jewellery Quarter. After the buyout in 2004 the company moved to Hockley and the building lay empty, waiting its turn on the regeneration roundabout. This finally started a couple of years ago, and here’s where it gets interesting.
The building where my paternal family made its living through most of the 20th century has been turned into residential flats. Like many such developments they have taken the historic use of the building as their cue in naming it. The new development is called, drumroll please, The Million Pen Building.
Because it turns out the building that Messers Ashton and Moore purchased “was originally built in 1893 as a steel pen manufactory for George W. Hughes, the creator of The Million Pen.” It’s a nice story and certainly more appealing that referencing a business which dunked metal in baths of toxic chemicals, but it does seem to, I dunno erase something.
To be clear, I find this amusing and a nice illustration of how the heritage industry, in an effort to preserve history, can quite successfully erase it. Victorian buildings seem to have an authenticity and glamour that 20th century ones lack, presumably due to it being far from living memory. And the irony of the social evils of Victorian society being cleaned up by 20th century progressives to the point where their descendants can enjoy Victorian romanticism at remove while erasing the history of said progressives, is nice and chewy.
Johnson is one of those people who thinks the Victorian era and the British Empire weren’t all that bad. And I’m prepared to blame his sheltered upbringing and intellectual laziness over any inherent evil on his part. He just doesn’t understand how history works.
It is a matter of record that Winston Churchill, in his youth and middle age, was a fucking dick. It’s very fair for people who were colonised and people who were fighting for workers rights at home to see him as a villain. It is also a matter of record that Winston Churchill played an important and essential role in defeating fascism in Europe. He also, to his credit, did not dismantle the nascent socialist welfare state when he came back to power in the 1950s and was an enthusiastic supporter of European Union. Whether this was due to populist opportunism or educated enlightenment is not for me to judge but, like many significant figures in history, he was complicated.
I personally think that, if we are to have statues of dead leaders, it is reasonable and good to have a statue of old-Churchill outside Parliament. I think it is also good that we, as a society, develop a more nuanced understanding of where this man who helped save democracy from tyranny, came from and why many people would consider young-Churchill a very bad man. To paraphrase the poet Chuck D’s appraisal of Elvis Presley:
Churchill was a hero to most
but he never meant shit to me you see.
Straight up racist that sucker was.
Simple and plain.
Motherfuck him and David Livingstone"
To mark something or someone with a simple statement or monument is to literally edit and censor the past. History is complicated. Statues are not. When you name a street or building after someone you are pretty much saying the conversation is over. It’s a statement so loud and clear that it drowns out any dissent.
Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. As a society we need to be held together by loud and clear statements. Without them we dissolve into partisan, atomised units unable to function as a whole. You know, like you see on Twitter.
The trick is to balance the power of these statements with the reality of the society they’re supposed to be unifying. Because if they’re not doing that job then it’s probably time to retire them. Just as the Victorians retired what came before them to better reflect the reality of an imperial power, there’s a good case for retiring aspects of the Victorian era to better reflect out post-imperial, progressive reality.
I’m a bit torn on Gillian Wearing’s A Real Birmingham Family, a sculpture which uses the language of classical statuary to explore civic identity and challenge preconceived ideas of family. I applaud it’s aims but, as I often do, I think a better solution would be to have no statues at all. Wearing has replaced one dogmatic idea with another, because statues can only be dogmatic. I think this does some damage to a position that needs to be flexible and fluid. Statues are a tool of dogma. Better to fight dogma with a different tool, maybe?
But I am probably wrong and I can see what her sculpture is trying to do. It is a statement which reflects Birmingham’s reality. It reflects us more than the other statues in that area might. It is, above all, a good thing. If we are to have statues then they should be in this spirit. The only real problem with A Real Birmingham Family is that it stands alone.
The problem isn’t that history is edited and censored. In many ways the very purpose of history is to edit and censor, to manage the raw materials for the manufacture of myths that hold nations together. The problem is that a disturbing number of people don’t seem to realise that our history has been edited and censored and don’t realise that they can be part of that process. Indeed how important it is for them to be part of that process.
It is good and healthy that we find ourselves having national and local debates about the statues in our cities. Some of them have probably outlived their purpose and need to go to the museums where we look after all the other artefacts that have lost their purpose. Others have not. We have to decide this for ourselves, as a society. And if that decision process is not permitted, or worse, not open to all, don’t be surprised when one of them ends up in the river.