De­struc­tion is not the route to rec­on­cil­i­a­tion

Country Life Every Week - - Athena -

ATHENA—WHO takes a close in­ter­est in such things—was dis­turbed, a cou­ple of decades ago, to learn that some clever his­to­ri­ans were propos­ing that mon­u­ments and me­mo­ri­als ac­tu­ally help peo­ple to for­get rather than re­mem­ber. She con­cedes this much: when the stone is in place, we are bet­ter able to ‘move on’. This doesn’t mean for­get­ting, how­ever—rather, it in­volves con­trol­ling and fo­cus­ing mem­ory and grief. It’s a point that de­serves more at­ten­tion and ex­plo­ration in the light of re­cent events at Ox­ford.

This is a city es­pe­cially rich in pub­lic me­mo­ri­als. Some, such as the Mar­tyrs’ Me­mo­rial, com­mem­o­rat­ing the Angli­can bish­ops burnt at the stake un­der Queen Mary, still at­tract flo­ral of­fer­ings. Oth­ers, in­clud­ing the in­scrip­tion re­veal­ing that King John was born at the west end of Beau­mont Street, are not much no­ticed.

It is gen­er­ally to this lat­ter cat­e­gory that stat­ues of bene­fac­tors be­long. They’re sel­dom erected on build­ing façades out of an over­whelm­ing sense of grat­i­tude, more as a le­gal or moral obli­ga­tion or out of a sense of pro­pri­ety. In due course, such stat­ues, good or bad, and the com­plex rhetoric em­bod­ied not only in the word­ing, but also in the let­ter­ing and the ar­chi­tec­tural frame­work, be­come part of our his­tory.

Athena was pleased, there­fore, that one such—the statue of Ce­cil Rhodes on the front of Oriel Col­lege in Ox­ford—will be al­lowed to re­main. She ac­knowl­edges that the con­tro­versy has done some­thing to pro­mote his­tor­i­cal aware­ness. Fur­ther­more, she has sym­pa­thy for the dis­quiet that some mon­u­ments may cause and wouldn’t wish to deny that there are deeply dis­taste­ful as­pects to the im­pe­rial en­ter­prise that made Rhodes so fa­mous and so wealthy. How­ever, cam­paigns to de­mol­ish this and other com­mem­o­ra­tive sculp­tures mis­con­ceive their ob­ject.

In Bri­tain we haven’t of­ten re­lo­cated stat­ues (at least, not for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons) and still less of­ten have we smashed them (even the eques­trian Charles I sur­vived the Com­mon­wealth). In­scrip­tions, how­ever, have been sub­ject to ma­jor re­vi­sion. That on the pedestal of the Mon­u­ment to the Great Fire of Lon­don al­leg­ing that the fire was caused by Ro­man Catholics is an in­ter­est­ing case of ad­di­tion and dele­tion.

The ad­di­tion of the words ‘pa­tri­o­tism is not enough’ to Edith Cavell’s me­mo­rial in Saint Martin’s Place was an es­pe­cially ef­fec­tive and in­deed elo­quent in­ter­ven­tion that com­pletely al­tered the orig­i­nal pur­pose, but, at the same time, matched the no­ble re­solve of the statue.

Athena sug­gests that thought might be given to fur­ther in­scrip­tions at Oriel (although not nec­es­sar­ily on the street front, where there is no room). One of these might ex­plain the na­ture of the debt to Rhodes and an­other could pro­vide an ac­count of the price that Africans had to pay. This would be good for our his­tor­i­cal aware­ness. And it need not be in Latin.

‘The con­tro­versy over Rhodes has pro­moted his­tor­i­cal aware­ness

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