Laura Gascoigne: Uncomfortable Truths – September 2020

Laura Gascoigne
September/October 2020

Six weeks ago, a Hampstead neighbour left a book on our doorstep. We have got used to acts of kindness from strangers; at the start of lockdown another neighbour posted a book of poetry through our door to cheer us up. My husband read it, and it did. But this book was different, as was its intention. It was a copy of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s bestseller Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race, with an unsigned post-it note attached. “I’m sure you are good people,” was the gist of its message, “but every time I go up and down the street the lamps in your window make me uncomfortable”. I can’t quote it word for word as it was thrown away. The book wasn’t thrown away; my husband read it. To me it smacked too much of re-education, and I disliked the passive-aggressive anonymity of the note.

The lamps have been in my family as long as I remember. They travelled with us from Cairo, where my father had opened the first English language bookshop after the war, to Belgium where he managed the Brussels branch of W H Smith and on to Cambridge, where he ran a university bookshop. The black figures supporting the lampshades – both dressed in Persian trousers, the man wearing a plumed turban and the woman a tasselled tarboosh – are not a legacy of the transatlantic slave trade: they represent Nubians in the service of an Egyptian Pasha.

The lamps, in other words, are Orientalist, part of that fantasy of the exotic East that swept through Europe in the 19th century, catching the imaginations not only of the sorts of sleazy Salon painters of slave markets and harems that now make us uncomfortable, but of Delacroix and later Picasso – a fantasy that made Arabian Nights a far bigger best-seller than Eddo-Lodge’s extended charge sheet of facts and figures will ever be. Imagination is a shadowy thing that fades in the full beam of facts and figures, yet it is the stuff of which culture is made. Still, nobody wants to make their neighbours uncomfortable or invite anonymous bricks unaccompanied by post-its through the windows, so the offending lamps are now upstairs lighting the desk on which I am writing this.

For good or ill, these lamps are part of my heritage; I won’t disown them, nor will I disown the rest of it. So here, for the record, is a full confession. My first word was ‘Abdul’, the name of our Egyptian servant; hearing my mother call him around our Cairo apartment I obviously thought I’d try it myself. If that makes me a dyed-in-the-wool imperialist, how about this: my father’s ancestor Sir Thomas Warner, a soldier in the service of Elizabeth I, founded the first British Caribbean colony on St Kitts where his tomb still stands. My grandfather Plum Warner was born in Port of Spain and moved to England to pursue his passion for cricket, eventually captaining the England team; his brother Aucher captained the first combined West Indies side. There was no money in non-professional cricket, so despite being knighted for services to the ‘gentleman’s game’ Plum left my father £50 on his death.

Does all of this make me feel uncomfortable? It’s my past and there’s nothing I can do to change it. History, personal and national, is a complex business which – forgive the cliché – is never black and white. But public statues are different from personal property. The people of Bristol were perfectly within their rights to object to public space being occupied by a monument to a slave trader who salved his conscience through philanthropy – an objection doubly justified by the fact that the statue was put up 80 years after the Abolition Act. In the same way, many of the confederate statues defaced or torn down during the Black Lives Matter protests in America were erected in the 20th century in reaction to desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement; in historical terms, they’re as fake as a Disneyland fairy castle. As the ancient historian Matthew Sears wisely remarked two years ago: “Let’s not forget that monuments tell us much more about those who set them up than those they represent.” New statues of Stalin are even now going up in Russia so that Putin can bask in the reflected glory of an earlier strong man who defeated the Germans.

What does Marc Quinn’s statue, Surge of Power: Jen Reid, tell us about the man who set it up? That he’s a shameless opportunist ready to piggyback on a black woman’s spontaneous political gesture for his own self-promotion. I punched the air myself when I heard that within 24 hours Bristol’s mixed-race mayor Marvin Rees had had the 3-D scanned and printed resin effigy hauled away in a skip lorry and was billing the artist for removal. Better still, the black British sculptor Thomas J Price, winner of a new commission for a Windrush monument in Hackney, denounced Quinn’s stunt as “yet another example of white privilege in action” and accused him of having a “saviour complex”. Ouch.

The trouble with empty plinths, of course, is the temptation to fill them. As Hew Locke – who registered his own protest against Colston in 2006 by encrusting a photograph of his statue with gewgaws – observed when the dominoes started falling: “The newly empty plinths are all potential Fourth Plinths”. God forbid. But can we fill them with replacement heroes? Is any public figure squeaky clean enough? And how will they be apportioned between ethnicities? Sadiq Khan’s newly formed Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm has got its work cut out. 

History will not be erased by removing statues, as the Democratic Football Lads Alliance – keen historians that they are – would have us believe. Ninety-nine percent of the population have no idea who the statues they pass everyday represent anyway, and would only miss them as figures in the composition of the urban landscape. For most people they’re just a shape on the periphery of vision, breaking up the harsh geometry of the city with a human form, a function that when made by actual sculptors – not Gillian Wearing – they fulfil very well. As such, we will miss them. Where they cause offence they can always be removed to museums or designated sculpture parks, like those on the outskirts of New Delhi and Budapest, to be ‘contextualised’ away from their original context. 

But we can’t remove all reminders of our imperial past. After all the offending statues have been taken away, what are we going to do about all the grand civic buildings built with imperial money? Dismantle them stone by stone and ship them overseas to the former colonies that paid for them with their blood, sweat and tears? Nothing in the historic environment of our major cities is guilt-free, but full reparation will never be possible. “Guilt is never of real use. Except for the guilty,” writes Bonnie Greer in July’s Art Newspaper. “Neither is historical ignorance”. Removing things that make us uncomfortable from our field of vision is pure hypocrisy. Everyone enjoying the relative wealth of this country today is benefiting from, if not complicit in, the history that made us rich. Don’t hide away the evidence. Deal with it.