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Saturday, October 08, 2005

National biography in Trafalgar square

If you have access to the Oxford DNB have you used the theme biography section? It lists groups of individuals and gives the background to the history that unites them. They range from the members of the amateur athletics association to women members of the British parliament.

One article discusses the men and woman who are depicted in statue form in Trafalgar square. Of course as we all know the man on the column in the middle is Horatio Nelson. The other people are: Sir Charles James Napier, Sir Henry Havelock, King George IV, John Jellicoe, Admiral Sir David Beatty, Andrew Cunningham, Edith Cavell and King Charles I.

Critics have argued that Trafalgar square no longer represents what Britain is today. There's just one woman, and everyone else is white, privileged and a member of the establishment. Napier is sometimes known as the conqueror of Sind. Havelock helped to put down the Indian mutiny. Nelson, Jellicoe, Beatty and Cunningham were admirals. Charles and George were kings. The only politically correct person there is first world war nurse Edith Cavell, who has recently been joined by a sculpture of the naked and pregnant artist Alison Lapper. To those who are ashamed of Britain's imperial past the square is an embarrassment.

Trafalgar square is what Britain thought it was before it became a more inclusive society. Removing any of those statues would be rewriting history. I think as well we should not detract from the achievements of the individuals depicted there. They all did important things. What we need is to balance it out with statues of other British heroes. Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole and Jack Straw (the leader of the peasant's revolt) come to mind. I'd also like to see a sculpture depicting sixteenth-century Catholic and Protestant martyrs. Even something representing the factory workers of the Industrial Revolution would be good.

I think it'd be a mistake to start adding contemporary figures. We don't need Diana or Bob Geldof or whoever some people might have in mind. It would spoil the feel of the square and it's not necessary because there are so many figures from earlier centuries who deserve depiction.

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