Monday, November 29, 2004

the fourth plinth
Trafalgar Square might be not be the first place tourists would think of when asked to name a London landmark. But still, anyone who has spent a bit of time in London wil recognise that the Square is a vital part of the centre of the city, geographically tying together various cultural elements of modern and historical British life.

From its centre we can radiate outwards to Buckingham Palace, or to Parliament Square. On the North Side of the square you can visit the National Gallery, or wander up Haymarket either to the theatres or to Piccadilly Circus and on into the bars, clubs, restaurants and strip joints of Soho.

Sitting in the square itself, you can look upwards past the pigeons and into the cloudy grey skies where your eyes will meet the man whose efforts made the Battle of Trafalgar worth building a monument for. It was at this battle in 1805 that Admiral Lord Nelson defeated the combined Spanish and French fleets, assuring Britain control of the world's seas for the next 100 years and setting the scene for the peak era of the British Empire.

Three other figures have statues in the Square, all of them people you'd almost never have heard of, all of them intimately involved with the growth of the British Empire in Indian and Asia. Yet these three men, seated on plinths at three of the corners of the square, are missing a fourth illustrious comrade.

The fourth plinth, pictured above, has never been permanently filled. Even now there are no clear ideas about who or what to put up there, and so it has become a home for all sorts of opportunistic marketing exercises, and temporary displays of contemporary art.

Whilst I don't want disparage the obviously great cultural contribution the "Hotel For The Birds" has brought to the British nations and people, I can't help feeling that all these ideas are completely off the mark. Whilst it is slightly more noble than a Ford Fiesta covered in pigeon poo, even the idea of a statue of Nelson Mandela is still just not cutting it for me as a serious candidate for permanent residence.

The whole of the Square is dedicated to victory, glory, conquest, empire. The period of empire has left an indellible mark on modern Britain, shaping our diet with tea and curry, shaping our society with immigrants from the former colonies, and shaping our language with words like pyjamas, ketchup, gingham and tattoo. And yet the empire is no more.

The empty fourth plinth seems to me to capture that essential problem we seem to have as a nation - the problem of moving on, away from past grandure into something unknown. As it sits empty it is a comment left unsaid about our history, and as it is filled with the temporary and the ridiculous it is a diversion from the business of our future.

I can't think of any more suitable way for Britain to move on historically than for a statue of Mahatma Ghandi to be put up there on that patient spot.

Not only is Ghandi one of the most revered historical figures or recent times, he was also the most influential figure in the effort of colonised nations to achieve independence, thereby bringing empire to an end.

In placing Ghandi on that plinth, Britain would be admitting and symbolising even in our very infrastructure that the empire is the past. We would be accepting the changed face of the nation that has resulted from that period of history, humbly denting the image of white supremacy. It might even help us find the confidence we need to take our next historical steps.

Given the choice, which would you take? Ghandi? Sarah Lucas' pigeon poo car, which apparently would be "a recognition of the abandoned car culture of less salubrious areas of London."? Or something else salubrious?

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