It’s time to find a retirement home for some of London’s less-loved memorials, says Ellis Woodman
While it remains to be seen whether Lord Ashcroft’s claims about the prime minister’s misspent youth prove well-founded, the Tory peer has also long concerned himself with ensuring that we remain mindful of some more tragic episodes of recent history. Having previously provided significant support for the Bomber Command Memorial and the National Memorial Arboretum, Ashcroft made a large donation earlier this year towards the Sun on Sunday’s campaign to establish a central London memorial to the British veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The morality of our involvement in those conflicts continues to be debated, but few would deny that British soldiers’ sacrifices deserve to be honoured. The relevant question is: how? Picking one’s way through the innumerable memorials that clutter the centre of the capital today one can’t help feeling that remembrance is in danger of becoming a national pathology. Alongside statues dedicated to military heroes and monarchs stand structures designed to commemorate victims of terrorism and natural disaster – in some cases, tragedies that did not even unfold on British soil – while others, such as the Princess Diana and Animal in War memorials, seem intended to assuage a sense of collective guilt. It is not just the quantity of these structures that invites concern but their scale and their frequently bombastic or sentimental expression. Gavin Stamp has noted that if every British Empire soldier killed between 1914 and 1918 were to have marched together in rows of four to the Cenotaph, when the front of the column arrived in Whitehall its tail would still be at Durham. Yet Lutyens’ design commemorates this unparalleled horror with exemplary concision and dignity. The Women of World War II memorial erected further down Whitehall in 2005 is emblematic of the failure of so many later memorials to follow that lead. Bearing a twice life-sized depiction of the uniforms worn by women during the conflict, the structure’s kitsch literalism proves singularly inadequate to its representational task.
A more abstract approach also carries dangers. While Carmody Groarke’s field of stainless steel posts commemorating the victims of the 7/7 bombings ranks among the most considered recent examples, the photograph widely published this summer of homeless Romanians camping at the site begged the question of whether its minimalism adequately connected with a general audience. Peter Eisenman’s holocaust memorial in Berlin invites similar fears. The website Grindr Remembers comprises a grimly appalling catalogue of selfies, each taken by a user of the gay dating app against a background of Eisenman’s chic concrete totems. Sanctity is an imaginative construct that designers may fail to engender if they stray far from the received vocabulary of commemoration.
The UK is currently developing plans for a national holocaust memorial whose central London site will be announced soon. The project is surely long overdue and deserves to become a permanent fixture of the capital but it is tempting to ask whether the time has not come to remove some of the city’s less resonant memorials. As the life or event that it commemorates passes into history, a memorial’s significance inevitably lessens. For instance, we might already ask whether Jan Smuts, the former prime minister of South Africa, is a figure of such importance to our nation’s story that his 1958 statue deserves its place in Parliament Square? The solution may lie in a programme of relocation to other parts of the country or perhaps in the establishment of a retirement home, where elderly memorials can share each other’s company, out of sight and out of mind.