Stop This Monument Mania; Today an Inquiry Opens into the Controversial Nelson Mandela Sculpture in Trafalgar Square. Just How Many More Statues Does London Need?

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THERE is nothing as invisible as monuments," said the great Austrian writer Robert Musil, and he was right. How many people can name all those currently commemorated in Whitehall, or the reasons why? Or the locations in London of the statues to William III, or William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army? Or where the greatest Britons such as Charles Darwin or Florence Nightingale might be found? A few of you will doubtless enlighten me on these questions but, for the vast majority, the inhabitants of London's plinths are as obscure as unsuccessful contestants in Big Brother 3.

Few things, equally, generate as much heat as monuments that are not yet built. Think of the fun we had with the Diana Memorial, from the proposed garden in front of Kensington Palace, to the contest between a bright red dome of water in the Serpentine and Kathryn Gustafson's supposedly "safe" option, to the slippery, muddy, child-mashing thing the latter eventually became.

Think, too, of the endless debate about Trafalgar Square's empty plinth, or (those of you with longer memories), the row about Bomber Harris's statue in The Strand, which went up in 1992.

The main point of building memorials is the arguments to be had beforehand, so it's no surprise that a row has blown up over the proposed statue of Nelson Mandela in Trafalgar Square, by the sculptor Ian Walters. The row, to be resolved by a public inquiry that starts today, is between the Mayor of London, who backs the statue, and the City of Westminster, which opposes it.

In fact, both parties support the statue in principle, and differ only on the siting and design. Westminster doesn't want it to be on the square's raised north terrace, as is currently proposed, as it thinks the terrace should be uncluttered and left free for bus-top celebrations of Ashes victories and their like.

It has also found witnesses from the incurably bitchy world of art to damn the artistic merit of Walters's statue.

Ken Livingstone wants it as it is and where it is.

The case for a Mandela statue is strong, given that South Africa House faces the square, and was the scene of many protests and vigils against apartheid and against Mandela's imprisonment. It is a place dedicated to commemorating empire, so it is appropriate to remember there a leading figure of the post-imperial legacy.

The fact that Mandela will be the second Nelson in the square is a nice detail.

I also find myself siding with the art bitches on the statue's design. It seems to want to stress Mandela's humility, showing him in one of his floral shirts and with arms outstretched, but it would also be nine feet high. A humble giant, an oxymoronic entity that would, with its embracing gesture, be like nothing so much as one of those huge wobbling Mickey Mice who try to hug you at Disneyland, and from which all right-thinking children run screaming.

But the bigger questions are these: why, in the third millennium, is there still such enthusiasm for putting up something as old-fashioned as memorials, and do we really want any more of them? …


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