Columns Commemorating British History

By Wedd, George | Contemporary Review, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview

Columns Commemorating British History


Wedd, George, Contemporary Review


FASHIONS in art and architecture go as regularly as they come. There is a certain charm about a form that has a starting-point and a closure; I think, for example, of memorial brasses in churches: first introduced in the early thirteenth century, they flourished exceedingly until the Reformation, when for various theological reasons most of them were torn up; most of the rest were done away with in the Civil War, when warlike uses, such as manufacturing bullets, were found for the alloy, leaving just a small dribble to carry on into the Victorian period.

So it was with tall monuments. The oldest I can recall in modern Britain (setting aside Roman examples like the wonderful Trajan's Column) is The Monument in the City of London, built to commemorate the Great Fire of 1666, and carrying an inscription obliquely blaming Roman Catholics for it (causing Alexander Pope, himself a Catholic born nearby, to call it 'like a tall bully... [which] lifts its head and lies'). For two centuries or so, tall columns were an accepted form of marking something or someone noteworthy: from Newcastle to Truro, they dot the landscape, suggesting power and dominance. This was, after all, the period of the British Empire, and who had a better right to be proud and conspicuous than the British? We gave up columns shortly before we gave up the Empire, and I wonder if the two things are connected; we certainly did not give up public statuary, at least in London, where we are still building monuments, mostly to do with the Second World War: one thinks of the rather strange effort in Whitehall, to remember the role of Women in War, or the statue of Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris in the Strand, apparently built and placed to attract pacifist paint-throwers.

The period of columns was also, of course, the period of industrialisation, of factories, boiler-houses and tall chimneys, which could themselves be monuments of national importance. I think, for example, of Manningham Mills in Bradford, where before the chimney was erected the parapet was assembled on the ground to show that a coach and four could be driven comfortably round it; or the mill at Halifax where the chimney begins by hugging a hillside, and then, to get sufficient draft, bursts up from the hilltop in a good imitation of the Kutb Minar in Delhi (a tower feature with which we were all familiar from the illustrated magazines telling us about the Empire).

Nowadays, of course, the British are neither sufficiently informed about, nor interested in, their own history. The only column most of them could name is Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, largely because it is used in the popular press as an indication of the size of the latest cruise liner (along with London buses and football pitches). It is in fact one of the best-looking and best designed columns, guarded as it is by bronze lions designed by Sir Edwin Landseer, and well worth the intermittent large cost of keeping it in good order. Most other columns impinge on the public in the corner of an eye, as they speed along a motorway, and my first example is one of these, to be seen from the M5 in Gloucestershire by families going to the South-West.

South of Gloucester, near a motorway service area, it may be seen on the sharp but low escarpment of the Cotswolds, a fairly simple pillar. Anyone looking for it has to find the village of North Nibley, and there it is: a monument put up in 1894, for the (probable) four-hundredth birthday of a local boy, William Tyndale, the first translator of the New Testament into something like modern English. Simply to put the New Testament into English, and in a pocket edition at a reasonable price, was to strike a blow at the late-medieval Church. It enabled any 'boy that driveth the plough', in Tyndale's phrase - provided he could read, and a good many could - to know the essentials of Christian theology, to go beyond the simple, if edifying, tales about Jesus, Our Lady and the Saints which were the staple of late medieval spirituality, and to form his own answer to the question 'What must I do to be saved? …

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