Until recently we had no doubt as to whom, among us, we should honour, nor to whom we should raise monuments. A general won a battle against Johnny French, the Dutch, the Hun: hoorah] raise a subscription. Let private soldiers, maimed and jobless be the first to vote with their bloody coppers.
Raise a palace to the designs of Sir John Vanbrugh to recompense the first Duke of Marlborough - and his illustrious successors - for his efforts at Blenheim. Deplore the death of the Iron Duke and raise him obelisks and columns throughout the British Isles. Kings and Queens and their ministers, stupid or cruel, must be commemorated by the greatest artists; philanthrophists, like Shaftesbury, might be celebrated at a push when we, the rich, feel comfortable with such nuisances as the abolition of slavery.
What did we say to those like Earl Haig, who led our chaps, from behind, 'over the top' in the Great War (killing my grandfather among tens of thousands of others)? We said 'jolly good show' to Field Marshal and chums as long as they were at school with us, rode well, kept a good table and bought their children houses (got to look after the children y'know). Raise a monument, we said, to a jolly good sport] Old Bomber Harris, too (killed my Uncle Jack, assisted by the Waffen SS): well done, old fruit] Never mind about Dresden (frightful place, full of boche]), the crews of 'Wimpies' and Stirlings (slow old crates, but they could give Jerry a good biff on the nose), or German civilians (all Nazis) - the Queen Mum will beatify you, old boy, by unveiling a statue in your memory outside the RAF church in the Strand, 50 years after the carnage.
If the people and events most public monuments commemorate are horrid, venal or bathetic, then many of the monuments themselves are well in keeping with their subject. Just look at the recent statue of Bomber Harris. Any pupil of Caius Cibber could have bashed out a more impressive study between supper and bed. London is full of dull bronzes of men of action.
Even Churchill looks a silly old bugger looming over Parliament Square as an overweight lump of crudely finished bronze, while elsewhere our city squares are trooped out with befeathered buffoons few of us can put a name to, let alone a battle or campaign. The horses they bestraddle are often wonderful creatures, which says much about the sympathies of the artists paid to portray the men.
In the most recent years, public monuments have been, almost uniformly, paltry things. We seem to be embarrassed by their very existence. Look at the sad memorial to Yvonne Fletcher, the young police constable gunned down gratuitously by a Libyan diplomat in St James's Square, London in 1987. It is so small and polite (presumably to satisfy planners) that it is all but irrelevant (although by being so small, twee and hidden by chauffeur- driven cars, it is intensely moving).
Or look at the Queen Mother's Gates on the south-east tip of Hyde Park: pure unadulterated kitsch. An appropriate monument, you might say, to today's tabloid Royal family, yet a scratch across the face of a city that deserves better.
It is not that we did notably better in the past when celebrating the Establishment and its pet heroes. Look at Rear Admiral Nelson perched on the top of that ludicrous Corinthian column in Trafalgar Square. Nelson's column is a hugely popular tourist attraction, yet who, when they stand back and look it at anew, can refrain from laughter at such a silly sculptural conceit? In any case, the Priapic Regency sailor is almost invisible to all but the feral pigeons who crap on his 'scrambled egg' and the stonemasons who give him a wash and brush-up every so many years.
In other countries the problem has been much the same; whenever an inflated ego is eternalised in marble, stone or bronze, absurdity and incredulity is never far away. Look at all the Maos in China, the Lenins and Stalins of the former Soviet Union, the Hitlers of the 12-year Thousand Year Reich, the Schwarzenegger-style Saddam Husseins of Iraq and all the other monuments due to be razed in the near future.
My point is this: monuments to individuals are rarely likely to move the spirit of later generations. And this is because they represent little else but vanity. Those responsible for the careless slaughter of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people for the greater glory of their social group and memoirs are celebrated in statues, postage stamps and histories. Those who despoil our rural landscapes today with their sad superstores, leisure centres and executive cul-de-sacs are knighted, decorated and offered eagerly accepted peerages.
Those like Frank Pick (1878-1941), who created what was once the finest public transport system in the world (London Transport) and who fought for art for all men in all areas of life, lived and died, through choice, undecorated and uncelebrated. This man went to the grave as he had come into the world, in two blunt syllables - Frank Pick - and remains all the more heroic for it.
We have no monument either to the brilliant young architects of the turn-of- the-century London County Council who built some of the finest public housing ever. Their monument is the decent homes they created for ordinary Londoners, Londoners employed by those to whom decorations were awarded and monuments raised.
Perhaps this is why the most moving, relevant and memorable monuments of our time are those designed to commemorate unknown and, largely, forgotten people. I have long been moved to silent tears by the great cemeteries laid out to remember those slaughtered in the First World War. The German cemeteries - small slabs of granite sunk into turf between forests of trees that sing with the wind - are the most moving of all.
I cannot put a moustache or Iron Cross to any of those young men, but I feel their valour and suffering keenly, as future generations will continue to do. So too, do I stop whenever I alight at platform one, Paddington station in the hope of reading the letter from home that Charles Jagger's Tommy, weighed down by his heavy kit, is studying so intently. Here is a monument to everyone who has ever been far from home, lonely, imprisoned or under threat of death. 'Kings' and 'Castles', 'Warships' and 'Westerns' may have given way to Inter-City 125s at Paddington, but age cannot weary the power of this statue.
Nor can it diminish the sight and memory of that greatest of all modern monuments, the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, Washington DC. Designed by Maya Lin, this relentless stretch of lustrous black marble recalls the name of every poor Jack who died needlessly fighting for a political concept - the domino theory - that existed only in the minds of paranoid, vote- conscious politicians.
When you see grown men, who have coursed the heart of darkness in order to indulge the whim of a social elite, trace out the incised names of their comrades, beat Lin's walls with their fists and cry hot tears, you feel instinctively why so many monuments mean nothing to most ordinary people.
For the collective memory to hold them dear and recall them for generations to come, public monuments must be just that: dedicated to the public and to true public heroes and not to those who have and continue to exploit ordinary people politely in commerce or rudely in war.
ONE TO CHERISH 'The greatest of all modern monuments, the Vietnam War Memorial, Washington (above). For the collective memory to hold them dear, public monuments must be just that: dedicated to the public' Photograph: Erich Hartmann/Magnum FOUR TO TEAR DOWN 1 Nelson's Column (top left): 'Who can refrain from laughter at such a silly sculptural conceit?' 2 Bomber Harris (top right): 'Any pupil of Cibber could have bashed out a more impressive study between supper and bed'. 3 The Queen Mother's Gates (bottom left): 'Pure unadulterated kitsch'. 4 Blenheim Palace (bottom right): A case of caviar for the general Photos: Tom Pilston, Edward Webb, Peter Brook/Rex (Photograph omitted)Reuse content