Why we are so slow to honour local heroes

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The Independent Online
Benjamin Britten should take heart. Aldeburgh council may not want to see a statue to the great man in the Suffolk town but he is only the last in a long line of the great, good and gifted who are acknowledged by all except the communities in which they lived and worked.

Aldeburgh's snubbing of the man who put the town on the map - as reported in yesterday's Independent - follows a familiar pattern. Dylan Thomas, DH Lawrence, even the comedian Tony Hancock, have all proved less than popular with locals than with the nation at large - although the chances of eventual acknowledgement appear to increase with the passage of time.

A list of English Heritage statues with listed status bears testimony to that. Oliver Cromwell gained recognition in bronze only in 1875 in Brooklands, Greater Manchester. John Wesley, the Methodist preacher, had to wait until 1932 in Bristol. "Perhaps your worth increases the longer you've not been around," an English Heritage spokeswoman said.

Certainly memories of the departed can hinder early recognition. Many in Swansea, for example, regarded its most famous son, Dylan Thomas, with distaste and suspicion because of his drinking and womanising.

Thus for many years the only tributes to the poet were funded by private enterprise and outside initiatives. The first, a stone memorial in Cwmdonkin Park funded by the US record company that first marketed his poetry readings, came only 10 years after his death. Even a statue in the city's new marina required private subsidy.

In Birmingham, three-quarters of people questioned objected to having a statue of comedian Tony Hancock in the city centre. And Grantham, Lincolnshire, currently has no statue of Baroness Thatcher. "We have an unwritten policy where we don't have statues to people until they die," a council spokesman said.

The British do not have the monopoly on such churlishness. The head of the Grandet Museum in Aix-en-Provence, France, refused to have any paintings by the town's famous son, Cezanne. Only after both their deaths did it acquire its first.

Even when a tribute is agreed, the form may prove explosive. Kirklees metropolitan council sparked protests this year over proposals to place a statue of Lord Wilson, the former Labour prime minister, in a multi- storey car park or on a bridge over the M62 motorway.

All were dismissed in favour of a central square, although the scheme has yet to be funded. The problem of funding was the key factor in Aldeburgh council's decision not to honour Britten.

Maurice Blik, president of the Royal Society of British Sculptors, said public sculptures in the form of memorials were a significant part of British cultural life and failing to support them could prove short-sighted.

"Statues are icons which somehow encapsulate an attitude or belief about that society at the time," he said. "Economic considerations obviously come into it. But in some developments, the cost of a sculpture is often a tiny percentage of the whole cost. A very small investment in works of art can make the difference. It's like a bowl of flowers on a table."