As we stood there next to Crag Path, it was hard not to think of the man who once lived there, Benjamin Britten, founder of the other, more famous Aldeburgh carnival, its annual music festival. Britten did more than anyone - more than even the poet George Crabbe - to put Aldeburgh on the map. Yet the town council recently voted not to commission a statue to commemorate him, deciding that a park bench or two, or perhaps a firework display, would be more useful. The national press has been gleeful and indignant. There have been accusations of philistinism, and rumours of posthumous vindictiveness (Britten died 20 years ago), and an impression of churlish ingratitude.
I feel some sympathy for the people of Aldeburgh. They have handled the media naively. They have allowed some nasty prejudices, including homophobia and anti-modernism, to crawl out of the woodwork. They have behaved like landladies of middle-class seaside towns in Britain are supposed to behave, with meanness of spirit. They have surrendered to the yahooism of the yacht club and the golf club.
But, as I say, I feel some sympathy. Aldeburgh doesn't need a statue of Britten. There is a blue plaque on his house in Crag Path. There is the Britten-Pears music school, and the Britten-Pears library at Red House. There is the festival at Snape Maltings, and many concerts and recitals in the area which keep his work alive. In Lowestoft, his birthplace, there's a shopping centre named after him. The whole Suffolk coastal district is a kind of memorial to him.
In Victorian times, the desire of towns and cities to raise statues to their famous was perfectly natural - the public equivalent of family and friends erecting a gravestone. But these days it looks more like a cynical form of twinning, a way of hitching yourself to a celebrity in order to boost local tourism. In their approach towards writers and artists, town councils often resemble the patrons bitterly described by Dr Johnson in his letter to Lord Chesterfield: denying recognition when it's needed, they offer it when it's not.
Often they give the impression of grudgingly succumbing to the pressure exerted by lobbyists and societies - not to mention the press. The 50th anniversary of X's death, the bicentenary of his birth, the 125th year since the composition of his most famous work, and there will be "calls" for some kind of commemoration. A loose remark from some local spokesman, implying ignorance or indifference, and there's a controversy. Such stories come up regularly now. They're one of the few ways that art makes the headlines, along with rows over prizes, biographies that scandalise friends and family, and demands that a sexually explicit and/or violent performance or exhibition at the Edinburgh Festival be banned.
But do we need any more statues to stand lonely and encrusted by pigeon crap (or at Aldeburgh, seagull crap) in places that little resemble the places the honoured person knew and in forms that little resemble his body, either? Last weekend, there was a report - shock, horror - that the town of Beaconsfield has no plans yet to celebrate the centenary of Enid Blyton in 1997. A spokesman said that the town's only prearranged literary efforts next year are for the 200th anniversary of the death of Edmund Burke, who wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France while living there. The rival claims of these two writers are beside the point. What will come as news to many is that either had important Beaconsfield connections at all. The fact they do might be an argument for a guided tour or lecture, pointing out how a particular street here or incident there might have inspired Burke's opposition to slavery or Blyton's creation of Noddy or Big Ears. But it's doubtful how useful this exercise would be. Burke was born in Dublin, and his mind fed on events in America and France. Blyton country - the land where the Famous Five have their adventures, away from their homes and parents - is a sort of Cornwall of the imagination, not a bit Home Counties.
To put up a statue is to imply a solid link between the man (or, less often, woman) and the place he is standing. But just as marble and concrete miss the essence of what flesh feels like, so the statue of an artist (unless perhaps it's Rodin's Balzac) can tell us nothing about art. Art may begin in a place, but it doesn't end there. What we enjoy about music is its power to transcend: it lifts us beyond the places where we hear it or where it happens to have been composed. Much modern painting, too, strives to be universal, abstract, un-pindownable. Even the St Ives school of artists, who were given a name which ropes them in together by the Cornish sea, have a complex relationship to the landscape - a matter of grain and texture, not simple topography. The casual visitor to the Tate at St Ives, expecting scenic harbours or fishing boats, in the manner of Alfred Wallis, will be disappointed.
This isn't to deny that artists are shaped by the places where they are born or live. Benjamin Britten was when he wrote Peter Grimes, Albert Herring and Noye's Fludde - the Lake Poets were, and Thomas Hardy, and Ted Hughes, and Seamus Heaney, and even the St Ives school. The Scottish poet and novelist George Mackay Brown thought the Orkneys gave him all he needed to know of the world. But some artists merely inhabit places, passing through them or living out of them like suitcases - their real roots lie wider or elsewhere. Is the place that inspired David Hockney's paintings Bradford or Los Angeles? Shakespeare's official residence is Elizabethan Stratford-upon-Avon; his real home is all times and all places.
Perhaps it's a panicky sense that fewer and fewer of us have real roots that's creating our heritage culture, with its requirement that every artist be given a single grid reference on the map. Against the reality of increased mobility, we set these fixed monuments. Against the reality of increased homogeneity - everywhere looking like Milton Keynes - we evoke the spirit of place. But there has never been a straightforward, symbiotic relationship between the heart and the hearth. And not all writers feel sentimental towards their birthplace. I gave a reading recently with a gifted and celebrated poet who was performing for the first time in the city where he'd been born. It should have been a real occasion, a homecoming: special for his hosts, special for him. But it passed off like any other event. There was no extra frisson, no spurious claims on either side. This was only the place he'd happened to grow up in. It hadn't suffused his work.
All writers and artists want permanence - a second life, or afterlife, to vindicate them. Some, in their eagerness for recognition, accept honours in their lifetime (Benjamin Britten did, becoming a life peer six months before he died), and most would be flattered by the idea of a memorial once they're dead. But the work they leave behind is the only kind of permanence worth having. As for the rest, the marble busts, the blue plaques and the postage stamps, it's as insubstantial as a firework or Chinese lantern.
Neal Ascherson is on holidayReuse content