Fogland Lighthouse – Episode 17: Suggestions for a Monument

“The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal and hasten the resurrection of the dead.” – William Lloyd Garrisson.

Presented by Jack Dean & Company, a disabled-led, artist-run non-profit telling stories about how things could be.

Content warnings: strong language, descriptions of genocide, discussions of white supremacy & racial violence.

Transcript:

This is Fogland Lighthouse. I’m Jack Dean.

Suggestions for a new monument, to be placed in the city centre of my hometown of Exeter, on hearing that the City Council withdrew its plans to remove the statue of General Redvers Buller in the face of new laws by central government preventing any such action being taken.

  1. A plaque. A big one. Vulgar and ostentatious. Nothing like the tasteful, unobtrusive blue ones on the walls of houses around the country, not like the tiny sweet, unofficial one on blackwell road that reads “I don’t like text in art, but walking along this road with girl I loved was the happiest I’ve ever been”. Not like the tactful, equivocal information panel put up by the council and the university across the street from him. Make it industrial, glossy, whatever the metallic equivalent of the vistaprint fifty quid standing banner is. Burj Khalifa chic, the indelible imprint of the early 21st century.  Make it speak to the times. Not the skewed version of classical antiquity channelled by the faded blue bronze of the statue itself or its many counterparts around Britain. Not the early Edwardian sensibilities of the people who built it either. Let it speak to the now, visibly anachronistic. Let it arrest the flow both of imagined historical continuity and of traffic on the B3183. Because it needs to tell you not just about the people who put it there, but the people who kept it there. Let it tower over the statue it stands next to, Redvers riding his horse Biffen in the shade of it. And let the inscription read.

Here is a statue of Redvers Buller. He was born into a rich noble family, studied at Eton, and gained officer rank in the army not through military accomplishments, but through buying it, as was the custom at the time. He fought on behalf of the British Empire, which, let’s just admit it, let’s just stop fucking lying to ourselves and each other about it, was an organisation that robbed indigenous peoples across the world of their wealth and resources, usually at gunpoint, to enrich a small group of white men of which Redvers was one. An organisation that gave birth to the transatlantic slave trade, and decided it could only end it by reimbursing the slave owners with a government loan so massive that taxpayers spent two centuries paying it off. Redvers fought in a series of battles. Battles in which he fought bravely and often put the safety of his men above his own. Battles which nonetheless were overwhelmingly concerned with suppressing attempts at independence and self-governance by populations held under the Empire’s gilded boot. He was promoted to the rank of General, and took command of the entire force deployed in the Second Boer War, a fight between two white populations over who should control the African land they stole. Having much more physical courage than strategic insight, he managed to lead an army of half a million soldiers from the most advanced, organised and well-supplied war machine in the world to a series of defeats at the hands of a dutch and african militia about a tenth of its size.

He faced criticism of his leadership in the press because of this, and gave a speech defending himself at a public lunch. This broke the military code of gentlemanly conduct that he had so carefully lived by, and he was fired for it. But the wealthy people of Exeter, who thought that he was a local boy done good, who like the people of this plaque’s era, wanted to ignore the moral and political failings of their country in favour of a vague sense of glory, raised money to put up a statue to him, which he got to see unveiled while he was still alive, while the band played God Save the King, and a Choir sang Land of Hope and Glory. A statue that the government of the early 2020s forbade its citizens from moving to somewhere else, like, say, Crediton, which is where he was actually fucking from.

  1. A statue of Elsie Knocker, facing Redvers like a knight heading into a joust, riding not a horse but a Chater-Lea brand motorcycle, complete with a sidecar holding her friend and colleague Mairi Chisholm, goggles down, helmets on, scarves blowing in the wind. Elsie was born in Exeter in 1884, the daughter of a doctor, but was orphaned by tuberculosis at just six years old. She was adopted by a schoolteacher, who must have seen something of her independent spirit, and ensured she got the best education money could buy. She married young, but the marriage fell apart quickly. Since divorce was socially stigmatised at the time, she just told everyone he’d died in Java, because who was really going to check? There was no Facebook to look the guy up on. She trained as a midwife and developed a lifelong love of motorcycling. She was planning a big trip around Hampshire and Dorset with Mairi when the first world war broke out. Suddenly playtime was over, and those motorcycles and their riders needed to go to work. Mairi got a spot on the Flying Ambulance Corps, and persuaded them to hire Elsie along with her. They soon met with the grim reality of the front, the waves of wounded coming in much faster than they could ferry them back to the field hospital behind the lines. Elsie and Mairi left the corps and went where they were most needed, setting up a medical station just a hundred yards from the trenches. Their polite act of desertion left them without a source of funds, so they begged, borrowed and flattered their way into securing the resources they needed, a steel door from Harrods, some supplies from the Belgian garrison. Multiple times they pulled troops straight off the battlefield, carrying them on their backs under hails of gunfire. Amongst all this they still found time to take photos of the war, so that this awful mess, the collapse of moral integrity and leadership that had caused these terrible wounds, would never be repeated again. And when it was, in 1939, she rolled up her sleeves again and signed up at 55-years old for the Womens’ Auxiliary Air Force, rising to the rank of Squadron Officer, helping get pilots patched up and ready for the next mission. She couldn’t do this for her son Kenneth when he was shot down over Grenningen in 1942. She left after that,  first to look after her foster-father, then to breed chihuahuas, roaming Ashstead common with packs of them, in large earrings and huge dark coat, stylish to the end. Keep the plaque short on this one. Maybe just us the quote from one of her fellow corps members: “She had an irresistible inclination towards the greatest possible danger.”
  1. A Monolith

Cut from black granite, reinforced with steel, permanent, a hundred metres tall, doubling the height of the cathedral’s South Tower, cutting a thin dark band across the skyline like a glitch in a computer display screen. The height is necessary not just for emphasis, but to hold all the names inscribed on it. When the Boers and their allied African militias turned to guerilla tactics, the military command, of which the now-demoted Redvers was no longer the chief but was still a member, frustrated that there was nothing to direct a cavalry charge at, decided to develop a new concept. The concentration camp, the Empire’s gift to the world, where they would seek to send every single civilian member of the Boer population, and a good chunk of the African one,  after burning their fields and slaughtering their livestock, until the guerillas’ morale or supplies gave out. These are the names on the monolith, the 40,000 people who died in these camps of starvation, disease and murder, a quarter of all those who were sent there. Many of the names will have to read “unknown”, because the paperwork of genocide rarely accounts for such trivialities as names. Because if what the apologists say is true, if remembering is what all these statues are about, then let us truly remember it, in all its stark concreteness, the reward and the cost, the pride and the shame.

  1. A statue of Gytha Thorkelsdottir, sword in her hand, facing outwards from where the old East Gate used to stand. When William the Bastard issued demands for fealty to every city in England in 1067, Exeter wrote back declaring itself an independent commonwealth, and when William marched west early the next year to quash this rebellion, Gytha, the mother of the slain King Harold, stood at its head. When WIlliam demanded they surrender, one of the citizens, and this is from a primary source, pulled down his trousers and farted at him. Of course, the city would fall, and Gytha would flee, but for a flashing moment we were defiant, we were independent, and we swore allegiance to no Empire and no King. 
  1. An organisation, capitalised with Exeter Uni’s 48.7 million pound endowment, and funded annually with half of Devon and Cornwall Police’s 384 million pound budget,  that provides a network of high-quality low-rent housing for everyone, built in the abandoned office blocks and commercial units left by the pandemic and austerity, bound by its charter to reinvest all surpluses into building more new good cheap homes, including enough free emergency units to house every homeless person in the city forever. Because monuments don’t have to be lumps of bronze or granite, they can be living. Viewed a certain way, these living monuments are all around us. The NHS has been called a living monument to the dead of world war 2, a monument that doesn’t just sit there saying “gosh wasn’t it terrible”, but works to get rid of the problems that caused the war,  those of poverty and insecurity and and distrust and despair, so that it can never happen again. Let the housing units be named after Churchill or Shakespeare or any old dead lionised white man you want, as long as it comes with a new form of Listed building status that means they can never be sold off for private profit. Let us view heritage not as the preservation of chiselled formations of rock and metal, but of a way of life. Instead of dates or battles or lifespans, let us wake up every day and remember a commitment, as solid as stone, to protect the vulnerable, to empower the weak, and never be the bullies of the world again.
  1. A bronze figure, lying on its side next to Redvers, scrawled in graffiti, with a plaque, much smaller than the one in the first suggestion, that reads. “Statue of Edward Colston, slave trader, gifted to Exeter by the people of Bristol, who on 7th of June 2020, decided that information panels were not enough, and pulled this statue down and rolled it into a river. Four of them were charged with criminal damage. All four were acquitted by a jury of their peers, a decision upheld by the Court of Appeal. These are the historical facts. What you do with them is up to you.”

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