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Statue Phobia 2020?

13 June 2020

Statue BP?

You may have seen in the press that the statue of Robert Baden-Powell (BP) on the quayside at Poole Harbour looking across the Brownsea Island has been listed on a website of statues liable to defacement or attack due to some of his views. This led the local Council to propose its temporary removal and a spontaneous defence of the statue by people claiming to be acting in the interests of Scouting. There’s a picture in the newspapers of two “Rover Scouts” guarding the statue. Every movement attracts people less attached to reality. I’m too young to have been a Rover Scout which were abolished in 1967 so, and with due homage to the late Marty Feldman, they must be “Rover Scouts of no fixed abode”. But thanks for your interest and nice uniforms-there’s always volunteers for dressing up I find, especially if you’re a long way from home.

The BP statue and that of Edward Colson the slaver from Bristol deposited in the harbour have only one thing in common-they were both erected many years after the deaths of the subjects. In Colson’s case 200 years and BP’s nearly 70 years, long after all, or nearly all, the people who actually knew them were dead.

Clearly they were meant to recognise something else other than the actual person or they would have been erected sooner. Maybe the later charitable works carried out by their bequests or the movement which developed from their ideas. But it’s very hard to erect a statue to an idea.

Everything “historical” is subject to later revision and re-interpretation. My generation’s actions allowing profligate use of fossil fuels will be inexplicable to future generations grappling with the consequences of climate change, it’s possible that in the future “big car driver” and “frequent flier” will be a deserved insult. And of course, even more speedy and consequential will be the historical analysis of our efforts to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. Is it clear that prominent figures won’t be condemned for their failures?

Cards on the table here because somewhere will be a photograph of me, not just in blackface but entirely blacked up save for a loincloth when as a Wolf Cub I played the part of Mowgli in the Wigan Scouts Gang Show in about 1962. The toe curling horror of this event gave me a life long fear of asking Cubs to dress up, however much they wanted to, which is why I jettisoned this age old Scout “tradition”. Some older ones of you may remember my deep disquiet when Cubs in my Pack either spontaneously dressed up or were dressed up involuntarily by their parents.

Traditions are made by people, at Beech Hill Junior School in Wigan we queued up at one end of the school under a large terracotta sign BOYS, probably made by Billinge Hall Brick and Terracotta Company and the girls queued up at he other end, about 200 yards away. We didn’t think this was odd, which it was because once inside it was entirely co-educational. Neither did it seem odd when, either in response to some edict from the Department for Education or a well meaning local twit we were instructed in the English “tradition” of maypole dancing. Why a group of scruffy kids from Beech Hill, Wigan some of who still wore clogs, were so instructed in a “tradition” from some pastoral national past also passed us by. What my parents who were more used to the old British traditions of post war slump, unemployment, poverty and actual war thought it’s now to late to find out.

We never thought when we left Scouts on Friday nights that it was at all peculiar that we all wore huge Bowie knives on our belts round to the chippy or that it was strange that we also had another huge clasp knife in our pockets in case a rope needed splicing or a stone removing from a horses hoof. Both knives would be illegal to carry now.

Few people’s views or actions can withstand later scrutiny. I grew up in the back streets of Wigan in the 1950’s and 60’s. Casual racism, homophobia and intolerance even of southerners (which my dad from Hackney experienced) were everyday occurrences. As of course were school thrashings, cruel ridicule of the disabled, social exclusion of “others”, avoidance of “fallen women” and religious intolerance. The whole was punctuated by periodic judicial executions including some people who later were proved innocent. We had larger concerns of course, that we would be obliterated by the Soviets and doubted that the official advice to hide under a table (tables were more substantial then) would save us!

We all read comics like the Hotspur which featured, indeed largely consisted of, comic strips where brave, noble and honest Tommies gave the filthy, ill shaven, square headed Hun their just deserts. I vividly remember one long running strip which involved a battalion of the Pioneer Corps armed only with picks and shovels overwhelming an entire Regiment of heavily armed Waffenn SS. I don’t recall the disastrous Norway landings (which prompted the resignation of Neville Chamberlain), Dunkirk or the overwhelming of Singapore and the capture of 120,000 allied troops being well covered in the Hotspur!

A horrific memory of my Grammar School days was a master (that’s a teacher!) finding a group of boys re-enacting part of a Nuremberg rally, which they may have read about in the tale of a plucky British spy in pre-war Germany.

The 8 or 10 boys were lined up and the master progressed down the line whacking each boy hard on each cheek accompanied by the loud call of “Zeig” and “Heill” at each blow. He was incandescent. Only years later did I understand why. He had a Jewish name. He’d presumably be sacked and arrested now.

BP and Winston Churchill were both rather divisive characters during their lives. BP never managed to unify the Scout movement even in the UK and there still exist other national associations in addition to our majority Scout Association. There were substantial feelings that BP’s direction was overly militaristic, which, since he was influenced by the pre existing Boys Brigade and had been a wartime army general isn’t surprising. This was partly responsible for a failure, by him, or subsequently, to bring all Scout Groups under his banner and for the formation of the Woodcraft Folk and the separate continuation of the British Boy Scouts Association which both still exist as  alternative young people’s movements. Even the idea that he is widely credited with of a young people’s corps developed from the Cadet Force used at the siege of Mafeking drew on the original idea of  Lord Cecil, the son of the Prime Minister who was besieged with him.

There are some shameful episodes in Scouting, some which seem comical from this perspective. Perhaps the most comical is the Scouts own McCarthy witch hunt of the 1950’s when young members of or sympathisers with the Communist League were expelled and a debate in the House of Lords was not voted on following an impassioned address by Lord Rowallan, the then Chief Scout. More recent files released from MI5 reveal that they were concerned about communist infiltration of the Scout movement. Which does explain why my proposal in 1967 as Patrol Leader of Falcon Patrol in the 12th Wigan (St.Andrews) Scouts (when we discussed re-naming patrols after prominent historical figures) to rename Falcon as “Leon Trotsky Patrol” didn’t receive the support I thought it merited.

However BP’s reputation was mostly secured by his actions to re-build Scouting after the Great War in which 10,000 former Scouts and Scout Leaders are estimated to have died, including 37 from Hackney Scouts alone.   The movement of which BP remains the figurehead and early pioneer, did go on, by the work of thousands of volunteers who were enthused by him throughout the world, rich and poor, wise and foolish, able and less able, to help young people develop, make friends, join in outdoor adventures and make shared mutual progress in their own communities with tolerance and acceptance and accessible shared endeavour-an idea drawn directly from BP’s first camp on Brownsea Island. It is this which is worth honouring and if this requires a figurehead then so be it.

Nobody erected a statue to Winston Churchill after his participation in the last cavalry charge of the British army, or after his catastrophic landings at Gallipoli which pointlessly wasted the lives of 43,000 Australian, New Zealand, British and French Troops (and where Major Clement Atlee, the future Prime Minister, was one of the last men off the beach during the evacuation and whose statue outside the closed down Limehouse Library was also vandalised in 2003) or after, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he returned the pound to the gold standard exacerbating the 1930’s depression.

His statue in parliament square was erected, but not until 1973, 8 years after his death and certainly not at the end of the war in 1945 when he was voted out of office by a huge majority.

However as a representative figurehead of British resistance to fascist tyranny and the important role he paid in building support from the USA and giving support to our wartime allies in Soviet Russia to win the war he does stand to be honoured

There really ought to be a statute of limitations on statues so that say 70 years after erection in a public place its location has to be re-affirmed by the local community.

Rome was full of the statues of Emperors, which were promptly removed when the Emperor fell, was killed, poisoned or just died. There must be thousands of statues and memorials to Queen Victoria, whose views would not stand current exposure; there must be some time when they go naturally even just due to deterioration.

If you own a family grave, traditionally the deed refers to “in perpetuity”. This in graveyard management terms means 70 years after the last interment. If your remains can be disturbed after 70 years surely the same must apply to your likeness in stone or bronze.

PS. If anyone erects a statue to me I’d like it to represent me in my pomp in the 1970’s or 80’s when I had a full head of hair and big black beard, can you make me a couple of inches taller and have me doing something vigorous on the summit of Glyder Fach or in a canoe? If the latter make sure I’m wearing a buoyancy aid so, when I’m dumped in the harbour, I’ve got half a chance.

Can you also please delete any reference to my Mowgli appearances?

John Lechmere

Assistant Group Scout Leader

1st Upholland Scout Group (1918)

13 June 2020