Category Archives: Statues

Shrines of London

 

This is an edited version of a talk I gave last year for the London Fortean Society about London’s shrines. I decided to repost it after visiting the David Bowie shrine in Brixton last week.

 

 

To prepare for this speech and in an attempt to get my head around what a shrine was, I began thinking about the simplest shrines you see in London – that’s usually flowers tied to a lamppost after a sudden often violent death or the ghost bikes you see tied to lampposts after crashes.

That got me thinking about the largest shrine I’ve seen in London. This was in those strange weeks after Diana’s death. I was in my 20s and strongly Republican and so had little interest in the public mourning, but an older friend suggested we go and see what was taking place at Kensington Palace as it was something that only happens once in a lifetime. As we walked across Hyde Park this strange smell began to creep across the park – and I can still smell it to this day, the acid sweet stench of rotting flowers. It was indeed an incredible sight. The area in front of Kensington Palace was carpeted with flowers, thousands of bouquets, already turning to compost in the summer heat. People were walking among them, stooping like peasant farmers or bomb disposal experts to read a label. I’d never seen or smelled anything like it. You could not get near the palace gates.

Just look.

What fascinated me also about all this was that it had a seditious, outlaw aspect. There was a lot of noise in the press about whether the Queen was treating Diana’s death with sufficient respect, and this huge impromptu shrine – by the people, against the establishment – was given the atmosphere of an almost revolutionary act. It was a fascinating combination – the privacy of remembrance, carried out on a larger scale with political implications.

So perhaps these are some of the key elements for a memorable shrine: they need to be in memory of a colourful life cut short, possibly violently and unexpectedly, but also be plebeian or proletariat in nature, carrying a sort of unofficial, rebellious, streak, upsetting the forces of the order and establishment.

Unsurprisingly. London is filled with them.

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A disarming proportion are devoted to rock stars. This is Freddy Mercury’s old front door in West Kensington, featuring primitive scratched messages from fans all over the world.

There’s also a more or less permanent shrine outside Amy Winehouse’s house in Camden Square. It’s interesting to speculate why some musicians get this treatment and others don’t. For instance, why has Abbey Road become a shrine for Beatles fans but there’s nowhere similar for the Rolling Stones? Perhaps a shrine needs a magnetic location, and the Stones have never created that particular relationship with any single space in the city, perhaps we will need Mick or Keith to die before we find out.

I used to live near Abbey Road, and they had to repaint the wall every two weeks or so such was the flood of graffiti, even though you’d never actually catch anybody in the act of doing it.

Similarly, I’ve always been slightly puzzled as to why Marc Bolan has attracted a shrine. This is the sycamore tree on Queen’s Drive in Barnes that Bolan’s Mini crashed into in 1977, killing him instantly. People have been leaving notes and flowers ever since, and now there’s a bust. Why Bolan? I like T-Rex but don’t really see him as the sort of shamanic, eternal talent you’d think attracted such a tribute.

Perhaps it’s simply the violent nature of the death that appeals to people. But the way his death tree – his cause of death – is being marked is inescapably macabre. In some ways, it makes me think of the old Bill Hicks line, that the last thing Jesus would want to see if he came back to Earth was another bloody crucifix.

That brings us neatly to the religious aspect of shrines. Even in the secular ones, it’s there under the surface, this primitive, sacred need to mark a spot and remember the dead devotionally. But London also has numerous religious shrines. There are two that particularly interest me. One is on Bayswater Road at Marble Arch, where there’s a small convent for nuns. In the basement is a chapel, with walls covered in ancient relics – skin, bone, bits of fingernails – pulled and plucked from some of the 350 Catholic martyrs who were hanged at Tyburn, the gallows nearby. Behind the altar is a replica of the gallows itself. It’s remarkably medieval and extremely weird, especially when a nice old nun is telling you about their favourite piece of shrivelled skin.

There’s also a really interesting element of the shrine found in the canals of west London. Here you often find coconuts floating in the water, sometimes cut in half and containing candles, sometimes tied with ribbons. I used to live on a narrowboat and would occasionally travel west to Uxbridge – the nearer you got to Southall the more you’d see.

I was told they were placed in the water by London’s Hindus in religious ceremonies, with the canal representing the Ganges. A recent article confirmed this: they are place in the canal as an offering to Maa Ganga who symbolises Mother Earth and also the elixir of life, as water is where all life begins. And why coconuts? A Hindu scholar has explained that “Coconuts are the fruit of the Gods – it’s a pure fruit with remarkable qualities, it takes in salt water and produces sweet fruit and it’s neatly packaged too. Also it’s a symbol of fertility, it reflects the womb, and has human qualities – it has two eyes, a mouth and hair.” It’s fascinating that this symbolism has been transported across hundred of miles and generations.

When I was researching this talk, I began to wonder whether London had any graffiti wall shrines – that’s public spaces that have been adopted by street artists to commemorate specific moments and remember people. I’m sure that these exist, but they are hard to pin down because of the transient nature of the form. London does have lots of murals, huge paintings, often commissioned by the community and with a political angle. There’s the Battle of Cable Street mural in Wapping and the Nuclear Dawn CND mural in Brixton. A lot of these are official, but it was interesting to read about the War Memorial Mural at Stockwell tube. This commemorates various aspects of war, with a section for Violette Szabo, who worked behind German lines in WW2 and lived in south London. More recently, artists decided to include on the memorial an image of Jean Charles De Menezes, who was murdered by the police in 2005. But there were disagreements – people felt he didn’t conform to the spirit of the overall piece. Eventually, he was painted out. But there is a small mosaic and shrine to De Menezes nearby.

Then there’s the really strange shrines. I had no idea until this week that the phone box near St Bart’s hospital had been briefly turned into a shrine to Sherlock Holmes after the TV show had him falling from the hospital roof. I don’t imagine there are that many shrines to fictional characters elsewhere in the world.

London also has a skateboard shrine. If you look over the side of the Jubilee Footbridge, you’ll see dozens of broken skateboards lying on one of those immense concrete feet that anchor the bridge to the Thames. These are boards that have been broken during skating sessions by the nearby skaters on the South Bank in the undercroft, and ceremoniously chucked over the bridge to form this strange graveyard.

Then there’s what for me is the saddest shrine of all, partly because it no longer exists. I used to see this all the time when I walked Farringdon, close to Mount Pleasant sorting office, where there are steps going up the viaduct. High up on the wall of one of these dank stairwells you’d see a dozen or so spoons stuck to the tiles.

I always wondered what this was about – even though I think I also partly knew. One day I asked the collective wisdom of Twitter and somebody told me what I’d always suspected: that these were placed here by heroin users in tribute to their dead comrades, each spoon marking a departed soul.

This summarises the essence of an urban shrine for me – it’s clandestine, it’s seditious, it’s violent, it’s about a form of martyrdom and above all it’s about remembrance. I was extremely sad to see the spoons had been removed when the bridge was recently repainted. It’s like those people, those lives, were erased from the public memory. Even as a shrine, they are not allowed to exist.

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Richard Fortey’s secret tour of the Natural History Museum

Some years ago, the writer and scientist Richard Fortey took me on a tour of his favourite items in the Natural History Museum. His book, Dry Store Room No 1, is one of the best books I’ve read about London museums.

1 ‘This is the collection of all known species of humming birds which I used as the cover for my book. It goes back nearly 200 years to the earliest days of natural history as spectacle. One of the amazing things is that the colours, the iridescent feathers, have survived so long. You can even see the tiny eggs, with the appropriate egg in it. This whole bird gallery is a survivor to the old days of the museum, preserved almost apologetically as an example of the classic gallery, but a lot of people still stop and look at it even though it’s just stuffed birds.’

Pregnant ichthyosaur fossil showing three skeletons of young inside her bodys 2. ‘This one of the great sea dragons, an ichthyosaur, a marine reptile. This one is particularly beautiful and informative because within the body cavity you can see here outlined in red, the remains of other smaller individuals. The question originally was ‘were they cannibals or did they give birth to live young’ and the answer is almost certainly the latter. These animals are very like porpoises and almost certainly lived the same way, gregariously and pursuing a very fast life that gave them no time to sit on eggs. But this is very easy to miss.’

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3 ‘The building itself. You can choose anything from the various animals and birds that adorn the interior. Even the pillars are based on the bark of trees. On the whole, the building moves from living to fossil as you go from one end to another and that is true also of the animals portrayed. In the mineral gallery, right at the end above a door on the left is a dodo. I also think that one of the monkeys has been made to look a little like Darwin.’

4. ‘The mineral gallery has probably changed the least since my early days and it’s also the least visited. It’s a classic systematic approach where all the minerals are laid out in cases arranged by chemical composition, so you could come here and learn some serious mineralogy if you started at one end and worked your way through. At the end, in the Vault, where particularly precious minerals are displayed, is something  called bournonite with black wheels shaped like cogwheels. This came from a Cornish mine that has since closed so this is really the only good specimen that will ever be found with this particular chemical composition. It’s now extremely valuable because the rarer something gets, the more valuable it becomes.’

5. ‘The blue whale, it might be obvious but it is remarkable. For a while, during the war, some people working here kept an illicit still in the belly of the whale. So even with the best-known exhibit, there are secrets to be had.’

The Natural History Museum's table tops

6. ‘Finally, head for the geology section in the mezzanine level. This used to be an old-fashioned museum in its own right but now it has been changed and in making space they only put back about ten per cent of the specimens. Each one is individually highlighted so it doesn’t give you the systematic overview or leave room for the quirkier items. But this table is still here. It’s a collection of North European ornamental stones all made into one table. You can even make out fossilised nautiloids of around 450 millions year in some of them, and also fossilised coral. There’s no label for it, nothing to say what it is and where it came from. You and I are probably the first people to have stopped and look at this for several weeks.’

London by the bollards

I have a piece in the Autumn 2013 issue of Completely London about London experts, those Londoners who specialise in esoteric subjects like lion statues, ghost signs and stinkpipes. You can read part of it here. My interview with John Kennedy, London’s bollard supremo, didn’t make the cut so I have reproduced it below.

John Kennedy, 47, taxi driver & writer of Bollards Of London
Most people in London get excited about the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace but when you drive a taxi you get bored of the norm and start to look around and notice other things. With me, it’s bollards. It actually began as a bet with ‘Big’ George Webley, a radio presenter. He challenged me to write a blog about something weird and it got picked up by the Guardian. Now I’m really interested in bollards, the way they look, where they are located, what they are used for and how we interact with them.

 

Bollards have so many uses but most people don’t notice them no matter how colourful, ornate or dandy they are. I really like the Anthony Gormley bollards in Peckham. I love that one of our great contemporary artists is making street furniture. I picked up Charles Saatchi recently and we ended up talking bollards, he found it quite amusing that I had a blog with pictures of 330 bollards. You do get some odd looks when you photograph a bollard – the other day I was spotted taking a picture by somebody. He said, ‘You must be the bollard man.’

Secret London: eight London shrines

I wrote this for the wonderful Curiocity, London’s finest pocket-sized trivia-and-map-packing magazine. Issue E, with a pilgrimage theme, is available at all good London bookshops. 

Tyburn martyrs
On Bayswater Road at Marble Arch is a small convent, unlikely home to a ‘cloistered community of benedictine contemplatives’, aka nuns. In the basement chapel, the walls are covered with ancient relics – skin, bone, bits of fingernails – from some of the 350 Catholic martyrs who were hanged on the three-sided Tyburn Tree during the Tudor wars of religion. Behind the altar of this ghoulish Martyr’s Shrine is a replica of the Tyburn gallows itself.

Giro, The Nazi Dog
One of London’s best known ‘secret’ sites, this little stone on Carlton House Terrace marks the grave of Giro, beloved pooch of (Hitler-opposing) German ambassador Leopold von Hoesch. Giro died while the German Embassy was at No 8-9 (now the Royal Society) during the pre-war Nazi era. He wasn’t really a Nazi, incidentally, as dogs rarely express a political preference (although I did once know one that would bark like a maniac if you said ‘Labour party’).

Bolan’s Tree
A sycamore tree on Queen’s Drive in Barnes has been a shrine to Marc Bolan since 1977 when Bolan’s Mini crashed into it, killing the singer instantly. A bronze bust of Bolan stands nearby.

Spoons

Holborn’s junkie spoons
Underneath a dank stairwell in Farringdon close to Mount Pleasant sorting office you might stumble across a wall stuck with a dozen mysterious spoons. Urban legend says these were placed here by heroin users in tribute to their dead peers, each spoon marking a new death.

Cross Bones graveyard
This parcel of disused land in Borough has been claimed by locals as a shrine to prostitutes said to have been buried on unconsecrated land since the 1500s, and they come here to lay flowers for the forgotten dead. In truth, Borough had many such graveyards and Cross Bones was used to bury the poor of both sexes.

Regent’s Canal coconuts
The further west you head along Regent’s Canal towards Southall the more likely it is you will come across a coconut floating in the water, sometimes cut in half and containing candles. These are placed there by London Hindus in religious ceremonies that sees the tiny canal replace the mighty Ganges.

Skateboard graveyard
Look over the side of the Jubilee Footbridge and you’ll see dozens of broken skateboards lying on one of the concrete feet that anchor the bridge to the Thames. These are boards that have experienced one olley too many and, beyond repair, been dropped to join their kin by South Bank skateboarders.

Postman’s Park
A shrine to everyday heroes, this park features a number of ceramic tiles dedicated to Londoners who died while saving the lives of others. A remarkable, very touching little spot created by the Victorian artist GF Watts.

Secret London: torture at the Temple

In some parts of London you can travel in space as well as time. Take the Temple. This characterful cluster of medieval buildings, gardens, courts and alleys wedged between Fleet Street and the Thames seems to have been uprooted from an Oxbridge college and dropped brick-for-brick in central London, just a heartbeat from the Embankment.

The Temple is a maze of cobbled paths and narrow arched doorways leading to small courtyards that have names like Pump Court and King’s Bench Walk. Most of the buildings are offices occupied by lawyers – this is London’s legal quarter, where barristers receive their training – but the area is also popular with tourists, who have found their way into this most secluded spot. They are here to see the Temple Church, one of London’s oldest churches and, with its distinctive circular nave, also one of the most atmospheric. It’s a building that exudes medieval mystery, and rightly so. Temple Church was founded by one of the world’s most intriguing secret societies, and continues to exude a curious, almost sinister vibe, a feeling that there is more to the Temple than meets the eye.

Even those who know the place well can sense the mood. ‘Buildings have memories,’ says Oliver the verger. ‘And this building has seen some turbulent times.’ Oliver is an intense young man who holds the keys to the secret parts of Temple Church. But that must wait. First, he offers a potted history, one that explains why the Temple is off the beaten track but very much on the tourist trail.

The great London writer HV Morton wrote in 1951 that ‘The Temple brings into the heart of a great city the peace of some ancient university town and the dignity of a past age’, and although the Temple area is redolent of Oxbridge its holy centrepiece is actually a stand-in for a more distant city. The Temple Church was built by the Knights Templars in the twelfth century. The Templars were a holy order formed in 1118 to protect European pilgrims visiting the Holy Land. Their base in Jerusalem was supposed to be the site of the Temple of Solomon, so the warrior-monks became known as the Knights Of The Temple of Solomon of Jerusalem, soon shortened to Knights Templars. The Knights Templars had churches and land all over Europe. In London they settled in Holborn but moved nearer the river in 1162, where they built the church. This great round edifice, the New Temple, was consecrated in 1185. Its circular nave paid direct homage to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the idea being that Londoners could visit Jerusalem without leaving the city. Such symbolism was easily grasped by medieval worshippers, who understood how one place could represent another and how the present could fold into the past.

The Knights Templars’ management of the routes in and out of the Middle East soon brought them great wealth, with which came great power, with which came great enemies. Rumours – started by rivals in other religious orders and the nobility – began to spread of their nefarious conduct, and of their sacrilegious and obscene initiation ceremonies, which took place on sacred ground, in London’s case in the crypt beneath the church. It was said that members spat on the cross, worshipped cats and practised ‘unnatural vice’ with each together. As hostility heightened, the end was inevitable and bloody. Phillip IV of France, who, coincidentally no doubt, was heavily in debt to the order, arrested leading French Templars in 1307 and through torture and imprisonment, gained lurid confessions about their immoral conduct. The order was dissolved in 1312.

Although the end for English Templars was not quite so brutal, the abrupt dissolution of the order – and the rumours that surrounded it – has provided fertile ground for conspiracy theorists. Some argue that the Templars were abolished because they knew more about the origins of the organised church than they should, others claimed that the Templars did not disappear, but were merely pushed underground and continue to operate to this day as a clandestine force that shape the world order. Novelist Dan Brown seized on versions of these myths for his blockbuster ‘The Da Vinci Code’, and, having done his research, settled on Temple Church as a suitably spooky location for some key aspects of the action.

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Brown was doubtless drawn by the dominant feature of the church, the ten statues of knights that lie on their backs on the floor in the centre of the circular nave. These stone effigies of dead Templars are frozen in time like Neolithic humans dredged from a peat bog. Despite having lain here since the twelfth century (one, commemorating Geoffrey De Mandeville, is dated 1144 making it older than the church itself; it is said to be here, because no other church would bury him), some have sharp, fine feature, while others have faces melted by German incendiary bombs. All look like they are covering something, perhaps an opening to a secret chamber. They certainly appear to serve some function greater than mere decoration. When you stand in the airless centre of this strange church, looking at this ancient stonework, you can feel the clammy arm of history encircling you. For centuries, Londoners and travellers will have stood at this spot, and bar some cosmetic changes – the church has been refurbished three times, by Christopher Wren, by the ever-busy Victorians and after the Second World War – will have gazed upon the same sight. Nothing has changed.

Oliver the verger interrupts my reverie with some subtle key jangling. We head over to a small door, which he unlocks to reveal a spiral stone staircase. We are seeking the penitential cell. This is where the Master of the Temple – the gloriously authoritarian title given to the church’s head priest – used to punish the unholy. The unfortunate Walter Bachelor was left to starve to death in the penitential cell after disobeying the Master, which is a particularly serious form of penance  as you can’t really repent after you are dead. The cell is halfway up the stairs and now has the appearance of a broom cupboard. It’s tall, but narrow, so a man can stand but not lie flat. Most disturbingly, it has windows overlooking the interior of the church, so those sentenced to starve could look down upon the statues of the crusaders, who would bear silent witness to the suffering taking place above. When we talk of a punishment being medieval, this is what we mean.

Oliver does not enjoy talking about the penitential cell, understandably uncomfortable with such ugly things occurring in the place he has to work every day. He also maintains a theological distance. He says this cruel punishment must have been a Templar thing, nothing to do with the organised church of the time. The Templars, it seems, are destined to play the role of scapegoats for centuries to come.

Oliver and the current Master, though, are happy to play the Templar connection to their advantage when it suits. Dan Brown’s novel brought unprecedented interest in their church, and the Temple suddenly became a hit on the tourist circuit. The Master wrote a book debunking the myths and generally tapped into the new-found interest. Now ‘The Da Vinci Code’ fever has worn off, but the Church has stayed in travel guides on its own merits, remaining a must-see for tourists from all over the world. Here they learn about the Temple Church’s history after the order was dissolved. After passing into the hands of the crown, the surrounding Templar land was given to barristers in 1608. They had begun to locate here from around the fifteenth century. After receiving the land rent-free, the barristers agreed to maintain the church and the Master in perpetuity. The most colourful example of them protecting the church occurred in 1678 during an outbreak of fire. The junior barristers quelled the flames with beer; it took six years for them to settle the brewer’s bill.

In preparation for the arrival of the day’s first tourists – and some are already milling outside waiting for their chance to snoop the ancient masonry – Oliver throws open the vast West Door. This huge arched door opens on to an easily overlooked alleyway, on the opposite side of the church to the large square that fronts the main entrance. It is a magnificent piece, thick regal wood surrounded by an arch of elaborate carved stonework. Nobody knows its age, although Oliver points out that some of the faded figures are wearing buttons, which were supposedly unheard of in Britain before the fourteenth century as they were associated with Muslims, the very foe the Templars were formed to fight.

Standing in this quiet spot round the back of the aged church staring at a door that by implication if not construction dates back to the twelfth century, it is easy to feel that you have slipped through time. One London writer, James Bone, said in 1919 that ‘At Temple, you are as close as an echo to the past’. Here, the echo resounds loudest and longest.

‘My heart’s in the highlands, wherever I go’

I’ll be taking a break from the blog while I go to Scotland. Speaking of which, I’ve never really got my head round Rabbie Burns, but this statue in Victoria Embankment Gardens is rather lovely.

Sadly, it’s no match for the nearby attractions of the remarkable York Watergate…

London’s finest camel…

Or the weeping bare-breasted maiden who thrashes impotently (and rather fetchingly) at the memorial for Victorian composer Arthur Sullivan.

I’m sure many of you will feel this way about my absence, but don’t worry, I’ll be right back… after a few of these.

 

Secret London: finding bits of lost London Bridge

When Old London Bridge was demolished in 1831, it was decided with typical Victorian frugality to sell off some of the old bits and bobs of stonework. Although they were ostensibly part of the medieval bridge, they had largely been added during an 18th-century reconstruction. The best surviving examples are the old stone alcoves.

There were originally 14 of these covered domes at the end of the piers. They looked rather like curved stone bus shelters and were so sturdy and useful that four still survive.

Two now stand in Victoria Park, having arrived here some time in the 1860s and offering a pleasant seat from which to view passing parklife or shelter from London rain.

One other stands in isolation in a courtyard in the grounds of Guy’s Hospital (now with a statue of John Keats as the London Historians blog explains), while the fourth, somewhat bizarrely, has ended up in the garden of a block of flats in East Sheen. This is the Courtlands Estate, and there were originally two alcoves, or ‘porter’s rests’, but one ‘disappeared’ during renovation in the 1930s, as did some balustrading from the Bridge that was used as a wall. Further balustrading was taken to Herne Bay, but this was lost in the storm of 1951.

An arch from the bridge was discovered in 1921 during the rebuilding of Adelaide House, but this was deemed too expensive to preserve and was destroyed. One stone, though, survived, and is now preserved in the churchyard of St Magnus the Martyr

One final bit of the bridge that survives can be seen above the door of the King’s Arms on Newcomen Street in Borough. This was the coat of arms that had been added to Stonegate – the bridge tollgate – during rebuilding in 1728 but was demolished in 1760.

Update Since writing this I have learnt of more rescued balustrades from Old London Bridge. These sit in Myddleton House Gardens in Enfield alongside a piece of the original St Paul’s Cathedral, which burnt down in 1085.

London’s seven statues of shame

When Mohamed ‘Al’ Fayed unveiled this extraordinary tribute to Michael Jackson at Craven Cottage, seasoned statue-watchers found themselves embroiled in a furious debate. Was this London’s worst statue?

Note: the statue is the one in the background

And then there are these: London’s statues of shame.

7. Peter The Great in Deptford
Because it is silly.

 

6 Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace
Pompous and bloated.

5 Charles II at Soho Square
For its condition as much as its, er, execution. But even if this wasn’t horribly weathered, I reckon it would look a bit shit.

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4 Oscar Wilde at Charing Cross
Disturbing. Like somebody tried to find the face of Jesus in a puddle of vomit.

3 Nelson Mandela at Parliament Square
I know, let’s imagine one of the great icons of the modern era, as if he was a THUNDERBIRDS PUPPET! The nearby statue of David Lloyd George’s cape is also appalling.

 

2. Horse’s head at Marble Arch
Stupid. Not to be confused with the almost as ridiculous Animals at War statue down the road on Park Lane.

1 The Meeting Place at St Pancras
Widely acclaimed as the worst statue in London, this monstrosity was brought to you by the same person responsible for the hideously smug Queen Mother statue on the Mall.

For a forensic analysis of this statue and its fauls, I point you towards Christopher Fowler‘s excellent critique of its numerous deficencies.

But the question remains: is Jacko worse than this?

Celebrating the noble tradition of defacing London statues

It seems to happen every time a march or protest takes place in London. A much-loved statue or monument is defaced, horrifying the sort of people who are horrified by this sort of thing while the rest of us wonder why nobody’s got round to throwing a bucket of paint at that godawful Animals At War monstrosity on Park Lane.

On Saturday, after the TUC and some kids dressed in black marched through the London to complain about stuff, it was the turn for the Landseer lions at Trafalgar Square to take a pasting.

lion

While the statue of Charles I received a more artful reimagining.

statue

Interestingly, this Charles I statue had already been manhandled by the mob – albeit inadvertently – way back in 1867 when a reporter climbed the statue to get a better view of a passing protest and used the sword to steady himself. The sword promptly fell off and disappeared into the crowd, never to be seen again.

Most people think that this habit of deliberately defacing certain statues is a recent thing, dating back to the inarguably splendid Winston Churchill turf mohican on May Day 2000.

But the London mob has a rich tradition of dressing up (or down, depending on your viewpoint) London statues. My favourite example is the treatment dished out to the statue of a mounted George I, which was cast in 1716 and placed in Leicester Fields in 1784. This received serious punishment over the years as children clambered all over it, so both horse and rider lost bits, and at one point the poor king was without head, legs and arms. But worse was to come.

In October 1866, after the state of the statue had been discussed in the Times, guerilla jokers attacked the statue at night, painting black spots all over the horse, replacing the lance with a broomstick and putting a dunce’s hat from the nearby Alhambra Theatre on George’s bonce. Crowds flocked to see the spectacle. It was cleaned up, but eventually sold for £16 and pulled down in 1872.

As British History online website comments: ‘It would be almost impossible to tell all the pranks that were played upon this ill-starred monument, and how Punch and his comic contemporaries made fun of it, whilst the more serious organs waxed indignant as they dilated on the unmerited insults to which it was subjected.’

Nothing changes, once again.

Why is there no London monument for the Blitz?

‘When I reached the end of Milk Street, I looked out towards Moorfields across an area of devastation so final and complete that the memory of it will always rise in my mind whenever I hear the word Blitz. There is a savagery, a fury and a hideous wickedness about the ruins of London – and of Berlin also – that chills the heart.’

From HV Morton’s ‘In Search of London’

The Blitz began on September 7th, 1940, seventy years ago today, when London was attacked by 300 German bombers. It lasted three months as London was bombed for 57 consecutive nights. Between September 7 and May 11, 1941, 18,800 tonnes of high explosive was dropped on Holborn, the City, Westminster, Shoreditch, Southwark and Stepney. Up to 20,000 Londoners were killed, many thousands were wounded and 3.5 million houses were damaged or destroyed.

And yet, astonishingly, London – a city of a thousand statues – still does not have a single worthwhile monument to the citizens who suffered the Blitz.

The story of the Blitz is a familiar one – see this wonderful propaganda film for an emotional contemporary look at London under attack – and while the ‘Blitz Spirit’ narrative can be trite and over-mythologised, there was undoubtedly some truth to it. Londoners had to deal with the Blitz in part because they had no other choice, but there is evidence that Londoners did more than just survive, they almost relished the battering they received. As  Humphrey Jennings wrote at the time, Londoners were ‘secretly delighted with the privilege of holding up Hitler’, while Phillip Ziegler said in ‘London At War’ that ‘Londoners made a deliberate attempt to seem nonchalant and unafraid’.

Peter Ackroyd suggests that Londoners might have been able to cope because of spiritual kinship with the destruction of the Great Fire, an idea that HV Morton pre-emptively pooh-poohs in his elegiac 1951 classic ‘In Search of London’. ‘The Fire was an accident and it lasted a matter of days. The Blitz was the deliberate attempt of an enemy to subdue a city whose watchword has always been freedom… the effect of these two events upon the population cannot be compared.’

Yet while London has a Monument for the Fire, it still does not properly commemorate those who experienced the Blitz. There’s a small park in Wapping, a couple of minor plaques – one by St Paul’s, near the firefighters monument, and one in St James’s Churchyard on Piccadilly – and dozens of plaques to individual explosions.

But there is no single iconic statue or monument prominently placed and devoted to the citizens of London in the manner of that for, say Animals In War, or any of the numerous monuments for different branches of the armed forces (Bomber Command are the latest).

This was first pointed out to me in 2006  during an interview with Jack Lohman, the Director of the Museum of London, and his museum does now contain a stunning WWII tribute. The Blitz room is a single stark shadowy space, with an unexploded bomb hanging from the ceiling. The walls show still images of the Blitz, while survivors recount their experiences on audio. It’s incredibly moving, but it isn’t enough.

Why doesn’t London pay sufficient tribute to its Blitz Spirit? I asked Jane Furlong, project co-ordinator of the UK National Inventory of War Memorials, and her answer boiled down to one word:  politics.

Furlong told me: ‘As with all memorials, it’s down to whether individual groups or people want to commemorate something. Also, is there a need of it among those who lived to tell the tale? There are lots of service veterans who want to make sure what they did is never forgotten and a memorial is the best way to do that and so they can go away and organise and make sure it happens. It is all down to having that desire, the community needs to take the lead.’

Bomber Command is a ready-made community that can easily mobilise to commemorate their place in history; London’s civilians are not. Of course, that didn’t stop the Animals In War memorial from getting built, but they managed to enlist the high-profile support of patrons such as the Princess Royal, Kate Adie, Vera Lynn and Joanna Lumley. 

If London is to get the Blitz Spirit memorial it deserves – a dignified sculpture in a prominent public place, dedicated to all Londoners who experienced the Blitz – it requires somebody to take the initiative. And that, ironically, would chime against the spirit of the Blitz: one of exaggerated nonchalance at what took place over London in the winter of 1940-1941.

So it seems for now that the sad and powerful room at the Museum of London and an easily overlooked plaque in the shadow of St Paul’s are the best we are going to get. 

But I think that is a great shame and that ordinary working Londoners, as Ken Livingstone might put it, deserve better.