current affairs

A response to Will Self’s attack on Trafalgar square

I read Will Self’s London Pride? article in the Travel section of the Guardian this weekend (21.1.12) with mixed feelings.

I read Will Self’s London Pride? article in the Travel section of the Guardian this weekend (21.1.12) with mixed feelings. On one hand, being Self, I was happy to understand most of it, and yet on the other disappointed at his description of Trafalgar Square as ‘one of the most crap urban spaces in the world.’ Self, whom I much admire as a writer, seems to think of it as a corridor, a place that is lacking in cafes, buskers, ethnic food stalls etc, and indeed it is – but haven’t other parts of London been blessed with all that and more? Surely the whole point of Trafalgar Square is, if you are a tourist, a resting place; somewhere to sit and decide where next to visit. Which exciting road to follow out of the square itself? And if you are a Londoner then it is great to have an open space to walk through or sit in and enjoy the occasional big screen entertainment, be it opera or pop, as you make your way from one part of our eclectic city to the next. 

I have to admit to having a soft spot for the Square which is quite remarkable considering my first memory of it. I think I was about five years of age and I was promised I could feed the pigeons when we got to Trafalgar Square. (Don’t be alarmed my parent’s weren’t being rebels – those were the days when peanut sellers were allowed to do just what they said on the tin so that people could happily amuse their five year olds by feeding the pigeons.) However when we arrived the sellers had done a brisk trade that morning and had run out of peanuts. The story goes that I threw a tantrum (as if) and for years afterwards every time the word peanut was mentioned I threw it all over again. If that is true, I have since come to terms with my disappointment.

However, many years on from that incident, but many years ago, I spent a fun New Year’s Eve there with a group of friends. I think it was in the days before they shut the fountains off at that particular time of year, but I can’t guarantee that as my memory on the matter is very hazy for some reason or other. I do remember wishing every single one of the policemen lining up along the steps of The National Gallery a happy new year though which was quite a number as they were stood shoulder to shoulder at the time.

More recently however in 2009 I took part in Antony Gormley’s Fourth Plinth project One and Other. This involved members of the public standing/sitting/lying/dancing/doing whatever they pleased providing it was legal on the plinth for an hour at a time for 100 consecutive days. The idea being to display a portrait of Britain made out of 2,400 hours of 2,400 people’s lives.  It courted a great deal of controversy and support in equal amounts. I ended up in a radio debate with some so called ‘top brass’ from Arts Watch who wanted to take Gormley to task for ‘abusing art’. How could that be when it created such discussion and made people talk about art in all its forms?

The reasons I wanted to take part were varied. Of course it was a once in a lifetime opportunity; when else was I going to be allowed to stand on a public monument without being cautioned or at least arrested? It would be something interesting to tell the grandchildren. But also my love of Trafalgar Square and its surrounds had a great deal to do with it.

I decided to take onto the plinth 12 pairs of shoes to represent each of the five minutes I was up there. I was known at the time for my love of shoes, so it was a part of me being able to represent the journeys we make, (real or imaginary) and the people who walk through the square every day. I had my notebook and pen so I could write some poetry if the mood took me, plus I also took some flowers, as I had always wanted to give flowers to strangers. Lets face it, was going to be a safe distance to try this out.

One image I remember from the plinth is the face of Big Ben glowing like the moon. It was 1a.m and there is something magical about London at night – even Trafalgar Square, Mr Self. Being up there at that time of night I did wonder who might be passing through the Square – if they’d be sober enough to engage or even if they would want to express their right to argue about the plinth project. As it happens the people I interacted with were very friendly. They wanted me to give them a drama lesson, listen to some poetry and discuss my shoes (oh well if you force me…). The point I’m trying to make here is surely the square is as good as the people passing through it. That is what gives it its life and soul surely? Be it tourists, late night revellers, children chasing pigeons, commuters hurrying through perhaps oblivious of all around them except maybe their twitter feed on i-phone or Jonny-in- the-office’s latest Facebook status… or dare I suggest disgruntled writer’s who feel that ‘what’s needed …(is) Horatio’s nob chopped off halfway down; or at least one of the lions upended.’ 

So I would say in its defence, give Trafalgar Square a break. You might not like the mix of ‘petrified generals’ alongside the ‘frothy or fun’ but that I would say is exactly what London public spaces are about. It has been a cultural space open to the public since the early 19th Century. I for one hope it stays that way.