The Problem With Defacing Street Names & Statues Without Context
It would be very easy for me to sit here and write a feature on why it’s right that statues have been taken down, especially the one of Edward Colston in Bristol last week, but now it seems what once would have been seen by historians and activists as a monumental leap forward in civil rights has now been hijacked by ill-informed vandals.
News reached me today thanks to esteemed Beatles tour guide Jackie Spencer, an expert in the field of The Beatles, of the fact that perhaps the most famous musical road in Britain, Penny Lane, has experienced sone of the worst graffiti of the protests. Go to any sign on what otherwise would have been an insignificant street in Liverpool’s leafy suburbs, and you’ll see that the word Penny has been graffitied out, with a supposed link between that small backstreet immortalised in a Beatles hit and Atlantic slave trader James Penny.
On the surface, you see the name of a road and then with the renewed and justified uproar about the Atlantic Slave Trade, put two and two together and find that Penny Lane is named after James Penny. It’s not as simple as that unfortunately – road names aren’t as easy to deduce from as a statue of Edward Colston or Sir Francis Drake. The truth of the matter is that since these protests have since been hijacked by violence, then every street name that has been named after anyone will soon be graffitied over without any prior knowledge of why that street has a specific name. This is a prime example of people putting two and two together and coming up with what they strongly believe to be four, although the actual answer is the furthest thing from that. Penny Lane, as a street name, has nothing to do with James Penny and more to do with its geographical location on a hill, relating to the Welsh ‘pen y bryn’ – top of a hill, or to do with a penny toll bridge at the start of the road. This is all fundamentally what I’m coining as ‘speculative vandalism’ – the hope that there’s a link between a defaced sign or statue and a piece of highly controversial history. If you want to read more about Penny Lane, please have a read of this blog post below – it makes for good reading: https://theprioryandthecastironshore.wordpress.com/2018/10/24/was-penny-lane-really-named-after-the-slave-merchant-james-penny/?fbclid=IwAR1YOhy4sOAAkgylvEgoV_UZ9OHmONuQFwv6ezoSQ4mIByS3K_IlhfW2YGw
In instances such as this, the worthy Black Lives Matter cause has been turned into an anarchist protest – The Sex Pistols’ seminal record springs to mind. The spread of misinformation in an increasingly interconnected society is something that people have been trying to clamp down on and the issue is only exacerbated at times like these. It’s not just street names however – the issue of demolishing statues has taken centre stage. I’ll address the more recent one first – in Scotland, statues of eminent figures such as Robert The Bruce have been defiled with graffiti such as “Racist king – BLM – Black Lives Matter” or the perhaps more startling “Robert was a racist – bring the statue down.”. As The National pointed out only earlier today, protest group Topple The Racists didn’t point out the site of the Battle Of Bannockburn in their interactive map of statues that needed to come down due to links to colonialism or racism. Robert The Bruce, was a freedom fighter and King Of Scotland from 1306-29, and at his time in the fourteenth century, he predates slavery and so there’s little to no connection between Robert The Bruce and racism. If anyone does find any connection between the two, feel free to drop me a line through the ‘Contact Us’ page on the website - I'd be interested to hear you thoughts. He most likely did own serfs, a part of the feudal system that wasn’t exclusive to Scotland. If we’re going on this logic therefore, then every monument or book written about the medieval age should be taken down or burnt because of the links to slavery from the ninth to fourteenth century. However, it's pretty clear from a few people that this graffiti has nothing to do with BLM and to say it was done by BLM protestors would be outwardly wrong and stupid.
The other one that’s puzzling me at the moment is Sir Robert Peel, one of the founders of modern conservatism and also the man responsible for the police force in this country, hence the nickname of ‘bobbies’ or ‘peelers’ – it all stems from him. In doing some research into Sir Robert Peel and link to slavery, it appears that protesters have targeted the wrong man. When they wanted his statue taken down, they meant that they wanted his father who was confusingly also called Robert. Peel Sr. was avidly opposed to the abolition of slavery since he profited off it, but his son had nothing to do with it. Perhaps even more confusing though is the graffiti placed on his plinth in Glasgow – it reads ‘ACAB’ (All Cops Are Bastards) and then features a hammer and sickle – the defining symbol of communism. Peel Jr. was vehemently against slavery - he stood in the Government at the time of its abolition.
The graffiti on Peel in Glasgow is clearly not due to slavery, but due to his founding of the police force and modern conservatism. This explores once again the avenue of reasoning that an act of symbolism with the toppling of Colston has been ruined by those who are finding something to excuse the violence - in this case, it's the police force and the slightest whiff of right wing politics. Police brutality is an issue that needs to be solved fast, but to spray paint a hammer and sickle onto someone in a way of promoting communism doesn't work. It's been proven time and time again that communism was a highly oppressive regime when in the wrong hands, so to place a hammer and sickle onto one of the fathers of a viewpoint that you don't agree with is just plain anarchy.
As WIRED have stated in today’s newsletter, “pretty much every statue raised in the UK to a person living between 1660 and 1811 may need to come down” and when you take the time to ponder that fact, it’s actually true. There’s a lot of people who never once would take note of the statues, and by removing them, there’s an argument to suggest that it’s erasing history. As Irwin said in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, “there's no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.” The occasion of taking down a statue is inherently designed to stop reminding people of a terrible event that happened and is usually associated with the toppling of a dictator – it’s the mark of a new start, a new beginning; a revolution, be it political or cultural. This defacing of statues without any acknowledgement of context is alarming.
It’s integral to realise that the taking down of statues and defacing of street signs is an act of symbolism in a similar way to the burning of books or anarchic riots, but what’s more important is the context that goes with it. This has become a war on culture and context, and it's one that needs to stop. Continue to order for the removal of statues linking to the slave trade, but please, don't do it impulsively - read for yourself about individuals and the history behind them. Narrow-mindedness doesn't get anybody anywhere.