Ozymandias Who?

Whom does this describe, and who is the writer?

I had met (him) several times in England.  He knew that he was dying, and he did not want to die.  He asked me my age.  “You will see it all,” he said bitterly, “and I won’t, for I am going out.”  He gave me various pieces of advice.  One was to beware of the vain man.  “You can make your book with roguery,” he said, “but vanity is incalculable – it will always let you down…”

He impressed me greatly – the sense he gave one of huge but crippled power, the reedy voice and the banal words in which he tried to express ideas which represented for him a whole world of incoherent poetry.  I did not know him well enough to like him or dislike him, but I felt him as one feels the imminence of a thunderstorm.  But I did not realise the greatness of his personality until I had been some time in the country.  Then I found that in all sorts of people… he had kindled some spark of his own idealism.  He had made them take long views.  Common as their minds might be, some window had been opened which gave them a prospect.  They had acquired at least a fragment of a soul.  If it be not genius thus to brood over a land and have this power over the human spirit, then I do not understand the meaning of the word.      

This is John Buchan’s description of Cecil Rhodes, in his autobiography Memory Hold-the-Door (Hodder and Stoughton, 1940).  In the same volume he wrote about the Empire:

I dreamed of a world-wide brotherhood with the background of a common race and creed, consecrated to the service of peace; Britain enriching the rest out of her culture and traditions, and the spirit of the Dominions like a strong wind freshening the stuffiness of the old lands.  I saw in the Empire a means of giving to the congested masses at home open country instead of a blind alley.  I saw hope for a new afflatus in art and literature and thought.  Our creed was not based on antagonism to any other people.  It was humanitarian and international; we believed that we were laying the basis of a federation of the world.  As for the native races under our rule, we had a high conscientiousness; Milner and Rhodes had a far-sighted native policy.  The “white man’s burden” is now an almost meaningless phrase; then it involved a new philosophy of politics, and an ethical standard, serious and surely not ignoble.

Now, with our 2020 vision, this seems to belong to a world as remote and alien as that of Greek Tragedy.  And yet these passages were written a mere eighty years ago.

Do I think the University of Oxford’s statue of Cecil Rhodes should be removed?  I might not be the best person to ask because, statuary-wise, I am a complete philistine.  Ever since I read Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias at school, I’ve thought of statues as being inherently absurd:

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert.  Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:

And on the pedestal those words appear:

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains.  Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Who would want to put themselves up on a pedestal?  Who would want to have all the complexities of their human character subsumed into an inert 3-D cartoon?  Clearly, looking around my home town, the second city of Empire, rather a lot of people!  Glasgow has always had an irreverent attitude towards its statues.  The Duke of Wellington sits astride his horse outside the Gallery of Modern Art, with a traffic cone on his head.  The Council periodically removes it but it always gets replaced.  It reminds me of the Union Flag that once flew on the hill above that far outreach of Empire, Russell, in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands.  The British Governor would put it up and the Maori chieftain Hone Heke would cut it down.  It’s still down.  I checked in March when I was there.  Russell is a beautiful and tranquil place and you would never guess at its wild, anarchic, and violent frontier history.  From the hill, you can see, across the bay, the treaty grounds at Waitangi.

Have you ever met a statue?  In the flesh I mean.  I once ran into – literally – Donald Dewar at the entrance to the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, oddly enough a stone’s throw from the space now occupied by his statue.  He was effusively thanking a staff member for ordering him a taxi, and he nodded and smiled in my direction as I passed.  Nobody could have been less like Ozymandias than Scotland’s first First Minister.  Subsequently his statue’s glasses would be periodically vandalised, and I have a notion the Council increased the height of his pedestal, a strategy that seems to have worked.

There was, and there still is, a movement in Glasgow in favour of the removal of most of the statues from Glasgow’s epicentre, George Square.  Her Majesty’s Sculptor-in-Ordinary Alexander Stoddart wrote a lengthy epistle to the city fathers who occupy that grand edifice to the east, overlooking George Square, the City Chambers, defending the square’s statues as works of art, and attacking the philistinism of those who would wish to remove them.  It was such a devastating critique that I have a notion Mr Stoddart settled the argument single-handedly, at least for that time being.  Mr Stoddart does not go public very often, but when he does, the effect is usually overwhelming.  I remember at the run-up to the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, it was mooted that the demolition of the Red Road flats be incorporated into the Games’ opening ceremony.  Mr Stoddart’s contempt for this idea was expressed in a letter, written in the high style, to The Herald, which remains for me the most powerful letter I have ever read in the Letters page of The Herald or, for that matter, in any other newspaper.  It seems fitting to remember it on this the third anniversary of the Grenfell Tower disaster.

If Oxford University chooses to remove Cecil Rhodes’ statue, I wonder if such an action would be somewhat akin to a university stripping somebody of an honorary degree because that person has become a pariah.  It happens from time to time.  The University of Edinburgh, for example, stripped the late Robert Mugabe of his honorary degree.  I’ve always thought of this as being, on the university’s part, somewhat self-serving.  The university wants to dissociate itself from a tainted brand.  So it chooses to rewrite history.  The university has not conferred a degree upon Mr Mugabe.  It is as if the university has never conferred a degree upon Mr Mugabe.  Let the record be expunged.

I’m not in favour of expunging records.  If I want to watch Warren Mitchell play Alf Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part I really don’t need to be reminded that he is a bigoted monster.  That, after all, is the whole point.  We all need to move with the times, to revise our opinions and change our positions as we will.  But we should not do so by obliterating the past.  Our statements of belief should not be transcribed on to a palimpsest.

We look with horror upon some of the mores of past epochs.  What, about us, will horrify future generations?  What is our blind spot?  I think our age will be characterised as pharisaic.  Virtue signalling is the new bigotry.




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