June 10th, 2020


Colstonic Irrigation

"History is ghastly. Nothing but misery and war and brutality. One should be glad it’s over."

Thus Clare Paling, the protagonist of Penelope Lively's Judgement Day. She is being sarcastic, and Lively ironic - for both are historians, and know better.

But I thought of that line when I heard some of the protestations against the removal of Colston's statue on the grounds that it was "erasing history." First, since we're in ironic mode, there's the rich irony that most of the bewailers had never heard of Edward Colston four days ago, despite his statue having stood in brazen pomp for 125 years; but in the few days since there has been no statue they have learned all about him. It's as if human beings invest such objects with meaning by their actions and passions - as if the removal of statuary can be more educational than statues themselves! Who knew?

The second irony is that erasing history, at least in this way, turns out to be synonymous with making it - for Sunday's events are now indelibly part of Bristol's history, to the extent that Banksy has suggested erecting a statue of the protestors pulling Colston's statue down.

History isn't a done deal. That's the lesson people are learning, along with the statistics of enslaved, the drowned, the murdered. If you don't like the history you've got, you can always make some more.