Grosvenor Square, Tavistock Square: Odes to Political Correctness
I was working in London last month and stayed in a flat just north of Hyde Park. One evening, feeling a tug of homesickness and mild curiosity, I crossed the park and walked to the U.S. embassy in Grosvenor Square, a couple of blocks east of Hyde. The mammoth six-story building occupies the entire west side of the square. Opened in 1960, it's an imposing grid of interlocking limestone window frames topped by an enormous American eagle, wings spread. Critics joked at the time that it looked like the grill of a gargantuan '57 Thunderbird.
The embassy is, of course, a fortress. It's encircled by a black metal fence about ten feet high, topped with spikes. Several dozen bollards keep vehicles away. Audley Street in front of the embassy is closed to cars. Behind the fence, British security guards cradling M16s patrol the grounds. One stands in front of the barricade outside the only open gate, on Upper Grosvenor St. No one else was walking around the embassy, and he watched me closely, his finger on the trigger-guard.
The security, of course, dates from 2001. In the good old days, one entrance led directly up a broad staircase to the library and art gallery, and was protected only by a single elderly guard. But the present building is apparently not secure enough. Next year, construction will begin on a new embassy across the Thames, with a moat and a broader glacis.
From the center of the northern edge of Grosvenor Square, FDR, sans wheelchair, has gazed benignly across the lawn since 1948. Two newer statues flank the embassy. To the right, if you're facing the building, is Dwight Eisenhower. It is Ike la libérateur who is celebrated. The statue, unveiled by Margaret Thatcher in January 1989, depicts the president in the uniform of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, whose first HQ was catty-corner to the embassy. The quotation on the rear of the pedestal is his famous invocation of June 6, 1944: "Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force: You are about to embark upon a great crusade... the hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you."
On the left side of the embassy stands a ten-foot bronze statue of Ronald Reagan. It was unveiled on the 4th of July last year. The first quotation on the plaque in front of the pedestal is from Thatcher: "Ronald Reagan ended the Cold War without firing a single shot." Other quotations, from Pope John Paul II and Lech Walesa, also honor the president as the man who helped liberate Eastern Europe.
The BBC and the Guardian, organs of London's political and cultural establishment, were predictably bitchy about the tribute to Reagan. (Among their cavils: the FDR statue was paid for by a subscription from the British people; rich Americans provided the funds for Ike and Reagan.) But even the conservative papers didn't comment on the incongruity between the statues and the building behind them. Here are representations of the two men who oversaw the freeing of tens of millions of Europeans from the deadly grip of Germany and of Russia, from National Socialism and International Socialism. Why should the embassy of the country that led the fight to overthrow the former and contain the latter, that rid the continent of two murderous ideologies, be under siege? That useful construct, the visitor from Mars, might expect a nation that had accomplished what the U.S. did to bask in the gratitude of the world, and to see heaps of flowers at the base of each statue. Though London is teeming with Poles, Ukrainians, and other Eastern Europeans, there are no bouquets in front of the presidents.
Perhaps one answer lies in the memorial garden across the square, at the foot of a shabby, buff-colored Victorian Greek temple. Within the temple are three rectangular metal plaques listing the names of the British subjects killed on September 11. On the pavement in front is a round stone tablet stating that the garden is dedicated to the memory of all the dead in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Around the circumference of the tablet is the line: "Time is too slow for those who wait, too swift for those who fear, too long for those who grieve, too short for those who rejoice, but for those who love, time is not." The sentiments, a slight improvement on Alfred E. Neuman's "What, Me Worry?," are hardly relevant to the attack on New York and Washington by Muslim fundamentalists, and, one imagines, not very consoling to the victims' families. Time went very slowly for those trapped in the Towers waiting for help, whether they loved or not.
After the First World War, memorials were less squeamish. In towns in Belgium and France, monuments unabashedly declared that the civilian dead were victims of "furore teutonico," German rage.
If you go up to Oxford Street from Grosvenor Square and head east, you eventually come to "intellectual London." This is the London University neighborhood, lying roughly between the British Museum and the British Library. It encompasses the Bloomsbury district, and at its northern end are two lovely squares, Gordon and Tavistock. It was in Tavistock Square that Hasim Hussain detonated his bomb on a double-decker bus on July 7, 2005, killing 13 people and injuring dozens. On the railing along the west side of the square is a small tablet commemorating the victims. It reads, "[I]n memory of those who were killed in the bomb attack on the route 30 bus near this spot," and lists the victims. (Judging by the names, four were East or South Asians, one Polish, and two Jewish.) No indication, again, of why they died. The plaque is decorated with what looks to be an olive branch.
Within the park at the center of the square are memorials to conscientious objectors and to the victims of Hiroshima, busts of Dame Louisa Aldrich-Blake and Virginia Woolf, and, in the center, a statue of Mahatma Gandhi.
Aldrich-Blake was a physician and hospital administrator. While the first woman to obtain the degree of Master of Surgery, she trained in and later was dean of the hospital for women founded a generation earlier by the pioneer Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. The headquarters of the British Medical Association is on the square. Twenty-four Brits have won the Nobel Prize for medicine or physiology. Did it occur to the Camden Council to commemorate any of these winners who were now dead? They include the discoverers of penicillin, beta-blockers, cimetidine (Tagamet), the structure of DNA, of antibodies, etc. Unfortunately, none were women.
The other two individuals honored in Tavistock Square need no introduction. If hard copies of the papers and theses churned out annually on Virginia Woolf could float and were laid end to end, you could walk from Greenwich Village to Bloomsbury without getting your feet wet. You can get a degree in English at most universities without reading a single line of Shakespeare, but good luck graduating without several times being assigned "A Room of One's Own."
Woolf was the chronicler of "consciousness" and an early hierophant of the 20th-century cult of Narcissus. The Bloomsbury credo, fashioned by the Cambridge philosopher G.E. Moore, was that friendship and the contemplation of beautiful objects were to be valued above all else; feelings trumped responsibilities, and the best feelings, wrote Lytton Strachey to J.M. Keynes, were "sodomitical." "Our time will come a hundred years hence," he predicted -- much too conservatively, it turned out.
Beneath Woolf's aestheticism, as Theodore Dalrymple has pointed out in a scathing analysis of "Three Guineas," was a teutonic rage. In this "classic" essay, Woolf advocates burning down the college that has solicited money from her, and lurches incoherently from condemnations of loyalty to family, church, school, and country to grotesque comparisons of the fate of "the daughters of educated men" with that of the working class during the depression, and of the Nazi Party with the Church of England. "Could there be a clearer case of the triumph of hyperbolic self-pity over honesty?" Dalrymple asks.
It was in Gordon Square, a block away, that Woolf, Strachey, Keynes, and their associates lived for a time, and, for those who haven't set foot in a British or American university in 40 years, there is a large exhibit within the square describing the accomplishments of these eminences.
Strachey and other Bloomsberries were conscientious objectors during the First World War, though Strachey had a medical deferment and neither went to prison nor served as a medic in France. (Asked by the draft board what he would do if he encountered a German attempting to rape his sister, he famously answered that he would try to interpose himself between them.) Strachey spent the war writing Eminent Victorians, the four deftly condescending mini-biographies that made his reputation. No primary sources were consulted.
It's only appropriate, then, that the park in Tavistock Square should also celebrate conscientious objectors. Affixed to a large grey stone is a tablet reading: "To all those who have established and are maintaining the right to refuse to kill. Their foresight and courage give us hope."
These are astonishing lines in a nation that faced annihilation in 1941. But by 1995, the surviving soldiers, sailors, and air crews and their families, and others who had lacked foresight and courage during the war, had too little political clout for their outrage to matter.
Gandhi is, of course, the c.o. par excellence. It's no surprise that he opposed the fight against Nazi Germany, to his mind simply a rival imperialism. After ordering individual followers to distribute anti-war propaganda and go to jail, he called for mass resistance to the British war effort in August 1942, the "Quit India" campaign. Earlier in the year, Whitehall had offered participation in the government of India and full self-government after the war, but Gandhi objected to the proviso that autonomous provinces, states, and religious minorities could negotiate separate agreements with the U.K. As had happened before and would happen again, Gandhi's civil disobedience campaign led to mass violence. He was, as always, surprised and dismayed. Five years later, the Mahatma and his Congress Party had not the slightest inkling that independence would result in more than 12 million refugees and the massacre of half a million to a million Punjabis and Bengalis.
The final memorial in Tavistock Square is to the victims of Hiroshima. It stands in front of a cherry tree planted by the mayor in their honor in 1967. A thoughtful gesture, no doubt, but there happens to be no memorial in London to the victims of the Blitz, though there are some small plaques. About 41,000 Britons were killed by German bombers, over half of them Londoners, and another 140,000 injured. Nor is there any memorial in London to the British POWs who were victims of the Japanese during the war. Details of the barbaric treatment they endured were suppressed for years.
Nearly 30% died, versus about 4% of those incarcerated in Nazi Germany. Estimates of the number of civilians killed by Imperial Japan range from 3 to 30 million, roughly two-thirds of whom were Chinese. There is no monument in London to these luckless Asians.
Both the Gandhi statue and the tablet to the victims of Hiroshima had flowers in front of them when I visited, as they always have -- or, in the case of Gandhi, in his lap, for he sits in a full lotus.
Compared to Tavistock, chock-a-block with politically correct icons, Hyde Park is singularly bereft of memorials, or even statues. An exception is the fountain dedicated to Princess Diana, which opened in July 2004. It looks like a circular drain, but it is useful for cooling one's feet in the summer.
Apart from Prince Albert, who sits at the park's southern edge, only two humans are depicted in bronze, both fictitious. An anonymous man on a rearing horse by G.W. Watts represents "Physical Energy." Beside the Serpentine, where women in black burqas promenade with their husbands in shorts and t-shirts, Peter Pan plays his pipes. Winged dryads cavort beneath him. One appears to be looking up his skirt. Tourists continually hop onto the pedestal to be photographed beside the boy; everyone ignores "Physical Energy." Both statues were erected in the decade before World War I. No one could have predicted how seductive Peter's pipes would be by the end of the century.