All text copyright Stephen Coates 2006 - 2015


We often bemoan Celebrity Culture - especially now when anyone can become famous for not much in particular but the fame fixation isn't particularly new. London is full of monuments to celebrities - mainly from the nineteeenth century or earlier. True, they were made to people who actually did something socially significant at the time - for instance, for exploiting and massacring lots of indigenous people for financial gain in the case of 'Clive of India' - oops, sorry, I meant for bringing the benefits of Empire to the natives!

Now I love the London statues - some of them are very camp (Hello James II!) and many have interesting stories behind them. For example, the reason Charles I was placed seated on a horse in his monument in Trafalgar Square is not because he was particularly equestrian but because he was very, very short - virtually a midget. Once you know this it's very apparent.

My favourite of the lot is in fact an early and noble example of the Democratisation of Celebrity - G.F Watts's late nineteenth century 'Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice' in the little churchyard now called 'Postman's Park' just to the south of Clerkenwell. The churchyard is overlooked by a rather Orwellian building - previously the Royal Mail sorting office - hence the 'Postman' moniker but it's a rather tranquil place to escape from the hustle of the mid-week city. The monument is most unusual - a wall of tiles protected by a sort of lean-to stable roof. Each tile commemorates the heroic self-sacrifice of an ordinary person resulting in them saving someone else's life at the cost of their own. Mostly they seem to have been working class (another big distinction between this and other nineteenth century monuments).

The various mortal situations described tell something about the society of the time - there are a lot of burning houses, run-away horses, drownings, poisonings and so on and the inscriptions on some of the tiles, whilst occasionally melodramatic, are often very moving. My personal favourite is that to a certain 'Solomon Galaman aged 11' who died of injuries incurred from saving his little brother from being run over in Commercial Street:

"Mother I saved him but I could not save myself"

There is also a statue to Watts himself who died leaving the wall incomplete. Further tiles were sporadically added until the 1930s and very recently a new one has been placed. Anyway, it's a lovely off-the-tourist-map place to visit to get a sense of the city, our mortality and the wonderful potential of the human soul.

I can't really compete with that but here is something from a little while ago - a version of a song sung by my friend Cibelle which came out on some compilation or other but was a bit neglected.


ArtSparker said...

Those are some eloquent and touching last words by young Solomon. I'm thinking about how I can link to this post. Equestrian statues are intrinsically funny, because the horses can't GO anywhere.

spillyjane said...

What a lovely and haunting place that must be to spend time in.

spillyjane said...

Also, the terms "hero" and "heroic" are bandied about so much these days, it's nice to see evidence of actual acts of heroism. Regular people; noble deeds.

Martijn said...

Ah, so many things worth seeing in London, so little time each time I have a chance to visit. I will make sure to make a visit to the monument in Postman's Park next time.

Really lovely version of one of my favourite songs, it gives the song an entirely different sound replacing even just the vocals.

Poet in Residence said...

better the small hero than the half-truth poseur on the stallion

clerkenwell kid said...

Yes we're curious creatures. On one hand obsessed with the most superficial nonsense and quite capable of the most ruthless selfishness and on the other quite prepared to rush into a burning building to save a stranger (well, theoretically in my case)

The Charles I statue is interesting though- it sits right next to the actual official centre of London (which is marked by a small usually un-noticed plaque in the paving). After Charles lost his head it was removed and thought lost or melted down but found again and replaced by his son after the restoration.

Celeste Bergin said...

....."Mother I saved him but I could not save myself" I'm glad I learned about Solomon. I hope his brother used his life (his gift) wisely. I also love the last photo about the person who saved the "lunatic" woman!

clerkenwell kid said...

That's a good point Celeste.

It would be interesting to know what effect it would have on one's life to know and perhaps to have witnessed that someone else gave theirs to save it.

Sally said...

Wow, Cibelle's voice is just beautiful - and over such a careful arrangement.

I've cut through Postman's Park a few times, without even knowing it's significance; that's probably just me, rushing about without glasses, but in future I shall be sure to pay this place the attention that it deserves.

Bless those dear, dear souls that gave their lives saving others. May they rest in wonderful peace.

Sally said... I come to think of it, I remember feeling this park to be an especially welcoming oasis of calm.