Trafalgar Square in London is one of London’s great memorials. The tribute to Lord Nelson and his epic naval victory at Trafalgar is one of the signature sites in one of the world’s great cities.
The square has a series of “plinths” – the technical term for statue-stands. Three of them are occupied by statues of King George IV, Henry Havelock and Sir Charles Napier. The fourth of the plinths, built in 1841, has never been permanently occupied by a statue. Over the years, it’s been the scene of stunts, demonstrations, and often occupied by temporary statues, some of them debuting on the plinth before being put in their permanent locations. Some of them were of genuine British heroes; others, during the reight of London’s longtime socialist wackjob mayor wackjob mayor Ken Livingstone, were more, er, unconventional.
But the latest occupant of the Fourth Plinth is a statue of a hero that is someone obscure to Britons, and even moreso to Americans – even though he played an absolutely crucial role in the survival of western civilization seventy years ago.
It’s Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, a New Zealander who commanded the Royal Air Force’s “11 Group”, the fighters responsible for defending London and southeast England during the Battle of Britain. Had 11 Group failed in its mission, Hitler would have won air superiority over the English Channel and the southwest of the UK. It would have cleared the way for an invasion of the UK which, given the British Army’s badly-depleted state after Dunkirk, would likely have led to a Nazi victory in World War II.
The picture shows him in a fairly typical pose, pulling on one of his flight gloves as he got ready to climb into his personal Hawker Hurricane to keep up the relentless schedule of touring his airfields, checking up on his men, the hundreds of 20-25 year old pilots that died by the score, but saved the day for the UK and, incidentally, all of us.
I don’t know if it’s accurate to call Mary Wakefield, columnist for the London Independent, any more or less knowledgeable about history than any other “journalist”, here or there. I don’t know if her knowledge of history is any more addled than that of any other Briton or American. I don’t know if her giggly, show-biz-centered “mind” is any more or less acute than that of any of the other bobbleheads in our “gatekeeping” class.
But reading this column about the Park statue…:
So Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park has made it up on to the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square at long last. Arise, Sir Keith, good job. I salute you as I cycle past, for without you (I’m told) the Battle of Britain would have been lost and the free world a goner. OK, I’m lying. The truth is, I’d never heard of Keith Park GCB, KBE, MC before the campaign to plinth him began, and I still can’t quite figure out what all the fuss is about.
…I got a bad feeling about the answer.
Being one of the western world’s elite gatekeepers, one might think an enquiring mind like Mary Wakefield’s could have figured it out.
The campaign was frighteningly well organised and well funded: field marshals, MPs, Tony Benn, the vice-chancellor of Oxford ? they’ve been at it for years, pushing for Park, but why? Surely there are other, better known and just as heroic or deserving candidates.
Other than millions of other British World War II veterans? Or the millions of civilians that survived the German blitz, the firebombing of London? Perhaps – but it’d get crowded on that little plinth.
What about the Queen? There are other questions too. What were the Parkies thinking when they chose to depict their hero pulling on what looks like a pre-op surgical glove?
And why such intensity and lack of humour?
We can forgive Mary Wakefield. While the Battle of Britain may have lacked the gravitas of, say, the Spice Girls breaking up, it may have slipped her mind.
Clive James, writing for the Beeb, has a long, excellent response.