A Symbol of decline (National Post, April 04, 2007)

London's Trafalgar Square is dominated by a monument, set on a 156-foot column, of Britain's greatest naval hero, Horatio, Lord Nelson. Nelson died in 1805 during the final hours of his command in the Napoleonic Wars' most significant naval engagement, when, without losing a single ship, Britain trounced the combined forces of France and Spain at Cape Trafalgar off the Spanish coast.

Nelson's monument is surrounded by four plinths. Three are occupied by statues of Generals Havelock and Napier, and King George IV. The fourth plinth, its 1841 commission vacated for want of funds, remained empty until 18 months ago. In recent years the plinth's fate had become the focus of heated debate, as a commission struck for the purpose mooted a variety of appropriate occupants (amongst them Princess Diana and the soccer champion David Beckham).

Ultimately the fourth plinth was designated a showcase for British sculptors, with installations to rotate at 18-month intervals. This month marks the end of the first rotation, unveiled on Sept 15, 2005: a massive, 12-tonne, white marble creation by the sculptor Marc Quinn. Entitled "Alison Lapper Pregnant," the monument's eponymous subject is cast as a curvilinear, late-stage pregnant body topped by an angular, curiously mannish head.The real-life Alison Lapper is a single mother and an artist. Both facts are remarkable in that. Lapper has a rare genetic illness, as a result of which she was born with no arms and undeveloped legs. She paints with a brush held between her teeth. One of her favoured subjects is herself, naked and pregnant. Delighted with Quinn's finished work, Lapper proudly announced: "I regard it as a modern tribute to femininity, disability and motherhood? ."

At the unveiling ceremony, the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, declared, "This square celebrates the courage of men in battle. Alison's life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here." Capping Livingstone's theme in a less circuitous approach, Lapper added: "At least I didn't get here by slaying people."

Are you offended? Come and sit by me. Sympathetic to Lapper? The line forms to the left. Select your queue, guided by the banners of feminism, therapism, pacifism, narcissism and exhibitionism.

Why public monuments anyway? In an autocracy, they serve to stroke the ego of the ruler and to remind the populace of his omnipotence. Small wonder that the first impulse of a liberated people is to tear down such symbols of their oppression, as the Iraqis did to Saddam in Firdos Square.

But free people erect public monuments to incarnate those virtues the citizenry admires and idealizes, often captured in tableaux dramatizing their subjects' gallantry and personal sacrifice on the nation's behalf at defining moments of crisis

The decision to commission Lapper's statue, and the testimony of Lapper herself, are a reproach to Lord Nelson -- himself disabled, let's not forget, having lost an eye and an arm, amongst other battle wounds, in service to his country -- as well as to the nation's collective memory, and to all history's military "heroes" (as the word must now be framed). To Lapper and her backers, soldiers are context-free "slayers" -- i.e., murderers -- of victims, not enemies. Their primary role as defenders of the nation's security and honour is, by omission, implicitly disdained. Their wartime sacrifice has been levelled to the hardship imposed by random misfortune on a private individual, however plucky, whose achievements have been wholly personal and self-serving.Whom, to borrow a trope from the Biblical Book of Esther, should the king delight to honour, and in doing so embody as an icon of national character? Those who further a nation's progress in its upward trajectory; who serve the collectivity at great cost to their individual security or happiness; who exhibit the virtues of leadership, courage, steadfastness, brotherhood, selflessness and grace under pressure. Their monuments should inspire consciousness of, respect for, pride in and aspiration to the superior mettle these icons represent.

What does the statue "Alison Lapper Pregnant" inspire? Guilt, confusion and discomfort. Far from reinforcing pride in British national identity, the politically and emotionally correct, but nationally irrelevant Alison Lapper has for 18 months symbolized its sad decline, a cultural fifth column sitting on the fourth plinth of London's Trafalgar Square.


© National Post 2007