On A Pedestal: Toppling Statues

Black Lives Matter has seen public statues coming under frontline debate. This hit close to home as Bristol’s Colston statue was toppled into the harbour, watched by the world. Daisy Game reviews Roger Lytollis’ book on the subject.

Roger Lytollis’ On A Pedestal is part essay collection, part travelogue-romp. Hopping between Britain’s towns and cities – from Bristol to London, up through Liverpool and toward the more northerly reaches of Glasgow – Lytollis explores the history of Britain’s statues: those we love and those we hate; those we smile at and those we avoid making eye contact with; those we crown with traffic cone headwear – and those we pull from their plinths, drag to the water’s edge, and plunge into the depths of a murky Bristolian harbour.

To put it mildly, Edward Colston had it coming. Deputy Governor of the Royal African Company (a 17th-century organisation which moved slaves from West Africa to the plantations of the Caribbean and America), Colston was responsible for the transport of over 84,000 African men, women and children and the deaths of 20,000. To the sculptors of the 19th century, however, such things were hardly relevant: Edward Colston had been something of a philanthropist, hadn’t he? Surely his contributions to Bristol’s hospitals and schools, many of which still bear his name, earned him a gold star – or, at the very least, a bronze statue? And so it was that Colston came to be cast in metal, dubbed one of Bristol’s “most virtuous and wise sons” by a plinth-stuck-plaque, and erected for all to see at Bristol’s harbourside. Until 2020, that is – when, following the murder of George Floyd and the surge in the Black Lives Matter movement – Colston was brought down from on high with globally recognised aplomb.

Published in the wake of Colston’s de-plinthing, 2021’s On a Pedestal responds to the complex subject of statue-toppling with calm sensitivity. The central debate is whether the removal of a statue is “airbrushing history”, as cultural secretary Oliver Dowden suggests, or rather the only way to rectify any wilfully ignorant idolisation of individuals like Colston.

Lytollis maintains a helpful distance from his topic: offering a birdseye view of these “controversial statues” and the debate surrounding them, without drilling too far down into any particular camp. At a time when media coverage on the subject often has an agenda to push, it’s refreshing to find a text that encourages the reader to ask important questions, without demanding that they immediately come up with the important answers. The book is a beginners-friendly guide, welcoming its readers into the fold as curious bystanders, as opposed to die-hard believers.

The text is well researched, and detail rich: chocablock with dates, petition statistics and quotations. But, true to ex-journalist form (Lytollis has previously written for national newspapers and magazines), On a Pedestal’s author prevents his prose from stagnating through the use of varied reportage tactics, sprinkling the book with a selection of interviews – Lytollis sits down to chat with sculptors Graham Ibbeson and Antony Gormley – and snippets of statue-side conversation: “Rod Stewart? You think Rod Stewart was in the Beatles?” Lytollis overhears one incensed member of the public shriek at his clueless companion whilst standing beside Andy Edwards’ tribute to the band. On a Pedestal reads like a travel-journal of sorts: a well-known name stuck here; a meditation on pigeons tucked in there. It’s light, breezy and amusing.

Lytollis doesn’t only focus his attention on the past: he also looks to the statues of today and tomorrow, considering how our attitude toward and appetite for them has changed. “There’s not many politicians going up, is there?” Graham Ibbeson wryly observes in part one of the ‘Bring Me Sunshine’ chapters. The statues of today, Lytollis notes, are far more likely to be of celebrity status than they are to be of political character. A Boris Johnson statue? Perhaps not.

On a Pedestal reads like a travel-journal of sorts: a well-known name stuck here; a meditation on pigeons tucked in there

The way in which members of the public respond to – and interact with – statues is of particular interest to Lytollis. In a chapter on musically inspired idols, the writer recalls watching a gentleman educate his wide-eyed, stroller-sat companion whilst walking past Edwards’ (aforementioned) statue of The Fab Four: “Paul, George, Ringo, John”, the passerby observes aloud. A few hundred miles to the south, and Lytollis stands nearby as a friendly Londoner murmers a “Hello, Amy Winehouse” to the pop-singer’s Camden-based tribute. It’s strangely touching to read about statues somehow giving adults the permission to become children at play again, pausing to have a quick chat with a favourite metal figurine.

Each of On a Pedestal’s chapters stand happily alone, so any reader looking to cherry-pick can do so freely. Art enthusiasts can hear about the Angel of the North from Gormley himself, bookworms might enjoy Lytollis’ comprehensive tour of fictional characters in statue form, and for any animal lovers reading, there is an entire chapter dedicated to cast-iron-critters. But by committing to the entire read, one gets to enjoy the running theme which Lytollis has subtly stitched throughout: who do we love, and why? Because, like most successful non-fiction writing, On a Pedestal is about statues – without being about statues. It’s about the good and the bad in people, and how the two intertwine; it’s about who we love to celebrate, who we want to punish, and who we want to see immortalized. It is, as Lytollis himself correctly asserts, “a book more blood than bronze”.

Reading On a Pedestal on an idle Sunday afternoon, I’m tempted to put it down, head onto the streets of my beloved Bristol, and do some statue-gazing myself. Somehow, I don’t think Roger Lytollis would mind.

On A Pedestal by Roger Lytollis (£20) is available from all good bookshops.

Featured image: Colston’s deposed statue on display at M-Shed last year – shown horizontally, there was no pedestal