politics

My finely balanced solution to Britain's 'statue problem' | Stewart Lee


As a Bafta- and Olivier-winning cultural innovator, described by the Times as “the world’s greatest living standup” and by the Scotsman as having helped set “the new gold standard for rockumentaries”, I was invited last week to address a parliamentary select committee meeting on “the statue problem”. The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, dabbed his two lips with felt and spoke first.

“Love them or loathe them, and everyone’s feelings deserve equal respect, slave traders are part of our history,” Dowden began. “The government does not support the removal of statues or other similar objects like paintings or a rude puppet. History is ridden with moral complexity and all sorts of fat kings with different names. Statues were created by generations with different understandings of right and wrong. Some represent figures who have done things we would not defend today. You could probably have a statue of the Phantom of the Opera, from that brilliant play, as you can’t see what colour his face is anyway,” Dowden continued, suddenly more animated. “He could have a blue bloody face for all we know! Or green! Ha! What about when the chandelier falls down? I never saw that coming! Brilliant!” Dowden put away his notes, lapped Bovril thirstily from a cat’s bowl on the desk in front of him and invited me to read my prepared statement.

“What if,” I began assertively, “back in 2018, instead of the British royal Prince Harry marrying the actor Meghan Markle, the mixed-race descendent of a slave, the actor Meghan Markle had married a statue of a British slave trader? Would the British public have preferred that, Oliver?” The select committee sat aghast. They weren’t familiar with my stage persona, or my similar but subtly different newspaper columnist character, and had no context for the work. I wilted, defeated. Dowden faded into soft focus, looking like a hologram of Nicholas Lyndhurst’s ghost, and my mind wandered.

Like attempts to assess and contextualise our slave trade history, the racial diversification of our royal family is surely to be welcomed and last week our now ex-royal couple discussed this very notion with TV’s Oprah Winfrey, apparently in the outdoor dining area of a Dobbies garden centre somewhere in Gloucestershire. Just out of shot, pensioners enjoyed a two-for-one offer on shepherd’s pie and an old man removed an inhaler from the pocket of a padded fishing jacket.

It was only three years ago that Jo Marney, the partner of that month’s Ukip leader Henry Bolton, said that Prince Harry’s “black American fiancee will taint the royal family with her seed”. But Meghan’s claims that her mental health had suffered as a result of racism were rubbished on Tuesday by a TV talking man called Piers Morgan, whose job is to mouth deliberately provocative things that he may or may not believe while a silent and defeated woman sits next to him rolling her eyes in the interests of balance, a relationship dynamic you could see replayed every Saturday night round the tables of every Berni Inn steakhouse in Britain throughout the 1970s.

Morgan has since stormed off the GMB sofas and resigned, doubtless sensing a career opportunity to join the fledgling GB News channel as a member of the new freedom of speech superhero team, Andrew Neil’s Avengers of Wank. Morgan has obviously been awaiting a suitably shocking moment to stage his suddenly principled resignation, in order to raise the value of his own brand of cynically manufactured outrage in a crowded global clickbait marketplace. Anyone who even expresses an opinion about Morgan’s departure is merely playing into his hands. Morgan is a bendy piss-pant child who wants to be noticed. And if he cannot be noticed by doing a lovely painting of a cat, he will be noticed by throwing his excrement at a lady. Either way he wins and we all lose.

In the meantime, the reaction to the royal firm’s undignified internal realignment is seen as evidence of hostility towards black people generally or else as proof that ungrateful women will never be satisfied. “They don’t expect us to have anything and we should just be grateful. We have to put up and shut up and we are tired of it,” a black woman from Enfield told the Huffington Post. “Meghan, just be a mother and a wife to our prince you have stolen to America. Darling, stay quiet,” says a white man called Voice of Reason.

“And what is your statue suggestion, Lee?” Dowden bellowed, banging the table with his pink hand and snapping me back to the meeting. “Gove assured me you were good.” “Simple, Oliver,” I said. “Remove every celebratory statue of every slave trader in the land, contextualise them critically in museum cabinets and replace them with statues of worthy women and ethnic minorities.” “Impossible,” Dowden honked, “It is imperative that museums act impartially, in line with their publicly funded status, and not in a way that brings this into question.”

“Hear me out, Dowden,” I asserted. “I know that many Tory MPs and former Channel 4 presenters believe that Black Lives Matter protesters and white supremacist rioters are all as bad as one another, so in the interests of balance we replace Nelson’s column with a 52 metre-high statue of Britain’s most slavey slave owner, Thomas Thistlewood, who raped thousands of black female slaves at his Jamaican plantation and forced slaves to defecate into the mouths of those who had tried to escape, whom he then gagged. Then we rename Trafalgar Square Thistlewood Square. People offended by slavery will be glad, surely, that hundreds of slavers’ statues have been removed. While those who feel this is a whitewashing of British history will doubtless be appeased by the opportunity to celebrate Thistlewood’s slavery achievements in such a historic setting.” “Good Lord,” said Dowden, visibly moved, “I think you are on to something!”

King Rocker, a documentary about post-punk band the Nightingales, featuring Stewart Lee, is streaming on Now TV



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