Books: A Point of View: The Man on the Fourth Plinth |
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The Man on the Fourth Plinth : on the statue of Sir Keith Park

(S06E04, broadcast 13th and 15th November 2009)

"Head and shoulders above the rest"
— Sir Keith Park

A temporary plastic statue of the Battle of Britain commander Sir Keith Park has been temporarily installed on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, the fourth plinth having been temporarily empty of any permanent statue since, as far as I can make out, the year 1841. The plinth was designed as the base of some heroic permanent statue but the permanent statue never arrived, and in recent years the plinth has housed a temporary statue of one kind or another more or less permanently.

I promise to make as much sense as I can of this account as soon as possible, but we should record that some of the temporary exhibits on the plinth in recent times have aroused controversy, and sometimes seem to have been meant to, especially during the period when Ken Livingstone was mayor. It often seemed that Ken Livingstone had taken office in order to be controversial. Such was the level of controversy he continuously maintained that when he was replaced by Boris Johnson the new mayor’s personality, which on any objective scale is like a hunt ball held in a cricket pavilion, has been experienced as a centre of calm.

Even in the Ken era, the controversy aroused by whatever statue was on the fourth plinth was not always pointless. At one stage the plinth held a statue of a deformed woman and I’m bound to say that I, for one, was probably better off for being reminded that Fate can play cruel tricks on human beings, which some of them may heroically defy. There was a dignity to that statue that made me think.

At a later stage, however, indeed quite recently, and under the reign of the theoretically less controversial Boris, the plinth has held a work of art by Antony Gormley. Under Mr Gormley’s supervision, a different ordinary person, chosen by ballot, occupied the plinth for an hour, every hour of every twenty-four hours for one hundred days, thereby proving that there were 2,401 people in Britain with nothing else to do. 2,400 of the people were the aforesaid ordinary persons and the 2,401st was Mr Gormley.

I tried to be enlightened by that but couldn’t manage it, and was rather glad when the temporary statue of Sir Keith Park was temporarily installed, even though the temporariness of the statue seemed only emphasized by the fact that it was made of plastic and was taller than a camel. Usually a plastic replica of a war hero is only a few inches high, like an Action Man figurine, but apparently this one was a kind of rehearsal for the real statue of Sir Keith Park, which will be made of bronze and will probably be installed in Waterloo Place.

It will be smaller than the plastic one but still a lot taller than the actual Sir Keith Park used to be, which again seems strange, but with a strangeness we will have to get to later. There is something even stranger that we should deal with first. Because if there is nothing especially inspired about the plastic statue except its size and plasticity, it has certainly inspired a great moment in journalism, a moment which, I think, is at the centre of the question about whether liberal democracy might not be losing its memory, and, along with its memory, its mind.

I won’t name the journalist concerned, except to say that she has a column in one of the serious newspapers, and in this column she unblushingly announced: ‘I’d never heard of Keith Park GCB KBE MC before the campaign to plinth him began, and I still can’t figure out what all the fuss is about.’ That was her talking. This is me talking again, saying that I won’t name the serious newspaper either, except to say that I hope its editor, when he returned from holiday later that day, called her into his office and explained that if she really thought ignorance was a more honest form of knowledge then she should go and work for the kind of newspaper where she could interview Katie Price’s previous chest.

But there is always the chance, alas, that he is pretty young too, and didn’t know who Sir Keith Park was either. Or maybe they both did, and were just feigning ignorance because that was a fun way of filling space, and after all, what does it matter?

And right there, of course, is the catch in freedom. If you’re born free, you’re free to think that freedom is a natural state, and free to think that your own freedom owes nothing to some gung-ho old dead guy with a stack of initials after his name. But if Keith Park had never done what he did, our journalist might have had to compose her column in German, and you can bet that if she was writing about a statue of a Luftwaffe hero to go on the fourth plinth, her tone would have been a lot more reverent. Luckily for her and for all of us, things worked out differently; but it didn’t seem like luck at the time. A lot of things had to go right, and one of the things was that the right man was in the right spot.

Keith Park was born in New Zealand, and had to take a long road to his date with destiny in 1940. In the First World War he started off with the Anzac army at the Dardanelles, he was in the Battle of the Somme, and after he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps he laid the groundwork for his future career by shooting down German aeroplanes. That was when he won the MC, twice. It was an equivocal war and nobody knew that better than he did, but when the Second War loomed he knew there was nothing equivocal about it. As the Germans prepared to invade Britain, the man in charge of the air defences was Hugh Dowding. Dowding’s strategy for fighting the battle was controversial: really controversial, not just controversial as in ‘what on earth is that thing on the plinth supposed to mean?’

Dowding’s strategy was to assign 11 Group, commanded by Keith Park, to fight the incoming German formations while 12 Group was held back to guard 11 Group’s airfields. The commanders of 12 Group resented this and brought a lot of political pressure on Dowding, so that he had to resist them as well as the Germans. But he was convinced that unless a reserve of trained pilots was maintained, the battle would be lost.

Meanwhile, Park was in charge of the first line of defence, flying around in his personal Hurricane from airfield to airfield, inspiring the defenders as they grew weary, the ideal battlefield commander. He wasn’t British but quite a lot of the pilots in the Battle of Britain came from somewhere else, and not just from the Dominions but from Ireland, America, Czechoslovakia and Poland. The Poles and Czechs knew exactly what they stood to lose. They had already lost once. It wasn’t just an Empire fighting for its life.

The whole force took a lot of coordinating but Park was the man to do it. He never wavered from Dowding’s principle that there had to be trained pilots in reserve, and it was hard for him to see pilots getting killed who had scarcely been trained at all. In the control rooms, the young women recorded the numbers as the young men died. But the RAF, just, could live with its losses. The Germans couldn’t, and eventually they switched to night bombing. Flying over burning London in the morning after the first big night raid, Park knew that the battle, if it had not been won, at least had not been lost.

Though historians argue still over the details, there is no serious argument about the result. Hitler, denied command of the air, could not invade, and he turned away. Even before he did so, another battle had started in Britain. This time it was a political battle. Those who had thought Dowding to be wrong in not committing his whole force were better at catching Churchill’s ear. Dowding couldn’t do PR and neither could Park. Park went off to defend Malta but really he had been written off. In the official history of the battle he was not even mentioned. Unlike Dowding, who spent his last years further developing a life-long interest in spiritualism and ended up believing in fairies, Park kept his head, and back in New Zealand, where he went home to die, there is a memorial garden, with a statue. But there is still no statue here.

Park and Dowding are both much honoured in the movie about the Battle of Britain — it’s called The Battle of Britain, if our journalist can marshal her intellectual resources and search out the DVD — but by now even the movie is going back into the past. And Dowding, played in the movie by Laurence Olivier as an act of homage, has a statue. Life-sized instead of super-sized, it stands on a little plinth outside St Clement Dane’s in the Strand — the right place, because inside that church is the beautifully handwritten book with the names of all our young people who were killed in the battle.

Personally I hope that the bronze permanent statue of Park (played in the movie by Trevor Howard, who looked just like him) can be scaled down to human size, because really for a man like that there is no scale bigger. The statue could be placed on that plinth beside Dowding, to commemorate how they worked together to save not just Britain, but the whole of civilization. Those were the stakes, and only a fool could doubt it. Only a fool, or someone young and careless.

Park’s statue, if it stood there, would be looking up into the battlefield that shows no trace now of where the young men fought, because the condensation trails were only water crystals and they faded in a few hours — the battlefield where he led his pilots to a victory that cost so much, and you could say cost too much, except that defeat would have cost everything.


The deliberate repetitions in the first paragraph of this script are examples of what can sound quite clever in a broadcast or a stage routine, but might be less advisable in an essay for the page, because the reader can take the necessary time to spot the workings. Thus we see that almost all rhetorical devices began as aids to speaking, not to writing. Personally I love treating the readers as if they were listeners, but it’s an urge more easily overindulged than kept in bounds. The writer for the page has a tempting amount of room, whereas the writer for the studio and the stage is always short of time. There wasn’t time to mention that the official history Keith Park was left out of was the one published just after the battle, whereas in the official history published later on he was duly acknowledged. I wish I had had the time to mention Josef František, the top-scoring pilot of the battle. As a Czech flying with the Poles, he was enough all by himself to scotch the notion that the pilots were mainly from public schools. Actually only about thirty per cent of them were. Most of them were NCOs, sergeant pilots from an ordinary background, a fact acknowledged by Churchill in the historic conversation with Halifax (see Martin Gilbert’s Finest Hour) during which Churchill observed that ‘the boys from the State schools’ had done well in the battle and would deserve their chance to rule when the time came. In 2010 a prominent wit drew some well-deserved opprobrium when, wearing his serious hat, he revealed himself as being under the impression that all of the Battle of Britain pilots had been public-school boys. Astonishment at his ignorance was compounded with disquiet at his possible influence, since he himself was in the process of opening a school. What would it teach?

Meanwhile ‘our journalist’ went on with her career, and got noticeably better in the aftermath of her debacle. It’s often the way. Exuberance frequently leads to excess in the early stages, whereas those who begin judiciously aren’t always interesting later on. I myself, when making my start in Fleet Street, had some unfortunate moments. There was a crack about the Archbishop of Canterbury that drew dark mutterings of admonishment from upstairs. But the people upstairs, of course, had all been through the war, and knew the difference between news and opinion. The problem for any young journalist now is that the executives to whom he answers tend to share his illusion that the facts are elastic.