At Hyde Park Corner

Jonathan Meades

The Queen unveiled the Bomber Command Memorial at Hyde Park Corner on 28 June. ‘Sixty-seven years too late’ according to a chorus of jingoists who have apparently long been militating for such a memorial. The urbane Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede designed by Edward Maufe was evidently reckoned insufficiently specific. And the appetite for acknowledgment was hardly sated by the perennially defaced statue of Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris outside St Clement Danes.

The interesting peer of the realm Lord Ashcroft KCMG wrote about the unveiling on his website conservativehome: ‘I was privileged enough to share that special moment … as a guest of the Bomber Command Association. As one of the principal donors of the appeal for the new memorial – I gave £1 million to the cause – I felt both proud and humbled that a 67-year wrong has finally been righted.’ A few short paragraphs later he reminds us: ‘I made a £1 million commitment to the £7 million appeal because I wanted the memorial to be built while some Bomber Command veterans, now in their late eighties and early nineties, are still alive.’ And, lest we forget: ‘£1.5 million is needed to maintain the memorial. It is for this reason that I have decided that I will donate all author’s royalties from my latest book on gallantry – Heroes of the Skies – to the RAF Benevolent Fund, which has today become the custodian of the new memorial.’

The crassness does not end with this shameless man’s distended immodesty. His fellow donors include the late Bee Gee Robin Gibb, the mobile phone baron John Caudwell and the pornographer Richard Desmond: their name liveth for evermore all right, prominently, in a niche on the western side of the structure. The memorial to the 55,573 nameless dead airmen of Bomber Command and its few thousand survivors has evidently been squatted by fiscally adventurous billionaires: it is, too, a monument to their showy expiation, their narcissistic philanthropy, their bigheartedness.

Liam O’Connor’s Bomber Command Memorial
O’Connor’s Bomber Command Memorial

The object they have forked out for is a lump of Croesus bling. It is very approximately classical – the word is synonymous with class, obviously; and is just the sort of ‘feature’ that dignifies a plutocratic stratum of Home Counties gardens. The material is Portland stone which, like oil paint, is supposedly prestigious no matter how coarsely it is handled. As a piece of design it is clumsily proportioned. Housman remarked of Swinburne: ‘It is historically certain that he had seen the sea, but if it were not, it could not with certainty have been inferred from his descriptions.’ We can be certain that Liam O’Connor, who designed the pavilion, has scrutinised classical temples and neoclassical porticos, has studied the orders, wandered over Calton Hill etc. But like the majority of current classicists he falls back on a DIY primer in Quality Street Regency and, for variety, another in the mid-Victorian classical survival. Hesitance follows timidity. The balustraded centrepiece is flanked by columnar screens which pointlessly terminate in detached clusters of columns. The thing’s formality demands a parterre and axial paths rather than a meadow like Green Park.

The positioning is puzzling. Its situation seems brusquely curtailed. Future generations will conflate eras, gape at it and assume that part of it must have been lost to the widening of Piccadilly when the Hyde Park Corner underpass was built in the early 1960s. Its symmetry can only be appreciated from across the road on the seething pavement outside the Hard Rock Café. That tourist attraction’s clamorous populism appears to set the tone for the memorial’s sculpted centrepiece. Deftly craftsmanlike, it represents a larger than lifesize Lancaster crew, all earphones and harnesses, buckles and boots. A rather elderly crew, men in their thirties rather than their early twenties. Their firm jaws and purposeful expressions suggest that were they to get their kit off they would be indistinguishable from Aryan athletes or heroic collective farmers.

A work, then, of dubious appropriateness, artless, uninvolving, unmoving but supremely accessible, thus instantly comprehensible to all but the slowest learners. Philip Jackson, the sculptor, has created a bronze euphemism which dodges the crucial matter and fails to prompt reflection on the sacrifice of the conscripted. We are not propelled back to the horrors and mess and brutality of the Second World War. Rather, through its use of an unwittingly mock-heroic sculptural idiom, it evokes the 1950s. Specifically, that decade’s tireless sweeping of those horrors under the carpet in favour of the gung-ho, sanitised donner und blitzen war of the War Picture Library; of Britain’s toy soldiers; of countless tales of derring-do such as T.D.G. Teare’s Evader, Anne-Marie Walters’s Moondrop to Gascony; John Frayn Turner’s Prisoner at Large and Richard Pape’s Boldness Be My Friend; of black and white films whose retrospective propaganda might have been designed to blunt the privations of rationing and the ennui of stasis.

It is that simplistic and often infantile postwar evocation of the Second World War which infects this memorial. We live in the Age of Apology. We whiggishly judge the past by the present. Had this thing not ducked the issue by adopting forms of at least half a century ago, had it truly been of the present age, it would, for better or worse, have been obliged to address the question of the legitimacy of bombing civilians in Hamburg and Dresden, not to mention Royan and Le Havre. It would indeed have had to address a memorial’s purpose and the question of whether this one ought even to have been built. In an access of tokenism ‘those of all nations’ who lost their lives are mentioned in the handsome lettering. But the decision to look back from the generalised point of view of Jack Hawkins and Kenneth More obviates the need to entertain awkward thoughts.

Edwin Lutyens’s monument at Thiepval
Lutyens’s monument at Thiepval

It goes without saying that in the matter of commemorative sculpture, the 1950s would not have been so doggedly retardataire, so cravenly willing to time travel backwards, as this does, to a neverland that the Prince of Wales might feel at ease in. The failure of British modernism and of today’s synthetic modernism to devise a memorious idiom provides an ample justification for the mongers of easy-viewin’ classicism to dump their stuff indiscriminately. Mongers, too, of naturalism, an idiom which invariably diminishes. It is a manifestly inappropriate conduit to the consideration of the enforced death of fifty-five thousand young men whose names are not listed in the way that the names of the victims of the Somme and martial crassness are listed at Lutyens’s Thiepval monument – which is perfectly pitched, moving and vast. Without that vastness, legible from miles away, the structure’s emotional charge (or ability to trick) would be mitigated. There is, in public or collective monuments, just as there is in religious buildings, a truistic equation between size and contemplative efficacy, between size and the delusions fostered – whether that the next life will be better or that the mud and gas and death were worth it all. Gigantism and symbolism, gigantism and abstraction, gigantism and anything really. Size is the key.