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The woke colonisation of London

Does Trafalgar Square really need a tribute to transgender sex workers?

Gareth Roberts

Topics Culture Politics UK

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London mayor Sadiq Khan is at it again. It turns out he was just warming up last week with his costly and cauliflower-brained wheeze to rename London’s Overground rail lines things like the Yasser Arafat Line and the Baader-Meinhof Line. Now he’s set his sights on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square.

The plinth has famously been populated for decades by a string of ugly artworks (until 2022, it was a gigantic Mr Whippy with a big fly on it – your guess is as good as mine). Of course, Khan would never allow a statue that might, you know, fit in at least vaguely with the square’s appealing 19th-century architecture of William Wilkins. So from September, the mayor has agreed to install something that resembles a crate of eggs but which, in fact, comprises ‘casts of the faces of 850 trans people, most of whom are sex workers, arranged round the plinth in the form of a tzompantli’ (a skull rack from Mesoamerican civilisations).

This week, Khan announced that with the help of art ‘experts’, he has whittled the options down for the artworks that will occupy the plinth for two years each, from 2026 and 2028. This spurious shortlist includes an angry cat (representing women apparently, somehow), a sweet potato representing colonialism, a cross between a bird’s nest and a wood-fired oven, a person riding a horse covered by a lime-green shroud and a Bollywood-themed ice-cream van with a tiger on its roof and a TV screen on its side.

The shortlist Khan put together in 2021 was hardly any better. It included a Thunderbirds-style silver space rocket, designed to encourage Londoners ‘to look beyond their immediate surroundings and up to outer space’, and something that looked like – and I mean, exactly like – a miniature multi-storey car park in Hemel Hempstead, except with grass growing out of it. This apparently would have paid homage to ‘a grain silo partially built by Eastern European architects in Ghana in the early 1960s’. Ultimately, these grand designs were beaten out by the current plinth occupant, a statue of anti-colonial activist John Chilembwe, and the soon-to-be-installed tribute to transgender sex workers.

Now the public will get to vote, Blue Peter-style, on whether they want the ice-cream van, the cat or the other offerings. Khan gushed on the socials that, since 1998, the Fourth Plinth has ‘showcased world-class artwork, adding to London’s dynamic cultural scene’. The use of the phrase ‘world-class’ in a sentence always signals that the speaker is an idiot. Still, at least he didn’t say the Fourth Plinth was ‘iconic’. Khan then continued: ‘Excited to see what new exhibits will be next to grace this iconic space.’ Oh.

Like so much of what passes for culture today, none of this is actually art. It is goading-as-art. It is a territorial display of dominance, like a tomcat weeing, and about as odorous.

The tedious cycle goes like this: First an artwork is calculated to cause annoyance. Then there is an annoyed reaction. And finally, there is a pretended annoyed reaction to that annoyed reaction. It’s a trap, designed to catch objectors like flies on an ice cream, and cement the high status of the perpetrators and the low status of their opponents.

We could make up a few Fourth Plinth ideas of our own here, off the tops of our heads. A Guatemalan demi-queer horse, maybe? An Aztec ziggurat made of used tampax? A gigantic Creme Egg with somebody’s bum sticking out of the top?

But it is impossible to ridicule this stuff – because it is purposefully ridiculous in itself. The ridiculousness is its entire point. This is why satirists and comedians struggle to mock what we call, for better or worse, ‘woke’. Woke wants you to mock it. By rejecting woke you reveal that you are low status. And if you ignore it and refuse to be riled by it, well, the woke win anyway. Because they always get their way. To use one of their own tedious phrases, it’s all about power – they have it, you don’t.

We see this in the formulation that something ‘will annoy all the right people’. I wonder, does great art of transcendent, timeless value get produced through this motivation? Did Michelangelo think ‘this posh ceiling will really piss off the Daily Mail, eh lads’? When Shakespeare put quill to parchment, was he chuckling to himself, ‘Verily and forsooth, this merrie conceit will get their doublets in a twist up at Ye Sunday Telegraph’?

It’s all so tedious. We know what they’re up to, and they know we know what they’re up to, and we know that they know etc, ad infinitum.

If there was an option, I would vote to keep that bloody plinth as an empty space forever. At least that would reflect the utter vacuity of 21st-century culture.

Gareth Roberts is a screenwriter and novelist, best known for his work on Doctor Who.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Culture Politics UK

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