Every Thursday I help out at a shelter. My journey takes me from New Cross Gate station along the A2 towards Greenwich. It’s a tired, tatty piece of south London which is also home to Goldsmiths College.
I’m not a man in a hurry these days. Not much anyway, so the rather magnificent Deptford Town Hall caught my eye a few times as I wandered past. It was built in 1905 and has a rather dramatic and impressive frontage.
What really arrested my leisurely progress were the four statues that stand by the first floor windows, each with a date. The third one, a one armed admiral with the date, 1805, was a bit of a giveaway. Nelson. The date: the Battle of Trafalgar. So who were the others?
The dates of the first two suggested maybe something Shakespearean. Or at least theatrical. But in fact, Henry Poole, the artist aimed at a Nautical theme as the presence of Nelson suggests, as does the rather splendid weather vane.
The first two are Francis Drake and Robert Blake whose tactical intuition helped the British Navy beat the Dutch in the 17th century and who is often called the father of the Royal Navy.
The last figure, with the date of the Town Hall itself is a figure, nameless but grand, of an Admiral of the Fleet at that time.
The whole thing smacks of Imperial self-importance. Of confidence. Of superiority. Pride, in a word.
But pride and hubris are close cousins. Eleven years later that self-same town hall was the centre of secret trials of conscientious objectors, who refused for a variety of reasons, to fight in WW1. Many were imprisoned for cowardice – perhaps a lesser punishment than the penalty for cowardice at the front – a firing squad – but humiliation and a severe limitation on the imprisoned’s ability to earn a crust. My great uncle went to the front as an ambulance driver, not to fight. That was the only way to avoid such humiliation.
Sadly Willie Dyson died of a brain haemorrhage the day after winning the Military Medal for conspicuous bravery when rescuing colleagues under fire. Cruel, selfish times.
It is difficult these days to see such grandiose monuments without a moment’s pause for the background to its history. The building is magnificent and today it is part of the aforementioned Goldsmiths College, a rather splendid centre of learning in an otherwise rundown part of town.
It is important to look forward, as much as look back and understand context. The beauty of the architecture, in its own right, is sufficient for me. Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the first votes for women. We don’t imprison for cowardice today, either. So we move forward as we recall our past. At least I hope so.