Tavistock Square: Histories of Colonialism22 minute read

Tavistock Square is a small green, public Square in Bloomsbury which came into existence in 1820. It was initially a private square and was owned by the Dukes of Bedford. During this period, Britain had emerged as the dominant naval and imperial power and was considered a global hegemon (Louis, 2001). The title of Duke links the Dukes of Bedford to the monarchy who played a central role in initiating colonialism. From the 1800s to the present, renewed efforts have been made to occupy the space of Tavistock Square. However, new practices are still entwined in colonial meaning, consolidating the Square as a complex and understudied artefact of post-colonial national identity (Grabar, 2014). Consequently, the Square can be understood from a palimpsestuous perspective as the result of layering processes, with each layer and its meanings “involved and entangled, intricately woven, interrupting and inhabiting each other” (Dillon, 2006, 245). My thesis is that histories of colonialism infused in the Square continue to manifest themselves with regards to the way people interact; the events and daily occurrences that take place in the Square and the framing of these events. I will structure my argument along two main points of discussion, namely nationalism and peace.

The notion of palimpsest is intertwined with colonialism. Foucault (1977) reiterates the role of the palimpsest as an ontological and symbolic instrument of history. In this sense, the palimpsest represents the past as the “history of colonial expansion, the violent erasure and superimposition of cultures, and defiant and subversive persistence” (Dillon, 2006, 254). Consequently, the palimpsestic lens portrays past dominations, dispossessions and power struggles for land and recognition as the result of colonialism. Moreover, the palimpsest’s intermeshing structure embodies conflicting and vying voices which allows minority narratives to be heard, thus preventing the emergence of a “single story” (Alarcón, 1988-90; Adichie, 2009). Subsequently, the palimpsestuous perspective recognizes diversity and gives importance to the subaltern voice. However, the emphasis remains focused on how minority voices interact with authoritative, historical accounts and in this way Alarcón (1988-90) describes how the histories of the colonized and colonialists are not distinct, but rather inhabit one another. Tavistock Square is riddled with colonial histories which have continued to last into the present day as an imperial legacy. Unlike any other square in London, Tavistock square represents those who resisted war, conflict and imperialism rather than Caucasian, British, imperial heroes. This illustrates how Tavistock Square has made a dedicated effort to resuscitate voices of the subaltern and memories of colonialism, thus constituting a palimpsest.

Nationalism is another theme emerging from the Square. There is a strong relationship between nationalism and imperialism. For example, during the late 19th century, the expansion of empire was considered as a fundamental source of economic development and political strength for the United Kingdom. It heightened Britain’s global influence and increased cultural contact resulted in British national identity becoming more pronounced. The empire was a binding force through which all British people could relate which fermented a collective, cultural identity (Potter, 2007). On the other hand, prevailing academia suggests that the relationship between nationalism and imperialism is antagonistic. From this perspective, authoritative and anti-democratic empires impose themselves and their rules onto a population who in response to this oppression, form nationalist movements in order to assert autonomy (Colclough, 2007). This anti-colonialist version of nationalism is embodied in the statue of Gandhi in the Square, whilst the former strain will be discussed in relation to the discourses surrounding the blitz and 7/7 bombings which affected the Square.

Tavistock Square is most commonly associated to peace in public opinion. The Square hosts Gandhi as well as a peace memorial park dedicated to victims of Hiroshima, conscientious objectors and the league of Jewish Women amongst others. The objects belonging to the memorial park in Tavistock Square act as mnemic symbols as they conjure repressed memories (Freud, 1910). Public acts of remembrance not only recollect the past, but also contribute to constructing the future. The relationship between reminiscence and future-building plays an integral role in achieving transitional justice (Rigney, 2012). Transitional justice is defined as “the full range of processes and mechanisms associated with a society’s attempt to come to terms with a legacy of large-scale past abuses, in order to ensure accountability, serve justice and achieve reconciliation” by the UN (UN, 2010, 2). From a transitional justice perspective, future peace is contingent on coming to a universal agreement and recognition of past oppressions. This highlights the importance of palimpsest.


Methodology

Realizing covert non-participant observation and subsequent analysis of body language and facial expressions will allow me to unearth the diverse ways in which people respond to and identify with the themes exhibited by the square. In this way, non-participant observation will uncover sentiments of ‘fascination and fear’ bounded to structures in the square (Keith, 2008, 414). Moreover, non-participant observation permit comparative analysis with interviews (Cloke, 2004). The juxtaposition of how people act versus what they say in an interview has the potential to reveal the politics inherent to identity. I will specifically be carrying out covert observation because I need to assess how people act naturally in the Square. Overt observation would change the way people behave and this would decrease the quality of my findings. As Mitchell (1993) elucidated, ‘secrecy’ is an essential and undervalued component of thorough fieldwork. However, observational techniques can be problematic because they are highly interpretive. As Parr and Hoggart (cited in Cloke, 2004, 170) remark, ethnographies are not “realities extracted from the field” but are “intersubjective truths”. Similarly, as the researcher I will be analysing other people’s behaviour from my perspective and they will therefore be subjected to my personal behavioural norms.

I will also realize semi-structured interviews. Semi-structured interviews are more conversational, thus giving greater power to the interviewee to discuss their experience in a nuanced manner (Flowerdew and Martin, 2005). Consequently, interviews provide an “authentic insight into people’s experiences” (Silverman, 1993: 91). Thus, interviewing will allow me to assess the meanings people attach to the Square (Cloke, 2004). Interviewing will also give a voice to undocumented groups and these fresh perspectives will deepen understanding of the complexity of the site. However, the issue of inter-subjectivity arises once again as interviewers are complicit in the construction of meanings with interviewees. Moreover, interviews are biased and directional to a certain extent. Similarly, Holstein and Gubrium (1997) elucidate the benefits of building a rapport with respondents but due to time constraints this will be difficult. I will also conduct discourse analysis from old newspapers from archives and contrast them to current newspapers to discuss nationalism. Visual methodologies (Rose, 2001) will be employed to analyse the cultural significance, social practices and power relations of the memorials of Tavistock Square.


Analysis

Tavistock Square was bombed in the 1940s by the Germans during the Second World War. Newspapers during this time cast the Germans as an external, foreign threat which served to reemphasize the notion of Britishness. The process of ‘Othering’ inflicted upon the Germans helped to fabricate a collective identity for British people who became united in their joint mission of defeating “the enemy” (Said, 1978). ‘Othering’ highlighted that “the nation [is] was different and unique” (Karolewski, 2009, 28). Moreover, figure 1 claims that 176 Nazi planes were shot down by the British despite the actual figure being 56. This reveals how exaggerated truths about the nation emerged so Britain could assert its political power over other imperial powers such as Germany (Mann, 1992). Consequently, these processes inflated Britain and British peoples sense of worth gave way to the “blitz spirit”. The blitz spirit refers to the stoicism and defiance of British people in the face of continual bombings.

The Square was bombed again in the 7/7, 2005 bombings and the blitz spirit was revived in the aftermath. Messages and analogies in the media evoked Second World War propaganda and sentiments of British defiance and solidarity, with phrases such as “We Britons will never be defeated” (figure 2). Similar to the blitz bombings, newspapers identified the force bombers as foreign, despite the fact that they were all British. For example, the Sunday Telegraph described the bombers as a ‘foreign based Islamic-terrorist cell’ (Davies, 2008, 34). In fact, only 8 out of 257 newspapers mentioned that the perpetrators were British (Kelsey, 2012). The portrayal of the bombers as foreign reflects how national cultural identity is still based on race and ethnicity. In this way, whiteness continues to be an essential factor in developing a sense of national belonging and this is a legacy of imperialism (Garner, 2012). As one suicide bomber remarked before the attack, “Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world” (BBC, 2005). This demonstrates how the bomber did not feel British as he aligned himself with ‘the other’, due to his ethnicity (Gabriel et al., 2012). Through the Second World War and 2005 bombings of Tavistock Square, it is clear that Britain continues to reinforce a collective, cultural identity through the process of ‘Othering’. Moreover, nationalist sentiments of the 1940s were resuscitated in 2005 to boost morale and to provoke buried sentiments of national pride. Moreover, 4 interviewees (all British) instantly associated Tavistock Square to the 7/7 bombings, illustrating how the event has been etched onto the national consciousness.

Figure 1 (above): The Daily Herald, 1940; Figure 2 (right): Daily Express, 2005; Figure 3 (far right): Daily Star, 2005
Figure 1 (above): The Daily Herald, 1940; Figure 2 (right): Daily Express, 2005; Figure 3 (far right): Daily Star, 2005

Nationalism in the Square is also witnessed in cultural events. One particular event is the Tweed Run which describes itself as a metropolitan bicycle ride through London whereby participants dress in Tweed and “stop for a tea break and a picnic” ending with a “jolly knees-up” (The Tweed Run, 2009). Tweed is often regarded as the “nearest thing the British have to national dress” whilst tea drinking is considered as a “fact of British life” (BBC Four, 2009; Burgess, 1992, 19). Moreover, the language is especially reminiscent of the 20th century, as phrases such as “jolly knees-up” are not heard today. Consequently, the Tweed Run can be understood as an event which seeks to re-locate Britishness through looking backwards into pathological nostalgia as it evokes a vision of 19th and 20th century Britain (Gilroy, 1999, 2004). Gilroy (1999, 2004) identifies attempts which hark back to a romanticised notion of the past as exemplar of ‘postcolonial melancholia’ and explains that such events are symptomatic of the racial demographic changes which have occurred in Britain during the past 50 years. The demographic changes have contested the notion of British identity and have contributed to confusion amongst many Caucasian people of British heritage regarding who exactly can be called British and on what terms. This assertion is fitting of the Tweed Run as it only came into existence 8 years ago.

Non-participant observation of the Tweed Run revealed that the vast majority of people were Caucasian and over 40 years old. The way that participants interacted in the Square was entirely different to how people act in the Square on a normal, day to day basis. For example, figure 5 depicts a gentleman sitting on the topmost steps of the Gandhi memorial next to Gandhi’s plaque. Normally, people look at the statue of Gandhi from afar and will not venture closer unless to lay flowers or candles. The gentlemen’s behaviour could be considered as disrespectful and inappropriate, especially as he does not have any prior relationship to the memorial. As Cuattingguis (1993) discussed, inappropriate behaviour and activities, and the “unnecessary repetition of themes and motifs” can result in the trivialisation of the cultures and meanings attached to a specific area or structure. In this way, the penny farthings which symbolize the Victorian era which itself is characterised by imperialism; the tweed which represents 20th century upper-class culture and the picnic and tea-drinking which took place in Tavistock Square can be argued as confronting and perhaps trivialising the messages of peace exhibited by the memorials in the Square. For example, one interviewee commented “I don’t think this is what Gandhi wanted”. Similarly, another interviewee referred to the event as “that weird day with all the White people in the Square” and another described feelings of discomfort due to being one of the few ethnic minorities in the Square (he was passing through). Similarly, another interviewee offhandedly described the Tweed Run as “oh, that imperialist thing?”.

Controversially, one interviewee became extremely angry when I began to question him about the Tweed Run. He said that there is nothing to discuss as it is just a fashion, “it’s not like they’re running about saying ‘Give me back my India!’”. He became extremely defensive of the Tweed Run which he has no affiliation to and wanted to clarify that race and imperialism are not relevant topics of discussion in the present era. This illustrates the internal conflict experienced by Caucasian, British people today when considering Britain’s colonial past. The Tweed Run illustrates how the past can be recreated in the present and socially engineered to only portray certain aspects (Renan, 1882). The palimpsest too therefore, is socially engineered. It challenges the messages of the memorials which hint towards the atrocities committed by Britain in the name of imperialism as well as during the Second World War, and instead conjures a wholesome, good natured vision of British history. It also provides a framework through which Caucasian, British people can relocate and reconstruct their national identity after it has been challenged by recent multiculturalism.

Figure 4 (left) and 5: The Tweed Run in Tavistock Square
Figure 4 (left) and 5: The Tweed Run in Tavistock Square

The memorials in Tavistock Square contribute towards the notion of peace. Gandhi is the centre of the Square and non-participant observation unveiled how this monument received the most attention from visitors of the Square. The benches positioned around the statue allowed visitors to contemplate Gandhi and all that he symbolizes – newcomers to the Square expressed sentiments of awe. In this way, the presence of Gandhi in the Square instils a sense of tranquillity and contemplative peace which reflects his own values. This was reflected in the way that people sat calmly around the statue and slowed their walking pace as they gradually got closer to it (Lal, 2005). As Lal (2005, 1) describes, “the harmony it seems to express between form and function, place and purpose, history and present, is a richly associative tribute to Gandhi’s own philosophy of peace and non-violence”. Gandhi’s peaceful presence frames events in the present. For example, the Indian diaspora in London deliberately chose to protest against the Delhi gang-rape case of 2012 next to the statue of Gandhi because it reignites memory of the oppression and injustice that Gandhi fought against and helps to frame the current event as unjust and immoral. Familiar themes (oppression of the subaltern) of the past are utilized by protests to entice supporters and new themes (oppression of women) are weaved into the dominant narrative in order to forge new discussions (Tarrow, 2011). The protest mimics Gandhi’s own pursuit of peace and demonstrates the palimpsestuous view that elements of the past are entangled in the present. Moreover, the recent protest contributes to transitional justice as it establishes the causes of conflict, initiates a ‘truth-seeking’ process and ensures that women and marginalized groups are able to participate in the in the pursuit of a just society (UN, 2010). Gandhi is a mnemic symbol who contributes to peace processes through recollection and framing in the present and future.

Figure 6: 2012 Protest in the Square against the Delhi gang-rape
Figure 6: 2012 Protest in the Square against the Delhi gang-rape

The idea of the past framing events in the present explains why anti-nuclear protest posters were plastered to the cherry tree dedicated to Hiroshima victims. The placement of the poster on the cherry tree directly links the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima to the anti-nuclear protest in the present. The bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 captured worldwide attention due to the devastating effects. 237 000 people were killed directly and indirectly by the bombing, radiation sickness and cancer (Stohl, 1979). Today, the bombings are widely portrayed in a negative light as immoral, racist, militarily avoidable and as war crimes (Stone and Kuznick, 2016). Subsequently, the poster serves as a reminder of the causes of the Hiroshima bombing which invokes strong emotions of anger and distress, inciting people to form part of the protest. The poster on the cherry tree identifies a common enemy – nuclear weapons. The protest is targeted at all types of Londoners (regarding race, gender, nationality etc.). For example, Brixton rapper ‘Potent Whisperer’ performed #TridentonTrial at the 2016 anti-nuclear protest in Tavistock Square. Lyrics included ‘we can see you’re struggling even though you’re working hard, but we’re going to freeze your benefits/ your benefits can benefit our war, death and arms… try and question whether it leads to peace or only violence’. In this way, injustice framing surrounding nuclear weapons is reworked. Instead of solely focusing on the victims of nuclear weapons in foreign countries, Potent Whisperer shines light on the injustice carried out by the British government against its citizens in its quest for nuclear arms and power. Londoners can relate more personally to tales of government cuts which negatively affect them directly rather than tales from distant lands. This illustrates how injustice framing based on the injustices overseas in the past is remolded around localized issues in the present to attract more supporters. The reminder of the past (Hiroshima) serves as an emotive trigger. This illustrates how palimpsestuous thinking is employed by social movement organizers to further a specific cause.

Figure 7: Anti- nuclear poster on the ‘Hiroshima’ cherry tree
Figure 7: Anti- nuclear poster on the ‘Hiroshima’ cherry tree

Similarly, the Square is exemplar of Hall’s (2013) concept of the intimate city, which describes the relations maintained between individuals and small groups and how they express and organize themselves on the micro-level. The intimate city is able to shine light on the daily nuanced patterns of the urban fabric. In Tavistock Square, the intimate city is witnessed in the way Gandhi is gifted with a garland, candles and incense sticks, how origami is strung to the cherry tree dedicated to the Hiroshima victims and how the Conscientious objectors stone is decorated with white flowers (sometimes handmade). These acts demonstrate a pathos and a tenderness of expression which connects the living to the dead on an emotional basis (Reynolds, 1851). The flowers keep the memory of the dead alive and show respect. Moreover, white flowers are emblematic of peace which echoes the notion of peace central to conscientious objectors’ stone. Similarly, the smell of incense lingers around the statue of Gandhi. Incense is commonly used in Hindu religious events to cleanse the air and symbolizes the holy power of fire to transform. The candles (also used in Hindu culture) leave a light burning scent and represent enlightenment and hope. The presence of these smells “has the power to evoke… past events and scenes” and makes us more aware of the external world inhabited by the objects (Tuan, 1974, 10). They conjure sentiments of India thereby linking Tavistock Square to India. India can be considered as part of London’s past because of the colonial exploits which Britain engaged in there. The smells link London to foreign lands and reinvigorate the memory of Britain’s activity there (sometimes colonial). Similarly, the origami cranes on the Hiroshima cherry tree symbolize peace, therefore facilitating a peace discourse which centres on the innocent victims rather than the ethics of the bombing itself. The cranes, the white flowers and the candles do not produce a conflict over collective memory, but rather are limited to compassion and the project of peace (Janes, 2010).

Figure 8 (top left ): origami cranes on Hiroshima cherry tree; Figure 9 and 10: white ‘flowers’ (word ‘peace’ in centre) below Conscientious Objectors Stone; Figure 11 (bottom): Flowers, candles and incense – Gandhi’s statue
Figure 8 (top left ): origami cranes on Hiroshima cherry tree; Figure 9 and 10: white ‘flowers’ (word ‘peace’ in centre) below Conscientious Objectors Stone; Figure 11 (bottom): Flowers, candles and incense – Gandhi’s statue

Conclusion

In conclusion, Tavistock Square is extremely demonstrative of Dillon’s (2006) palimpsest because elements of the past are evident in the present. Firstly, discourses surrounded the bombings in the Square illustrated how British media continues to partake in the process of ‘Othering’. Whereas in the 20th century, ‘Othering’ was limited to nationality, today the notion has broadened to ethnicity as ethnic minorities are portrayed as foreign despite their UK citizenship. This problematic portrayal can be understood as a legacy of colonialism which privileges whiteness. This legacy is also witnessed in the way that the bombers felt poorly integrated into British society and differentiated themselves from the rest of the population. Similarly, the focus on nationalism in the Square revealed how ‘the blitz spirit’ was purposefully revived and applied to the modern bombing by the media and authorities in order to foment unity amongst the British population. In this way, we are able to comprehend how elements of the past are intentionally brought into the present and that the palimpsest should not be understood as a naturally occurring model. It is to an extent, socially engineered. This was exemplified by the cultural event, ‘The Tweed Run’ which intentionally revived certain aspects of British cultural heritage. Moreover, memorials in the Square provided a direct link to the past by summoning memories and remembrance of historical events. The revival of these memories provokes strong emotions and provides an injustice framework which protest organizers use in the present to draw in supporters. Protests in the Square today are founded on historical events whilst simultaneously addressing and contributing to the construction of the future. Protests aim to establish truths of past events and to include a wide diversity of people in the process. In this way, they contribute towards transitional justice whose objective lies in the achievement of future peace. Everyday gestures in Tavistock Square also further the task of transitional justice through resuscitating the memory of the dead. The micro-level acts strengthen the link between current generations and those bygone and deceased, and come to symbolize peace and reconciliation. Through the themes of nationalism and peace, I have demonstrated how the past is continually revived and reimagined through the diverse events, practices and occurrences which take place there. The Square will never be able to completely break away from these themes and the broader, encapsulating concept of colonialism. Through this project, I have depicted the intricacies, meanings and values imbued in the Square, thus highlighting the importance of green spaces in London. They have so much to offer the general public and should continue to be conserved, treasured, occupied and further explored. City planners and policy makers in the city must recognize this.


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