Memory and 7/7 at Tavistock Square

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March 10, 2016 by Andrew W M Smith

I spoke at an event called ‘Memory and 7/7 at Tavistock Square’ at Birkbeck Keynes Library on 10 March 2016. We were discussing the development of a new memorial, and were asked to reflect on 3 key questions:

  • How does the planned memorial reflect the significance of Tavistock Square to those directly affected by 7/7 bombings?
  • How does the new memorial relate to London’s other memorials to the 7/7 bombings?
  • What possible consequences will the new memorial have for the Square¹s existing assemblage of memorials?

This is the text of the speech I delivered:

In August last year, I spoke to a group of school children visiting UCL on an access summer school, and one of our tasks was to discuss Bloomsbury and its many histories, treating the area as a text. I stood with them in Tavistock square and we talked about war and peace, and how the history of the square related to the history of the memorials within it. It was raining then, too.

We stood at the north-east corner of the square and we looked at photographs of that day in 2005. We read the names of those killed on the plaque, and shifting our gaze between photos and the real space, felt the toll of those lives taken in an act of horrible aggression. The memory of those events was rooted firmly in the experience of place.

Junction at Tavistock Square. Photo by me

Junction at Tavistock Square. Photo by me

In the opposite corner of the square, a statue gazes open-mouthed and aghast at the place those 13 people died. That statue is dedicated to the writer Virginia Woolf, whose house on the corner of that square was bombed in a different type of war, in a different type of time. The statue, erected in 2004, has no memorial link to the bombings that followed a year later. That monumental gaze was described by students as “weird”, “unsettling” and “freaky”. The clash of real and perceived landscapes was so unsettling that one of the girls said she was scared of the statue.

That fear, however, was instructive, it helped these students process the events they talked about, and understand the layered history of the square. We should not be afraid ourselves of constructing memorials that unsettle, either in function or in meaning. Ideas of ‘dark heritage’ salvage the tragic from obscurity, drawing an emotional response that encourages us to engage with the reality of the events commemorated. [1] In the layered history of place and space, these events are absorbed into London’s history as a formative and instructive part of its daily life.

Virginia Woolf, felt a strong intuitive bond to the past in London. She read it in the streets, the monuments, the crowds, and the absences that make up this vibrant city, “branching forwards & backwards & connected with every kind of thing that seemed entirely remote before”[2]. Yet, she noted how that history could be read differently, stating that:

“each Londoner has a London in his mind which is the real London, some denying the right of Bayswater to be included, others of Kensington; and each feels for London as he feels for his family, quietly but deeply, and with a quick eye for affront.”[3]

Her affront came from the capital being paraded as an imperial pantheon with altogether too many statues of great men, and not enough of anonymous women.[4] London’s history was as much about its lost rivers and its ordinary folk as the heroes of Empire. One of the most poignant memorials in Tavistock square seems to reinforce this impulse: the hewn boulder that remembers those who refused to fight. Likewise, in another corner stands a woman far from anonymous, though dedicated to medicine rather than politics or battle. Woolf never fought either, though she too felt the force of mechanized violence, recording in a letter on October 17th:Our private luck has turned. John says Tavistock square is no more.”[5] The Blitz had come to Bloomsbury.

Statue of Virginia Woolf - Photo taken by me.

Statue of Virginia Woolf – Photo taken by me.

Indeed, one of the strongest memorial legacies of the awful attacks on 7 July 2005 was the response framed in the language of the Second World War. Coming just days before the 60th anniversary of VE day, newspapers quoted Churchill, politicians praised the Blitz spirit, and we all remembered together. Yet one study of 257 newspaper articles from the after the attacks, found only 8 mentioned that the murderers responsible for these acts were also British. [6]  At times, difficult and important details can be lost. The Blitz narrative talks of war between nations and identifiable enemies, not really of tragic loss and the need for compassion. Initial concerns about the Hyde Park memorial worried that it might be lost amidst other national symbols, or by adding to them, make the prominent central location emotionally oppressive.[7] Both in symbolic and spatial terms there is something of a danger in this, of memory being subsumed in the seductive power of national myth, and winnowing out the details.[8]

As such, when thinking about this memorial and this place, it is important to consider the narrative of memory into which it is entering. Establishing a memorial in Tavistock Square, the International Square of Peace, frames the legacy of the events differently. It removes this tragedy from a narrative bound to national identity and global wars, and instead locates them in the context of peaceful reflections on the tragedies of war. To frame those 13 people lost on the number 30 bus as soldiers in some war stresses differences between us. Rather, they were extraordinary ordinary people: diverse, individual, and bound by little more than their city. To commemorate them as they were, amidst this landscape of peace, allows the memorial to serve as a basis for reconciliation. Woolf would have seen in this, I think, an important counter to the statues of “petrified supermen” across London.[9] The bust of Woolf is a very human commemoration, not of her lost home nor of the Blitz, but instead of her own life and work.

A memorial in Tavistock Square contributes to an already “dense commemorative landscape”[10], but it does so in a way that stresses, as Ken Livingstone said on the day, that this was not “an attack against the mighty and the powerful”.[11] Siting the memorial in the square humanises those it remembers in a space which with commemorative practice continues to foster engagement. Here, a memorial may sit amidst the folded paper cranes left in the boughs of a tree remembering those lost to nuclear war, amongst the flowery garlands hung over a political champion of quiet dignity and resilience, and alongside the roses left to a tragic poet who took her own life.

The importance of this place to the memory of those events is key, as is the way in which that memory is constructed and maintained between us all. The public funding of this memorial stresses the strong symbolic and spatial resonance with its immediate surroundings, and reinforces an existing narrative with an important and distinct message.[12] It is part of our heritage, even if it be an emotionally traumatic part of that heritage, and through it we can learn about ourselves. Thinking back to those vibrant, challenging, cheeky, and bright students I met last August, it would be a missed opportunity if they were not able to read the story of 7 July in this square and take from it a message of peace.

 

—-

[1] L. Brown, ‘Memorials to the victims of Nazism: the impact on tourists in Berlin’, Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change, 13:3 (2015), p.258.

[2] E Sparks, ‘Virginia and Leonard’s London’ in Potts & Shahriari (ed.s), Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury (Palgrave, 2010) vol.1, p.67.

[3] Virginia Woolf, Collected Essays (London, 1987), vol. 2, p.50.

[4] E Sparks, ‘Virginia and Leonard’s London’, p.69.

[5] R. Brooks, ‘Virginia Woolf’s Homes Destroyed in the London Blitz’ (Accessed 9 March 2016).

[6] D. Kelsey, ‘The myth of the “Blitz spirit” in British newspaper responses to the July 7th bombings’, Social Semiotics, 23/1 (2013), p.95.

[7] Q. Stevens & s Sumartojo, ‘Memorial planning in London’, Journal of Urban Design, 20:5 (2015), 626-627.

[8] D. Bell, ‘Mythscapes: memory, mythology, and national identity’, British Journal of Sociology, 54:1 (2203), pp.63-81.

[9] Sparks, ‘Virginia and Leonard’s London’, p.72.

[10] Stevens & Sumartojo, ‘Memorial planning in London’, p.615.

[11] ‘7/7 bombings: Ken Livingstone’s speech from Singapore’, The Independent (Accessed 09/03/2016)

[12] Stevens & Sumartojo, ‘Memorial planning in London’, pp.626-627.

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2 thoughts on “Memory and 7/7 at Tavistock Square

  1. […] to Virgina Wolf and rather than attempt to sum up his perceptive contribution I instead suggest you read his statement in full over on his blog. His conclusion is optimistic insofar as he highlights the potential for the new memorial to […]

  2. […] This has made me think about ideas of memory and the way that popular discourse shapes itself. Perhaps it’s just the events I’ve attended recently, though voices and memory seem acutely relevant in their conversation with the present moment. On Monday, I heard an excellent paper on the memory of British and French Colonialism given by Itay Lotem. That followed the previous Wednesday when I spoke at a consultative event about building a memorial to the 7/7 attacks in Tavistock Square. […]

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