I thought I had done with writing about General Buller following my initial reflections (here) in November 2014, and further thoughts (here) in July 2015, following the critical intervention (or ‘guerrilla memorialisation’) event that took place that Summer. In tracing the ongoing ‘biography’ of the General Buller monument, I argued that it can be seen both as a meaningful vehicle of contemporary politics, at which a critical and creative engagement with the past can occur, and also as a dynamic site, with an open-ended life history that has time depth. The General Buller Statue, therefore, is never ‘cast in stone’. The status ‘does work’, serving as a site of contemporary debate; it can engage, as well as be engaged with.
These observations accord with debates and critical comment about many statues around the world today, most recently through the high profile events and deliberations surrounding the fate of many statues and monuments to the Confederacy in the USA’s southern states, as well as debates in recent years about the fate of Cecil Rhodes in South Africa (or Oxford – see here). The question over whether we should manage such ‘difficult heritage’ by removing monuments, adding extra plaques, or leaving them be has certainly had a high public profile, matched by some interesting academic debate, such as Lisa Johnson’s paper on JP Coen’s statue in Holland. Indeed, the broader issue of how to deal with contentious pasts in the present formed a central theme of a recent Book Review forum in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers that dealt with David Lowenthal’s Past is a Foreign Country – Revisited. Whichever side of the fence one sits – whether arguing for the removal or preservation of a statue – most of these debates tend to focus on the subject matter of the statue or monument: should we or shouldn’t we ‘memorialise’ General Buller (or Cecil Rhodes, or General Robert E. Lee etc.)?
But late at night on 10th June 2017 in Exeter, a young man called Tom Calloway, aged 18, fell from the General Buller statue and died.
Since Tom Calloway’s tragic death this Summer, there has been a more-or-less constant effort in maintaining his ‘presence’ through memorialisation activity at the site. How-ever ‘spontaneously’ this activity began, this seems to be more than the ‘spontaneous memorial’ practices that one often finds at the sites of recent tragedy. The statue is located directly outside Exeter College, and so many of Tom’s colleagues, friends, teachers and classmates regularly come past ‘his memorial’. And where does it leave General Buller?
At the time of his accident, Tom Calloway was undertaking the ‘tradition’ of placing a traffic cone on General Buller’s head. This playful and creative engagement with formal memorial sites has a long tradition and many parallels, perhaps most famously at the Duke of Wellington’s horse statue in Glasgow. It was Glasgow City Council’s concern about the potential for accidents to happen (and threatened plans to prevent people from climbing the statue) that brought out the wider public’s fondness for seeing the traffic cone donned on the Duke of Wellington. Public heritage debate demanded the Duke of Wellington be adorned with his ‘customary traffic cone’, and so Glasgow City Council dropped their security plans and tacitly turned-a-blind-eye to nocturnal activities with traffic cones. In Exeter, General Buller has been adorned with traffic cones and other paraphernalia for as long as I can remember, whether in playful jest or as purposeful critique, but what will happen now?
In terms of representing something meaningful for the people who pass by every day, General Buller is now a site for remembering Tom Calloway. Debates over whether and how we should remember General Buller’s role in the Boer War; whether he was a ‘war criminal’ to be put on trial, or an embarrassing ancestor to be kept hidden from view, now seem of secondary importance. In its most affective guise, the statue no longer memorialises General Buller at all.