In Camden Town yesterday, I came across a gentleman whose statue has become a favoured perch for the local pigeon community. These tributes to men and women of the past so often receive nothing but an odd glance from people rushing by, it reminded me of Shelley’s poem Ozymandias – a reminder of our mortality, however high we may climb:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert ... Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed
And on the pedestal these words appear –
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
When I got home, I looked up Richard Cobden (the man remembered by the statue) in my Chambers Biographical Dictionary, and found that he was an economist and politician, ‘the Apostle of Free Trade’. His father lost his farm in 1814, and Richard, the fourth of eleven children, was sent for five years to a ‘Dotheboys’ school in Yorkshire (was this like the school portrayed in Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, I wonder, run by the brutal Wackford Squeers?). Cobden was the most prominent member of the Anti-Corn-Law League. He opposed the Crimean War, and spoke out in favour of the North during the American Civil War. The statue was erected by public subscription, it tells us, whose principal contributor was Napoleon III, perhaps in tribute to the treaty of commerce with France which Cobden arranged in 1860.
What a lot of history you can learn when you’re out walking!
We went to London primarily to see Stanley Spencer’s marvellous World War One paintings from the Sandham Memorial Chapel, at Burghclere. They were on loan from the National Trust and exhibited at Somerset House. The exhibition was free and the queuing well worth it. I found particularly affecting the panels set in the Beaufort War Hospital, where Spencer worked as an orderly after volunteering in 1915, such as the portrayal of a young shell-shock patient cleaning the floor compulsively with a cloth while orderlies rush by bearing coffee pots, or another wrapped up in quilts with his feet resting on a hot-water bottle. When Spencer was twenty-four he volunteered for service in Macedonia with the 68th Field Ambulance unit, and several of the paintings depict his experiences there. I was struck by the painting of an encampment where a shell has just landed, with stunned soldiers holding their hands over agonised ears.
Lastly, as a devoted follower of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey & Maturin novels, I was intrigued to catch glimpses of Somerset House’s illustrious Naval history which may call for further investigation – another day out in London beckons!