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Page last updated at 16:20 GMT, Friday, 13 November 2009

Head and shoulders above the rest

Keith Park
Wartime hero Sir Keith Park


The achievements of some people stand so tall, a statue in their honour can never match up, writes Clive James in his weekly column.

A temporary fibreglass statue of the Battle of Britain commander Sir Keith Park has been temporarily installed on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, the fourth plinth having been temporarily empty of any permanent statue since, as far as I can make out, the year 1841.

Statue of Keith Park
Park's statue was unveiled this month

The plinth was designed as the base of some heroic permanent statue but the permanent statue never arrived, and in recent years the plinth has housed a temporary statue of one kind or another more or less permanently.

I promise to make as much sense as I can of this account as soon as possible, but we should record that some of the temporary exhibits on the plinth in recent times have aroused controversy, and sometimes seem to have been meant to, especially during the period when Ken Livingstone was mayor.

It often seemed that Ken Livingstone had taken office in order to be controversial. Such was the level of controversy he continuously maintained that when he was replaced by Boris Johnson the new mayor's personality, which on any objective scale is like a hunt ball held in a cricket pavilion, has been experienced as a centre of calm.

Even in the Ken era, the controversy aroused by whatever statue was on the fourth plinth was not always pointless. At one stage the plinth held a statue of the artist Alison Lapper, who was born without arms and with shortened legs, the statue cast when she was eight months pregnant. There was a dignity to that statue that made me think.

At a later stage, however, indeed quite recently, and under the reign of the theoretically less controversial Boris, the plinth has held a work of art by Antony Gormley. Under Mr Gormley's supervision a different ordinary person, chosen by ballot, occupied the plinth for an hour, every hour of every 24 hours for 100 days, thereby proving that there were 2,400 people in Britain with nothing else to do.


I tried to be enlightened by that but couldn't manage it and was rather glad when the temporary statue of Sir Keith Park was temporarily installed, even though the temporary nature of the statue seemed only emphasised by the fact that it was made of fibreglass and was taller than a camel. Usually a lightweight replica of a war hero is only a few inches high, like an Action Man figurine, but apparently this one was a kind of rehearsal for the real statue of Sir Keith Park, which will be made of bronze and will probably be installed in Waterloo Place.

Clive James
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It will be smaller than the fibreglass one but still a lot taller than the actual Sir Keith Park used to be, which again seems strange, but with a strangeness we will have to get to later.

There is something even stranger that we should deal with first. Because if there is nothing especially inspired about the fibreglass statue except its size and fibrous glassiness, it has certainly inspired a great moment in journalism. A moment which, I think, is at the centre of the question about whether liberal democracy might not be losing its memory, and along with its memory, its mind.

I won't name the journalist concerned, except to say that she has a column in one of the serious newspapers. In this column she unblushingly announced: "I'd never heard of Keith Park GCB KBE MC before the campaign to plinth him began and I still can't figure out what all the fuss is about."

Burning London

That was her talking. This is me talking again, saying that I won't name the serious newspaper either, except to say that I hope its editor, when he returned from holiday later that day, called her into his office and explained that if she really thought ignorance was a more honest form of knowledge then she should go and work for the kind of newspaper where she could interview Katie Price's previous chest.

But there is always the chance, alas, that he is pretty young too, and didn't know who Sir Keith Park was either. Or maybe they both did know and were just feigning ignorance because that was a fun way of filling space, and after all, what does it matter?

And right there, of course, is the catch in freedom. If you're born free you're free to think that freedom is a natural state, and free to think that your own freedom owes nothing to some gung-ho old dead guy with a rack of initials after his name.

Flying over burning London in the morning after the first big night raid, Park knew that the battle, if it had not been won, at least had not been lost
Clive James

But if Keith Park had never done what he did, our journalist might have had to compose her column in German, and you can bet that if she was writing about a statue of a Luftwaffe hero to go on the fourth plinth, her tone would have been lot more reverent.

Luckily for her and for all of us, things worked out differently. But it didn't seem like luck at the time. A lot of things had to go right and one of the things was that the right man was in the right spot.

Keith Park was born in New Zealand and had to take long road to his date with destiny in 1940. In World War I he started off with the Anzac army at the Dardanelles, he was in the battle of the Somme and after he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, he laid the groundwork for his future career by shooting down German aeroplanes. That was when he won the MC, twice.

It was an equivocal war and nobody knew that better than he did, but when the second war loomed he knew there was nothing equivocal about it. As the Germans prepared to invade Britain, the man in charge of the air defences was Hugh Dowding. Dowding's strategy for fighting the battle was controversial, really controversial. Not just controversial as in "what on earth is that thing on the plinth supposed to mean".

Fighting for its life

Dowding's strategy was to assign 11 group, commanded by Keith Park, to fight the incoming German formations while 12 Group was held back to guard 11 Group's airfields. The commanders of 12 Group resented this and brought a lot of political pressure on Dowding, so that he had to resist them as well as the Germans. But he was convinced that unless a reserve of trained pilots was maintained the battle would be lost.

Meanwhile, Park was in charge of the first line of defence, flying around in his personal Hurricane from airfield to airfield, inspiring the defenders as they grew weary - the ideal battlefield commander. He wasn't British but quite a lot of the pilots in the Battle of Britain came from somewhere else, and not just from the dominions but from Ireland, America, Czechoslovakia and Poland. The Poles and Czechs knew exactly what they stood to lose. They had already lost once. It wasn't just an Empire fighting for its life.

London during the Blitz
Much of london was destroyed during the Blitz

The whole force took a lot of coordinating, but Park was the man to do it. He never wavered from Dowding's principle that there had to be trained pilots in reserve, and it was hard for him to see pilots getting killed who had scarcely been trained at all. In the control rooms, the young women recorded the numbers as the young men died.

But the RAF, just, could live with its losses. The Germans couldn't live with theirs and eventually they switched to night bombing. Flying over burning London in the morning after the first big night raid, Park knew that the battle, if it had not been won, at least had not been lost.
Though historians argue still over the details, there is no serious argument about the result. Hitler, denied command of the air, could not invade and he turned away. Even before he did so, another battle had started in Britain. This time it was a political battle. Those who had thought Dowding to be wrong in not committing his whole force were better at catching Churchill's ear. Dowding couldn't do PR and neither could Park. Park went off to defend Malta but really he had been written off. In the official history of the Battle he was not even mentioned.

Unlike Dowding, who spent his last years further developing a life-long interest in spiritualism and ended up believing in fairies, Park kept his head and back in New Zealand, where he went home to die, there is a memorial garden, with a statue. But there is still no statue here.


Park and Dowding are both much honoured in the movie about the Battle of Britain - it's called The Battle of Britain, if our journalist can marshal her intellectual resources and search out the DVD - but by now even the movie is going back into the past. And Dowding, played in the movie by Laurence Olivier as an act of homage, has a statue. Life sized instead of super sized. It stands on a little plinth outside St Clement Dane's in the Strand - the right place, because inside that church is the beautifully handwritten book with the names of all our young people who were killed in the battle.

Personally I hope that the bronze permanent statue of Park (played in the movie by Trevor Howard, who looked just like him) can be scaled down to human size, because really for a man like that there is no scale bigger. The statue could be placed on that plinth beside Dowding, to commemorate how they worked together to save not just Britain, but the whole of civilization. Those were the stakes and only a fool could doubt it. Only a fool or someone young and careless.

Park's statue, if it stood there, would be looking up into the battlefield that shows no trace now of where the young men fought, because the condensation trails were only water crystals and they faded in a few hours. The battlefield where he led his pilots to a victory that cost so much, and you could say cost too much, except that defeat would have cost everything.

Send us your comments using the form below.

Clive, I listen to/read your column regularly and would like to thank you for this thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. I am 18 and I'm sick of having to explain to my contemporaries why we all owe our freedom (indeed, our existence) in part to Sir Keith Park. Few have even heard of him - what does this say for state-school history tuition? Park, Dowding, Harris, and the ordinary pilots... we owe them all. Though Harris is often condemned for his policy of carpet-bombing, one must remember that the accuracy of the bomb-aiming equipment of the time was small: carpet-bombing was the only alternative to being ourselves obliterated. These men were heroes, geniuses, and the way so many seem wilfully ignorant of their work is simply disgraceful.
Richard Harrold, Leatherhead, Surrey

As usual, an impeccably written piece. Great comment about the journalist in this increasingly 'yea, whatever!' world we are living in now. Keep up the good work
David Jackson, Chorley, Lancashire

Dear Clive James, In your years you have written some sterling "stuff" and this is among the best. It pays wonderful tribute to all those heroes, above all British, but so too the commonwealth and their kindred who fought and so often gave their lives for the liberty we have today. The BBC is an exemplary public service that so objectively records and publishes the magnificent history to which the people of these islands and this continent are heirs; I thank you and I thank the UK and the BBC.
Denis Hegarty, Lusk, Co Dublin, Ireland

I didn't know anything about this man either, your comments made me ashamed by my ignorance. I hope the journalist who wrote such comments has the sense to read your column and understand how privileged she is. To have the right to be so dismissive of the many who died to leave her free to be ignorant.
S Wilson, Bristol

Thank you Clive for a piece that seems heartfelt on several levels. I read the paper you refer to with a growing sense of annoyance. As it happens, I don't greatly like the style of the sculpture (a bit too similar to the reviled centrepiece at St Pancras for my taste) but I was far more irritated by the columnist's smug celebration of ignorance about the person it depicts. When I originally expressed this (rather more tersely than you), my son replied that "maybe it should be there so we ask who he is". And so he did. A minute's googling later, he had concluded that Park had at least as much right to the fourth plinth as Alison Lapper and far more than most who had recently had their 4x15 minutes of fame. The journalist concerned might be surprised to learn that it is possible for a young person to appreciate the historical significance of a war that ended well over 40 years before he was born. But on a more personal level, she might appreciate that this isn't ancient history and that it can help someone in their 20s to understand a bit more about the now severely disabled old lady he calls Grandma - who was, not so long ago, under the command of the man depicted in this 'silly old statue'.
AK, London

Your commentary always catches my attention. As usual, you are absolutely bang-on. The stature of these people cannot be amply reflected in bronze. I don't need to comment further, as you have said it all. Thanks.
Geoff, Aylesbury UK

Superb piece, Clive. You justified your existence for all time with this one. You should have named and shamed the ignoramus who's so heedless of the kind of man to whom she owes her freedom.

Unfortunately Clive I think your point will fall on deaf ears. We are all to blame though, because we continue to pander to the young, and give them no sense of history. As a former member of Her Majesty's Armed Forces I was deeply saddened over the last few weeks by the dwindling number of Poppies on display. What was even more disturbing was that many elderly people were not wearing them. We should erect more statues and memorials to these heroes, and teach the children why we owe so much to them. A new generation of heroes is materialising before our very eyes, and their heroics are already being devalued by a media who's appetite is for scandal rather than fact or truth.
Kirk M'Carter, Bishops Itchington England

That was a very beautifully written piece. Thank you for this and the homage you have paid to great man of stirling qualities. Sadly, there are the uneducated today who take their freedom for granted and sneer at such examples of strength and courage in great adversity. That we have a journalist from a 'serious' paper making such a remark. Either the paper is not as serious as it makes out, or its HR made a colossal mistake in hiring her. Too often the real heroes go unsung, as the politicians seek to make a name for themselves and the media is invaded by journalists of cretinous proportions who try and show the world how cool they are to be rude about heroes.
Andrew Hall, Worcester, UK

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