Urban elevations

When I first set eyes upon the statue in the centre of Piccadilly Circus — in London, as a little kid — I thought it must be the god, Mercury, a favourite of mine at the time. I was an inattentive child. I had neglected to mentally process his bow. Perhaps I failed to discern what it was. I thought he might be returning a crooked walking stick that some old man had mislaid.

That the figure was nude, didn’t surprise me. I come from an artsy family. Neither did the helmet he seemed to be wearing. Artsy people are partial to weird hats. That the figure was butterfly-winged, and fluttering above a public fountain, also made sense. In my childhood there were “fairies” under every bed. What to make of the bronze fish, cavorting in the fountain?

But to make a long story Idlepost short, by my second visit to Piccadilly Circus, I knew the presiding figure wasn’t Mercury. Imagine my disappointment when I looked it up.

Londoners typically think the statue depicts Eros, but it doesn’t. It was meant to be his brother, Anteros, the god of requited, safely married love. Its appearance as the dot at the head of Shaftesbury Avenue is an important clue. It was London’s “love returned” to Anthony Ashley Cooper — the seventh Lord Shaftesbury. He was among history’s most renowned philanthropists, and a great friend to London’s lunatics and paupers. He was also a raging Tory, of course — like all good rich people — and an immovable supporter of the Duke of Wellington, the last British prime minister to be uncontaminated by liberal ideas. (Defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, &c. Driven from office twice.) Some day I will go on and on about my adoration for the “Iron Duke” — so named for the iron shutters he had installed on Apsley House, so he could get on with his evenings while the commie rabble were hurling rocks at his windows.

Now, on the point about family values, Shaftesbury bitterly detested both of his parents. His wife Emily was thought to be the “natural daughter” of Lord Palmerston, if you get my drift. But they did produce ten legitimate children, and according to my source, he could remember all their names. He was a bit of an Evangelical nutjob, according to me; arguably the next best thing to a Dark Ages Catholic. Somewhat prim, at times. He was never a nudist.

Most philanthropists do more harm than good. This is an insight that comes with age. But some are heroic, and do genuinely useful things. Shaftesbury was cut from the same cloth as William Wilberforce, the great spoiler of the Atlantic slave trade. One might call Shaftesbury the complementary enemy of “blackface”: for he freed the chimney-sweeps.

That god at Piccadilly was last vandalized in 1990, it says here. If it has been vandalized since, I must have missed the story. The nice thing about its height, is that it lures the vandals to death or injury. Generally, it would be wise to set statuary higher, and apply the latest high-tech slippery coatings. I recommend that the fountains, too, conceal powerful water-cannon, or other artillery.

I’ve been thinking about public statuary a lot, lately.