‘You took a mystery and made me want it / You got a pedestal and put me on it/ You made me love you out feeling nothing/ Something that you do.’ Remember it? ‘Chain Reaction’– written by the Bee Gees and made famous by the sweet tones of Diana Ross. It’s a great floor-filler. Those opening lyrics, though, always give me a slight shudder, as I think about the controlling nature of being put on a pedestal. What’s he up to? Is he putting her on a pedestal to flatter her into returning the rapt attention? Is he putting her on a pedestal as a way of saying: ‘here’s my ideal version of you, now live up to it’? Whether it is one’s character, one’s achievements, or one’s physical attributes that are being glorified, surely being up on that pedestal must be a precarious and lonely place on which to remain balanced.
Which is why I think it far better to wait until one’s mortal coil has been shuffled off before being put on a pedestal. There is nothing more to live up to; the pressure is off. Edinburgh is full of deceased heroes, mostly bronze men (by which I don’t mean sun-tanned) on plinths throughout the city. Women are put on metaphorical pedestals; men on real ones. There is the father of the Scottish Enlightenment, Adam Smith, outside St Giles’s Cathedral, standing in a power pose, left foot forward, his solemnity ruined by an untidy seagull almost always resting on his head. More jocular and jaunty is the Scots poet, Robert Fergusson, striding down past the Cannongate Kirk. He’s good for selfies; he never pulls faces. Then there is W.H. Playfair, in full elevation outside the museum on Chambers Street, all Mr. Darcy sideburns, folder of drawings under his arm to remind us that he designed much of Edinburgh’s New Town. James Clerk Maxwell, on the other hand, gets to rest on his podium at the St Andrew’s Square end of George Street. Seated, legs crossed, he is deep in thought, pondering some great scientific problem. Having cracked electromagnetic radiation, I wonder what he’s thinking about? On Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, up at the top near the castle, outside the High Court on Lawnmarket,the imposing figure of David Hume is reclining in a chair on his pedestal. High up, but not so high that passers-by cannot reach the foot that is jutting from beneath the classical Greek robes he is draped in. For some reason, tourists have taken to rubbing the 18th century philosopher’s toe: for luck – what else? I walked past him last week on my way to the high court and, had there not already been an early morning crowd gathered around him, I surely would have leant across and given his toe a quick rub – anything to get me off being selected for jury duty. (As it happens, I didn’t need Hume’s luck.)
Famously, there are four pedestals (they call them plinths) in London’s Trafalgar Square. Three of them bear statues of notable figures from history (male, of course) and the fourth remained empty over the years due to ‘insufficient funds’ (two words covering any number of reasons). Since about the year 2000 the fourth plinth has hosted a rotation offigures, artworks, and commemorations. One of the most memorable is Anthony Gormley’s ‘One & Other’ where, over the course of one hundred days, 2,400 members of the public each spent one hour on the plinth to do, largely, whatever they wanted. One hour: surely the maximum amount of time anyone would want to be placed on a pedestal, if that. For me, the closest Edinburgh has come to London’s fourth plinth is the ‘Everyman’ sculpture outside the main entrance to the council buildings on East Market Street. White shirt and black trousers, ‘Everyman’is balanced on what looks like a multi-coloured arm of a cherry picker. He is said to represent ‘Jo(sephine) Public’. He is not fashioned from bronze, he’s far from the crowds, and he looks painfully uncomfortable up there, as if he knows that the next gust of wind might take him out.
We will place figures on pedestals, clap and cheer and drink champagne and festoon the air with ticker tape as we unveil them. And we have seen many images of the same celebrations played out across the world when we topple them. Change the world quietly and seek not to be put on a pedestal; it’s cold and wet up there, with only the seagulls for companions.
‘New England’, by Billy Bragg
‘I loved you then as I love you still
Though I put you on a pedestal,
They put you on the pill
I don’t feel bad about letting you go
I just feel sad about letting you know.
I don’t want to change the world
I’m not looking for a new England
I’m just looking for another girl’