The Corner

The London Riots

There’s plenty of dispiriting coverage in the British press this morning of the London riots, not least this

The son of legendary Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour has apologised for climbing the Cenotaph during yesterday’s student protests. Privately-educated Charlie Gilmour today said he “would like to express his deepest apologies for the terrible insult to the thousands of people who died bravely for our country”.  He added he was “mortified” by his “moment of idiocy”.  The Cenotaph, in Whitehall, commemorates Britain’s war dead. In his statement, Gilmour said he did not realise what the monument was.   

The full apology is suitably contrite, but to read that young Gilmour did not recognize the Cenotaph says nothing good about the way that the past is taught in Britain, not least because Gilmour is apparently a history student. 

Here is a reminder of what the Cenotaph stands for: 

The Great War did not officially end until June 1919 with the final signing of the Treaty of Versailles.  As part of the plan to mark the war’s end with a victory parade, Lloyd George proposed a controversial scheme to  place ‘a catafalque’ somewhere along the route, where the marching troops could salute the dead. Sir Edwin Lutyens was given two weeks to design a non-denominational shrine, made out of wood and plaster.  It was Lutyens who suggested this structure be named the Cenotaph: the empty tomb. It was the Cenotaph which most captured the public imagination during the victory celebrations on 19 July, and after the parade many of the bereaved laid wreaths there.  It was evident that a more permanent monument was required, and Lutyens was commissioned to design a stone Cenotaph for the same site, which would be unveiled by the King on Armistice Day 1920.As plans were being drawn up for a simple unveiling ceremony on November 11th 1920, there was a proposal that the body of an unknown soldier be returned to England for burial at the same time…It had been planned that the grave of the Unknown Warrior would be closed after allowing a pilgrimage of three days.  The organisers were taken completely by surprise by the response of the people, not only in London, but throughout Great Britain.  Once the ceremony was finished the thousands of people who had lined the streets began to queue to pass the Cenotaph.  Most of them had brought wreaths or bunches of flowers to place at the base of the memorial. At least 40,000 people passed through the Abbey before the doors were closed at 11pm an hour later than the scheduled closure time and thousands more passed the Cenotaph.  There were still long queues at midnight, and people continued to visit the site through the night.

“Most impressive of all was the night scene in Whitehall.  The vast sweep of the road was almost silent save for the ceaseless murmur of footsteps.  Under the brilliant glare of the lamps that were softened by the foggy air the long, dark lines of people stretched from Trafalgar Square to the Cenotaph from whose base they could be seen vanishing in the distance, two narrow lines of slowly moving people separated by a wide pathway on which stood here and there vague figures of policemen on horseback.” The Daily Mail 12 November 1920

On Monday 15 November traffic began to move along Whitehall, but the great pilgrimage carried on.  As buses passed the Cenotaph, the drivers slowed out of respect, and their passengers stood and removed their hats.  

In another gesture to the forgetting of history, the rioters set fire to the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square. Cranmer explains that the tree is “an annual gift since 1947 from the people of Norway in appreciation of British support of Norway during the Second World War. When Norway was invaded by German forces in 1940, King Haakon VII escaped to Britain and a Norwegian exile government was set up in London. To many Norwegians, London came to represent the spirit of freedom, inspiration and hope of liberation.”

Not so much today, I suspect.

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