Bristol: A portrait of an uneasy city

By Harry Stocker

I stared down into the murky water. Dark and still, I could see nothing as I peered over the railing by Pero’s bridge. The bridge was named after the enslaved man, Pero Jones, who was brought to Bristol in the 18th century. It is defined by its large pair of metal horned counterweights, which tower about 10 metres high. Thousands of padlocks are locked in place along the bridge, inscribed with names of lovers. The keys to the locks are ceremoniously thrown into the river. In the past, the council have implied they want to cut them off.

But today, I was not here for Pero or his bridge. 24 hours ago, BLM protesters lashed ropes to the statue of slaver and Bristol benefactor Edward Colston. It was ripped from its plinth and rolled across the Centre, past the Cascading Stairs of St Augustine’s Reach, across the waterfront, before finally, being toppled into the harbour. I was stood on that exact spot, on the western side of Pero’s Bridge. Laying just beneath the claggy water, cast in bronze, was Edward Colston. It was only the slight bend in the black metal railing that gave any indication anything had happened at all.  

 I stood there for quite some time. A small, steady stream of people trickled past me. Two young women dressed in jogging gear spoke in quiet voices. A man in his early thirties carefully guided his young son over the crippled railing, and he laughed as he held the boy close, posing for a photograph. Just to my right, a group of four men sat outside a pub on Bordeaux Quay. They had been there longer than I had. The pub, I guessed, had not been open for almost three months. Whenever I caught their eye, they glared at me and muttered something I could not quite make out, as they at sipped from cans of beer or cider.

Bristol: A portrait of an uneasy city
Bristol, photography courtesy of Archie Benn (@archiebenn)

“Is that the spot?”

I turned to see a man cycling towards me. I nodded, and he dismounted. His name was Pat. He was about fifty, with closely cropped, receding white hair. His eyes were a lively blue, and I could tell his round face was used to smiling. He wore his trousers tucked into hiking socks and around his neck was tied a red handkerchief.

“I’ve been going round in circles trying to find it.  Some lads said it was around here.”

On cue, three teenagers cycled past us. They let off a little cheer and Pat shot back a thumbs up.

“Did you see it go in?”, he asked.

“No.” I said, “But, I saw him come down.”

What had surprised me the most, nearly as much as the toppling itself, was the speed it all happened. It must have only been ten seconds from noticing the ropes that I heard the crowd roar as it fell. At the time, I hadn’t known the statue was thrown into the river. An hour later, just outside Castle Park, on dodgy WIFI, we crowded round a phone and watched the footage of Colston tumbling down, to be swarmed and kicked by protesters. By that time, the clip was viral, and the story had broken nationally.

 Pat and I spoke for perhaps 45 minutes. The conversation turned to the legacy of Bristol.

“Besides Colston”, I said, “there’s the Wills family. Wills Memorial Building at the top of Park Street was named after Henry Overton Wills III. He was also the first chancellor of The University of Bristol. They were in the tobacco business, so obviously, they were complicit in the slaver-“

Pat leapt in, “God, is there any industry worse than tobacco?”

“I suppo-”

“I mean not only does it kill you, not only does it exploit people, but the lies! Christ, the marketing – you’re too young to remember – how old are you?”

“20,” I said.

“Right, exactly.” His words came in a flurry, “But smoking wasn’t just fashionable, it was essential.” Pat shook his head, incredulous.

“Doctors smoke Camels.”

“Yes! Exactly.”

Pat went on, but something distracted me. Just over his shoulder, a fight between the two women and one of the men outside the pub had broken out.

“Listen sweetheart, it’s wrong,” the man spat, “slavery is bad, yeah? But that is our history you’re talking about and those thugs tore it down.”

I found it difficult to follow what was being said. Pat did not seem to notice and kept talking as if nothing were happening. The women were appalled. They shouted at him, called him ignorant and a racist and left.

I felt I had just witnessed a microcosm of the debate that had settled over the city. To summarise the two main camps:

 1) Edward Colston was no hero, but to tear down a monument in an act vigilante justice is indefensible, regardless of the subject. Additionally, he’s a historical figure, and to pretend he never existed or was not significant to Bristol’s history is wrong. It sets a dangerous precedent of destroying history you do not agree with. 

2) As a slaver, it is an affront to everyone, but especially the black community of Bristol to have a statue commemorating him. He was responsible for 80,000 people being sold into slavery and the deaths of 19,000 who died in transit due to the horrendous conditions onboard his ships. There are other ways to remember our history than having his likeness tower above us, pride of place in the centre of the city.

Both, in my estimation, had good points. It seemed, both hated the other, believing on an ideological, moral basis that they were right, and the other was wrong.

Pat was oblivious to the brief, but fiery confrontation behind him. I wondered if he had been a smoker or perhaps loved someone who was. He was an energetic man who did not pause before he spoke. When he thought of a response to something I said, he lunged to say it. He was never rude, but after a while, I got the impression he was not really listening to me. Our conversation drew to a close. Pat climbed back on his bike. As he left, he made a disparaging comment towards the Conservative Party. I wondered if the red of his handkerchief was not just a fashion choice. I watched him cycle away.

To me, Pat embodied the large, white liberal middle-class demographic of Bristol. From his quick, nearly reflexive habit of agreeing with me before starting a new point and jumping from topic to topic, I got the sense that he was not used to talking to people who disagree with him. He seemed to lack any inherent focus for this new energy imbued from the radical and symbolic victory. He was motivated to cultivate change but lacked any precise, tangible goals. His enthusiasm sparked and crackled around him like electricity. But with no organised circuit around him, I was worried that eventually it would simply dissipate into the air.  When I first heard about it, I myself was sceptical of the June 7th protest, as the organisers had not set out any specific aims. But I realised that for now, demonstrating outrage was an aim clear enough.

Bristol: A portrait of an uneasy city
Bristol, photography courtesy of Archie Benn (@archiebenn)

*

The night after the protest, I couldn’t sleep. I gave up at around 5:00am and groped my way to the kitchen and made myself a coffee. I decided I would go and visit Colston’s plinth. I pulled on the clothes I had worn the day before and left.

I arrived at about 6:00am. Everything was softer in the morning light. I was struck by the quiet, almost ethereal atmosphere. The edges of the buildings seemed to imperceptibly blur. A band of soft, hazy orange light soaked the Centre. The tall trees, planted neatly in parallel rows, swayed gently in the breeze.

To my surprise, the plinth thrummed with activity. Elegant arcs of high-pressured water sprayed upon the stone, shot from jet washers, held in practiced hands of city council workers. The water gradually worried away the graffiti left by the protesters. Shallow water pooled and flowed away from the men, reflecting the grey, Ionic columns of St Mary on the Quay, behind it.

The men wore either black or orange overalls, striped with reflective lines above the elbow, tracing a square around their shoulder blades and another around their navels. They wore clunky, rubber boots and plastic visors or goggles, and took turns operating the jet washers. I couldn’t see their faces, and their body language gave nothing away. To their right, reporters with careful hair and blazer jackets stood, addressing television cameras. Small news crews busied themselves with their equipment, and for a while, no one seemed to notice me. One of the reporters pulled out a crumbled piece of paper, and crossed out words with a pencil, rewriting new ones above them. Another left to go on a coffee run, but returned 15 minutes later empty handed, cursing Google Maps.

Meanwhile, the clean-up crew worked hard removing the graffiti. “BLACK LIVES MATTER”, “BLM”, “ACAB”, had been spray painted several times.  They managed to remove the letters, but I thought I could make out a slight blueish tinge left by the paint. I moved closer to read the plaque. “ERECTED BY THE CITIZENS OF BRISTOL AS A MEMORIAL OF ONE OF THE MOST VIRTUOUS: AND WISE : SONS OF THEIR CITY A.D 1895”. I smiled as I read the inscription again, noticing some had painted over it, every so slightly. “REJECTED BY THE CITIZENS OF BRISTOL 2020…”

 Scrub all you like, I thought. Colston is still in the river.

A shorter man with thick rimmed glasses sidled up beside me. Thick curls of black hair poked from a grey beanie. Around his neck were a silver pair of Sony headphones. Immediately, I noticed a microphone in his hand. Wearing a faded blue shirt and jeans, he looked less professional than his television colleagues. We were both dressed for radio.

“Hello mate,” he said.

“Hi, morning.” I replied.

“Were you protesting yesterday?” he gestured vaguely to the plinth with a smile.
“Yeah, I was. I saw Colston come down.”
“Wow. Really?” Excitement flickered in his eyes and he opened the notebook in his hand.
I nodded, “Yeah. I was just over there.” I pointed to a set of traffic lights near St Mary’s, which looked more at home on Acropolis than West Country.

“What was it like when it came down?” he asked.

“Well,” I paused, “it wasn’t as frantic as the videos make out. There were a lot of cheering and people clapping, but not this frenzy like you see in the videos. They only show the epicentre, elsewhere it was more far more calm.”

“I see. Are you from here?”

“No – well, yes. I live here. I’m a student.”

“Would you be interested in an interview? I’m with BBC Bristol.”

I hesitated.

Half an hour ago I had spoken to the reporter with the pencil, asking after a detail I heard him mention in his monologue. After talking for 10 minutes, he offered me an interview. I declined, and he nodded. Suddenly, his phone rang. He apologised and wandered off to take the call.

“Did Mark ask you for an interview?”

“He asked, yeah.”

“Ah,” he raised his hands, showing his palms. “Hey, well, think about it. Radio – completely anonymous.”

Eventually, I agreed.

I thought the interview went poorly. I stuttered and asked to start again. The second time did not fair much better, but I was embarrassed to ask for a third. I asked him how long he had worked for the BBC, and he said 10 years. I asked what he thought of Colston’s removal.

“Personally,” he said, slipping his notebook back into his back, “I think it should have been taken down years ago.”

He took my number and said he would text me when (and if) my interview would be broadcast. When I did not hear from him, I was not overly surprised.

*

Bristol is an uneasy city.  The events of the 7th June were the catalyst for an offshoot, global movement, distinct, but certainly allied with Black Lives Matter. All over the world, controversial statues with their own troubled histories are being defaced or removed altogether, and I do not think that those few, who packed coils of rope in their bags that day necessarily intended this. For a long time, there has been opposition to Colston, and campaigns for its removal.

Bristol: A portrait of an uneasy city
Wiki Commons

When Colston fell from his plinth, people climbed up to replace him and addressed the crowds of thousands. They were not planned speakers, and what they said had no outline or polish. Angry, animated and alive, they spoke candidly and truthfully of their frustration. They spoke of their years of hurt and of how they will stand for it no more. Edward Colston, a symbol of oppression cast in bronze, both opulent and permanent, had a face moulded in an expression of dignified solemnity.  He kept that expression as he torn down, stamped on, kneeled on, rolled down the street and finally tossed in the river. The same river where his ships, once laden with their wretched cargo set sail. Submerged in the muddy waters of the Avon, it is right his story should end there. Their message was clear. This is not Edward Colston’s city anymore.

But when the crowds disperse and the graffiti is washed away, what is left? An empty stone plinth. A monument to nothing at all, a monument to empty air. A monument to the potential of what has not happened yet.

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