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Trafalgar Square and the Narration of Britishness, 1900-2012

Imagining the Nation


Shanti Sumartojo

London’s Trafalgar Square is one of the world’s best known public places, and during its relatively short history has seen violent protest, imperial and royal spectacle and wild national celebration. This book draws together scholarship on national identity, cultural geography, and the histories of Britain and London to ask what role the Square has played in narrating British national identity through its many uses. The author focuses on a series of examples to draw out her arguments, ranging from the Suffragettes’ use of the site in the early twentieth century to the Fourth Plinth contemporary art scheme in the early twenty-first. The book explores how different users of the Square have understood national identity, and how the site itself has shaped this narrative through its built elements and history of use. Ultimately, Trafalgar Square and the Narration of Britishness, 1900-2012 uses the Square to explore the processes by which urban public place can help to construct, maintain or transform national identity.


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Chapter 1 Introduction


In August 2007, the Taj Mahal materialised in Trafalgar Square. This iconic Indian building featured as part of the Trafalgar Square festival, a project of the London Mayor, Ken Livingstone. This architectural juxtaposition was part of a festival intended to celebrate the creative relationship that London enjoyed with India, and in addition to the reproduction of the Taj Mahal, the three week festival also featured dance and musical performances, and a giant canvas at the foot of Nelson’s column that was designed to ‘re-imagine London as an Indian city’.1 This festival took place right under the nose of the statue of Sir Henry Havelock, an imperial hero of Victorian Britain whose muscular Christianity was evident in his relief of besieged British women and children in Lucknow during the Indian Uprising of 1857 and its brutality against local civilians.2 While the relationship between Havelock’s London and India was very dif ferent from Livingstone’s, in choosing to re-imagine London in this way, London’s government drew upon a rich history of contact and interaction with Asia, which remains a vital part of the identity of contemporary Britain. The arranged marriage of these two structures in Trafalgar Square – the Taj Mahal and Nelson’s Column – created a spatial juxtaposition of London and India, but also juxtapositions of imperial past and globalised present, nation and individual, and a representation of history and use 1 Greater London Authority, ‘The Trafalgar Square Festival 2007 – new commissions and international collaborations, inspired by India’. Press release, 1 August 2007. accessed...

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