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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 4 Illuminations (1919-1945)


Chapter 4 Illuminations (1919–1945) At nine o’clock on the evening of 8 May 1945, King George VI announced to radio listeners across Britain that the Second World War had ended in Europe. The day had been a public holiday, and like other people across the country, Londoners celebrated in the streets of their city, gravitating towards the centre, seeking out public celebrations. George Broomhead was among them: I caught the train to London and made my way to Trafalgar Square and after a while I climbed onto the lion and finished up perched on its head and someone passed me the Union Jack […]. I was trying to conduct the singing in the crowds at the same time! Those were unforgettable scenes, dancing and singing – it went on all night.1 Public celebrations such as these were widely reported in the national and international media, and have become some of the central images of VE Day in Britain. This version of the event is still prominent in the contem- porary British imagination, and Trafalgar Square is an important part of this picture. However, the Square in 1945 was the centre of a city that was perhaps less imperial and more focused on domestic matters than before the war, with the bomb damage inescapably evident in London’s built environment and in the lives and health of its residents. Whereas Britain at the outbreak of the First World War had been at the height of its impe- rial reach,2 by the end...

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