Trading Standards


I work at Colston Tower, a big office block in the Centre of Bristol. I knew that I finally had a real job the first day I arrived. No back-room, shop-front or cheerless college classroom this; but a real office building with a revolving door, commissionaires in uniform who say 'good morning', a lift that works three days out of four, and a neon clock that you can see on a clear day from the suspension bridge. The view from the meeting room, past the Hippodrome Theatre and over the river with green hills in the distance is really quite idyllic. Whenever I have a visitor to stay and we walk into town, I can point at it, like a landmark, and say 'That's where I work. See. I'm not a layabout any more.'

Colston Tower is opposite a little theatre called Colston Hall. They occasionally have good things on. Once, a group of little old ladies queued up for three solid days to buy tickets for an Irish folksinger called Danny O'Donnel. I'd never heard of him, before or since, but he must be pretty important to make old ladies wait all night for his tickets. On Saturdays, I take a little walk from my flat (pleasantly situated overlook a burnt out shop-front and the Citi Centa Sauna, but that's beside the point) to the supermarket to buy my weekend shopping. On the way, I walk past one of those posh schools which is probably not nearly so depressing as the foreboding Victorian architecture makes you think. This is the Colston School for Girls.

As you cross the Centre on your way to the bar you pass a statue of a thoughtful looking man in a long coat with a turned-up collar, leaning on a walking stick. This is Mr Edward Colston himself. Not as striking in appearance as Isanbard Kingdom Brunell, whose statue casts its Penguin-like shadow over a building society at the other end of the street. Not as mythic as the greening Neptune who guards the river; certainly less memorable than Wallace and Grommit, our two most famous citizens, whose effigy is only wheeled out at Christmas. But I say hello to him, anyway. The girls at his school lay a bronze chrysanthemum at his feet every year. I think I read that right; it doesn't say whether it's the same bronze chrysanthemum, or whether they have a pile of the things lying around doing nothing in the care-taker's stock cupboard, between the chalk and the tennis balls.

It turns out that I am going to have to stop saying hello to him; the girls are going to have to find something else to do with their chrysanthemums, and when people find out I work in his office block, I shall hang my head in shame. Danny O'Donnel will have to take his old ladies somewhere else; and the commissionaires will have to change the neon sign so it says 'The Wallace and Grommit Tower.' We live in a cynical age. If President Kennedy, Mother Theresa, Winston Churchill and Baden Powell can all be debunked, then what chance has Edward Colston? In our politically correct age he stands convicted of the all too human weakness of kidnapping people and selling them into life-long servitude in foreign countries.

It's true. My beautiful shiny office block is named after a slave trader. I was briefly worried that it might turn out that a slave labour force had actually put up his Tower, and maybe even erected his school. But I needn't have worried. We have some sense of moral decency. Even in the seventeenth century, we knew it was wrong for one human being to own another human being. Not in England. But naturally, that didn't stop Englishmen grabbing boatloads of the ethnic minorities and selling them on to Johnny Yank at a fat profit.

Someone recently daubed 'Fuck off you slave trader' over Mr Colston's statue. The Gulf War (the last one, not the next one) was careless enough to happen during a college vacation; by the time the Student Union managed to convene a quorate meeting, it was all over. Nevertheless, a motion was duly passed retrospectively condemning Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. This was so successful that it set a precedent; we went on to retrospectively condemn the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Island and Hitler's invasion of Poland. By the time I left, I think they had got up to condemning Herod for massacring the innocents. In the same way, I find it hard to see what, at this late stage, can be done about Mr Colston. But one can understand why people are quite cross with him. His behavior was not really very nice.

The headmistress of the school with the brass chrysanthemums went brilliantly to the heart of the issue. 'If we looked at all statues from this politically correct view, we wouldn't have any left.' And obviously, the idea of a world without statues is too horrible to contemplate. The words 'politically correct' don't mean very much at the best of times. It seems a particularly odd term to apply to 'the belief that maybe slavery isn't a terribly good idea.'

We all know what a slave trader is like–an evil man with a bald head and a bullwhip, flogging starving men on the galleys, largely to gratify his own sadism, until such time as Charlton Heston throws him overboard. And we all know what philanthropists are like: a smart men in large (but not too large) carriages, opening hospitals and schools, and giving stray orphans slap up meals in their mansions. (They often have secret bat-caves in the basement, I understand.) The graffiti-daubers can't bear the idea of an evil man being thought of as a philanthropist; and the headmistress can't bear the idea of a philanthropist being thought of as evil. But of course the really unsettling thought is that he might have been both: genuinely deaf to the cries of the slaves on his ships; genuinely concerned for the plight of the poor in his own city; genuinely pouring the profits from a trade he knew to be evil into projects which he believed to be good. Real people are like that. And that, of course, is what the historical simplifiers, whether they use spray cans or clichés about political correctness, really can't bear. Because once we start thinking that people can be both evil and good at the same time, it becomes very, very hard to surgically bomb them, give them lethal injections, or refuse them the price of a cup of coffee.

Anyone with a theatre, an office block and a girls school of his very own can't be all bad, can he? I daresay even Mr Danny O'Donnel has a few peccadilloes which the old ladies don't know about.