If you’d looked for me on Tuesday, you’d have found me walking up to strangers in Trafalgar Square and saying, “Excuse me. Are you Anthony?”
I don’t know what people must have thought—maybe that I was the world’s worst secret agent, trying to find my contact in a square full of tourists by asking people if they happened to be the guy I’m looking for—which isn’t, I’m sure, the most effective method. But if you’re in a crowd of people and looking for someone you’ve only met on the internet, and whose Facebook photo shows only a camera lens looking back at you, what else can you do?
Tuesday was the anniversary of the opening of Antony Gormley’s “One and Other” on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. (If you missed that, you can catch up here, if you like.) I managed to swing by briefly to chat with plinthers—people who put in an hour on the plinth during the project—and other fans who gathered near the plinth to mark the day, and also to meet up with Anthony, a friend of a friend, a follower of Gormley’s work who had crossed the Atlantic to be here for the anniversary.
I started by hanging around at the base of the plinth—but there are two bases, really; it’s a split-level plinth. I started on the upper level, on the terrace in front of the National Gallery. When I’d annoyed enough guys there—guys who had lots of photographic equipment hanging from their persons but who disavowed any knowledge of Anthony—I got a clue and went down the steps that flank one side of the plinth to the lower level, the level of the fountain. When I saw Captain John there, I knew I’d found the right crowd.
If you saw any of the coverage of “One and Other”, chances are you’ve seen Captain John, who seemed a fixture there, as if he’d relocated to the square for the duration of the 100-day performance piece. A small chap in a nautical cap, Captain John spent his time on the plinth handing out red roses, each with a benediction for Princess Diana, and most of the rest of the time below the plinth talking and, er, making himself noticeable. A good bit of that consisted of repeatedly running forwards and backwards in a line—not turning around and coming back, but running backwards, you understand. This seems to be an important part of Captain John’s approach to the world; on Tuesday he spoke about having recently visited an Antony Gormley installation at London’s White Cube Gallery and impressing the staff because after he went through the exhibit the first time, he exactly retraced his steps backwards to where he started. He speaks rapidly: “I’ve got cat feet, cat feet. I told ’em. That’s how I can do it, y’see. Cat feet. I got cat feet.” Captain John, who I’d guess is about five feet tall, maybe five-one, has something of the look of Truman Capote—Capote if he’d aged without putting on weight. And had cat feet.
At the moment, “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle” by artist Yinka Shonibare MBE occupies the Fourth Plinth. There’s little in the photographs that accompany this post to give you an idea of the scale of the piece—well, there’s a pigeon in one photo, that might help. A plaque nearby says it weighs 4 tons; that’s big. The model of Nelson’s ship, HMS Victory, but fitted with brightly patterned sails, sits in an enormous bottle complete with ‘wax’ seal.
The cloth of the sails is of a type Shonibare uses extensively in his work, a type he says is popular in Africa (Shonibare was born in England but raised in Nigeria) although it’s the result of Indonesian batik techniques which came to Africa via Dutch traders. That’s part of the appeal for Shonibare, who has called culture an “artificial construct”; look underneath any culture, he says, and you’ll find a jumble of traditions from other peoples. At the unveiling of “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle” last May, Shonibare described the piece as a celebration of London as “a diverse and a very creative and economically dynamic city”.
The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, spoke at the unveiling, too. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, an illegitimate descendant of King George II, is a one-man melting pot who, if his grandmother hadn’t changed the family name, would have had a Turkish surname although his decidedly un-Turkish flyaway white-blond hair makes him look like a dandelion gone to seed. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool Tory and something of a womanizer, but I find it impossible not to like him; he’s the kind of politician everybody calls by his first name. He has the appearance of a bumbler, but is a brilliant scholar fluent in Latin and Greek. Speaking remarkably straightforwardly (for Boris), he said at the unveiling that Shonibare’s work marks out London as “a city [which] once conquered the world and now brings the world together in one city.”
The plinth-people drifted in and out of the square all day, sitting under the shadow of Nelson’s multicultural vessel or on the nearest edge of the fountain. I could only stay about 45 minutes, but I did chat with people who had gone up on the plinth to sing karaoke, to hold a Christmas party complete with decorated tree (and, I understand, a snow machine, although she didn’t mention it; surely there couldn’t have been two Christmas parties in the group?), and to perform a piece about how Judy Dench was meant to appear but couldn’t, because she was stuck in a toilet. Captain John, who said he’d prefer to be remembered for his love of Princess Diana than as a plinther—he attended every day of the coroner’s inquest into her death, with Diana painted on his forehead and Dodi painted on his cheek—came to the anniversary gathering armed with books in which he’s mentioned, including 100 Years of London: Twentieth Century in Pictures. I’m tempted to say it takes all kinds, but since “it takes all kinds” could be a subtitle for “One and Other”, it’s hardly worth saying.
I, the world’s most incompetent spy, left when the group of plinth fans and performers strolled off to have afternoon tea, Anthony among them. Mission accomplished.