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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Saturday, 1 October 2016

The Soseki statue that never was: a tale of two suburbs

Japanese author Natsume Soseki. This grave, diffident, hyper-sensitive soul spent many hours wandering on Clapham
Common, at the end of a street he was living in, unhappily. It might have seemed fitting to have a statue there to
memorialise those formative experiences of a great novelist. No such luck. You can see this nice 2010 bronze at the Soseki Museum in Clapham - but only until 2017, when the museum closes due to lack of funding.
A recent visit to the Natsume Soseki in London Museum reminded me of a row that blew up a quarter of a century ago relating to this deeply revered Japanese author, soon after I first moved into the area. This was the sad case of the Soseki memorial statue that never was.

It was a story of mutual cultural misunderstandings, of groaning bureaucracy, particularly on the British side, stirred up by a bunch of self-appointed guardians of local amenities, with (oh, surely I am not mistaken?) a nasty little dash of bad old English racial prejudice or xenophobia stirred into the mix.

It began in the early 1980s, when Japanese scholar and businessman Ikuo 'Sammy' Tsunematsu created the a museum in London dedicated to the Japanese author Natsume Soseki, which I wrote about last month. At around the same time he got support for the idea of erecting a statue to Soseki on Clapham Common, a short distance from the flat in which he spent the final 16 months of an unhappy but creatively crucial time in London.

No sooner was the idea out than the combined forces of local worthies, the Tory opposition on the council and the establishment (in the shape of its most deadly weapon, Whitehall bureaucracy), conspired to derail it.

At the time I was so annoyed by the opposition to the statue that I wrote to a local paper. The letter was never published but I am still puzzled by the animosity that the plan to erect a statue of a Japanese author on Clapham Common aroused. So puzzled that a few weeks back I visited the Lambeth Archives in the former Minet Library building on Knatchbull Road, to remind myself of the roots of this Anglo-Japanese co-operation pact that was never consummated.

I say "former" library - in fact, as you enter the Archives, you can see the dormant public library through the windows,  intact and abandoned, books still on shelves, a sort of Marie Celeste of a once much loved local library, a resting place and a refuge.

But thank god the Archive is still operating, and there are friendly staff on hand to help me unravel another little bit of the Soseki in London story - though this is actually about a non-event, and something that happened - sorry, didn't happen -  about 70 years after the great Japanese novelist's death.

I'd found the archive reference online and quoted the reference numbers. Within minutes I was sitting at a table with two neatly laced-up bundles of papers in front of me. I carefully untied the bow and began to go through hundreds of carbon copies, artists' impressions, architect's drawings and photocopies; letters, memos, telegrams, newspaper articles, the lot.

Not being a proper historian, I whizzed through these docs, looking for stories. What follows may not be a precise chronological account, but I hope it captures the spirit of that strange episode.

The idea was first mooted in public, so far as I can tell, at a conference on Soseki held in London in about 1986. It was at the Park Lane Hotel, and among the participants was the noted British poet, translator and Japanese literature expert, Anthony Thwaite.

The idea was fleshed out, and a suitable memorial with statue was designed in Japan. The municipality of Shinjuku, where Soseki was born, were involved and backed the idea, and Lambeth Council was approached for permission.

At the time Lambeth was keen to extend its town twinning programme, and it seems it jumped on this request as a good opportunity to build up a relationship with Shinjuku - which includes the commercial district and transport hub of Tokyo.

So Lambeth quickly gave its approval in priniciple to these plans. Little did it know that an exceedingly long and drawn out struggle was to follow, almost six years of it in all.

The first item I looked at was a set of drawings of the first version of the proposed statue. It depicted a life-size bronze statue of Soseki standing on a stone plinth of almost the same height, with a large bronze relief inscription set into the stone.

This was to be surrounded by a circle of stone benches, the whole thing covering an area of around 10 by 8 metres, to be built on the strip of the Common directly facing the southern end of The Chase.

This was the proposal that was agreed in principle by the Lambeth Amenities committee, but as soon as the agreement was made public, in June 1988,  there was uproar. Opponents of the scheme on the Council were soon joined by the conservationist groups, the Friends of Clapham Common and the The Clapham Antiquarian Society. The local press jumped on the story with glee - what an opportunity to run plenty of nudge-nudge, wink-wink, schoolboyish headlines.

The Evening Standard of 24 June 1988 had a field day: the "left-wing councillors" of Mrs Thatcher's least favourite London Borough had "red faces", it claimed, once they realised they were trying to twin Lambeth with the "famous red-light district of Tokyo".

It couldn't resist the seaside postcard approach: "Too much Eastern promise" ran one headline. Inevitably it got a quote from Lambeth's most famous madame, Cynthia Payne of Streatham.

Lambeth was not initially too bothered by this ridicule ( this was the era of constant attack on the so-called "loony left" politicians of the GLC). The joke was on the press, given how they seemed ignorant of the fact that Shinjuku was the location of  a wealthy and powerful commercial district at the time far outstripping the City of London.

The council regarded the whole plan, including the Soseki monument, as "a tangible demonstration of Lambeth's commitment to and celebration of  the cultural and ethnic diversity of our population".

Soon after this the plans were put out for public consultation.  There were 13 objections to the original proposal, with most of the complaints focusing on the inappropriate size of the memorial. Some were concerned the statue would  be a magnet for vandalism, others wondered whether certain British authors were not more deserving of a memorial here. (OK why not? Wouldn't it be lovely to have statues of Graham Greene, Pamela Hansford Johnson and Angela Carter as well? We could even have a literary sculpture park).

The anti-Japanese feeling sparked by the treatment of British p-o-w's during World War Two was also there, still bubbling away.

As a result, the Shinjuku team put together a revised and scaled down proposal. But although the new memorial was much smaller, it still provoked a storm of complaints. The Evening Standard excelled itself with the October 4 1989 headline, "Clapham fights the Japanese". In the story the Clapham Society was said to be "preparing to repel a Japanese invasion". The memorial was described as a "ponderous monstrosity" likely to be defaced.

The Minet archives contain a great deal of correspondence between Lambeth council and its equivalents in Shinjuku, all very friendly and civil if rather stilted and often deadly slow. The mayor of Shinjuku, Katsutada Yamamoto,  paid two visits to Lambeth during this time, and he was always eager to praise the beauty of the trees on the Common, comparing them with the beauty of the cherry blossom season in Japan.

He was keen to stress that the statue should  enhance the "beauty of Clapham": it would not be on a grand scale like Nelson's column, but "not so small as to be hidden by the summer shrubbery".

The monument, he said, would become "A lasting symbol of UK- Japanese goodwill and friendship".

Despite these attempts to address the criticisms of the first proposed statue, the complaints did not go away. English Heritage said that while it did not categorically oppose the plan, nor did it wholly approve: it felt the statue was "just too big" and suggested one of its own blue plaques on the house where Soseki stayed would be a more fitting memorial.

The Hon Secretary of the Clapham Antiquarian Society was also a tireless campaigner against the "unwanted memorial".

"I can find no evidence that London played an important part in his life," he wrote. "In fact, quite the opposite, he hated it while he was living here."

Well, yes, perhaps he did. He was certainly depressed for much of his short time in London. But there are plenty of literary experts who maintain that it was the difficult London experience that made all the difference to Soseki's writing style, and set him on the course for greatness. You only have to read his few short pieces set in London to see how his imagination had been sparked by the place. See Soseki's The Tower of London.

Another local luminary, James Watson of the Clapham Society, wrote: "The Common is common land, not the suburb of a foreign city of which the people of Lambeth know little or nothing".

Yes, perhaps his assumption was right, but it seems odd to use ignorance as a good reason for not doing something to alleviate it.  Surely this was an opportunity to allow the people of Lambeth to learn a little bit about this distant land, so different and yet in some ways so similar to our own?

So the debate rumbled on, letters and telegrams and phone calls went back and forth, more official visits were arranged. 1988 became 1989, and then on 18 December the council approved the revised scheme. However the case was referred to the Department for the Environment and it still needed the Secretary of State's seal of approval. And this was not forthcoming.

On February 20 1990 the mayor Lambeth advised his peer in Shinjuku to get the Japanese ambassador in London to appeal directly to Chris Patten.

Events moved on at the ultra-slow pace known only to bureaucratic officials who - if not under instruction to kill a project by the slowest possible method - at least appear to be. Reasons for and against the statue continued to be traded throughout that year and the next.

One letter from a distinguished local resident to the Department of the Environment offered the only genuinely aesthetic objection to the monument that I could find: Mr Norman Marsh, CBE, said that the proposed statue looked like something designed for "a late Victorian or Edwardian cemetery".

As used by Natsume Soseki
Still in use - the Victorian cast-iron post box
50 yards up the street from where Soseki
lived, now a part of the Soseki in London
Maybe he was right. Who knows. A new enquiry began early in 1992, by which time there had been a mayoral election in Shinjuku. All changed, suddenly. There was a new mayor, and it was his sad duty to inform his Lambeth equivalent that it now seemed that funding was "unlikely to be forthcoming".

And then, yes, both Lambeth and Shinjuku authorities designed it was best to call it a day.

So ends the story of the Soseki statue, although you can see a fine portrait bust of the man in the museum at 80 The Chase.

Also, as is clear whenever a large coach of Japanese students pulls up outside, they have other ways of remebering the great writer. Often I have seen groups of students and even schoolchildren walk up the road to the late Victorian post-box. Many selfies are taken. This is the same box into which Soseki posted his many letters home, 114 years ago.

Then there's the English Heritage blue plaque. The occupants of that (now incredibly expensive) house must chuckle at the way their first floor windows are so often photographed in the summer months. Or maybe they don't notice.

Soseki himself, we can be sure, would have been greatly amused by the whole business.

* As a postscript, it was good to see that the local business website thisisclapham.co.uk has included Soseki in its promotional hoardings up by Clapham Common tube. Perhaps they could help press for a proper celebration of the centenary of his death later this year....?

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