Paul Vallely: Britain's Trafalgar Square: A History Of Celebrations

Roundup: Talking About History

What a mixed bag they are, British heroes. But then, I suppose, we Britons are a rum bunch ourselves. On Tuesday, it was Freddie Flintoff and the England cricketers, being cheered wildly by huge crowds (including a reveller in full cricket whites, and pads, in a Trafalgar Square fountain). A sea of St George's flags waved. And choruses of 'Jerusalem' and 'Land of Hope and Glory' echoed all round the heart of the capital.

Yesterday, in that same pigeon-infested venue, it was a hero of a different kind, the artist Alison Lapper " born without arms and with shortened legs " who took centre-stage. A 15ft statue of her was erected on the empty plinth in the north-west corner of the square which has usually stood empty for the past 150 years.

Yet it was fitting that these two disparate events should occupy the same space. For Trafalgar Square is not just a convenient open space in the middle of London. It is not simply the place from which all distances to the capital are measured. It is the symbolic heart of the nation.

Standing, as it does, at the intersection between, to the south, Whitehall and the Palace of Westminster, to the east, the City of London, and to the west, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square lies at the core of the United Kingdom's political, commercial and ceremonial seats of power.

Which is why the square has been not merely the place in which the British people have assembled in times of public celebration and crisis. It has become in the process a place of myth and emblem which constantly adapts to reflect the values and preoccupations of each time.

The place took its name from the great naval battle of 1805 which set the seal on a century of British global domination. But over the years it changed from a place of monument to the ruling class to a forum in which the language of the plain people of England could be heard.

The square was the site of Chartist demonstrations. It was where Sylvia Pankhurst called a great suffragette rally in 1906. The veteran socialist Keir Hardie spoke on workers' rights there in 1910. After the First World War, a great wave of Hunger Marches brought people from as far away as Wales and Scotland. There were protests against Fascism before the Second World War and celebrations there on VE and VJ Days. A Christmas tree from the people of Norway has stood there every year since as Londoners have gathered to usher in each New Year.

In the Fifties and Sixties CND demonstrations took place there, as did protests against apartheid a few years later. Then it was the turn of striking miners. The Trafalgar Square riot by anti-poll tax campaigners in March 1990 played a key role in undermining Margaret Thatcher. More recently, riots broke out among football fans after Germany knocked England out of the World Cup in a penalty shoot-out in 1996. And in 2001 the square, named in celebration of a British military triumph, became the focal point for more than a million people fearing imminent military tragedy in Iraq.

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