Neal Ascherson: Modern Britain’s obsession with a constipating “national heritage”

Roundup: Talking About History

Two hundred years after the battle of Trafalgar, when Admiral Horatio Nelson defeated the combined fleets of France and Spain, Britain is enjoying a binge of patriotism and hero-worship. Cathedral organs rumble Hearts of Oak, sea-scouts tramp giggling to war memorials, the National Maritime Museum is running a superb “Nelson:Napoleon” exhibition, and on BBC radio the usual voices debate whether Emma Hamilton was an intellectual or a tramp. And at the centre of it all is an old wooden ship.

At the peak of the ceremonies, Queen Elizabeth II dines with her sea lords on board a huge oak-hulled vessel which now lies in dry dock at Portsmouth. HMS Victory was Nelson's flagship at Trafalgar and on her deck, at the height of the battle on 21 October 1805, Nelson was mortally wounded by the musket-ball of a French naval sniper. No wonder that Victory, the only surviving ship from the battle, is a national shrine.

But within living memory, she was not the only survivor. The HMS Implacable, a seventy-four-gun warship of the line, still lay anchored off Falmouth and later off Portsmouth as a training vessel and a floating hostel for youth groups. But then the Admiralty, the authority commanding Britain’s navy, grew tired of maintaining her elderly timbers and – deaf to protests – towed her out to sea and blew her to bits.

Could the British – obsessed with memories of their martial past, and world-renowned for their reluctance to throw any noble relic away – could they, of all nations, have casually trashed one of the only two veterans of Trafalgar? They did indeed, and it's a story with long implications for public attitudes and the “heritage industry”. ...

Britain is a society obsessed by an authoritarian concept of “heritage”, which seems to demand that nothing be thrown away and that everything which goes out of use must be preserved. A sort of cultural constipation builds up, as more and more monuments, buildings, landscapes and collections of often trivial files are designated officially as “heritage”. And yet throwing away is one of the basic activities of a species which moves across the world leaving a wide trail of broken pottery, flint chippings, dented cookpots, cartridge cases and knickers with broken elastic.

Humans junk more than they hoard. Any social institution has to excrete as well as ingest, if its metabolism is to keep working. And in reality, institutions covertly do excrete. The shredder eats the dead executive's archives and – at night – figures creep out of museums carrying cartons of unwanted Roman potsherds to the skip.

Governments now designate and commission “heritage” – the schedule of what we are not supposed to throw away. But how do they “de-designate” things? That is what remains so fascinating about the fate of Implacable. This was a deliberate act of de-commissioning an item of national heritage, for once carried out by a public authority in public. The Admiralty may have been wrong. Maybe the ship could have been saved. But at least they were honest about what they were doing and why they felt entitled to do it.

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