My first ever job was as a waiter at one of the Oxford colleges – Regent’s Park College to be precise, a place of theological study made up, presumably, of staring at statues of Christ for hours at a time contemplating the fallibility of human beings, so blinkered that they even managed to murder the perceived (though debatably conceived) son of God. Years since have been spent repeatedly going over this unfortunate period for humanity, entire doctrines built around it. I was 16, on under £3/hour – I’d go there after school each evening and deliver the students, just a few years older than me, their food. Their status as food-recipients immediately elevated by my status as food-deliverer. The playing field was levelled just once, when I somehow managed to snog one of the hotter girls, but that’s a different story.
Each night they’d get their variation of chicken with a sauce, most often a tin of Campbell’s soup masquerading as something toiled-over by a demanding head chef. But even so, our boss, a matriarchal Frenchwoman called Mme Jarman, had high standards. The kitchen staff might be happy to throw together whatever slop was nearest at hand, but the waiters were drilled to perfection. The way we wiped the table, the correct method of holding a bowl or tying our aprons. You’d take your brown envelope of wages each week knowing that you’d at least earned most of it (a considerable feat for a teenager).
Anyway, the reason I’m thinking about this is because one evening one of the waiters committed a cardinal sin – he broke something, publicly. A water jug supposedly under his watch tumbled and cracked on the floor, sloshing over the historical tiles, no doubt witnessed by the numerous groaning ghosts of old priests and professors, but rather than chuck the offensive item in with the offensive leftovers, Mme Jarman took it to become a totem of our failure and our humanity. The broken jug was displayed in all its ignominy on a shelf in the kitchen where we’d collect our plates. A reminder of our distinct imperfection, of how we needed to be better. A symbol of shame intended to inspire us – our crucifix.
I suppose the point being that when it comes to the polarising statues telling the “proud” story of Great Britain, it’s all a matter of perspective. You can beat your chest with national pride (if you really must), or you can choose to see the cracks, the failure of humanity. The rape and pillage and prejudice and genocide that defines nearly all perceived empires, whether thriving or withering. You can look at the statues, assuming they’re not going anywhere soon, and see broken water jugs and false prophets – a reminder of dismantled fables, and our need to build new bridges.
Talking of which, did I mention that I snogged one of the students? Oh I did.