One of the odd things about some places is that whilst they stay the same themselves, one’s perception of them changes from time to time –either because they appear and re-appear at different stages of the life cycle or because you experience them at different times for different reasons. An example of the first was mentioned in the column For What Is Chatteris, with the local park. “I sometimes thought about the families in the small park down the road from his house. The children went there to play on the swings and roundabout and eat ice - creams; a few years later they were back with their school or college friends, hanging about the park and War Memorial drinking cider and smoking; a few years after that they were back with their own children playing on the swings”. In the meantime the park itself hardly changed at all. There are songs about particular parks but one of the best park songs is a generic one, Billy Stewart’s Sitting in the Park (covered in the UK by Georgie Fame) and it is rare that I can sit on a park bench anywhere without the tune going round my head.
An example of the second - where associations can come from a variety of things -is Trafalgar Square in London. Traditionally it has been where New Year has been celebrated and one of my stored memories of the place is coming through it after watching the Millennium firework display along the Thames. Traditionally too, it has been linked to the pigeons that flocked there to feed from the tourists before the move to eradicate them. I have a black and white photo of my sister aged about 8 standing in the square with a bag of bird seed bought from one of the vendors who used to be there and pigeons swarming all around. Genesis did a song about the birds in 1977, Pigeons: “Who congregate around Trafalgar Square taking pot shots at the tourists? Oh you've got to watch out, when you wander round the square in the morning, cos they're everywhere, they're everywhere”
In film and music it has often been used in the same way as Big Ben or Tower Bridge, as a iconic image that simultaneously denotes traditional and Swinging London - red buses and black taxis circling the column and fountain, the epitome of where it’s at. I was once sitting in the square eating a pork pie and hard boiled egg and Paul McCartney drove past in an open top sports car – it seemed very fitting to the setting. It was used in this sense in Bill Wyman’s Si Si Je Suis Un Rock Star, possibly the most entertaining song by one of the Stones outside of the group. The clip below shows Trafalgar Square in 1981. It also has the only instance I have seen of Bill Wyman dancing –sort of.
It is not just a tourist spot, however and since the Nineteenth Century it has been a focus for political demonstrations, where marches started or finished en route to Whitehall or Hyde Park to hear speeches by Bertrand Russell or Tariq Ali or Tony Benn or George Galloway on nuclear disarmament or Vietnam or government cuts or Iraq. That aspect has cropped up in songs from time to time. The Stones’ Street Fighting Man was supposedly inspired by a 1968 anti -Vietnam War demo that started in Trafalgar Square before moving to Grosvenor Square and the US Embassy. Chumbawamba were cynical about the place in Marching Round in Circles:” They let us make a noise ,they let us march around in a specially built police-cell they call Trafalgar Square”. More recently David Rovics claimed poetic licence with his Trafalgar Square:” Even the mayor came out, called him a criminal of war. Said "World domination ain't worth fighting for". They said "We don't like Dubya or his poodle, Tony Blair", on the day the statue of George Bush was toppled in Trafalgar Square”.
But beyond all these images it is a place on which people construct their own personal associations. Like Chris Difford in his own Trafalgar Square: “Every time that we scream and shout I’m the clown who’s wrong but when this is all over I’ll meet you in Trafalgar Square”. Or like the song here from 2007, Trafalgar Square to Anywhere, by Dave House, a singer with echoes of Frank Hamilton of Waterloo Guildford. (He is from Kingston on Thames, itself not far from Guildford). Trafalgar Square here is an image familiar to many, the starting point for a possibly fraught journey home on a late night bus or tube. A little personal story set to acoustic guitar and cellos.
I suppose you might go to Trafalgar Square to look at Nelson’s Column. Oddly enough, though, that has been a mere backdrop to my visits there, feeding pigeons on a holiday trip up to London, on marches over the years, seeing a new millennium in or just sitting in the mid-day sun. Same place, just seen from a different angle each time.