The Stones of London: Public Art in Charlie Fletcher’s Stoneheart Trilogy
The Literary London Journal, Volume 9 Number 2 (September 2011)
<1> In summer 2010, professional guides were offering walking tours of Harry Potter’s London, but the sites they promised to visit were film locations. In Rowling’s books, geographical realities of London are less prominent than the fantasy London of the Wizarding World. London is central in the novels only as the gateway to that world, which is by definition invisible to ordinary humans. Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross, for example, the customary starting point for travel to Hogwarts, is not noticed because everyone is in transit; the seedy pub in Charing Cross Road would not be worth a second glance even if Muggles could see it, but it leads to Diagon Alley; the phone box that provides entry to the Ministry of Magic is so old and disused that Mr. Weasley actually ‘dials’ the number (Phoenix 116); and St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries is in a ‘closed for refurbishment’ shop in Oxford Street or Regent Street so that wizards needing treatment can come and go among crowds of shoppers without causing any disturbance (Phoenix 426). Sirius Black’s family home is in an invented location, Grimmauld Place, vaguely identifiable as in Islington because it is on the way from Central London to Bethnal Green, and Harry, Mrs. Weasley, and Sirius as a dog walk from there to King’s Cross in 20 minutes (Phoenix 165). The one time Harry, Ron, and Hermione are in Muggle London and not on the way to a specific wizarding destination finds them in an indistinguishable all-night eatery in Tottenham Court Road. Guides leading walking tours through these places would quickly run out of things to say.
<2> A walking tour based on Charlie Fletcher’s Stoneheart trilogy is not only more rewarding visually but also more stimulating to the historical imagination and more relevant to a consideration of literary London. In Fletcher’s three books, Stoneheart (2006), Ironhand (2007), and Silvertongue (2008), London’s past and present converge in the many statues that people walk by every day. The important parts of Harry Potter’s London are meant to be invisible to non-wizards, but the London of Fletcher’s books is visible to all, even if we often fail to notice it.
<3> For those unfamiliar with Fletcher’s books, a quick plot summary may be helpful, and from this point onwards the article will also be illustrated with photographs of the visual features referred to in the books (click on the ‘thumbnail’ images to bring up a larger version). On a school visit to the Natural History Museum, twelve-year-old George is blamed for something he did not do and takes out his anger on a small stone carving of a dragon’s head, which unexpectedly breaks off. In response, one of the pterodactyls carved on the museum’s façade [Figure 1] flies down and attacks him. He runs toward Kensington High Street, and some salamander drainpipes [Figure 2] join in the chase. He is temporarily rescued by the Gunner [Figure 3], part of the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner, and this World War I soldier becomes the main adult voice in the books, explaining that George has inadvertently awakened old forces, a battle between ‘spits’ and ‘taints’. The pterodactyl and salamanders are taints because, the Gunner says, they are empty, not containing any human spirit, created for decorative purposes; the Gunner is a spit because he is made in the likeness of a human being, whose spirit the artist-maker has infused into the stone or bronze (Stoneheart 50-51).
<4> George and the Gunner are quickly joined by Edie, who is on her own partly because she is a ‘glint’, something else the Gunner explains, to her as well as to readers. Whenever she touches a stone, she sees beyond what is there to ‘what was’, the usually traumatic events that once took place in that location (Stoneheart 68). To find answers, the Gunner leads them to the Sphinxes [Figure 4] on the Embankment, and one adds to the explanation by pointing out that people are transitory: ‘What people do passes, but the rocks remain. Not forever. Just a lot longer than people. And the rocks remember’ (Stoneheart 109). What Edie does is connect to that: the Sphinx continues, ‘Bad things that happen leave a mark on their surroundings. Good things, too. But people respond more strongly to bad. And glints, when they touch stones that have a mark in them, channel it. The past plays through them again’ (Stoneheart 110). Through the three books, George seeks ways to put right what he disturbed by breaking the carving, and Edie must come to terms with her glinting ability. Many more statues, both spits and taints, join in before they are finally able to return to a London where stones move only in imagination.
<5> Of course, many London statues are not included in the adventures, and Fletcher’s choices convey ideas about the character of Londoners past and present as well as preferences in styles of sculpture. For example, the Gunner is far from the only World War I soldier who is helpful to George and Edie: the Officer from the Royal Artillery Memorial [Figure 5], the Fusilier in High Holborn, four soldiers on the railway memorial at Euston Station, and what Fletcher calls the Old and Young Soldiers at the Royal Exchange and the Railwayman at Paddington Station [Figure 6] all play important roles. Some even speak with distinctively London voices: the Fusilier [Figure 7] sounds like a ‘vinegary Cockney’ as he rescues them from an attacker (Stoneheart 323), and the soldiers of the Euston Mob [Figure 8] represent four regions of England, but their spokesman has a ‘voice that sounded like it came from South London and had smoked way too many cigarettes on the way’ (Ironhand 260). Others follow orders even though the one giving them is from a different war, like the Old and Young Soldiers [Figure 9] who are commanded by the Duke of Wellington [Figure 10] in Silvertongue. Besides their association with World War I, they all share an attitude of enduring hardship, of getting on with things.
<6> They also share a namelessness: they are spits because they were based on real models, but the names of those models are not preserved. Fletcher’s choices of named historical people continue the emphasis on the Londoner’s triumph over adversity. One, Samuel Johnson, called Dictionary [Figure 11], actually sums up that theme in Silvertongue when he tells George, ‘You have the doggedness and the grit that has ever been the mark of the true Londoner. This is a city of liberty, made by free men for free men. It is not a city that knuckles under easily to oppression’ (Silvertongue 183). Winston Churchill [Figure 12], who appears in Silvertongue as Bulldog, also places the battle they are fighting in the context of past London battles as they prepare to make a last stand in Trafalgar Square: he says he does not know where the evil force comes from, but he knows all the people gathered to fight it are from ‘Right here. And there’s an old saying, “Whatever the world dishes out … London can take it”’ (Silvertongue 372, ellipses in original). A third major figure is the Queen, the Boadicea statue on the Embankment [Figure 13]. Although historically she destroyed London, the statue by Thornycroft celebrates the triumph of Victorian empire, and the Queen in both Ironhand and Silvertongue takes no nonsense from anyone including upstart kings like Richard Lionheart as she helps the Gunner and the children save the city. These and other famous leaders continue the emphasis on fighting for survival.
<7> The presence of so many figures associated with war might give the impression that the books glorify military action —besides the ones already mentioned, the three queens in Silvertongue (besides Boadicea, the Queen of America on the Albert Memorial [Figure 14], and the Queen of Time at Selfridges [Figure 15]) are or can be seen as warriors, while more peaceful female statues like those of Queen Anne and Queen Victoria do not appear —but an episode in Ironhand counters that impression. To save the Gunner, who has been captured by the evil forces and cannot return to his plinth, George volunteers to stand in for him and experiences a World War I battle in which a man who reminds him of his father is killed. Back at the Royal Artillery Memorial, he thinks he recognizes the same man [Figure 16], but the Officer explains: ‘That’s why his face is covered, so the bereaved could come and imagine he was their lost loved one. Good idea, if you ask me. Jagger, the man who made us, knew a thing or two about loss’ (Ironhand 309). As in Edie’s glinting episodes, Fletcher emphasizes that the statues are about memory, not glory.
<8> So far I’ve been focusing on the spits —looking at Fletcher’s choice of taints suggests a nostalgia for representational styles of sculpture. The first ones we encounter (the pterodactyl, the salamanders, a gargoyle from St. Pancras [Figure 17]) are Victorian Gothic decoration, inspired by Ruskin’s praise in The Stones of Venice of the savageness and invention of Venetian Gothic but probably deplored by him as imitative, not expressing the artist’s individual feeling or inspiration —exactly Fletcher’s point about the taints being empty. We might expect statues representing mythological characters to be spits, but only one is, the Perseus from outside the entrance to Tate Britain [Figure 18]: a traditional, Victorian statue, a human hero, and most of all for the plot, the possessor of the Gorgon’s head that can turn viewers into stone. However, the statue at the other side of Tate Britain’s entrance [Figure 19], Victorian in style if not quite by date, is a taint, and Fletcher’s description suggests why: the evil Walker, seeking out its most prominent figure, the Bull, sees it as ‘a monument to the fact that the Ancient Greeks had had much too much fun thinking up ways to execute people’ (Ironhand 72). Even though the three humans and the bull are depicted realistically, the emphasis on pain and terror makes the Dirce statue (or at least the Bull, since the human figures are thrown aside when the Bull answers the Walker’s call) a taint.
<9> Other mythological statues are much more recent and, as striking examples of a maker’s particular style, could be spits. After all, Ruskin approved of the medieval grotesque because he saw it as expressing ‘the life and liberty of every workman who struck the stone’ (Ruskin 179). However, these modern statues are terrifyingly not spits. The Bull connects to two works by Michael Ayrton, both taints: the Minotaur at the Barbican [Figure 20], as a human-animal hybrid noted for anger, is easily explained, but the Icarus at Old Change Court [Figure 21] owes his taint status more to Ayrton’s style. While the mythological Icarus died because he aimed too high, Ayrton’s Icarus seems to be trapped in the wings his father made, struggling to get out. Fletcher builds on that sense of struggle: when the news comes that the Minotaur is dead, ‘The Icarus screamed, a deep man’s scream, horrifying and raw, though muffled, as though the mouth hidden inside the apparatus was sewn shut’ (Ironhand 49). This angry, agonized taint eagerly joins the hunt for George and Edie.
<10> Mythological in a more complex way and also taints are Eduardo Paolozzi’s Grid Man [Figure 22] and Newton [Figure 23]. The Grid Man certainly looks like a monster, more machine than human, so it comes as a shock to discover that the piece is called Self-Portrait of the Artist as Hephaistos. Fletcher combines humour with terror in his description of the Grid Man’s voice as he comes after Edie and George: ‘It ground out of the lip sections like an angry Italian trying to out-shout a drunk Scotsman through a mouthful of ball bearings’ (Stoneheart 321). Knowing that the Italian sculptor lived in Scotland (as most child readers would not) adds to the humour. Paolozzi’s Newton is less mechanical than the Grid Man but still not entirely human. The Gunner is surprised to see him on the side of the taints, but anyone recognizing that the statue is a representation of Blake’s Newton, decidedly a negative figure, might be more inclined to surprise at the ironies of that figure’s association with the British Library.
<11> In two cases, Fletcher distorts or ignores mythological aspects of statues to further the plot and increase the ambiguity of good and evil. At first, it is not clear whether either ‘Little Tragedy’ in the Black Friar pub [Figure 24] or the ‘Bow Boy’ in Piccadilly Circus [Figure 25] is a spit or a taint: both are metal-cast statues in human likeness, but both represent abstractions rather than actual humans, and both are not sure whether they are spits or taints. The descriptions of Little Tragedy emphasize childlike qualities, less threatening than the appearance of the statue, clearly sporting devilish horns, might warrant: for example, ‘they saw that it was one of the imp-cherubs that had been sitting on the cornicing. His face was grinning and mischievous’ (Stoneheart 273). George and Edie are aware as soon as they see him that Little Tragedy may be untrustworthy, but they are still inclined to believe he is a spit until he actually betrays Edie to the Walker in Ironhand. When they meet the Bow Boy in Silvertongue, the Piccadilly Circus statue we know as Eros, the Gunner explains that he is ‘human shaped, but he’s not a real person,’ so is not sure which he is (Silvertongue 97). To complicate matters further, the Queen adds that the boy is actually Anteros, ‘the god of people whose love is not returned’ (Silvertongue 93), not Eros at all. This has some basis in fact: according to a biography of the sculptor, Gilbert was fascinated by the myth of Eros and Anteros, seeing ‘his whole life as a struggle between Eros, representing passionate, destructive love, and his rival and twin Anteros, deity of pure, ennobling love’ (Dorment 227). Anteros would certainly be more appropriate for a monument to the philanthropic Lord Shaftesbury; however, this interpretation is exactly the opposite of the one Fletcher offers, apparently wishing to make the character of the Bow Boy ambiguous so that readers can be pleased when he, unlike Little Tragedy, resists the call of the evil force.
<12> Another human figure that turns out to be a taint is the Knight [Figure 26] in Ironhand. The key here is that both knight and horse are only armour, hollow inside: as George notices, ‘The Knight was a hollow man. Which raised the question —a pointed question, given the sharpness of the lance in the Knight’s right hand —of whether he was a spit or a taint’ (Ironhand 142). The statue’s connection to documented events in the past is made clear when George reads the part of the plaque that tells about three duels fought by a guild of tenth-century knights (Inwood 45 differs on the date), but he is interrupted before he reaches the part that identifies it as a twentieth-century creation. In Ironhand, the Knight could still be a spit, fighting George only because it is their fate, but in Silvertongue the hollowness allows him to be taken over by the evil force.
<13> In the final battle in Trafalgar Square, George is puzzled by the participation of two ‘humanoids’ called Divided Self [Figure 27] on the side of the taints, observing that they’re almost human: the Gunner replies that it is the ‘almost’ that makes them angry (Silvertongue 347). When the good guys are lifelike representations and many of the bad guys are distorted, leaning toward abstraction, it is not difficult to detect a bias against ‘modern’ art.
<14> That bias is even clearer in some of the external narrator’s comments about architecture, which also provide another striking contrast to J. K. Rowling’s treatment of London. One of the non-statuary characters in the Stoneheart trilogy is a Raven who at first seems to be aligned with the forces of evil but eventually is more a force of historical imagination, observing and remembering. The Raven has perceived more Londons than anyone. For example:
The Raven remembered the living river, remembered how its curves had sharpened and shallowed over the time it had known it, a snake moving over the land at a pace too slow for men to notice. And now it was banked in stone and concrete, tamed into a runnel, not a living river at all. He remembered when it had driven mill wheels. Now the only wheel was a massive upended bicycle wheel on the South Bank, where people paid to see what the Raven saw and had seen for generations. (Stoneheart 371)He is not impressed by modern buildings either, especially ‘one that looked like a giant gherkin thrust rudely end-first into the ground’ (Stoneheart 371). We can contrast the specificity of this description with the vagueness of what Harry and Ron see from the flying car at the beginning of Chamber of Secrets: ‘the whole of London lay, smoky and glittering, below them’ (Chamber 56). Rowling is not interested in the London that is; Fletcher cares intensely about the London that is and was.
<15> Fletcher’s interest in London’s past also extends to some of the spookier ideas usually dismissed by historians. One source of the evil in Stoneheart is the London Stone [Figure 28], which Peter Ackroyd discusses as being of uncertain purpose and origin but concludes that ‘It was once London’s guardian spirit, and perhaps it is still’ (Ackroyd 19). For Fletcher, it is much more sinister, as the external narrator comments, ‘it looked out on the street through a thick lattice of iron bars. Given its antiquity, people who noticed this usually thought that the bars were to protect it from the public. Only a very few —and a very strange few at that —knew that it was precisely the other way round’ (Stoneheart 35). In Silvertongue, the narrator associates the London Stone with another idea Ackroyd treats with a combination of dismissiveness and fascination: the concept of lines of power or ley lines connecting sacred places. Whether or not readers accept these supernatural possibilities, they are encouraged to pay attention to the visible London around them. Similarly, when the evil Walker, a thrall of the Stone, retrieves certain objects he needs from a display case in the British Museum, readers who choose to visit the King’s Library galleries in the museum can indeed see those objects, which belonged to the sixteenth-century alchemist, or scientist, Dr. John Dee of Mortlake. By referring to documented history and visible landmarks, Fletcher can persuade readers that the magic is almost plausible.
<16> At the same time, it is striking that the characters do not expect to find help in any of London’s many churches. In a reflection of today’s secular society, the only even vaguely religious statue involved in all three books is a pub sign, the Black Friar [Figure 29], and George and Edie cannot be sure that he is a helpful spit. When Edie says he must be good because he is a monk, he offers a long, confusing answer beginning ‘I am what I seem, no more no less’ but then calling attention to the contradictions in his appearance (Stoneheart 259), and as they pay more attention to the decorations of the pub’s interior, they are even less sure what he is. In Ironhand, he provides an extensive explanation of the past episodes Edie experiences, sounding even less like a Christian monk:
London is a place of power and it was a place of power before people built stockades or roundhouses or temples or huts on it. … Look along the river; look at the Tower of London. Ancient? It’s a Johnny-come-lately. It was a Christian church, and before that a Roman temple and before that a shrine to a Celtic crow-god and before that a shrine to a god with horns on his head and before that only the Raven himself remembers. All pasts are all still there, layered under the skin. (Ironhand 159)From the Black Friar’s perspective, Christianity is just one in a series of human beliefs, less relevant to the present than the continuing power of London.
<17> The few actual churches that appear are usually not holy places either. The children pass the Temple Church, which seems to George to be ‘rounded and defensive, more like a turreted bastion than a place of God’ (Stoneheart 304), and Edie declares that ‘It doesn’t feel like a good place’ (Stoneheart 305). St. Dunstan’s in the West is a refuge because of its Impossible Door guarded by figures that look like Hercules, not for any religious qualities. St. Olave’s Hart Street [Figure 30], which Dickens called ‘Saint Ghastly Grim’ and ‘one of my best beloved churchyards’ (Dickens 262), proves not to be a refuge, as Edie gets into an argument with the ‘skulls on top of the wall’ and is trapped by her pursuers (Ironhand 367). Perhaps the fact that the skulls do not actually betray her is Fletcher’s tribute to Dickens, who is not memorialized by a London statue at all.
<18> George does find some answers and gain the strength he needs for the final battle against evil as he visits Southwark Cathedral in Silvertongue, but even here it is striking that the authority figures are not religious. The Sphinx told him to ‘Find your kin, and within the hour the dead stone’s tongue will be in your power’ (Silvertongue 226). The way to do that, the Sphinx said, is to find a Knight of Wood [Figure 31], and that is what threatens him as he enters the cathedral. The Stone Corpse [Figure 32], according to the Wooden Knight, is ‘one that used to be a monk’ (Silvertongue 245), and it refuses to help until George has found his kin. A man with a quill tells him to start with names, and that there is one George in the cathedral. As a matter of fact, there are several representations of St. George and a dragon in London, but the one in Southwark Cathedral [Figure 33] is part of a World War I memorial, indirectly adding another Great War connection. George resists identifying with the saint even though the Stone Corpse tells him life is balanced: ‘Like for like, ill for ill, good for evil, and for every George, a Dragon’ (Silvertongue 248), and it is the dragon that directs George’s attention to the carved names below the medallion, which include three Chapmans, perhaps George’s kin. That leads to the Stone Corpse’s riddling answer, accompanied by a gloomy Gospel quotation, but the words of the man with the quill, the bald head, and the beard [Figure 34] give George more confidence: ‘the great globe itself lies beyond those doors waiting to be made anew’ (Silvertongue 251). Though Fletcher never mentions Shakespeare’s name, readers should not need to know that there is a memorial to the playwright in Southwark Cathedral to make the identification, and even in the cathedral, the emphasis is on action in this world.
<19> In fact, in the Gunner’s world, everything has ‘to do what it was made for’ (Stoneheart 70), an idea illustrated by the contrast between the Temple Bar Dragon [Figure 35] and the City Dragons [Figure 36] at other boundaries of the City. Made to guard the City, the Temple Bar Dragon at first attacks George and the Gunner, but it can think, and finally recognizes that George and Edie are on London’s side and so deserve help. The ‘blocky mass-produced’ City Dragons (Silvertongue 156), though, have no such guiding purpose and are easily recruited by the evil force. Fletcher’s narrator can be critical about modern London art and architecture —the ‘windowless slopes of brick’ of the new British Library (Stoneheart 168), the ‘grime and blank windows’ of the Barbican walkways (Stoneheart 435), the National Theatre as ‘concrete bunker buildings that squatted theatrically beside’ Waterloo Bridge (Silvertongue 314) —but George and Edie’s task is to become makers, to learn from the past without being traumatized by it, to preserve rather than destroy. Fletcher thus aligns himself with what Michael Levenson has identified as ‘traditionalists [who] offer a community extending not in space but in time, a London citizenry constituted by all those who are signified by the symbols of past glory’ (Levenson 222). He even brings in the vacant plinth in Trafalgar Square, which Levenson discusses as a contested space between the modernizers and the traditionalists, as the final resting place for the petrified Walker —a symbol of the defeat of evil rather than either an imperial hero or a construction representing a contemporary artist’s defiance of tradition [Figure 37].
<20> For readers of the U.S. editions, though, the adventures of 12-year-olds George and Edie may seem as unreal as those of Harry, Ron, and Hermione at Hogwarts: British editions include endpaper maps with small drawings of many of the statues, but those are missing from the U.S. paperbacks. The cover art of the British editions includes familiar London landmarks in the background: those, too, are missing from the front covers of the U.S. paperbacks. Although fictional Londoners besides George and Edie do not see the fantastic events of the story, readers in London are reminded of them almost everywhere they look, and may come to a greater appreciation of the sculptor’s art. Harry Potter walking tours might point out London landmarks, but such landmarks and their history are an integral part of the Stoneheart series. Besides being fast-paced adventure narratives for young readers, Fletcher’s books can be seen as part of an adult debate about the role of public art and architecture in London.
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——. Silvertongue. 2008. London: Hodder, 2009.
——. Stoneheart. London: Hodder, 2006.
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——. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.
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To Cite This Article:
Andelys Wood, ‘The Stones of London: Public Art in Charlie Fletcher’s Stoneheart Trilogy’, The Literary London Journal, Volume 9 Number 2 (September 2011). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/september2011/wood.html. .
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