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Alastair Frazer Public Art:

– The Deal Porters (Philip Bews), Canada Water


On May 8th 2011, a fire was extinguished having burned continuously for some 20 days.

Born of impulse, and bred by common necessity, its confidence grown it soon cut away reaching through all grades of the buildings’ scrap and lumber, seizing upward upon suddenly surplus furniture, uninventoried boxes cast in, not looking back, only towards a pinnacle of sultry frenzy and consummation. The measure of the thing was uncertain outside its eventual black islet of steamy slag upon the tarmac, and otherwise half remembered readings of obtuse angles then silhouetted between necks and chins.

A pre-eminent position in the city seen from a fourth story rooftop, a column, rising up out of this uncontested amphitheatre. The end credits scrolling skyward of a final stock take and inventory. Fire and destruction may be the last and only vengeful glory to be taken from defeat, but this was a victory, one for fire itself and for this place. A fire for 3 weeks unchallenged not a mile from that ‘Great Fire’, the great one that danced over half this city in only 3 days.

It was just before this I’d toured the public artworks of the borough, peculiar geographic markers with a greater stake than the artists could say. It became clear all these place–making objects were indeed attempting to contact the universal, catalyzing a community by way of material, something rare and alchemical. However, the permanence bestowed upon them is made at the expense of any remaining fuel. Things bounce back off. There is nothing behind or beyond their mantle. The presence of true generosity and risk would be to leave them finite, potentially eroding their clarity as artworks, but perhaps able to reach a more soulful place through their sacrifice. They become a landmark or meeting point only in name, and never one around which to congregate. What they achieve being by way of contrast and opposition to an individual figure.

In a small twist of fate, the bronze figure that sat gently looking out upon the Thames, an unusually honorable companion, was one night in summer gone for good. This memorial to Alfred Salter, was to a man who had done so much to save the citizens of Bermondsey from the hellish monotony of industry and ill-health. A man of the people, who together with his wife Ada, towered in stature only through selflessness of energy and vision, and only as high as the people held him. Their installation of great parks, playgrounds, and avenues of trees throughout the borough lives on today.

If those other artworks succeed it seems not so much in relation to us, but in the more powerful and less predictable context set by the elements. And it is so for us too, and that which seduces us most according to our own terms surely is fire. That demand being for something greater than ourselves. It breathes deeper, dancing days and nights on end, wasting nothing and everything. The conjuring of it summons a site of exchange, a determined interaction where it will unlock the potential it finds in anything you give it, and with a dexterity and grace that you could not. It is something to behold, not alone but amongst the confirmation of others, a hypnotic and cathartic performance of nothing less than life and living. A transfer of energy that reaches us too, and that so few of those solid sites could achieve.

By now, surely all that existed in the rendered likeness of Alfred is melted down to an unedifying block. A generation’s gratitude all too briefly registered on a scale. But, the fact that fire plays its inevitable part in taking this provides some comfort, for its account of things is at least an honest one, never taking more than it ultimately gives. Like the continuous hydrology of the ground Salter did so much to harness and improve, his bronze body is returned back to the elemental cycle and interactions from which it came. Fire opens up an almighty exit, the molten air roaring of a portal out of here. However, it simultaneously shows us its more modest and gentle place in ceaseless cycles of transfer and exchange – the essence at the centre of the communal and the community – even where the physical experience of it is today so missed.
Alastair Frazer (2013)

Published 2 December 2011

The last remaining relative of Dr Alfred Salter – one of Britain’s great social reformers whose statue was stolen by metal thieves – today issued an urgent appeal for its safe return. (...) Worth £17,500, the life–size bronze statue was erected in 1991 in tribute to Dr Salter, a former MP who devoted his life to helping the poor in south London. Southwark Council is offering a £1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the thieves. (...)

Southwark Council (2011) Plea issued...

Thursday 12 April 2012

Southwark Council is asking local residents for their views on plans for a new statue of Bermondsey MP and social reformer Dr Alfred Salter to replace the bronze figure stolen from the SE16 riverside last November. (...)

A community group formed in the hope that the original statue could be recovered but soon refocused its efforts on making plans for a new public memorial to the famous doctor and parliamentarian.

With £20,000 already raised towards a £100,000 appeal target, Southwark Council has now published a questionnaire to offer Bermondsey and Rotherhithe residents the opportunity to comment on the form and location of the new artwork. There are plans to incorporate Alfred’s wife Ada into the new artwork in recognition of her own role as a councillor and Mayor of Bermondsey.

Residents are being asked whether the new statue should be made of stone, bronze or aluminium. They are also asked to comment on whether Diane Gorvin should be commissioned to make the new pieces or whether an open competition should be held. (...)
London SE1 (2012) News