Smoke & Mirrors: The statue with the shady past

When a graduate trainee protests about Smokehouse's statue of a racist founder, the comms chief goes in search of the true story.

by Guy Browning
Last Updated: 29 Apr 2016


Last year we took on a few graduates. I’ve been doing appraisals for my team, which is always a great way of reminding myself who they are. We have one graduate called Freya, who apparently was big in student campaigning. I was giving her a bit of a grilling when she stopped me and said I should ‘check my privilege’. I assumed this meant my British Airways Executive Club tier.  A bit later I told her that her spelling needed attention. She said my comments were demotivating and were in fact ‘microaggressions’. I asked her to spell that for me and she walked out. Where she walked out to was HR director Brenda Wayzgoose’s office, where Freya insisted that I use ‘trigger warnings’ before meetings where she might face microaggressions. 


In the fifth-floor meeting room there is an old bronze bust of one of our founders. We don’t really know who he is, so we refer to him as Helmut as he is believed to be German. At a team meeting this morning, I patted Helmut on the head and said, ‘How are you, you old Nazi?’ The meeting itself was pretty intense as the team is gearing up for a big product launch. Everything was on track but later Brenda Wayzgoose came to my office and said that Freya was now refusing to come to the fifth floor because of Helmut’s little statue.  She is demanding a ‘safe space’ where she can work without the shadow of the Third Reich intimidating her. Brenda had a look of abject fear on her face, which I should imagine most university administrators wear permanently.


Everyone worked hard on the new product launch including Freya. Or so I thought until Laura her line manager took me aside and said that Freya had been working on her own internal ‘No Platform for Nazis’ campaign.  Laura’s common-sense objections had also rapidly been ‘No Platformed’. I decided that Freya needed her own office. It would be in the basement as far away from Helmut as possible. There would be no phone or computer in case she gets any kind of communication from someone privileged that would trigger her being upset in any way. We’ll then put a big sign saying ‘Safe Space’ on the door. Of course that plan stayed in my head. Having had three children, I know how to handle them. Instead I made a phone call. 


My brother Alan, who I love dearly, is the dullest man on the planet. Having taken a very generous early retirement package (they must have been desperate to get him out of the building), he now spends his time looking up the family tree. I told him to take a break from our family (undiluted peasantry) and do some digging into Helmut and also our cheery young graduate Freya. What Alan found out and explained to me in a brisk four-hour phone call was that Helmut was in fact Swiss and had invented the plastic that  we use in all our prosthetics, including the ones we’re about to launch. Without Helmut, thousands of people would literally not have a leg to stand on. Then he told me about Freya’s family. 


For safety (mine) I met with Freya in the presence of the HR director. I asked Freya if she thought that we should give Helmut a break because he was long dead. She said that didn’t make any difference. I told her a few things about Helmut she didn’t know, and then moved on to her great-great-grandfather who owned sugar plantations in the Caribbean along with a few hundred slaves. She blanched. I must have triggered something. I then told her that the rest of the company found her inherited privilege a continuous microaggression. We could either give her a bell around her neck to issue trigger warnings of her impending presence or we could designate the entire rest of the building a Safe Space that she wasn’t allowed to enter. I believe Freya now works for a charity where she is a full-time virtue signaller. As for Smokehouse, we’re only taking apprentices from now on. 

Guy Browning is the author of The British Constitution: First Draft, published by Atlantic Books at £7.99. He can be contacted at

Credit: Mulrooney Oxford UK/Alamy Stock Photo

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