In 2009 I flew to Ghana on the White House Press Corps “zoo plane” to interview Barack Obama. True to form No Drama Obama had chosen the least controversial country for the first visit of the first black US President to Africa, rather than, say, Uganda, the land of his father. I, who carried little relevant baggage, was his selection for the international interviewer.

Before the recording we were invited to accompany the Obama family on a tour of the location, Cape Coast Castle on the Gold Coast. The castle is now a UN World Heritage site as the curator, an ebullient man in a striped blazer, explained. It had been a slave fortress much prized for its capacity to store a thousand captives in underground dungeons before they were driven in chains through the Gate of No Return to the ships which would transport them to the Americas.

Our Ghanaian guide pointed out places of particular horror – cells where hundreds suffocated, places of punishment – with the relish of a Beefeater telling tales of the Tower of London. The history was familiar to him and did not seem to trouble him. Obama remained impassive, asking the occasional intelligent question. His daughters, Malia, then 11, and Sasha, 8, became visibly upset. They turned to their mother, Michelle, and particularly to their grandmother, Mrs Robinson, for comfort. Unlike the President, the elder women bore a slave owner’s name and were all descendants of captives who might have looked their last on Africa at Cape Coast.

While the camera team were making their final preparations, I said to Obama “your girls were getting pretty upset out there?”. “Good,” he shot back, “I didn’t bring them here for a vacation, I brought them so they could see what people are capable of.”

There are historic monuments and buildings which resonate with their past and which teach us lessons inherently. But not the statues of prominent people imposed on public spaces by their fans. Speaking only for myself, I cheer whenever one of these monuments is removed and I don’t care whether it is of Churchill, Mandela, Cecil Rhodes, Edward Colston or Millicent Fawcett.

These waxworks in metal or stone are not works of art. At best they are kitsch, disfiguring urban landscapes. They also represent one group of people trying to force the rest of us to venerate their heroes. Not surprisingly Victorian imperialists were big on this and so, in our affluent virtue-signalling decadence, are we.

Take Parliament Square. Effigies of five bewhiskered Prime Ministers were erected to complement Barry and Pugin’s new Parliament building. But we got through the 20th century with the addition of only three more white men: Abraham Lincoln (1920), Jan Smuts (1956) and Winston Churchill (1973). An understandable urge to address the imbalance in this century has already resulted in the addition of four more figures, albeit more diverse: Mandela (2007), Lloyd George (2007), Gandhi (2015) and Fawcett (2018). Around the corner in Whitehall no less than 25 further monuments, many of them statues, are listed.

Where is this arms race of memorialist figurines going to end? When there’s no standing room left for living people? Nelson Mandela got it right when he insisted his statue should have a low plinth so tourists could take selfies more easily. It is claimed that the statues can be educational tools. But I’ve yet to overhear a conversation along the lines of “Dad, who was George Duke of Cambridge?” “Well Son, he was a very important Field Marshall and cousin of Queen Victoria”. I pass that particular object every day on the way to work but I had to look up especially who it depicted.

These statues belong indoors, if anywhere, in semi-private spaces such as galleries, museums and lobbies, not imposed on everybody in the great outdoors.

At this point I’ll probably lose the few readers who still agree with me. I think the de-clutter rule should extend to war memorials as well.

Lutyens’ Cenotaph was so impressive because it stood alone dominating the business end of Whitehall. For me “The Glorious Dead” inscription covered everyone who perished – man, woman, child and animal – in dreadful wars. Turned out I was wrong. A pastiche Cenotaph with coats hanging on it was put up for women in war a few yards away in 2005, paired with  the Animals in War memorial in Park Lane in 2004, an ultimate vindication of the pathetic fallacy.

From the Battle of Britain to Bomber Command and foreign allies, it seems every facet of the war effort wants to put their stamp on a corner of Central London, as if a plot at the new National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, set up by the National Lottery in 1994, isn’t enough.

The only public monuments which I enjoy are architectural works of art in their own right which are integral to the space they occupy, rather than historical markers plonked down in the most prominent position they can get away with.

The Albert memorial in Kensington and the Walter Scott monument on Prince’s Street in Edinburgh are imposing landmarks in their own right, whoever sits at their heart. I like Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column, or Piazza Colonna in Rome, because the columns are a deliberate central feature of the space around them – I don’t really care who is on top of the pole.

Landseer’s giant bronze lions are indispensable too. To our benefit they never raised enough money for the statue of William IV on horseback destined for the fourth plinth. Instead the continuing competition by artists to fill it temporarily has made the “empty plinth” the liveliest and most contemporaneously “meaningful” corner of Trafalgar Square.

During my three years in Oxford I admit I never noticed the statue of Cecil Rhodes, which I passed frequently, just like the Duke of York later on. Now I’ve seen it: it’s ugly. The building would look better if it were taken down. On the other hand it is a great loss that prudes chiselled away the explicit figures carved by Sir Jacob Epstein on what is now Zimbabwe House, just off the Strand.

Maybe we are spending too much time dwelling on our glorious and inglorious past, erecting monuments to prop up our side of an argument. As Shelley points out in his sonnet Ozymandias, such monuments are a vain effort, and don’t last for ever: “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/ of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, /the lone and level sands stretch far away.”

If we must depict our heroes clumsily in physical form, surely such efforts should be confined to those who want to see them, rather than being inflicted in shared spaces on the rest of us, including some who are affronted by what these statues signify to them.

The soul-searching prompted by the killing of George Floyd in the US was overdue. It is right that we should think again about the treatment and the signals we are sending each other in diverse societies.

By all means take them down but please don’t put other ones up. Buildings and the things we use and create remind us all too clearly “what we are capable of”. We don’t need puppets on plinths as provocations.