Every town has its statues, and Aylesbury probably needs them more than most. Since Henry VIII made it the county town of Buckinghamshire, its fortunes have been mixed. It suffered from an outbreak of plague in 1603-4 and from urban development in the 20th century. The tower block that is County Hall dominates the skyline, like Sauron’s not so evil but decidedly grumpy younger brother. Even the Aylesbury duck seems to have permanently flown south. So the statues of John Hampden, a Parliamentary hero from these parts who helped to win the Civil War, and Disraeli, one of the most famous Prime Ministers in history, help to remind the town that it has also been in the presence of greatness at various times. Without such reminders, visiting Aylesbury might be a God-awful sad affair.
On the other hand, many bright lights from the world of showbusiness have lived or worked here, including actress Lynda Bellingham and dancer Brendan Cole. Marillion formed in Aylesbury, naming their first single Market Square Heroes in tribute, and the makers of A Clockwork Orange filmed some scenes (cut from the final film) in Aylesbury.
More recently, a statue and a sculpture within a short walk of each other have marked the town’s significance in the early careers of two giants of the industry. Under the massive shadow of the Waterside Theatre sits a statue of the actor and comedian Ronnie Barker, who started out with Aylesbury Repertory Theatre, years before he found fame on radio and TV. The statue of Barker is in character as Fletcher from sitcom Porridge, perhaps his most successful role outside The Two Ronnies.
If you cross the road from Ronnie and walk up towards Market Square, an extraordinary creation sits underneath an archway. Earthly Messenger, a bronze sculpture, depicts the many professional faces of David Bowie, who launched the albums Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in Aylesbury in 1971-2. Bowie formed The Spiders in the Friars Aylesbury music club, which is still running today. The first track on the Ziggy album Five Years refers to Market Square: “Pushing through the Market Square – so many mothers sighing.” After Bowie’s death in 2016, the local councils approved the idea of a memorial in Market Square, provided that the funds were raised privately. One crowdfunding project and over £100,000 later and Andrew Sinclair – a sculptor from Wendover who had, ironically, just moved to Devon – could start work. The result, which features a leaping Ziggy and references to Ashes to Ashes, Labyrinth, Life on Mars, Blackstar and other Bowie projects, was unveiled in early 2018. Speakers above the sculpture are intended to play a different Bowie song each hour. Sinclair commented: “It’s a huge talking point in Aylesbury. We believe it will really help put the town on the map.”
For someone, this conspicuous creation struck an inappropriate note: the sculpture was vandalised within a week, with “Feed the homeless first” among the graffiti defacing the work. (Taxpayers’ money had to be used to clean things up; presumably the vandal had not thought of that.) But the majority sentiment seems to be in favour; there was even a petition to change the town’s name to Aylesbowie. That may not happen, but we hope Earthly Messenger will encourage more visitors to Aylesbury… even if it’s just for one day.