Pachyderm Prestidigitation

Like much of the rest of the London Blogosphere, I went with the family to see The Sultan’s Elephant on Sunday. I had had a quick look at it on the way home from work on Friday, when it was just standing still at the end of Pall Mall. Then, it was clearly impressive; but wasn’t clear quite how glorious, how majestic it would be once it was moving among crowds.

We drove in to Holborn and took the Tube to Green Park. The Tube was crammed, and I assumed (and feared) that everyone there would have the same aim as us. But no, it was just a commonplace weekend crowd, with many destinations in mind. When we got out, Piccadilly was busy, but not obviously in an unusual way.

We could see that the road was partly closed in the direction of Piccadilly Circus, so we headed that way. In the distance we could see crowds of people, but no obvious forty-foot elephant (and it’s hard to imagine a forty-foot elephant being anything else). One of the stewards told us that it was going to turn down Haymarket and then into Pall Mall.

Then, as we got a bit closer to the Circus, I caught a glimpse of a large leather ear flapping, and soon we could all see its head. But Piccadilly had never seemed so long, and it began to feel as if we wouldn’t catch it, though it was obviously going very slowly.

I hoped to get a picture of it with the statue of Eros in the same shot, but it was not to be. By the time we got to Piccadilly circus, it had already turned into Haymarket. So we decided to cut down Regent Street and get ahead of it. Guess what? We weren’t the only ones to have that idea. By this time we were among crowds, but not so dense that it was very hard to move; just dense enough to make us keep a tight hold on the kids.

A bit of zigzagging through back streets and we found ourselves on Charles II Street. Iit was clear from the music coming from Haymarket that the elephant hadn’t passed yet, and from the layout of the crowd that it would be coming along that way. So we positioned ourselves at the edge of the pavement and waited.

Sure enought, after a few minutes some stewards came along the street asking people to stay back on the pavements. Another few minutes and several police officers came along with the same message.

It’s worth pointing out both how good a job the stewards and the police did, and how little they actually had to do (from what I saw of it). It just goes to show that you can stage a big event with minimal crowd control. Treat people with respect and give them something interesting to watch and you don’t need to herd them through crash barriers like cattle in a slaughterhouse.

Anyway, a few minutes after that, and the elephant’s head began to appear round the corner. It was, as I said above, majestic: that’s the word that came to my mind as soon as I saw it.

I don’t know if it was the beauty of the beast, or the fact that there were bagpipes among the music that was playing (the pipes always get me like that); but I felt a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye as it approached.

Then the fucker sprayed me with water.

Actually, being sprayed was quite fun. Fortunately it was a hot day. But I got hit so directly that I could almost hear the operators saying,”Get the guy in the orange t-shirt and sunglasses.” If you don’t want to get hit, don’t dress up like a target, I suppose.

As the beast itself passed next to us, and I got a brief chance to admire the action of the legs (it moves on wheels, but the leg movement is very convincing), I realised that the music was coming from a truck behind it on which a live band was playing. I had assumed it was just recordings, but the band added an extra touch, and we got to listen to them up close. They were good, and I’d like to find out who they were.

After it passed, and the crowd thinned a bit, we decided to head round to Waterloo Place to see the Little Girl’s crashed space capsule; not realising that it had been moved. No matter, though: it meant we got another view of the elephant as it turned onto Pall Mall.

And so to home. We didn’t stay to see the finalรฉ, so we didn’t see the Little Girl at all; nor did we see her spaceship. All that was left on Waterloo Place was a hole in the road, which people, in their infinite capacity to make a mess, had already started dropping rubbish into. As it turned out, the ship had been moved to Horseguards for her to leave in.

It was a fabulous thing to see, though, and I’m so glad that the Mayor and the GLA saw fit to have it here.

My son asked me at one point, as the music surrounded us and the elephant towered over us, “Why did it come to London?” I answered with joy and almost without thinking about it, “Because this is the best city in the world.”

Sometimes it is.

Pachyderm Prestidigitation