The Sultan’s Elephant

My friend Natalie came to stay with me this weekend. She’s emigrating to Turkey and this was the first time we’d seen each other in a year and a half – lord knows when we’ll meet up again. I’ve tried my damnedest to get her to move to London rather than go overseas, but she’s set her heart on all those beaches and bars and, more importantly, lots of men in swimming trunks, so I’m fighting a losing battle. However, during her visit this magnificent city called London did its very best to woo her. Frankly, I’m amazed she even got on her plane today…

We were walking through Trafalgar Square on Saturday and I was wondering why all the roads were blocked off and barriers had been erected. I asked one of the crowd control officers and he said, “It’s because of The Sultan’s Elephant.”

“Huh?” said Nat. “What’s that?”

Now, I’d caught a few seconds of a news report about an elephant the night before, although I’d had no idea what was going on because the sound was turned off. I did register that it looked wonderful: a puppet elephant with a moving trunk and some kind of seat on its back. Armed with that meagre image – I couldn’t even tell you how large the thing was – I turned to Nat and said, “We have to see this; I think it’ll be great!”

We sat in Trafalgar Square for ten minutes before discovering The Sultan’s Elephant was running late, so we decided to nip up to a little café I know just off Leicester Square for lunch. There we were, chatting away, oblivious to the crowds around us… then we turned into the Haymarket and had the shock of our lives.

The Sultan’s Elephant was walking towards us.

Several children standing nearby learnt some new swear words that day. We were so stunned by what we saw, so staggered, that all we could do was swear. The elephant was three storeys high, completely animatronic, strolling down the street with a vast crowd at his feet walking backwards in front of him, unable to tear their eyes away from the sight. On a lorry behind him rode a band playing beautiful Indian music, ghostly and jolly and magical, and the elephant rolled his eyes and blinked and flapped his ears high above the crowds, exactly like an elephant should do except 20ft higher than any elephant in the history of the world. As we watched, transfixed, he raised his trunk, spread his ears and trumpeted, an almighty sound that somehow went perfectly with the music. On his back rode a handsome couple in bright Indian costume; the elephant’s animatronics were controlled by people in bright red uniforms hung all over him in special seats. Half the creature was made of giant, wooden windows, as though he was part-mastodon, part-building, and he was draped in garish cloths and jewellery. He looked like something from a Terry Gilliam movie crossed with an Indian swami’s opium dream.

Plodding regally down the Haymarket as though he owned it, the elephant resembled some mammoth god surrounded by his worshippers; it was enough to bring a tear to my eye. The same happened to Nat, who admitted later that she almost cried until she looked around and saw everyone else was dry-eyed. They were certainly open-mouthed, though, which wasn’t a good thing with the elephant raised his trunk and shot water over them.

Then, from a side street, a giant marionette of a little girl came walking into the throng. The elephant met up with her as the crowd gasped. We were completely ignorant of what was going on, but later on their website ( we discovered this was a street theatre piece about a time-travelling elephant and a Sultan obsessed with a giant puppet girl. It didn’t matter that we didn’t know this at the time: we had too much to process as it was.

The Sultan’s Elephant reached the bottom of the road and went to turn into Trafalgar Square. It promptly jammed itself against a tree and stood for 15 minutes as chainsaws appeared from nowhere and the people on board starting hacking off branches to let it pass. As we were laughing at the sight of a gargantuan elephant trying to squeeze past a fully-grown plane tree it suddenly raised its trunk and began picking leaves off the branches, just like a real elephant! Amazing… and also really moving, somehow. It seemed more alive than any piece of street theatre had any right to be; wonderfully peaceful and calm, like a living being. It walked on by, its expression regal and beautiful, and then it was gone.

Nat and I stared at each other, shocked. “That was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” she declared, and I was inclined to agree with her.

Still stunned, we had lunch surrounded by families who spent their meals checking their cameras and grinning at all the pictures they’d taken of the creature. Then we wandered into Leicester Square, where we finally got our minds back and began to talk normally again. However… London, obviously fully aware that Nat was about to leave it behind, decided to pull another fancy trick from up its sleeve.

“Hey, see this cinema?” I said to Nat as we walked by the Odeon. “This is where they had the premiere for The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers. I was in the crowd for that and it was brilliant. I saw loads of the stars going in and everyone went wild for Peter Jackson when he got out of the car. There were also…”

Nat interrupted me, talking urgently through gritted teeth. “Look. Who’s. Walking. Behind. You!”

I turned round, and there was Andy Serkis pushing a pram with a huge smile on his face.

“Oh,” I said. “There’s Gollum.”

So then it took us another 20 mins to collect our thoughts, this time from the sheer coincedence of it all. Six billion people on the planet and one of the stars of The Lord Of The Rings walks by us as I’m talking about it. Mental!

After that, it all got even stranger. Nat and I visited the Bodies Exhibition at Earl’s Court, which, if you haven’t heard of it, is made up of lots of preserved human remains which you can peer at and study. I’m not squeamish in the slightest – and Nat was dying to see the exhibition – but we both came out feeling rather ill, if only because there wasn’t a sign anywhere in the building explaining where the bodies came from or if they’d given their permission to be gawked at. Urgh. There are news reports circulating that they were all Chinese prisoners who’d been executed and their remains turned over to the exhibitors – oh dear. They certainly looked fascinating, and was definitely a brilliant way to learn about our bodies, but when you could go up so close you could see their eyelashes it all seemed a bit… intrusive.

I won’t be going there again in a hurry. As Nat said, “You’ve seen one dead body, you’ve seen them all.”

She got to handle a human leg bone, and when we got home I wouldn’t let her touch anything in my flat until she’d washed her hands. Then we spent the rest of the evening watching four episodes of Lost to erase the sight of dead foetuses and ripped-apart spinal columns from our minds. Thankfully we could watch Sawyer with his shirt off – rather that than some guy with his SKIN off, thank you very much.

“I love your flat,” said Natalie after half a bottle of wine. “When you die, can I have it?”

“It’s not mine,” I pointed out. “I rent it. And anyway, you live in Turkey now!”

“Oh yeah,” she said. “I forgot.”

I did bequeath her The Mighty Boosh, however. She looked at a picture of Vince Noir on my wall and observed, “He looks like a gimp.” Offended, I forced her to watch “Tundra”… and 30 minutes later she was in love with him and the show. She even bought the box set the next day to take to Turkey. I should be on commission – those guys have earned a fortune out of my recommendations!

But yes, I’m sorry to say that Natalie still left England. She turned her back on London and all its delights and buggered off to the sun, despite having bathed in the glow of everything from The Man Who Played King Kong to a motherhumpin’ big elephant.

I hope Turkey’s worth it, Nat, I really do. And I’ll miss you!



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2 responses to “The Sultan’s Elephant

  1. Walter

    I saw this too.. I thought it was amazing!

    London really needs more things like this to make it… fun.

    Even if it did remind me of Moulin Rouge

  2. Norton

    The Mighty Boosh take on Turkey, eh?
    I’m sure Howard’s jazz stylings will go down a treat….

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