It all began on one of those long weekends when no-one was looking. To start with it was just an ordinary, empty day – too busy to see.
Then, suddenly, people started to hear things, they started to wonder … because … wasn’t that … did they really hear an elephant?
It was. It was the Sultan’s Elephant. This is a true story.
For a few days in the Spring of 2006 this huge and wonderful elephant, created by the French street theatre company Royal de Luxe, trumpeted his way through the streets of London in search of his giant little girl.
They did eventually find each other of course but it was the search, and the fun of it, that was the point.
London needed the chance to laugh and the elephant helped. Only eight months previously four bombs had gone off in the capital killing over fifty people and injuring nearly eight hundred.
That wasn’t the reason he came but what better time for a visit from a gently mischievous, over-sized elephant in search of his friend?
Perhaps you’ve never heard of The Sultan’s Elephant – I hadn’t and I must have been within fifty or so miles of his presence at the time. The reason?
He rumbled into London in May just ahead of Twitter (July 2006), Facebook (September 2006) and Apple’s first iPhone (January 2007). He didn’t quite beat YouTube (February 2005) but he certainly took it by surprise.
Even without technology, or over-blown publicity, the elephant’s footfalls were heard, and by the final day of his four day visit over a million people had managed to play some part in his grand caravan.
He was brought to London by the Artichoke Trust who knew already that the French puppeteers had magically combined the awe of the great tusker with story-telling, laying foundations the whole world would understand – a wise and caring animal alongside the innocence of a young girl.
I wasn’t one of the lucky million who saw the elephant but I did recently hear Lyn Gardner, current theatre critic at The Guardian where she has been for many years, describe it as a truly transformative theatrical event.
Everything I have managed to read about this elephant since confirms that.
Sadly the Sultan’s Elephant is now extinct.
According to Lyn Gardner’s August 2008 interview with the Artichoke Trust who brought the elephant to London, the demand for this incredibly complex creature was so great that those responsible for him had him destroyed.
Now he can only ever be a story, never a reality.
Perhaps his sacrifice should remind all of us of the deadly force of our clamourings for the precious.
Everyone wants an elephant, or a piece of an elephant, right now and all for the same reasons. We want to feel some wonder or to touch some token of known greatness – too often we don’t stop long enough to think about the elephant.
Thankfully we still have Africa’s great elephants – tangible, real. May we stop tearing them apart and, before it’s too late, take our pleasure instead from knowing that they are safe and where they belong.
My thanks to the Artichoke Trust for allowing me to use their photographs in the piece.
My thanks also to Lyn Gardner for reminding me of the importance of The Sultan’s Elephant. Here is a link to her original review.
Links to some of the articles I have used to research this piece are shown as underscores above.
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2017
This YouTube clip shares ten minutes of something that will never, ever happen again – it is amazing.