Nelson's Column review
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I read in a book that Hitler planned to uproot Nelson's Column and transport it back to Berlin after he beat us in World War II. That's what we should have done -- we should have nicked the Brandenburg Gate and put it across the top of Whitehall. We missed our chance there, ah well. Too late now. We'll know better for next time.
The tourists have got their selfie-sticks are out in force today. I can count about twenty people brandishing their flagless flags, waiting the right time to pull the trigger and shoot. They look like an infantry line of muskets and rifles. They are all lined up around the base of Nelson's Column practising their smiles inside the little two inch camera window... making sure the wind isn't messing up their hair... rearranging their lips to show their teeth a bit better... making sure the landmark is right behind them so they can prove they were really here, and then... get ready... oh darn it!... now somebody has selfishly walked into their camera shot so they will have to start all over again.
They've been standing here for two minutes now and they haven't looked at the column once. All they've done is stare at themselves in the mirror, but that's modern tourism for you: it's just a great big treasure hunt. They visit a location and take a photo of themselves standing in front of it. Then they chuck the photo in the cupboard and never look at it ever again. They probably won't even bother to print it off. No one visits a place just to sit down and stare anymore -- so do me a favour and take ten minutes to stare at the scene. Put your smile away for five minutes and sit in the seats around the edge of Trafalgar Square and listen to the noise. You're in London!
It's quite an impressive column. It's very tall, that is for sure, which is what you want in the middle of a square. And it's got somebody worthy of a column on top: Horatio Nelson. It's very hard to build something like Nelson's Column these days because we don't produce any more heroes. Churchill could have pulled it off, but even he would have looked a bit incongruous with his bowler hat and cigar puffing out his mouth. He is a statue man, not a column one. So who else could we put up there? Marlborough and Wellington, and that's about it. Certainly nobody else from the last two hundred years. We just don't produce people like Nelson anymore.
If you ask someone about Nelson today then they'll probably say, er... he's that boat guy, that bloke with a pirate patch over his eye? That bloke with one arm? They might vaguely recall the Battle of Trafalgar if they paid attention at school. It's funny, isn't it? You can stand on top of one of the tallest monuments in London, and have its grandest square named after your most momentous battle, and 95% of people still won't have a clue what you did to achieve it. This is Admiral Nelson, people! One of the greatest Britons who ever lived.
He might also have been the vainest (he wasn't into modesty), so he would have loved standing on top of that column. If ever a man was destined to stand on top of a column, it's him. The Duke of Wellington would have been happy standing at the bottom, but not Nelson. I've read stories about him wearing all his medals at once. He even wore his medals on the day he got shot, striding around the deck of HMS Victory, painting a nice shiny target on his jacket for the French sharpshooters to aim at. They would have seen those garish gongs glinting through the gun smoke. If you go to the National Maritime Museum and look at the uniform he was wearing that day, then you can even see where the bullet ripped a hole a couple of inches above his medal crosshairs -- vanity did him in.
The four bronze plaques around the bottom of the column represent his four most famous victories: St. Vincent in 1797 (where he still had two arms, but one eye); the Nile in 1798 (one arm, one eye); Copenhagen in 1801 (one arm, one eye, lost a shoe); and finally his death scene at the Battle of Trafalgar.
Kids are forever climbing on top of the giant lions around the base. It's one of the unwritten rules of London that if you're still a kid then you're duty bound to climb on their back and have your photo taken by your worrying mum. I haven't got the faintest idea why they do it, because those things are colossal. I wouldn't climb on one anymore than I would a real lion, because if you slip off you are going to crack your nut on the concrete. Maybe I am just getting old.
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