Words and images from home and away
In the last few days I have encountered three elephants in Copenhagen. We took the kids to Tivoli gardens the other evening, and while they defied gravity on death-defying rides we put our feet up for a moment with a cocktail in the Nimb bar, which overlooks the fantastic fairyland of lights (thanks for the tip James!).
Before the frolics, we had spent an hour or so next door at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, an art gallery established by Carlsberg’s Carl Jacobsen in 1902. There French animalier Antoine-Louis Barye’s bronze tusker (Løbende afrikansk elefant, c.1858) storms along in miniature, rippling with energy.
At the Copenhagen zoo, just on the other side of the park in Valby where the tree trunks tread the ground like large pachyderm feet, the elephants seemed more subdued in the way that caged animals always do, cosseted from the frost that crunched on the grass above in a kind of supersized underground bunker lit by massive skylights. These captive elephants always seem to me like sad buffoons, in a caricature of the real elephants who exist somewhere else in time and space.
Near our house is Ny Carlsberg Vej, which runs down through the brewery complex. C and I walked that way one night a few weeks ago on our way to see British soul singer Lianne La Havas play at Club Vega. We chanced upon the fantastical elephant gate constructed in 1901 as a water tower for the new brewhouse, and I went back to take some photos in the dusk.
Four life-sized elephants are dedicated to each of Carl Jacobsen’s children, and the historicist architecture was partly inspired by Bernini’s seventeenth-century elephant obelisk in Rome. The elephants flank Jacobsen’s motto (Laboremus pro patria — Let us work for our country), while the swastikas—which also appear on the Jesus Church and which were registered as a brewery logo in the 1880s—were a popular symbol of good luck before they took on other meanings.
The highest honour in Denmark, as it happens, is the Order of the Elephant, named for the battle elephants of Christian crusades.
The elephants of Copenhagen have set me thinking about these odd triangulations of time and place and memory, about what is in place and what is out of place. And of course to thinking of India. Other elephants come to mind: those small ebony and ivory ones that used to sit on my mother’s shelves, perhaps inherited from her grandmother’s Indian days in the late nineteenth century, or just picked up somewhere in later years from the mass of animals carved by the thousands for the western market; a retro postcard I picked up in Aberystwyth of ‘Salt’ and ‘Pepper’ from Bostock and Wombell’s menagerie, bathing in the sea near the Queen’s Hotel in 1911.
I saw a single elephant when I was in India in 2004, a brief scene of a decorated elephant in a religious procession glimpsed from a car window speeding crazily out of Guwahati on the way up to the Khasi Hills. I’ll be back there again in a couple of months — C and I sat for hours the other day in the Indian Embassy waiting to submit an application for a conference visa for a brief trip in February during which I’ll launch the new book in Shillong.
The quietude of each night over the past weeks has been increasingly rent by rogue fireworks, as rumbling expectation builds to New Year’s Eve. Excitement is brewing; the sharp staccato reports of firecrackers are now an hourly distraction. On the threshold of a new year, memories are heightened, combining and recombining. Order dissolves; emotions run high. We remember some things, not remembering or even forgetting others. We also try to make sense of where we have been this year past, as if this will provide a certainty for the next.
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