16 June 2012

Nosing Around

Today was the official public celebration of the Queen's birthday, known as Trooping the Colour. It's been an English tradition since the seventeenth century and I missed it. Why, you ask? Because I was looking for noses!


Well, I did spend the morning at the British Library reading Horace Walpole's scathing review of seventeenth century garden style and pouring over John Ogilby's maps of 1675, but I'm still miffed that I didn't even know about the festivities! I was so determined to get to the library early so I could be done by the afternoon and have a nice walk around London.

You see, I heard about this great walking tour which leads you to and regales you with the fascinating story behind the legendary Seven Noses of Soho. The tour is lead by an energetic and engaging fellow I met at the London Historians meeting earlier this month and anything that quirky automatically makes it onto my "must do" list. But I'm an impoverished postgraduate student and I was dithering because of the fee. Then, while walking to the British Library, the Good Samaritan in me was persuaded to part with some change - the exact same sum as the walking tour, in fact - by a homeless man seeking shelter for the night (I don't give out cash as a rule, mainly because I don't have much, but after living in LA and being approached all the time, I have a decent sense of who is in genuine need and who isn't. For several minutes I peppered the poor guy with questions to test his assertions that the money would be used to secure a bed in shelter and saw that his eyes were clear, his speech wasn't slurred, he had no tracks on his arms, and he actually engaged in polite conversation which told me he wasn't a lunatic. Maybe I was duped, but my conscious is clear and the guy seemed genuinely grateful and not a little bit surprised). Anyway, having parted with the walking tour fee, I embarked on the task of finding the noses myself.


My friend Google told me that the noses were part of an art installation and appeared back in 1997 as a protest against the intrusion of CCTV cameras (which are EVERYWHERE! You don't notice how many there are until you pick your nose up off the ground and start walking with it in the air). The artist, Rick Buckley, stuck about 35 noses around town and at least ten survive today.

Since the reason for the noses' appearance wasn't publicized, urban legends grew rife and the Seven Noses of Soho acquired a mythical patina. It's said that if you sniff out all seven, you will attain infinite wealth. Since I am, as I said, an impoverished postgraduate student who had just given my lunch money to a homeless guy, I thought I would test the theory. Maybe I should have taken the guy with me to find them! Lucky for me there doesn't seem to be a time limit established as to when one must see all seven because I only managed to find five and of those, two aren't in Soho.


I love stuff like this and I really get into the thrill of the hunt, as my determination to find as many of the huge painted Easter eggs as I could will attest. It's a great way to see new parts of a city that you might not see otherwise.


Some I found in the morning as I walked to the Library and I'm kicking myself now because one of them is at Wellington Arch, which is right near the train station I arrive at, and had I gone to find that one first I would have stumbled on the Trooping the Colour preparations and been able to see the whole thing. (Sigh.) But I guess all Things happen as they do for a Reason. Had I gone that route, I wouldn't have met that homeless guy and wouldn't have given him the money and he possibly would be spending another night on the streets. And I wouldn't have found any of the noses and wouldn't have pondered what it is to be 'infinitely wealthy' (I've decided it has nothing whatever to do with one's bank balance).

I would have been fascinated to see whether the urban legend surrounding this nose is true: reputedly this nose was created to mock Napoleon and is situated at just the right height for the cavalry troops from the Horseguards Parade to tweak it as they ride by.


The other thing about a quest like this is that it realigns your perspective. Usually people walk through their lives looking down. I spent the morning and afternoon stumbling around looking up. I realized it made me walk slower, I noticed more of my surroundings, and I saw things I wouldn't have seen otherwise. And as the wind howls outside, I'm sitting here feeling grateful that I have a roof over my head and a warm bed to sleep in. Yup. I'm wealthy, alright. Maybe there's some truth to the myth after all.

Boy, all this introspection is making me a bit weepy.

Pass me a tissue, will you, I need to blow my nose.

*The Seven Noses of Soho are all located within the square mile that is the Soho district of London, near Covent Garden. Two of them eluded me so if you know where they are, do tell! There are an additional two outside Soho that I've yet to go searching for.

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