Admiral Lord Nelson stands, unsullied by winged assailants, high above Trafalgar Square in the center of London. It's hard to see at that height, but the legend's hand is nowhere in sight. wikimedia photoThe hidden hand

By Zinovy Zinik


It’s been some time since I last saw Picasso’s doodle of a dove holding a postdiluvian twig in its beak. During the Cold War years, it had been used as a mascot for every rally or international conference dedicated to the struggle for world peace and initiated, as a rule, with full Soviet backing.

With the Cold War over, this emblem of the epoch mysteriously disappeared from public display as quickly as portraits of the Politburo or the Berlin Wall. Its post-flood symbolism might have been useful in the struggle against global warming, a condition which started immediately after the Cold War had ended. There is nothing extraordinary, though, about this or that public symbol losing its popularity; what is remarkable is the tendency to get rid of the dead objects or live creatures behind such symbols the moment they lose their popularity.

  Take, for example, Picasso’s emblem and actual doves or pigeons. In popular imagination, these birds are not only symbols of peace and bearers of goodwill, but also, paradoxically, disseminators of pestilence and plague. With a relentless determination bordering on rage, London's mayor at the time, Ken Livingstone (nicknamed "Red Ken" for his Trotskyite past and his sympathies for Russia), declared street pigeons a danger to public health and started a campaign to rid Trafalgar Square of its legendary denizens. Feeding pigeons on the square has been, for the last two centuries, on the must-do list for any tourist visiting London. Red Ken insisted that eliminating the cost of daily cleaning the square of pigeon shit would save tons of money, money that could then be spent on helping needy humans. It would also help restore to its former glory the statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson, standing on a column in the center of the square. With his head serving as a perch for the birds, the admiral's features were often hardly visible under the layers of pigeon shit.

After months of arguments, the pigeons were finally removed from Trafalgar Square.

Having expelled the pigeons, Red Ken invited his beloved Russian oligarchs and expats to transform – with all kinds of expensive props – the place commemorating the Battle of Trafalgar into a simulacrum of Red Square. The purpose was to celebrate Russian New Year’s Eve in the newly-cleaned square. Russian food stalls, souvenir tents and vodka kiosks were put up on the perimeter of the square, and in its center the Red Army choir and orchestra bellowed Russian songs into London's winter air. Admiral Nelson observed all this from his tall pedestal, but his newly-cleaned face was hidden from view by a gigantic balloon advertising the services of Aeroflot. Rendered headless, he might have been mistaken by uninformed Russian tourists for Alexander Pushkin, because the lower portion of the Nelson statue resembled that of a statue of Pushkin. The feature common to both monuments is a hand inside the overcoat, behind the waistcoat lapel.

Everyone who has ever taken part in amateur dramatics knows that the main hindrance to stage stardom is one’s hands. One simply doesn’t know what to do with them – unless they happen to be occupied with a cup of tea or a walking stick. We intertwine our fingers behind the back of our neck, fold our hands on our breast or play idly with prayer beads.

Read the rest of this story in the Summer 2016 issue of Artenol. Order yours today

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