Howard Jacobson: Never underestimate the joy an enormous, mechanical elephant can bring to people

There he'd be, marvellous in his grave impassivity, as though the spoils of Empire had returned

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We are entranced. We have not stopped smiling or looking dreamy for days. If you didn't know us better you'd say we were in love, except that we are not suffering any of love's unease. Not a condition we admit to very often in this column. As a rule we come to bury wonder not to praise it. In a childish world someone has to do the dirty business of growing up. But this week we have rediscovered the child in our self (that's if you can rediscover what you never were) and are a-quiver with enchantment. The Sultan's Elephant is the cause. The mechanical contrivance, some 50 feet in height, complete with tusks and trunk and elephantine sadness, which roamed the streets of London for a weekend and stills roams the imaginations of those who saw it.

You will appreciate how beside our normal self we are when I say that we very nearly, for the duration of the elephant's stay, got the point of Ken Livingstone. Loose of tongue, slack of jaw, lumbering of attitude and posture, careless of whoever gets in his way, and dangerous to lose one's footing in the vicinity of - this is Livingstone I'm talking about, not the elephant - he nonetheless had the foresight to close central London to traffic for as long as it took the elephant to enjoy the city and the city to enjoy him, and for this, when he is consigned for all eternity to hell, I hope they give him the occasional cooling weekend off. Well, not weekend exactly; maybe half-hour. And not too cooling. A man whose brain boils with the impetuosity of prejudice does not deserve in the next life the temperateness he declined in this. But then again, he did let us have the elephant.

Central London without traffic is a marvellous place. Elephant or no elephant, it would be good, now we have seen how well it works, to close London to traffic one day a week. The motor car is a neurosis not a necessity. Millions of people still found a way of getting in. Shops stayed busy, cafés still spilled their customers on to the streets, but the difference this time was that you could stroll the city rather than have to dodge it, and it's only when you stroll a city that you truly enjoy its dimensions - the breadth of its boulevards, the plenty of its amenities, its rooftops, its vistas, and the easy companionableness, if you will only give them opportunity to express it, of its citizens.

If there was trouble on the weekend The Sultan's Elephant came to London I didn't see it. No one was competing with anybody: that helped. There was no trophy at stake. No tribe squared up to tribe. And no one plied us with liquor. But of course it was the elephant, ultimately - its pure, purposeless presence among us; street theatre without street theatre's usual agitating agenda - that soothed the savage breast. All those other considerations helped, but what made humanity benign for an hour was the grandest toy any of us had ever seen.

There is something about an elephant that brings out the best in people, ivory collectors apart. It's the size partly. As with whales and dinosaurs, the thought that life can fill up such a big space, that we share hearts and lungs with creatures built on such a scale, somehow aggrandises us. We want there to be life on Mars because we want creation to be limitless. Looking at elephants or whales might not make believers of us, but we glimpse the grandeur of a creative impulse in them. What immortal hand or eye, and all that.

But an elephant isn't only majestic by virtue of its scale, it is also tragic because of it. Or at least it seems so to us. It looks hard to be an elephant. We know how difficult it is to drag around our own tenements of flesh and we accept existence on the understanding it will not get easier. Elephants look old in body from the moment they are born. Their every step is weary. Hence, I suppose, the fantasies we weave about their inner life: each elephant a Proust in his own right, recalling his life history before he goes to sleep, retracing in his imagination his peregrinations from water-hole to water-hole, unable to bear the sight of ancestral bones when by chance he comes upon them, and reburying them with all due ceremonials and formalities, including, for all we know, elephant eulogies and hymns. Elephants break our hearts.

Why a toy elephant should have the same effect is hard to explain. The brainchild of Royal de Luxe, a theatre company based in Nantes, The Sultan's Elephant - the idea for which is taken from a Jules Verne story, though narrative seemed beside the point - is an exquisitely conceived and manufactured puppet. It is entirely non-Disneyesque, not in the slightest cute or anthropomorphic, and post-modern in the sense that no attempts are made to hide its workings. Indeed the Lilliputian-liveried men who pull its strings and drive its motors, and who are revealed within the elephant as it moves, are integral to what we feel about it. Emotionally as well as mechanically they serve the elephant's inexplicable purpose. It is they who flap his suede ears, open and close his tired eyes, and twist his sinister, reticulated trunk. But what ultimately fascinates us about The Sultan's Elephant is the part of him over which they have no control - his sense of being, as though the soul of living elephant has migrated into this wooden one.

Yes, yes, I know. But the truth of it is that I, like everyone else come out to have a quick look, felt bound to stay to have a second, and a third. In order to see him advancing towards us again we had to run ahead or find a short cut, nipping down alleys that connected New Regent Street to Haymarket, or Jermyn Street to Piccadilly, places we normally frequent only to buy shirts, then there he'd be, marvellous in his grave impassivity, as though the spoils of Empire had returned unconquered to reclaim the offices and citadels of imperial power. We watched as in a dream.

Don't ask me what the children thought. Mainly, they cried when the elephant showered them with water, and otherwise, as far as I could tell, feigned delight because they knew delight was expected of them. Wasted on children, wonderment. You have to know why life is serious to know why sometimes it must be a toy. They marvel best who marvel least.

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