On Wednesday morning, in order to avoid some horrible central London traffic on my way to Bloomsbury, I was driven on a devious route that went through Admiralty Arch.  For those who don’t know it, this arch is a grossly monumental building dating from the height of the British Empire, round about 1910 (you can see the Roman numerals at the top of the first photograph).  It sits on the corner of Trafalgar Square, a gateway down The Mall, the wide avenue with coral-coloured asphalt that features in every state procession to or from Buckingham Palace.

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As I say, the traffic was awful. We were sitting there trying to get into Trafalgar Square for five or ten minutes.  After a while, I noticed the lampposts:

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They have little galleons on top , with the wind in their sails.  They’re all heading down The Mall, in the direction of the palace.  The inscription is E-RI, for king Edward VII, Emperor of India.  Edward’s mother, Queen Victoria, was the first Empress of India.  Her daughter the Princess Royal had married the German Kaiser – or emperor – Friedrich III, and with Victoria a mere queen her daughter (confusingly also called Victoria) now outranked her at the dinner table. The prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, made the queen Empress of India and equilibrium was restored.

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The base of each post is supported by dolphins’ tails and scallop shells.

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I hope I haven’t got the chronology of this all wrong: I assume the lampposts date from the construction of Admiralty Arch, somewhere around 1910.  It’s sad we couldn’t build lampposts like this today, neither as innocent nor as decorative; of course we’ve had two world wars and a severe case of modernism since 1910.  In the years leading up to the First World War, propriety may have stopped the designer adding mermaids draped in seaweed; there surely must have been some limit to whimsy in those days.  Or is it an example of cool British equanimity: in Belfast and up in Scotland, the Admiralty was building the Dreadnought-class battleships that were to win the battle of Jutland in 1916, while in London it was decorating the streets with tiny bronze-cast galleons inspired by a Peter Pan illustration or a Gilbert & Sullivan stageset.

Before you get to one-armed, one-eyed Admiral Nelson on his perch in Trafalgar Square, you pass Captain James Cook.  He has all his limbs and  looks as if he’s discovering something – in that overcoat, probably not Hawaii.

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