London’s ship in a bottle

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This giant ship in a bottle artwork in Trafalgar Square, London, by Yinka Shonibare commemorates Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.

It also raises the time-honoured ship-in-a-bottle question:  how on earth did they make it?

Having seen it at close quarters and read about it, I still don’t know the answer. What we are told, however, is that the ship’s 37 sails are made of exuberant and richly patterned textiles commonly associated with African dress and is meant to convey the complexity of British expansion in trade and Empire, made possible through the freedom of the seas that followed victory at Trafalgar.

The bottle’s context is intriguing. Trafalgar Square is the usual destination of big demonstrations in London, and as I passed through on Saturday a crowd of Egyptians were celebrating the previous day’s events in Tahrir Square, and their countrymen’s victory over an oppressive regime supported by so many Western governments. I sincerely hope the cause of their understandable happiness lasts, although I fear Egypt is a country where there must be many dangerous people who have reason to fear the justice that democracy could bring.

Atop his column, meanwhile, Nelson serenely looked out over the River Thames and the Empire from atop his wonderfully impressive column. There’s something symbolic about the way he so resolutely turns his back on the political gestures and statements that ordinary mortals make in the square – I don’t know if it was the intention of the original architect and artist, but his stance could have been calculated to represent the establishment’s view of most of what happens behind him.

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