Like The Prose Day 21

Some writers like to set their stories in actual places – several of my novels are Birmingham based, for example, and make reference to landmarks such as Cannon Hill Park or New Street Station; whereas other people prefer to create their own landscapes, inventing towns and villages and painting pictures of imaginary countryside. Today’s piece mentions a real place (the Tower of London) and a real person (Queen Victoria) but the rest is completely fictional. Writing in the style of a brochure for visitors, I welcome you to the story of The White Elephant Gift Shop and Tea Room.

The White Elephant (A Visitors’ Guide)

            Visitors to the Tower of London often ask about the unusual gift shop. The White Elephant dates back to Victorian times and was built to commemorate the death of Rani, the white elephant presented to Her Majesty in 1877 by Prince Bir Chandra Manikya as a symbol of his respect to the new Empress of India.

Legends concerning the beast’s origins are well known in the Tripura State: it is told that Brahma, the Creator, originally made all elephants white and that the pachyderm was the purest of all his creatures; but as time went by, the elephant became proud and haughty and looked down his nose at the smaller animals beneath him, and so Shiva, the Destroyer, was granted permission to torment the elephant with termites that burrowed into his skin, causing him to roll on the ground in agony. Then Brahma took pity upon his favourite and allowed the mighty beast’s movements to crush his attackers, but he had rolled in the dust for so long that his once white skin was now grey. And so it was that the elephant received the colour he wears today; but once in a blue moon, a white elephant is born and is celebrated for its wondrous colour, and these beasts are revered as symbols of purity and are worth a king’s ransom due to their rarity. And any man who owns a white elephant must not put it to work but must care for it, bathing it daily in milk to maintain the colour of its skin; and it will not eat hay and fruit like other elephants but must be fed with the finest honey and with Yangmei berries and Pu Wei grass (which is purple in colour).

History records that Her Majesty was at first delighted with the gift, thinking that it might enable her to reopen the Tower of London menagerie which had been forced to close in 1835, two years before she came to the throne. However, most of the surviving creatures had already been moved to Regents Park to the institution we now know as the London Zoo, and her plan was further thwarted when she was reminded that animals at the Tower had, in the past, attacked and even eaten visitors and keepers.

The Queen was now faced with a dilemma: she had a large and somewhat temperamental white elephant which she could not house at any of her residences (in case the beast panicked and began to rampage: a creature that size could do irreparable damage to any of the royal grounds and buildings) and yet she could not give it away since to do so would be viewed as an insult to Prince Bir Chandra Manikya and Tripura State – if not the whole of India. Since her role as Empress was a recently announced one, she did not wish to say or do anything that might be perceived as inflammatory, wishing instead to establish her reign as a wise and gracious leader.

The problem was further complicated when Rani the elephant became ill. The finest animal doctors were sent for, but whereas their knowledge of dogs and horses marked them out as veterinarians par excellence, they confessed themselves at a loss to know how to treat this rare and exotic herbivore. Eventually, the Queen’s own physician was sent for and he prescribed washing the creature with a lotion of his own creation which, he claimed, contained herbs native to India that would restore the elephant’s vitality. In addition, she should be given meat twice daily to build her strength. These instructions were followed to the letter, but unfortunately the creature died, being ill equipped to digest the beef steak that had been fed to her by well meaning but ignorant keepers.

In order to avoid a diplomatic incident, a story was concocted that the elephant had contracted a rare disease whilst in transit; and since British ships were at the time renowned for their superiority over those of the other nations, it was suggested that the elephant had not been adequately housed in the hold during her journey from India and that she had inadvertently been exposed to germs which, although harmless to humans, were fatal to pachyderms. Her Majesty generously did not demand compensation for the loss of her elephant but magnanimously declared that she would honour the creature’s memory with the erection of a pavilion to be known as The White Elephant in the grounds surrounding the Tower. The gift shop you see today is housed within the original pavilion and its stunning architecture attracts visitors from all over the world on a daily basis. (Editor’s note: Due to Covid 19, the gift shop will remain closed for the foreseeable future.)

Patrons of the gift shop will notice immediately that all the stock has been carefully chosen to reflect the White Elephant theme: purchases are unnecessarily expensive whilst at the same time being utterly useless. Past favourites include: a Left Handed Spoon, made from wood with a carved elephant on the top (retailing at £27.99); an elephant-shaped, silver-plated Photo Frame with intricate metalwork that obscures most of the picture placed inside (£45.99); a cuddly Toy Elephant made with extremely rare white beaver fur (not vegan-friendly, child-friendly or fire-resistant; does not comply to British Safety Standards; RRP £950.00); and an elephant shaped Notebook, bound in genuine white elephant hide with an ivory pencil (RRP £600). (Editor: These items may be purchased online at www.whiteelephant@thetower.com.) The gift shop has had some slight refurbishment in recent years due to unsolicited arson attacks by various animal rights organisations, but we remain confident that it will endure its status as one of the Tower’s main attractions and that the newly opened White Elephant Tearoom at the back of the gift shop will continue to do a roaring trade in Jumbo Sausage Rolls, Elephant’s Foot pastries and Indian tea.

If you would like to make a booking, please see our website for further details. Coach parties and children’s birthdays can only be accepted with six months’ notice. Terms and conditions apply. (Editor: Virtual tours are currently available, including our Children’s Party Pack which offers interactive handling of the online goods, using the VR goggles provided, a song for the birthday child by Rani, the white elephant (played by a well known actor), and a boxed birthday cake in the shape of an animal. (Due to high demand, we cannot guarantee that this animal will be an elephant, but previous customers have praised the anteater, armadillo and wombat cakes they received in the Party Pack.) Your child will also receive a special elephant shaped birthday card from Rani.) All major credit cards accepted.

© whiteelephant@thetower.com, 2020

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