In terms of quests, The Da Vinci code may be more controversial, the race to the South Pole more dangerous, and the moon landings more adventurous, but for a manageable quest that will probably not end in death, what better way to pass a day than staring intently at grimy West End brickwork looking for noses?
Intrigued? So was I when I first heard tell of the mysterious seven noses of Soho. The story goes something like this; Many years ago, in a time before time itself (well, the 1990s) a sculptor - for reasons best known to himself - placed seven casts of his own nose on buildings in and around Soho. Anyone who finds all seven will gain for himself infinite wealth. This was clearly too good an opportunity to miss, as infinite wealth would come in very handy for me, so off I set into a sunny London morn, uttering those foolish words - “how hard can it be.”
Very hard, it transpired. Apparently, infinite wealth wasn’t as easy to discover as I’d hoped. Also, in case you hadn’t noticed, there are an awful lot of walls in Soho, thus after about an hour I was already getting blurred vision and severe neck pains from gazing meticulously at every available inch of wall, eliciting strange looks from passers by and angry horns from passing motorists. A rethink was clearly needed and after scrupulous research involving poring over maps and meeting shady contacts in dingy alleyways, I had the information I needed.
Sadly however, Soho being the eminently distracting place it is, a quick wander up and down a few roads later and I had gleaned little more about the possibilities of infinite wealth, and had only discovered an alarmingly large number of Prêt a Manger. I could have retired defeated - but was I put off by my lack of success? Of course not. Every great adventure begins with defeat; a stumbling block which the protagonists must overcome to prove their mettle and so win glory. Did Edmund Hillary stop and think to himself “I’m probably high enough by now?” Would you have heard Neil Armstrong turn to Buzz Aldrin mid-flight and ask “the view’s pretty good from here – shall we call it a day?” No, these adventurers didn’t give up, and neither would I.
Spurred on by this, and the number of looks I was getting from increasingly bemused scaffolders, I strode off into the heart of London once more, and was soon rewarded by surely one of the most bizarre sights in the whole city. Protruding from a wall about ten metres up, on a narrow dead-end road just off Dean Street was a nose.
It was undeniably a nose, and right in the middle of bustling Soho, yet no one seemed to have noticed it. A more incongruous sculpture would be hard to imagine, and yet to the passing office workers and tourists, it was as if it didn’t exist. I felt almost as if I had stumbled across an embarrassing secret; an idea too uncomfortable to be widely known, and one to become inevitably swallowed up by the vast hustle and bustle of the city.
It was a sad thought - that something so wildly different and eccentric could pass by so unnoticed, but at the same time somehow wonderfully romantic; those who had the privilege of this discovery had been let into a world of clandestine intimacy, and I felt slightly superior to everyone around me for noticing it. Now with the smell of victory in my nostrils, there was no stopping me. I don’t know if it was the angle of the late afternoon sun on the walls, or the thought of that infinite wealth jangling in my pockets, but noses was suddenly all I could see.
A silvery-grey protuberance outside a cafe on Bateman Street catches my eye, and I glance nonchalantly at it, nodding my head in approval. I had found another nose, and we exchanged knowing looks. I, safe in the knowledge that I had discovered another hidden gem and was well on my way too all that money, it content in the knowledge that its secret was safe with me. I didn’t examine it further for fear of attracting the attention of the effortlessly stylish clientele sipping cappuccinos within centimetres of the nose, yet unaware of its presence. This was just a little secret between me and the city.
But noses can be cruel masters. A man on Great Windmill Street was leaning against what looked to my now trained eye to be just what I had been searching for, but it was lurking in the shadows behind him, not daring to make an appearance, and forcing me to wait until he had finished his phone call and moved on. Without so much as a second glance, he walked away. This was astonishing to me; a damming indictment of Londoners’ observation perhaps? Are we too wrapped up in our lives to take a look around us? Or maybe people just have better things to do with their time than looking at walls.
With this in mind I headed home. Three noses was a reasonable return for a day wandering the streets of London. But more than that, it had been a glorious adventure; there had been mystery and intrigue, twists and turns along the way, and the promise of glory at the end. The evening sun cast long shadows, turning the noses I had seen, and those I had not invisible - a fitting metaphor for their obscurity. I hadn’t found all seven, but they’ll still be there next time I go looking.