What you're looking at right now is the Elephant Man's hat. Please forgive the presumption (not to mention the poor-quality snap). If this spectacle had failed to catch your eye, all I can say is that the canniest showmen of Victorian London didn't know their trade. Strictly speaking, it's a replica of the Elephant Man's hat: surely one of the most poignant, and indeed bespoke, commissions that any milliner has ever taken on. In David Lynch's famous movie, the combination of outsize yachtsman's cap and balaclava was popularised by John Hurt, if that's the phrase I'm looking for. The reproduction headgear hangs in the crypt of a church behind the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel. It's just across the road from a sari shop, formerly a peep show, where the unfortunate Joseph ("John") Merrick was once on display himself.
Controversy surrounds Merrick in death, just as as his size XL titfer did in life. People still talk about everything from the diagnosis of his condition, to exactly what David Bowie thought he was doing in a Broadway show based on Merrick's story. But this may be the first time that the Elephant Man has been linked to the softly-softly policing of cannabis in a corner of the metropolis he once graced. And yet there is a connection, or at least the suggestion of a connection. Merrick was the protege of a man named Tom Norman, who had spotted his unlikely meal ticket in a workhouse in Leicester. Victorians came by charabanc and hansom to goggle at Norman's freak show. The journey to east London was a faintly shaming one. Today, the police report that the well-publicised tolerance of grass in Lambeth is also luring outsiders. This is "drugs-" or "weed-tourism", a successor to the weird-tourism that enriched Norman.
A handful of readers may object that nipping down to Brixton for a spliff cannot be compared to gazing in awe and pity at Merrick's cauliflower-like head. But like so much else in contemporary Britain, this all comes down to a wrinkle of presentation. With this in mind, I offer the following suggestion to the embattled Home Secretary. Liberalisation of the drug laws may or may not be a slippery slope, but it now appears inevitable. Instead of leaving the field clear to the pushers and the dealers, the way forward is to rebrand the trade in recreational substances as part of the heritage industry. Show me the prohibitionist whose heart wouldn't soften at the sight of a pieman, a familiar figure in Merrick's day, touting his hearty hash pasties through the streets of Stockwell. Imagine a rewrite of the show-stopping number from Lionel Bart's Oliver!, with flowergirls making a pretty show of their intoxicating wares, and matchgirls selling faggots of Rizlas. Like the patter of the newspaper vendors, and the honest barking of the rag and bone men, the call of "Who will buy this wonderful feeling?" would be numbered among the traditional cries of the Big Smoke.