Just as we know less about the world’s oceans than we do of outer space, we have more to learn from our pavements than from our twinkling shop windows. We are talking, of course, about street nipples.
Anyone who has examined a London paving slab will be familiar with this phenomenon; tiny, metal teats, pertly set into our kerbs and pavements. These miniature buoys are sprinkled across pavements from Houslow to Hackney – from Croydon to Crouch End. Our streets, scrutinised closely, resemble the nippled torso of a gigantic beast, its steel dugs perhaps providing sustenance for stray cats.
No two street nipples are alike, but there are genres and sub-genres: the ‘mole’s nose’ peeking from between two slabs, shy as a wallflower; the iron nub, protruding from the pavement like the scalp of a Victorian diving suit; the Elizabethan Ruff; the inverted fried egg; the prim French bun; the bowler hat; the snoozing policemen’s helmet.
They may be painted like flowers or framed by an illuminati triangle, or else circled like a pirate’s treasure by the hopscotch doodlings of a chalk-fingered child. They can be attended by hieroglyphics or lines of computer code, or else undecorated, standing bald sentry, proud as the tip of a Durex. Occasionally, and always when you least expect it, you’ll see a street nipple with four teats – an arrangement that conjures a miniature brass bovine, upturned and buried in the stone.
Like their mysterious country cousin, the crop circle, the meanings and origins of the street nipple are not known. Who planted these flowers, these bluebells in bronze bud? What is this Belfast Confetti all about us?
There is no real answer to the riddle of the street nipple – no solution. And perhaps that is part of their beauty. They are there, like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, to help us remember what’s important – a ball of thread to let us outwit the Minotaur of dull consumerism. They remind us that we must be bold and resilient; that we must strive for the nether as well as the uber. That, as a young Jarvis Cocker put it:
“To seek and to find
Instead of walking around
With eyes glued to the skies
Turn down to the ground.”
By Chris Clarke