Saturday 20 January 2007

Elephants in the Mist

Artwork by Charity Larrison

I know there are many people who say animals in circuses are cruelly treated. Here in England, many towns and cities will not allow circuses to camp on public land, or licence shows if animals are involved. I truly don't know enough to argue for or against that view. But for me as a child the circus was a wonderful sensory overload.
The first time I went to a circus, I must have been about six years old. My big treat in those days was to go to the local market town with my grandfather. He was a big, towering, kindly man, with white hair and a white moustach. he always wore a waistcoat, over a blue and white striped shirt, he wore brown boots, shiny, and over them and his legs below the knees, buckled leather leggings. On his head, an old flat cap. In one hand, a walking stick, in the other, my small hand.
He was a retired farmer, and his day for visiting town was the day of the livestock market. a music of lowing cattle, bleating sheep, grunting pigs, clucking hens, He'd walk slowly between the pens, cautioning me not to get too close, exchanging a few words with the men there.
On this one day, he said to me "Do you want to see a Tiger?" I stared about me, wide eyed, expecting a cattle-market pen to house a roaring cat, but he laughed, held out his hand, "Come on then." We walked, out of the market, past the cattle trucks and chatting farmers, past the fire station, and gradually out of the town. Through a gate into a field. four white horses were trotting side by side, a circle of wagons beyond them, we continued, my grandfather spoke with a big man, who smiled, turned, and led us to a row of wagons, with open bars one side. There it was, in the shade, a great striped creature, far bigger than I'd imagined, the man called to it, it got up, stretched just as our cat at home did, although its skin looked baggier, looser, it turned, took a couple of steps to the bars, the man reached his hand in and scratched it behind the ears. It yawned, great yellowy pointed teeth, and lay down, rolling toward the bars belly up, head outstretched, for the man to scratch.
"But Tigers eat people", I squeaked, "Yes, the man said, but only if they're very hungry, and only people they don't like".
Then we went to see a Zebra. And horses, lots of horses. At last, in the corner of the field, in the shade of a tree, the elephants. Oh those elephants, great grey wrinkly beasts, oh, I was in love, these were my favourite animals oh look, oh.
That evening we returned for the show. My sister was extremely jealous as I recited the few things I'd been told, and paraded my superior knowledge, and the fact I KNEW all these people in gaudy costumes, I'd even touched one of the elephants.
Those wonderful people, in their exciting bright costumes, the sounds and the smells, and appearing to me to be genuine, their love of their animals.
I was told by an old soldier who had worked with elephants in Burma, that you work with elephants by their consent. an elephant will remember forever any slight. He recalled an elephant killing a burmese timber worker. The british officer was demanding the elephant be shot. But the burmese said this man had been cruel to the elephant, and had hurt its calf some ten years previously. The elephant had never attacked any other person, and waited patiently by the body, raising its foot to allow a restraining chain to be attached. It was reprieved, and the soldier told me all his mates were extremely cautious, after that to never give offence to an elephant. If it stole your bread, or ate your hat, you learned to laugh. The elephants did work in the jungle carrying heavy loads, during the day. In the night they were set free, to roam and forage, in the morning they'd all be there, waiting for their loads.
Maybe circuses are cruel. I truly don't know.

One evening, about ten years ago, I was walking with a friend and her two dogs, in a wooded area of a city park, The night was misty, and ahead of us a great shadow loomed, making a strange rumbling sound. we were a bit spooked, the fierce brave tough dogs hid behind us.... out of the dark came two elephants, and a girl, maybe 15 years old, she spoke quietly to them, and they stopped, and waited, to let us pass, We stopped too, and spoke to her, she spoke very little english "like we, they love walk, but cannot when is many people, now in the night, they can walk in trees, they dream of their home, I too of my home" . We had cakes in a bag we showed the girl, she clapped her hands oh yes, oh yes, as we gave to the elephants my girlfriend's mother's lemon cake, and then the chocolate cake. All this time the two dogs kept a safe distance, clearly thinking we were extremely stupid.
The Elephants were gentle, exploring us with their trunks, and conveying handfuls of cake to their mouths.
Then we all moved on, that was the last time a circus with animals performed in this city.
I'd forgotten that, remembered it in the night.
We went to the circus, Didn't recognise the girl, she was probably transformed into a glittering queen of the highwire.

I recommend: Busted Wonder
Artwork by Charity Larrison and story by Kieran Gillan.
A long time ago, I found them. I found a blog called "Cabinet of Busted Wonders". What a great title, it drew me in. At the time, only the first few frames had been drawn, so I had to return many times for the story to unfold. The first few frames had me though. It's still unfolding.

Stop press: I posted this before asking permission. then I emailed Charity, seeking forgiveness, and have had it granted. And she's very kindly given a permit to use some other images. I will.
I think her drawings are great, I love the people, the style, the way she uses perspective, the choice of palette. No, She's not paying me to say this. I just really like her work.

Nick Drake