Reviewed: Zoo by Louis MacNeice

Where the wild things star.

Louis MacNeice
Faber Finds, 256pp, £15

To the 21st-century visitor, London Zoo can seem a tamed and shabby place. It’s not just the poverty that seems apparent in the tatty hangar of the aquarium, or the clutter of more or less useless buildings that the zoo, willy-nilly, has to preserve because of their architectural interest (Lubetkin’s glamorous Penguin Pool, Hugh Casson’s clumsy Elephant House). What makes it seem so defensive are the little noticeboards dotted around, assuring visitors that it is all in the interests of conservation, and the signs by each enclosure that inform you in precise terms how near the enclosed species is to extinction – the top rating being “Not yet endangered” – since even if right now the plains or forests or oceans are pulsating with hordes of the buggers, it can be only a matter of time.

Louis MacNeice wrote Zoo in a breezier time – breezier as far zoos were concerned, that is; though when it was written, in the summer of 1938, the world outside was still languishing in depression and starting to twitch at the approach of war. Back then, zoos were far more casual about the divisions between the public and the exhibits: children went for rides on the elephants, feeding of the animals was encouraged – MacNeice notes that small girls were let behind the barriers to feed sun bears golden syrup from a wooden spoon, in homage to Goldilocks.

A character known as the Wolf Man was permitted in the wolves’ enclosure to groom them, even to nurse them when sick. MacNeice himself records getting a keeper to bring a binturong out of its cage so he can feed it grapes (the binturong is a south-east Asian relative of the civet, also called a bearcat, and is as cuddly as the name suggests, but, the keeper tells MacNeice, too smelly for a pet). The zoo is a confused institution – “a cross between a music hall and a museum” – but unflustered by the confusion: that modern defensiveness is nowhere in sight.

These were evidently breezier times for publishers, too. MacNeice’s rationale for the book seems to have been that, first, he was living up the road from the zoo, in Primrose Hill, and second that he was having an affair with Nancy Sharp, wife of the painter William Coldstream, and she could do the illustrations. Apparently that was enough for Michael Joseph to go ahead and commission the book and the finished article has an answering breeziness: MacNeice cheerfully strays off for a weekend back home in Northern Ireland, or cuts short a description of the zoo’s layout on the grounds that there’s too much of it. He mentions a trip to the East End to pick up his car when it has been stolen and analyses Rudolph Valentino’s appeal in a revival of The Sheik.

The final chapter consists of a rushed visit by bus to Whipsnade Zoo and a list of topics he has been forced to omit because his publisher is clamouring for the manuscript. Even while he is at the zoo, he can’t resist interrupting his observations – at one point imagining the reactions of the zoo’s visitors to a unicorn:

What’s a virgin, dad.
It’s a lady.
Like mum, dad?
Come along now, it’s late.

The strangeness helps account for the book’s obscurity: until now it has never been reprinted and it has been hard to find a second- hand copy for much less than £50. Its rediscovery, by Faber Finds, is a blessing: Zoo is beautifully written, littered with poetry, quoted or incidental, and with improbable analogies: a gorilla looks like a medieval devil but instead of horns has “the magnificent onkos of a tyrant in ancient Greek tragedy”. Breeziness sometimes spills over into selfindulgence and carelessness about facts, and to the democratic modern ear, MacNeice’s portraits of “lower class” zoo visitors reek of an appalling snobbery.

But Zoo is more than belles lettres or a period piece. Books on the eccentricity of zoos are legion, as are books on their cruelty (something MacNeice is alive to). But Zoo is the only book I have come across that attempts serious reflection on the good that zoos do, the value they can have for us. For MacNeice, the zoo is a necessary antidote to urban life, an antidote to other people and not least to yourself; but it is also an aid to self-understanding. Zoos allow us to place ourselves: he likes looking at animals “not because they are like me, but because they are different – even more different than my waking is from my sleeping self”; at the same time, animals are us: “the sea-beast still swims in our brains and the monkey itches in our fingers”.

To read Zoo is to share with him a glimmer of understanding of the distance and nearness of civilisation to the state of nature: to see that a zoo is not just an institution but a kind of poetry.

Louis MacNeice.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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Shami Chakrabarti’s fall from grace: how a liberal hero lost her reputation

Once, it was trendy to say you liked the former director of Liberty. No longer.

It might be hard to remember now, but there was a time when it was trendy to like Shami Chakrabarti. In the mid-2000s, amid the Iraq War backlash and the furore over identity cards, speaking well of the barrister and head of the human rights campaign group Liberty was a handy way of displaying liberal credentials. She was everywhere: Question Time, Desert Island Discs, Have I Got News For You. A young indie band from Worcester called the Dastards was so keen on her that it even wrote a song about her. It included the lyric: “I turn on my TV/The only one I want to see/Is Shami Chakrabarti.”

The daughter of Bengali immigrants, Chakrabarti was born and brought up in the outer-London borough of Harrow, where she attended a comprehensive school before studying law at the London School of Economics. Her background was a great strength of her campaigning, and during the most authoritarian years of New Labour government she burnished her reputation.

Fast-forward to 13 September 2016, when Chakrabarti made her House of Lords debut as a Labour peer. Baroness Chakrabarti of Kennington wore a sombre expression and a rope of pearls looped round her throat beneath her ermine robe. It was hard to recognise the civil liberties campaigner who was once called “an anarchist in a barrister’s wig” by Loaded magazine.

Yet Chakrabarti has also been cast in another role that is far less desirable than a seat in the Lords: that of a hypocrite. On 29 April this year, Jeremy Corbyn announced that Chakrabarti would chair an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party. The inquiry was prompted by the suspensions of Naz Shah, the MP for Bradford West, and Ken Livingstone, for making offensive remarks that were condemned as anti-Semitic. On 16 May Chakrabarti announced that she was joining Labour to gain members’ “trust and confidence”. She said that she would still run the inquiry “without fear or favour”.

The Chakrabarti inquiry delivered its findings on 30 June at a press conference in Westminster. The atmosphere was febrile – there were verbal clashes between the activists and journalists present, and the Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was reduced to tears. The report stated that Labour “is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism” but that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere”. It listed examples of “hateful language” and called on party members to “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons”. Many Labour supporters were surprised that the report’s 20 recommendations did not include lifetime bans for members found to have shown anti-Semitic behaviour.

Then, on 4 August, it was revealed that Chakrabarti was the sole Labour appointment to the House of Lords in David Cameron’s resignation honours. Both Chakrabarti and Corbyn have denied that the peerage was discussed during the anti-Semitism inquiry. But critics suggested that her acceptance undermined the report and its independence.

In particular, it attracted criticism from members of the UK’s Jewish community. Marie van der Zyl, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “This ‘whitewash for peerages’ is a scandal that surely raises serious questions about the integrity of Ms Chakrabarti, her inquiry and the Labour leadership.” A home affairs select committee report into anti-Semitism in the UK has since found that there were grave failings in the report for Labour.

Two further incidents contributed to the decline in Chakrabarti’s reputation: her arrival on Corbyn’s front bench as shadow attorney general and the revelation that her son attends the selective Dulwich College, which costs almost £19,000 a year in fees for day pupils (£39,000 for full boarders). She said that she “absolutely” supports Labour’s opposition to grammar schools but defended her choice to pay for selective education.

Chakrabarti told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “I live in a nice big house and eat nice food, and my neighbours are homeless and go to food banks. Does that make me a hypocrite, or does it make me someone who is trying to do best, not just for my own family, but for other people’s families, too?”

This was the end for many of those who had respected Chakrabarti – the whisper of hypocrisy became a roar. As the Times columnist Carol Midgley wrote: “You can’t with a straight face champion equality while choosing privilege for yourself.”

Hypocrisy is a charge that has dogged the left for decades (both Diane Abbott and Harriet Harman have fallen foul of the selective school problem). The trouble with having principles, it is said, is that you have to live up to them. Unlike the right, the left prizes purity in its politicians, as Jeremy Corbyn’s squeaky-clean political image shows. Shami Chakrabarti started the year with a campaigning reputation to rival that of the Labour leader, but her poor decisions have all but destroyed her. It’s difficult to recall a time when a liberal icon has fallen so far, so fast. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood