Reviewed: Zoo by Louis MacNeice

Where the wild things star.

Zoo
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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Out like a light: why bad sleep poses a danger to us all

Our species has declared war on the night and sleep has been the victim.

At 4.02am on 2 November 1892, near Thirsk railway station in Yorkshire, an express train crashed into a goods train. Ten people were killed and 39 injured. Nearly a century later, at 1.23am on 26 April 1986, the No 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded, killing two people instantly and causing multiple deaths from radiation. To see how these seemingly unrelated tragedies are connected requires that we understand biological time.

Our lives are ruled by time, but the alarms that drive us out of bed in the morning or tell us that we are late for a meeting are recently adopted chronometers. Life answers to a more ancient beat, which probably started to tick early in the evolutionary process. Embedded in our genes are the instructions for a biological or “circadian” clock that regulates our sleep patterns, alertness, mood, physical strength, blood pressure, and more.

Normally, we experience a 24-hour pattern of light and dark and this aligns our day to the Earth’s rotation. The clock is then used to anticipate this rotation and fine-tune physiology and behaviour before these conditions change. Temperature, blood pressure and cognitive performance all decline as you wind down to sleep. Before dawn, these processes are slowly reversed in anticipation of the new day.

The daily sleep cycle is the most obvious of these rhythms. While asleep, we don’t eat, drink, make money or have sex, so we have relegated the sleep state to a lowly position on our list of priorities. At best, we tolerate it; at worst, we regard it as an illness in need of a cure. Such attitudes are not only wrong, but dangerous.

Though sleep may involve the suspension of most physical activity, the brain is consolidating memories and solving problems; it co-ordinates the removal of toxins; promotes cell division and tissue repair; and rebuilds metabolic pathways. In short, without sleep, our performance and health deteriorate rapidly.

Our species has declared war on the night and sleep has been the victim. The unintended consequences of cheap electric light are twofold. More light at night, together with forms of entertainment including social media, have eroded our sleep time by as much as two hours every night. On top of this, many of us are trying to sleep at the wrong time. Those with night shifts work when they are sleepy and try to sleep when they are not. The body clock fails to adjust and remains synchronised to the natural light/dark cycle.

Shortened sleep and working against biological time have been linked with many health problems. These include lapses in attention and uncontrollable micro-sleeps; impulsiveness and loss of empathy; memory impairment and reduced creativity; immune suppression; higher risks of Type 2 diabetes, infection, cancer and cardiovascular disease; weight gain; and a susceptibility to depression, anxiety and mood instability.

In our quest for instant gratification, it is unlikely that we will stop doing what we like when we like. However, understanding the consequences of bad sleep will help us to reprioritise sleep. Perhaps, one day, the self-inflicted tired will be viewed with the same contempt as that for smokers huddled outside a building. Employers need to recognise that employees with disrupted sleep will be less productive. Why not introduce more health checks and offer advice to those at risk? As night-shift workers are more likely to have heart disease and Type 2 diabetes and to be obese, firms could provide food that reduces these risks. Finally, technology could be used to alert an individual that they are falling asleep both in the workplace and during the drive home.

So, what happened at Thirsk railway station in 1892 and Chernobyl in 1986? These disasters and others like them were linked to excessive tiredness, people working at the wrong biological time and a breakdown in procedure. James Holmes was the signalman at Thirsk. The day before the crash, he had been awake for 36 hours, caring for his daughter, trying to find a doctor and looking after his grief-stricken wife when the baby died. He reported to the stationmaster that he would be unable to work the next night, but no replacement was sent and he was forced to do his shift. He fell asleep, and he had forgotten that the goods train was on the line when he allowed the express through.

After the crash, Holmes was found guilty of manslaughter but given an absolute discharge. The railway company was blamed for ignoring him, and for failing to use procedures which would have detected that he had fallen asleep.

Russell Foster is Professor of Circadian Neuroscience at the University of Oxford

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution