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.