Big trouble: Jumbo with its keeper in around 1882
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The first celebrity elephant: Jumbo by John Sutherland

At London Zoo, Jumbo was assumed into the British imagination as a gentle giant.

Jumbo: the Unauthorised Biography of a Victorian Sensation
John Sutherland
Aurum Press, 304pp, £14.99

The bigger the animal, the bigger the problem. Like the whale, the elephant has suffered from our inability to fathom a creature so far in excess of our size, blessed with intelligence and yet so strangely adorned with bizarre features that it might have been put together by God as a kind of joke. In the past, it has operated as an emblem of a pre­lapsarian Eden, or as an engine of war, but in more modern times the elephant has been reimagined as an exotic article of display – as John Sutherland shows in his erudite, witty but ultimately challenging book.

In 1255, Henry III received an elephant from his brother-in-law Louis IX of France destined for the Tower of London menagerie, a heraldic assembly of leopards, lions and a single polar bear that was allowed to fish for its lunch in the Thames. Housed in an enclosure 40 feet long and 20 feet deep, the benighted beast was dead within three years, possibly as a result of a surfeit of red wine. Its time in the city is “commemorated on the swinging signboards of innumerable English pubs – most famously the Elephant and Castle . . . in south London”.

Sutherland has to leap forward 500 years to find the true beginning of Britain’s love affair with the elephant. Chunee was an Indian elephant housed on the upper floor of the Exeter Exchange on the Strand in London, a place that resembled an animal-fixated Georgian department store. Every Sunday its star attraction was paraded through the city streets; its visitors included Byron, who remarked, as Chunee extended its trunk to take off the poet’s hat, that it “behaved so well, that I wish he was my butler”.

Yet after the animal killed one of its handlers by impaling him on its tusks “like toast on the toasting fork”, it was sentenced to death. What followed was an appallingly botched execution that required multiple stabbings with spears and a fusillade from soldiers stationed at nearby Somerset House. Chunee’s demise led to letters in the Times, protesting at the “cruel spectacle”, and the establishment of the Zoological Society of London. “Sometimes change needs 152 bullets,” Sutherland comments, wryly.

The original “Jumbo” arrived at London Zoo in 1865, by way of what is now Eritrea, as a traumatised orphan that had lost its mother so early that it had not learned to “be” an elephant. It was an animal born for the Victorian century. The elephant symbolised empire and colonialism, conquest and might. Even the name “Jumbo” – a mash-up of the Swahili jambo, or “hello”, and jumbe, “chief” – is emblematic: grandiloquent and pathetic at the same time. To Dickens, the elephant represented “melancholy madness” in Hard Times; there was an unspoken connection between the fate of the captive animals imported to the west and the fate of the helots of the Industrial Revolution.

At London Zoo, Jumbo was assumed into the British imagination as a gentle giant. Its keeper, Matthew Scott, profited from the penny buns that he sold to visitors and that he passed on to Jumbo only after checking for small items that the public thought it amusing to try to feed to the beast. When it died, hundreds of British coins and a policeman’s whistle were found in Jumbo’s guts.

Jumbo was a royal sensation: there were rumours that the queen had private audiences with the animal. As such, it became an object of desire to P T Barnum, the showman-huckster from Connecticut. So, in 1882, when Jumbo’s annual musth – a frenzied and highly visible sexual arousal – made it too difficult and, frankly, embarrassing for the zoo to handle, it was sold to Barnum for £2,000. Scott, who had developed an almost preternatural relationship with his charge, was part of the deal.

For all of Barnum’s vulgar showmanship, Jumbo seems to have been happier in the United States, perhaps because it was among fellow elephants (Barnum’s herd approached 20 in number) and partly because it was placated with a diet of biscuits soaked in whisky. Its end, however, was violent. On tour with Barnum, Jumbo was being led along a Canadian rail track back to its travelling van when an unscheduled train came hurtling down the line. Sutherland’s account of what happened next is so exciting and awful that I had to step out of the so-called quiet zone on the train in which I was reading it and into the corridor to concentrate. Scott began to shout, “Run, Jumbo, run!” For some reason, Jumbo ran towards the train. The collision crushed its skull, forcing the tusks back into its brain.

Barnum accepted Jumbo’s fate with suspicious equanimity. (Was the beast already ailing and the “accident” another of the showman’s stunts?) Jumbo was boiled down to jelly to be sold as a cure-all and its bones articulated and skin stuffed so that even in death it lived on as a Barnum exhibit, still earning its keep. Its afterlife continued in Jumbo Jr, the big-eared elephant nicknamed “Dumbo” in Disney’s film.

Sutherland’s fascinating and eclectic book is a fitting tribute to Loxodonta africana and it deftly evokes the manifold and ever more pressing threats to the species. My one reservation is that an encounter with a living elephant would have provided some relief (beyond the author’s dark sense of humour) from its record of the unremitting pain we have visited on these intelligent, highly social and much-abused animals.

Philip Hoare’s latest book is “The Sea Inside” (Fourth Estate, £9.99)

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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