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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Politicians and fashion? Why their approach can be telling

My week, from spying on the spies to Theresa May’s fashion charm offensive – and how Sadiq stole hearts.

About nine months ago I was asked if I wanted to spend a morning with Zac Goldsmith, as he appeared to be wakening from the slumber that had obviously taken hold of him when he decided to run for mayor of London. However, after about three minutes in his company (maybe less, actually) I realised that not even his campaign team – let alone voters in the Borough of Southwark – thought he had a hope in hell of winning.

There was only ever going to be one winner, and the enthusiasm with which Sadiq Khan has been greeted by London has been heartwarming. He won the politician award at GQ’s Men of the Year Awards a few weeks ago, and I’d never heard such a roar as he leapt up on stage to collect it. Well, I’ve heard such roars for the likes of Michael Caine, Elton John and Amy Schumer, but rarely for a politician. In fact, the last time there was such fulsome applause for a politician at the GQ awards was when we gave one to a pre-Sextator David Blunkett. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised: the last time Noel Gallagher graced us with his presence, he asked: “Is this what a Conservative party conference looks like?”

 

On the dole

The recent past is being hauled over so repeatedly that soon there are going to be ­retrospectives of events that happened only last week. Or next week. On paper, the new exhibition at the V&A in London, entitled “You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970”, seemed slightly behind the curve, but the reality is very different – as it’s probably the best exhibition you’ll see in London this year.

This is all down to the curation, which was handled by Geoffrey Marsh and Victoria Broackes, the wizards behind “David Bowie Is”, the most successful show in the V&A’s history. It’s a terrific exhibition, although being reminded of the cultural and political insurrection of the Sixties also reminds you of the period’s seemingly innate optimism as a new London was mushrooming into life. Winston Churchill was dead, abortion was about to be made legal and the rise in happiness seemed exponential. Britain was experiencing almost full employment (though the government wobbled slightly in the spring of 1966 when it was announced that the jobless total had gone up to half a million). It never occurred to anyone that there might not be a job
waiting for them when they left school or their red-brick university.

 

Priced out

There certainly won’t be a house waiting for them, not if they intend to live in London. The marketing bods behind the new development at Battersea Power Station came in to make a presentation at Vogue House a few weeks ago, showing us lots of slides and videos about their fabulous ­development. There’s a Frank Gehry this and a Frank Gehry that, a swimming pool, a private members’ club and lots of artisanal independent retailers selling organic rhubarb and fancy beer, blah blah blah.

Their roll-call of “good things” included the ominous words “affordable housing”, but this appears to be anything but. After the presentation, I promptly stuck my hand up and asked them what they actually meant by affordable housing. The answer I got wasn’t satisfactory, so I asked again: “What does your entry-level accommodation cost?” And the very charming man with the lapel-mike coughed apologetically and almost whispered, “£350,000.” At which point I made my excuses and left.

The idea that my daughters can one day get on the property ladder in London is pure fantasy, and they certainly won’t be living in Battersea, or indeed anywhere near it.

 

Back in fashion

Last Thursday, Theresa May hosted her first reception at Downing Street for the British fashion industry, an event that usually takes place twice a year, and which is attended by fashion designers, industry figures, newspaper and magazine editors and the like. ­Samantha Cameron was always a significant supporter of the sector (which contributes more to the country’s GDP than the car industry), as was Sarah Brown before her, and it is instructive that May has decided to follow in their footsteps.

It’s also telling that Mrs Cameron was not only invited to the event at No 10 but turned up, which says a lot about both women. Theresa May is a fundamentally shy person, yet she not only made a pitch-perfect speech in front of a Brexit-sensitive (and quite possibly suspicious) crowd, but chose to embrace the opportunity to espouse the growing importance of an industry that was so closely associated with the wife of her predecessor. There is such a lot of noise at the moment surrounding the PM’s apparent lack of interest in remaining on good terms with David Cameron, so one wonders what, if anything, is going on here. Taken at face value, May’s move at the reception was extremely classy.

 

The spying game

The following day I found myself in Cheltenham for a five-hour briefing on counterterrorism, cyber-defence, drug smuggling and child kidnapping at GCHQ.

I had expected the place to be like the Foreign Office, but it’s actually more like Google, Apple or Nike, and feels as though it could easily be a campus on America’s “Left Coast”.

There is an incredible sense of purpose at GCHQ, a feeling that they are all working for the common good, and frankly I found it infectious. While the denizens of Silicon Valley might be very adept at pushing the frontiers of consumerism, designing training shoes, telephones and algorithms, it felt far more appropriate to be spending time with men and women obsessed with making the world safer.

Dylan Jones is the editor-in-chief of GQ and a trustee of the Hay Festival

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times