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, 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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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State