Dan Carrier reports from the Hay Festival, where those appearing from our neck of the woods are well represented
08 June, 2017 — By Dan Carrier
Isobel Charman at the Hay Festival
THE story of how a baby hippopotamus was brought from the Nile to Regent’s Park – and inadvertently helped Charles Darwin write On the Origin of Species – was told by author Isobel Charman at this year’s Hay Festival.
Isobel, a film-maker who has helped Ken Loach make Labour Party broadcasts during the election, took time out from the campaign trail to speak about her latest book, The Zoo.
She tells of the early days of London Zoo – and she revealed how the hippo came to the rescue when the institution’s fortunes were in freefall.
The zoo was established in 1826 and Isobel said it was an example of Victorian Britain’s continuous thirst for knowledge.
“I was interested when I first heard a story of how a hippo was shipped here from Egypt,” she told a sell-out crowd on Friday.
“I wanted to chart how the zoo had been established and then grown. They have detailed records so I had a good place to start. It was a precinct for pioneers in so many different parts of life and it tells the story of Britain in a time of huge change.”
Isobel revealed that while the zoo enjoyed a boom decade in the 1830s, its fortunes fell rapidly in the 1840s and for a time looked like it may shut. From letters in the zoo’s archives, she discovered the story of how the Earl of Derby helped save it.
“He was a passionate natural historian,” she said. “In the 1840s the zoo was hit by the wider economic depressions and a severe outbreak of cholera. The zoo was in trouble – until the Earl decided to get the Zoological Society of London a hippo to help. He wrote to the Pasha of Egypt and they caught a baby hippo in the Nile. The Earl sent a pack of greyhounds to the Pasha as a thank-you gift, and then converted a steam ship to bring the hippo to London. It had its own swimming pool on board and a herd of cattle to provide fresh milk during the journey. Newspapers loved it – they called it the Nile Sea Horse. Crowds lined the roads, songs were composed in its honour, and hippo mementos were sold. More than 650,000 people visited the zoo that year – helping it survive and go on to be used by naturalists such as Darwin.”
And other animals also caught the public’s imagination – though how they were treated then is a world away from today.
Jack the Indian elephant was shipped from Madras and was a hit.
“Keepers set up a stall selling sticky buns that visitors would poke through the bars using umbrellas,” said Isobel.
“Contemporary reports recall how he plucked hats off the heads of women – and even took the odd handbag from unsuspecting hands.”
Jack was joined by Tommy the chimp, who arrived in Bristol from Gambia in 1835.
His journey was typical of many animals, said Isobel.
“He was captured by hunters and put on a ship, where he would dine at the captain’s table, before being sold to the zoo,” she said.
“People began to realise there was a market for exotic animals. Everyone, from diplomats posted overseas to traders, realised there was good money to be made, if you could get the creature to London in one piece.”
If they survived the journey, they then had an often torrid time in captivity. Keepers had to work out what to feed them on through trial and error.
The head vet, Charles Spooner, had only worked with horses and dogs before having a menagerie of 600 creatures and 400 species to look out for. Mistakes were made, including Spooner’s attempts to help a teething lion cub by giving it an enema.
But as well as the often tragic stories of the day to day life at the zoo, Isobel reveals the serious nature of the work the Society was doing – and how the hippo, which revived the zoo’s fortunes, meant it was still open when Charles Darwin returned from his voyage on the Beagle.
“Darwin had 500 birds and wanted to know what they were. When he returned, he needed help to identify them,” she said. So he headed to the zoo and spoke to John Gould, the curator of birds. “Gould pointed out to Darwin that each island had a slightly different variation – it was to be a eureka moment for Darwin.”
Darwin also spent time at the zoo observing animals – and was particularly interested in an orangutan called Jenny.
“Jenny would be dressed in a smock and hat and sat on an armchair for visitors to gaze at,” said Isobel.
“It was the first time Darwin had seen a large ape closely. He watched a keeper teasing Jenny with an apple – offering it to her and then taking it away. Jenny was utterly incensed – and Darwin saw that the animal understood language, understood justice – and it was another step on the road for his work.”
• The Zoo: The Wild and Wonderful Tale of the Founding of London Zoo: 1826-1851, by Isobel Charman is published by Pegasus Books.
Akala’s tribute to Highgate teacher
HE is a singer and rapper, documentary-maker, a lecturer who takes Shakespeare into schools and the author of a number of books – and the multi-talented Akala, pictured, put on an electrifying appearance at the Hay Festival.
Akala, who grew up in Kentish Town and went to Acland Burghley School, was presenting his new children’s book series about Hip and Hop – a bird and a hippo who are brothers and the best of friends. To a full house, he had fans, both young and old, reading along with him, and he spent time answering questions about his work and finally teaching them how to turn a Shakespeare sonnet into a rapid fire rap. And when asked by one audience member who influenced him, he recalled a teacher at his Highgate Newtown primary school, Brookfield.
“There was a teacher called Anne Taylor,” he said. “She really inspired me when I was in Year 5. She was a really great teacher. She read us a book called The Runaways and she gave me a task to write our own stories. I loved it.”
• Akala’s Hip and Hop: You Can Do Anything, illustrated by Sav Akyüz, is published next month by Oxford University Press.
Bella: ‘I found beauty in the most banal sounds’
WHEN journalist Bella Bathurst, pictured, who is from Hampstead, was unable to follow instructions by the skipper on a boat she was holidaying on, she realised she had to face up to something she had suspected for some time – that she was slowly going deaf.
Bella, who has recounted the experience of hearing loss over a 12-year period, has written a book called Sound: Stories of Hearing Lost and Found (published by Profile Books). It is both a memoir of her own experience and tells the stories of others who have been afflicted by deafness. She told an audience at the Hay Festival of how she suspected she was going deaf aged 26, after she suffered two head injuries.
“I tried to ignore it,” she recalled. “By the time I had gone to hospital I’d lost 50 per cent of my hearing in both ears.”
Bella was given hearing aids then after more than a decade an audiologist diagnosed her condition as otosclerosis – a common condition caused, not by bumps on the head while ski-ing, but by calcium forming around the bones inside your ears that vibrate to send messages to the brain. It can be cured by surgery.
She spoke of how her life changed as her hearing got worse.
“I thought you had to be old, or stupid,” she said. “I associated it wrongly and unkindly with being slow. I’d turn up the volume on the radio and the TV and tried my best to ignore it was happening. I became extremely depressed.”
Bella’s book covers coping mechanisms – she says she learnt to “read” people’s faces to make up for her lack of hearing – and being obsessional about the acoustics in restaurants.
And she spoke of hearing once again.
She said: “After my operation, going to a concert was absorbing – it was a whole body experience.
“Then I found beauty in the most banal sounds, hearing a key in a lock or the washing machine – that is just magic.”