Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Death of a princess

A human mother knows that it only takes one baby in the crèche to start crying to provoke a chorus of wailing from the assembled tots. There’s no shame in this, because exactly the same thing happens with baby gorillas. It would be nice to think that baby primates instinctively grieve in sympathy for one of their number, but common sense suggests that this is unlikely. Babies tend to divide the world into things to grasp and things to put in their mouths – making common cause with other babies is a feat of solidarity that is probably quite beyond them.

I got an insight into this baby puzzle when Princess Diana died. Her fatal accident occurred in my final season with the circus, after a show we gave in Dorchester. I heard the news on awakening to my radio alarm, which was tuned, as always, to the BBC World Service. I have to admit taking it all rather in my stride to begin with, rising only to pour myself a glass of mango juice, which I swigged with my customary relish. I only began to appreciate the true dimensions of the tragedy when I left my trailer to find our all-female acrobat team huddled around a TV set.

“I knew something like this would happen,” sobbed one of the tearful wenches. “They never gave her a minute’s peace.”

“I blame Charles,” sniffed another one bitterly. “He never loved her and she was only going out with Dodi to make him jealous.”

“I can’t forget the way she cuddled those sick children,” whimpered a third, drying her eyes with a pink vanity tissue. “She was the only human one of the Royals.”

On witnessing these poignant reactions, I joined the girls in watching the TV intently. I could feel the emotion welling up inside me as the unfolding drama progressed: the grieving multitude outside Buckingham Palace; the weeping old biddies delivering flowers and condolence cards; the quivering lip of the British Prime Minister as he gave his eulogy. The impact of these sorrowful scenes was magnified by the sighs and laments of the young women around me. When the coverage switched to footage of the late princess in her prime, tilting her head in that adorably coy way of hers, it became too much for me to bear.

“Sweet darling Diana!” I wailed. “Our chicken! Our baby! Our star! A rose of your fragrance will never again perfume the blessed air of England!”

This outburst prompted two of the girls to pat and caress me in my moment of anguish, while another kindly handed me an orange tissue for my snuffles. Overcome with grief, I retired to my trailer to ruminate on the tragedy which had befallen the nation. When I got there, I felt like an almighty fool. I had nothing against Diana, of course, who for the most part had been an inoffensive young floozie. But it would be exaggerating to say that I’d been one of her admirers, let alone an acquaintance of sufficient intimacy to blubber like a schoolgirl at the news of her death.

As I reflected on my behaviour, I realised that the tears I had shed were for myself rather than the princess. Although I was pleased to be returning to the jungle, there were surely many things about the circus that I would miss: the cheerful face of Smacker Ramrod as he whacked another quadruped on the rump; the sniggering of the clowns as they watched the ringmaster’s fat arse waddling around the ring; the bawdy squeals of the hussies in the audience when I came on wearing my scarlet pantaloons. The tragic death of the tender-hearted princess had given me the chance to express my sadness amid the crescendo of weeping and caterwauling.

So when a human baby starts bawling after hearing the cries of another, the little nappy-pooper is probably recollecting a recent trauma of its own – maybe the milk of the last feed was unpleasantly sour; maybe the midwife had cuffed it during a postnatal visit. The woes of the naked ape begin early.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Comrade Bananas

A correspondent asks me whether any human clubs are open to gorillas. A surprising number of them are, in my experience. A few of them, in fact, were quite eager to enrol me once they got over the initial shock.

I very nearly joined the Communist Party. It all started when I read one of their pamphlets, which said that workers were being short-changed by greedy capitalists living off the fat of the land. As a hard-working circus ape, I thought I’d go along to their next branch meeting for some tips on how to get a pay rise. When I arrived at the mostly-empty hall, I found a gang of humans who were as sullen and sinister as the crocodiles of the Congo. They turned in my direction as I entered, glaring at me in suspicious silence.

I decided that a big gesture was required to break the ice with these grim-faced zealots. “Power to the workers!” I shouted, punching my fist in the air. “Fraternal greetings from apes toiling in the circuses and safari parks!”

After some confused muttering, a balding chap with a thin moustache took the floor. “Comrades!” he proclaimed, “our hairy friend is a natural ally of the working classes. Who would know more about our struggle against oppression than he? – an ape who was abducted from his rightful habitat and forced to perform bourgeois tricks in front of an audience of sell-outs and lackeys!”

How everyone applauded! His potted biography was not entirely accurate, but I wasn’t going to risk the goodwill of the assembly by quibbling about minor historical details. I basked in the adulation of the moment and declared that a broad popular front of workers and apes would terrify the powers-that-be. At the end of the meeting, the chair proposed a motion making me a provisional party member – and it was carried unanimously!

Before getting my party card, I had to take some lessons in Marxist theory from my assigned mentor. This fellow, called Bert, had a scruffy beard and spoke with a northern accent. He seemed to have a lot of time on his hands, because he’d turn up at the circus almost every day and invite himself to lunch with the performers. He spoke a lot about coal miners, benefit cuts and the evils of international capital. When we were doing a show, he got a free seat as my guest and stayed for supper. But after a couple of weeks of indoctrination, I was still none the wiser on how to get more money. It’s all very well learning about class struggle, but what purpose does it serve if you’re no richer at the end? After being entertained generously at our expense, I felt it was about time that Bert came up with some practical suggestions – and after a particularly boring lesson on dialectical materialism, I told him so.

“Being a communist isn’t about feathering your own nest, GB,” he opined. “We’re a vanguard movement that protects the interests of all the workers.”

After a dozen free meals, this sort of talk was wearing very thin. In fact, I lost all patience with the bearded git. “If the workers had more money, maybe they wouldn’t need a movement looking after their interests!” I blurted out irritably. “And I’m fed up with all your talk about the workers anyway. You’re the first human I’ve met who’s always going on about workers but never does any work!”

Bert tugged his beard furiously and glowered at me as if I’d peed in his soup. “I should have realised that a species renowned for chest-thumping and polygamy would be reactionary to the core!” he snapped. “Come the revolution, you’d better take the first plane to Africa, because you’ll definitely be on our list of class enemies!”

He stormed off in a huff, and his departure marked the end of my brief association with the Communist Party.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Farting etiquette

A tourist on safari once asked me whether there was a polite way of farting – he was obviously being facetious. It’s no secret that we gorillas are prone to flatulence because of our lush, vegetarian diet, and I could tell from his twitching lip that he was poking fun at our emissions.

“We gorillas are proficient at breaking wind politely,” I said, “but I fear that our methods would not travel well to the lounge-room.”

“Oh, go on!” insisted the man. “I’d love to blow one off in my mother-in-law’s place and get away with it!”

“Since you are so adamant, I will instruct you on the basic principles,” I replied. “The courteous farter makes every effort to prevent the pungent gases from his bowels arriving at the nostrils of his companions. In the open air, this can normally be achieved by pointing one’s posterior in the right direction. But if you are indoors, I can only suggest that you put your head between your legs and sniff up the fumes like a vacuum cleaner.”

“I couldn’t do that!” exclaimed the man. “My farts are too rich and would poison me if I inhaled them deeply!”

I could have said “So what?”, but one makes an effort to be polite to tourists in my part of the world. “If your farts are so constituted, I would advise you to run into the garden when you feel your bowels tighten and discharge the gas on a lit match. As well as burning off the pollutants, the ignition of the vapours would be an enthralling spectacle for any spectators watching indoors.”

“I might just try that after eating a curry!” he retorted, before walking away with a hideous grin on his face.

Although we gorillas take pains to avoid farting in each other’s faces, we feel no shame about breaking wind audibly. It’s only humans who have these curious complexes about not wanting to be caught doing something that everyone does. Smacker Ramrod, the circus vet, told me a story about a boy who farted in his old school. It was a tradition, at that establishment, for boys to take sherry with the masters on their final day at the school. While sipping his beverage, a boy called Cedric Guppy had the misfortune to break wind loudly. As all eyes turned towards him, the poor fellow blushed horribly and raced out of the room without saying a word. His shame was such that he never returned for any old boys’ events and avoided all contact with his former classmates.

Many years later, when all witnesses to the incident had left the school, Cedric could not resist returning to his alma mater, fervently hoping that memories of his indiscretion had faded into oblivion. Turning up on a sports day, he saw no familiar faces apart from one: that of Mulberry, the groundsman, now stooping and grey with age. Noticing that he had not been recognised, Cedric asked Mulberry about the recent history of the school. Assuming that Cedric was an old boy, the groundsman told him about the new library, the geography master who had played rugby for England, the boys who had won Oxbridge scholarships, and a host of other significant events on a far higher plane than ancient flatulence.

Cedric then made tentative enquiries about the boys in his year, and was pleased that Mulberry remembered many things about them without once mentioning the valedictory sherry party. He went on to ask about the masters who had taught him, and was intrigued to learn that his old history teacher had been dismissed for seducing the girl who worked at the tuck shop.

“When did that happen?” asked Cedric in prurient fascination.

“Couldn’t give you the exact date,” replied Mulberry, “but I think it was the year after Cedric Guppy’s fart.”

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