Tuesday, 3 August 2004

I have been reminded of my frailty

By Randall, no less.

Randall had a birthday on Sunday, and shared a day of celebration with his friend Tryntje, yesterday, whose birthday is Thursday.

Now I split these 2 - I'm 43 tomorrow, and began reminiscing in the comments on Randalls blog, when I thought it might be interesting to do so here instead.

Birthdays were always special when I was a kid. It wasn't the presents alone, although since we were quite poor in some ways, receiving substantial things was a real treat. But the whole day was made special. For several years running my birthday treat was to be taken to the London zoo, with a friend (and of course, my 'little' brother).

It's interesting how the memories come back. I have little snapshots, and as I'm digging deeper more are emerging. The first snapshot is of leaving our house in London quite early, but being August, it's hot outside already and the 'hot smell' was rising off the pavement. This was coupled to a feeling of both lightness (looking forward to the trip) and brightness from the brilliant sunshine being reflected off the pavement - much more of an issue when you're only 4 feet tall or so - and cool air coming through the toes of your sandals.

We walked over to pick up my friend on the trip. Her name was Julie Wadey, and because I was expected to call her mum 'auntie' I assumed she was my cousin. Ho hum. Their house had the steepest staircase I'd ever been up - so steep you felt like you couldn't make the bend at the top. One year they gave me an Airfix kit of a Republic Thunderbolt - the picture on the box showing a classic silver thunderbolt with black and white chequers round the nose, climbing up from a bombing run. I loved models as a child, and spent all my pocket money one them for years. I wonder what happened to Julie.

We would travel up on the train, and then get on a river boat that took us from Hyde park to the Zoological gardens. The boat journey seemed completely timeless, and a cool break from the earlier heat. Stepping off the boat at the other end, I remember returning to the heat as we walked along paths covered with fine gravel, inset with flower beds in geometrical shapes. The flower beds were all new in this particular memory, and were actually dark brown earth, waiting to be planted.

There are a lot of memories that all blur together from when we actually entered the zoo, and I'm sure they stretch across several years. The Aquarium was (to me) vast, with all kinds of exotic and conventional fish, from tiny neon tetras to huge tilapia and carp, and weird stuff like lungfish, electric eels and axolotles. The reptile houses were good, but there are few solid memories from them, blending with every reptile house I've visited.

A famous exhibit was Pipaluk - a polar bear - bred in captivity if I remember correctly. Pipaluk wasn't especially amenable to do much in the heat, and it must have been very hot it his white concrete enclosure. All the polar bears just flopped around, apparently oblivious to the crowds trying to see them.

The Elephants and Rhinos enclosures were close by, and were surrounded by curving sandy coloured concrete walls with a ribbed surface (memory again). The floor of the enclosures was bear earth with a couple of short scrubby denuded trees inside for them to scratch against. The elephants were friendly and interested in visitors, coming to the edge of the enclosure and extending their trunks so they could sniff you, and (if you were brave) you might stretch out a hand and touch the rough skin and feel the strength of the muscles underneath. I remember the tip of a trunk coming my way and stretching to reach it. The end of the trunk wasn't hollow, but was clearly divided into 2 nostrils, with little fleshy extensions at the top and bottom that were almost like fingers, and could be brought together to grip things. And it was damp!

The Lions seemed to prefer being inside, and although we saw them tearing their meat, they weren't particularly exciting. However the Tigers were something else. Pacing up and down in their cage, they were much more like Felis domesticus in their movements. There was a commentary while we were there, discussing tiger-stuff. The memory I have is how to distinguish between types of tiger - IIRC Bengal tigers have a white spot on each ear and the 'other kind' don't. They also have a greeting sound, rather like a domestic cat - a Prrup noise. The announcer made the noise and the tiger Prrup'd back. When the crowds had gone (things like this were always crowded then - few people had TV and wild animals weren't 'old hat' then - I waited until the tiger got closer, pacing in his cage, and PRRUUP'd at it. I think it answered, but I can't actually remember. I did try this at home, and it worked on our cat though.

And what was the final thing that we'd do before leaving? Visit the shop of course! They had all kinds of rubber animals (big fad here, in the 60's and early 70's) that were very realistic. Of course being a boy, I HAD to buy snakes. Some of these would be up to 3 feet long, and coloured to look very realistic. There were beetles and dinosaurs and Lions and tigers and elephants and rhinos too, but none of these were as exciting - or as LONG - as the snakes.

Curiously, I have no memory of ever travelling home. However I do appreciate the investment my parents, and particluarly my mother made for me in those birthdays.

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