Friday, 6 July 2007

And here at last are the Elephants

You would think, wouldn't you, that having got this far in life, travelled half way around the world and back that I might have some sort of plan or even, failing that, an inkling as to where it was all leading and what I am going to do next? Well apparently not. But whilst I am teetering, trepidacious, on the edge of today staring up at the foothills of tomorrow I might as well look back at the plains of the past and talk about Elephants. All those not interested in Elephants turn away now.I have never seen an elephant in the wild but I have met several in captivity. Great creatures with sad soulful eyes who turn their great heads and look down with an expression of betrayal that mankind has brought them to this.
When I was very small my Father was very ill, actually my Father was dying, he spent my entire childhood dying in small degrees, stroke by stroke you might say.but that has very little to do with Elephants so we shall leave that well alone. You can dwell on the uncomfortableness of your past, the injustices of it, you can blame your own shortcomings on it, you can build a camp and live there or you can pack up and move on. I always think it far to choose the latter option. This has very little to do with Elephants so we shall choose not to rest here but move on. Never a good idea to keep an Elepahnt waiting.
The family house was no place for a little girl ,too old for her years and full off silent questions stored behind all knowing eyes. I was sent off in various directions to spend time in so thought safer places wiht kind people as was the custom. to protect me from what was happening. One such surrogate home was of a wonderful woman ,the like of whom my mother would not have under other circumstances entrusted any of her children too.
She was someone who did not possess a butter knife and picked up her chicken bones to eat in her fingers, who watched all in wrestling on television, who wore far too much makeup and fake jewellery and had a vast upholstered bust in which I would be hauled. She was Liverpool Irish and where on earth my Mother and she had met I have no idea. I know , looking back from the foothills here and catching the echoes of things seen and said, that each thought the other terrible, but she had an alcoholic husband and my mother had a dying one so they had that odd bond of women tossed together in hopeless circumstances giving what mutual support they could.
Anyway it was by the grace of this woman that I saw, quite by accident, my first Elephant.
There was a circus in a great public park outside the city and the animals had been brought up from the docks through the tiny Georgian streets ,which once had housed wealthy merchants families but by then were decaying and impoverished in the days before urban regeneration, en route to there engagement. I remember it well, it being the first time I had ever been the wrong side of the tracks as it were and I was terrified. It was as as far from anything I had ever known as anything can be, coming as I did from a world of playrooms and gardeners and housekeepers and rocking horses and apple trees to play in and the grocer coming to the back door to deliver his order and bobbing his head and taking off his cap at my mother if he saw her.
We had crossed the great avenue that divided the good end of town from the less acceptable end, in the heart of which she lived, when she must have heard the sound of a parade and, although I can not remember any sounds, I can see her face as she pulled me along after her and ran down what must have been at one time a country lane, but was by then a scruffy inner city street and I was lifted up to sit on a red pillar box to see the parade go by.
There were great old and battered trucks, trundling along the street,each with a a cage on its back decked out with gaudy flags and paintings, in which there were Lions and Tigers, I was convinced they would escape and eat me! Dwarves dressed as clowns, men on stilts and fire eaters in spangled tights, bare chested, one had a black goatee beard and a gold loop earring and there was a girl too, very much mutton dressed as the proverbial lamb, wearing a dusty and very probably ancient faded pink tutu, prancing about him with great gold hoops which she threw and twirled. It was like something from a Victorian painting , I was very lucky, for, very possibly, it was one of the last of its kind for I have never seen anything like it since anywhere in the world.
At the front of the parade was a man with a red tail coat and black hat and behind him the very large Elephant, plodding and shackled, bellowing the odd bellow for theatrical effect. He wore an embroidered cover over his head with pinks and gold with long tarnished tassels and a man rode astride his neck with a stick rested across his knees but I have no clear image of the man for I was lost in the intelligence of the elephants eyes.
Later I rode Elephants briefly in England at other circuses as children and tourists do. I think I even rode one at London zoo once, but would not swear to it. I forgot all about elephants until I took our Eldest to Singapore Zoo many many years later and we saw the elephants there, standing shackled in the shade waiting to give rides . One of them turned his head towards me and I recognised the same look in his eyes. I told Eldest a story I once read and this is it.
There was once an Elephant, a very famous one I believe, in London Zoo, long ago before zoos are what they have become ,what they are today, and he would not do as he was told and bellowed and trumpeted and broke down his flimsy fence about his enclosure so that the Zoo keepers were frightened he would run amok and rampage amongst the visitors so they sent for a man to shoot him , as beating him seemed to have no effect.
A man stepped from the crowd, a small dark man with glasses, foreign looking perhaps but nothing very special to look at, he walked up to the Elephant and, so it is said, looked into the Elephants eyes and placed his hand on the creatures trunk and, leaning his head against it he spoke to it quietly until it calmed and swayed gently and swung its head back and forth as they do. Everyone, so they say for it was many, many years before my time and, for all I know, may just be a charming story the likes of which are told to children, everyone was amazed and thought he had used magic, but he explained quietly that the Elephant was Indian and he did not understand the language spoken to him by his keeper so was frightened and confused but all he really needed was a kind hand and a soft voice speaking in words in his native tongue he could understand to reassure him. The man was Rudyard Kipling, who of course grew up in India and missed it apparently as much as the Elephant . It is said after that he visited the Elephant frequently when he could and spoke to it in Urdu or Hindi or which ever Indian tongue they both knew , as much for his own sake as the Elephants. And that oh my best beloveds as Kipling would say is the end of the story.
Children are a bit like Elephants I suppose, a soft caress and simple word spoken kindly can go an awfully long way and it does not really matter where that kindness comes from as long as it comes.
Anyway there you are ,you asked for Elephants and now you have them. Look in this elephants eyes and tell me you don't see the inteliigence and a touch of sadness in that eye. He, by the way, was painted for an American art exhibition, by Britain's famed artist "Banksy", as the exhibition's centrepiece, painted to look like pink floral wallpaper - a reference, so he claims, to weighty problems such as poverty. I think upon reflection it might have been altogether to have painted the artist to resemble flocked wallpaper and let the elephant be. But then, what would I know?
Oh and as an after thought, with reference to my Father's prolonged death bed, I think I had an incredibly lucky childhood all things considered, I was never hungry, I was not sent up chimneys to clean them at the age of four nor was I sold into slavery... my mother on the other hard had an incredibly hard adult life as a result of his illness, despite which she did her best, which is all any of us can hope to do. I do think sometimes it is tempting to see what we have from the negative side instead of counting our blessings.
I moved this post from a misplaced spot in july so here are the earleir comments...
Elizabethd has left a new comment on your post "And here are the Elephants you ordered...": What a lovely piece of writing..though nearly missed it as it's escaped back into June.Elephants, I feel, look as though they know more than we realise, they have that long suffering but patient gaze.
Faith has left a new comment on your post "And here are the Elephants you ordered...": I'm not even sure why there are tears in my eyes..... because your blog is so beautifully written? because I hope the Rudyard Kipling story is true? because the elephant in the picture is painted... and shouldnt be (or maybe it doesnt mind).... all this emotion is too much so early in the morning!I think it was amazing that you saw such a procession - definitely one of the last of its kind.


Eden said...

UPL Please write more. I loved reading this piece about wild beasts and how like children they are, Rudyard Kipling's magic words and the mournful eyes of elephants. so totally agree with you about glasses half full or half empty, about not camping in the past, and about practising the art of gratitude. As well as liking the diverted and hilarious, I like the other side of you too.

ChrisH said...

I'm with eden. I enjoy the Loufoques enormously but this is something else; it's quite magical. Look forwards to seeing what you write next.

bradan said...

I love your comment that the woman 'didn't possess a butter knife'. This was a refrain of my maternal Grandmother who liked to judge people by such things, she also had the grocer's boy call with her order and the cap doffing business.
I really, really enjoy these stories of yours,PLEASE PLEASE write more!! xx

The Country Craft Angel said...

Here here. I think this was WONDERFUL with a capital W. I see exactly what you mention in the elephants face.

Brilliant writing UPL and I love this other side blog of yours.

warm wishes

WIsh you could get something like this into something like the SUnday Papers/supplements-like the TImes?? You really should try.


Anonymous said...

That was a lovely touching story. Elephants are such incredible beasts, prehistoric as my mum thinks and even though they appear clumsy and giant I always think they are graceful. They deserve our kindness and respect.

Crystal xx

Blossomcottage said...

Lost in your words, thank you UPL, I loved it all every word,my sentiments exactly when you said

"I think I had an incredibly lucky childhood all things considered, I was never hungry, I was not sent up chimneys to clean them at the age of four nor was I sold into slavery"
We can wase our time wanting what we haven't got,regretting what we did and who we are, we are here to make the most of it and hopefully I do.

Thank You.

snailbeachshepherdess said...

You have such a gift.....yes I adore Mme Grognonne and Loic and the chroicles ...but this is something else. Is there any possibility you could consider knocking out a bookful so we could read it for homework...I get the feeling that your diary would leave Millicent King's looking very ordinary!!
I haven't got over Egypt yet....
will the Dolphin be next?

lampworkbeader said...

Thankyou for the elephants and the glimpse into your past.

Pondside said...

So glad that this made it up to where I saw it this evening! I'd hate to have missed it. So much of what you say resonates deeply in me - especially regarding childhood.

Woozle1967 said...

Totally fabulous. Your writing is up there with the very best of them. More please.xx

Rosalind said...

Interesting to know.