Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Old Man At The Zoo


For a couple of years after 2000 and into the noughties the only friends I had were chimpanzees....

I started to go off the rails after my dog died in 2000. And then in Feb 2001 my girlfriend threw in the towel as well ...

I decided I needed the company of wolves. I began going to Colchester Zoo. Every week. At first to the wolfpack because they reminded me of my dog. But the wolves were nervy and self-contained and happy in their own pack and they had no interest in me. I moved on to the big cats. Big, gorgeous, predatory machines. And they look right through you. I’d squash my face against the reinforced glass wall and look deep into those huge perfectly steady golden eyes. But nothing reflects. I didn’t register on their radar.

Sooner or later I found myself shuffling up to the primates. My last relationship with a big ape was Guy the Gorilla at Regent’s Park Zoo in the nineteen-sixties. He was the reason I loved to go. My family would traipse around looking for somewhere to eat. And my nine year old self would make excuses to keep returning to look at poor old Guy. Massive, magnificent, bored and depressed Guy. The real King Kong.

Anyway, for a couple of years in the early Noughties, these chimps at Colchester were the only friends I had. Drizzly monday mornings, I’d nestle down on my sketching stool, pull my collar up and watch with delight and rapture and try and jot down some pencil impressions. Within a few weeks the younger ones recognised me and would signal my arrival with screams and excited thumping and kicking on the glass and would show curiosity in seeing my drawings afterwards.

The alpha male of this group was an old man named Bob. Not the biggest of the troop, not the loudest, but he carried a quiet authority and a nod or a gesture from him was enough to keep things just the way he liked. Well, apart from the young ones, who seemed as wayward and mischievous as any teenage humans. In response to frequent tormenting and boisterousness, Bob would eventually raise his voice and occasionally give one of them a clip around the ear and things would settle down again...

Chimpanzees are immensely strong and in the wild will ferociously defend their territory against rival troops. They have been known to use weapons, commit genocide (like humans) and even eat their own kind. When I was a child, they were perceived as cuddly little doll-like creatures like Tarzan’s Cheetah. Gorillas. on the other hand, were regarded, thanks to King Kong, as being brutal, aggressive, threatening creatures. But now the reverse seems to be the real case.


  1. Thanks for the last 2 posts - both the images and text. It's reminded me of the importance, and joy, of sketching everyday, of which I've been very lax of late.

  2. Keep a small notebook and a pen in your pocket all the time and Don't Be Precious! (this is what I was taught!). Just jot down every thing - most of it will be crap but there will be one or two nuggets!

  3. I loved this post in particular the admission that loss of an animal can be as devastating, i lost my cat a couple of years ago, id always worked from home so he was my only companion a lot of the time, he was 13 when he died and i lost it, i was really ashamed oddly, im still not over it, i even feel daft writing this, anyway brilliant post.

  4. Thanks Neil. And I don't think it's daft at all - I kind of took animals for granted when I was small (as kids do) - but the older I get the more interesting and valuable they seem to become. Muses each and every one of 'em.