Whistling For The Elephants by Sandi Toksvig

WFE(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

I suppose it was quite amusing but I don’t concur with one reviewer who suggested that it provoked belly-laughs.

Her father sounds rather like mine: Coloured shirts on a man are a sure sign of homosexuality and Never trust a man in a ready-made bow tie.

I was amused that she thought that quoting the Bible at a (pet’s) funeral was a bit ‘catholic’.

There’s a majestic description of elephants and an ending to rival George Orwell’s ‘The Shooting of an Elephant.’

I had to look up ‘eland’ = antelope meat.

In an interview, the author said: Whistling for Elephants is about a 10-year-old girl living near New York in 1968. The parents in the book are a ghastly pair, cold and formal: the mother “had made the most of herself and then just carried on, not knowing when to stop” and the father is so reserved that he expresses emotion only by twitching his neck in his too-tight collar.

“They are terrible and my parents were terrific,” says Sandi, who claims that the autobiographical elements extend only to the time and place in which the book are set, and the family’s habit of travelling first class. Sandi’s father, the Richard Dimbleby of Denmark, worked in New York for six years, taking his British wife and three children – “a raucous and jolly family” – with him.

And yet, the child at the heart of the book is both sad and strikingly like the woman sitting opposite: “I caught sight of myself in a mirror,” she writes. “A slightly plump girl in a tie. Too much nearly a boy. A miniature monsieur-dame that no frock could ever feminise, with impossible red hair, for which there was no genetic explanation.”

This poor child is teased, misunderstood and told not to “be so different”. Along with some other “goddamn freaks” – a mixed-race boy and a woman whose face has been half ruined by a tiger – she struggles to save a zoo full of caged animals. Surely Sandi is that child?

“I wasn’t quite so tragic – I had a lot of friends and I wasn’t so socially awkward,” she says, with an attempt at laughter. “But is there anyone in the world who doesn’t see themselves as a shy, awkward person?”

In the book, as in conversation, she skids off the emotional tracks into humour or quirky quiz facts. Page after page is filled with offbeat female role models, from Artemesia, a fifth-century sea captain, to Theoigne de Mericourt, who liberated the Bastille.

There are diverting snippets, too, about animal habits. Did you know that an elephant produces a litre of ejaculate, which is enough to feed an ant-hill for a month? “Stop being funny,” I want to scream, as she says her literary agent wrote in a note.

Disguise it as she might, this is a moving book – one that gives an agonising picture of the child’s isolation. Talking about her own childhood, she adopts an off-hand tone. “I wasn’t a girly girl,” she says, “I wore trousers and a cap. There are pictures of me wearing a tie – but mostly because I wanted to wear a uniform – until I was teased out of it. I preferred Scalextric to dolls.” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/journalists/cassandra-jardine/9298055/Sandi-Toksvig-I-didnt-want-to-live-in-fear.html

WFE 2Quotations:

I was ten. Almost certainly I was wearing a short tartan kilt (Clan McLadybird), a white shirt, a very neatly tied tie, a blue blazer and a peaked sailor’s cap which hid my long curly ginger hair. No-one made me dress like that. It was a kind of school uniform I had invented for myself. In the photos the combination tie and skirt made me look a strange boy / girl hybrid. My face, born with a frown, was obscured by the peak of my hat. I had spent most of my early childhood shielded from a full view of anything. The cap and I were inseparable. I was, even in my tender years, trying to develop a rakish look. I spent many hours trying to persuade people to call me Cap’n instead of Dorothy. It didn’t work. Not a popular child. Not even with my parents.

`He walked, led entirely by his hips, a loose open walk which advertised all he had to offer.’

`I can’t worry about this, I can’t spend Sunday mornings wondering if the chicken on my table was depressed. How could you tell anyway? Bad posture?

“We shall have a Chinese Garden of Intelligence.” I jumped as a voice spoke behind me. I thought for a second it came from the picture. “A Great Menagerie. Like King George at Windsor or the Duke of Bedford. Tropical princes shall come and bring us barbaric offerings of tigers, leopards and creatures no man has ever seen before. We shall have such a collection that the Emperor of Abyssinia will hear of it and wish to come.”

I turned but couldn’t see anyone. Then, amongst the great drapes which covered the walls, something moved. A giant insect woman. All in brown. Its wings closed about itself. It spoke to me.

“No one, not even in Egypt, China, India or Rome, will be able to boast of such exotica.”

The huge bug shimmered toward me. She was maybe in her late thirties but when you’re a kid everyone just looks old. She was probably as old as Mother, just less set in aspic.

Outside the homeroom you had a long, thin, metal locker with a combination lock. In this you kept everything of value and your lunch. My locker was number 69. I was the last to join class 6A and locker 69 had been empty all year. I didn’t know but it had belonged to a girl who, at the age of eleven, had been kicked out of school for `going down’ on the assistant football coach. There was a general sense that her unnatural precocity was catching and no one had wanted her locker with its sniggering number. I didn’t know any of this. I didn’t know sixty-nine was a funny number. I thought going down was something you did in a lift. I didn’t know why everyone whispered when I approached my locker down the long, dark corridor. I was blinkered. I just liked having a locker with a lock. I thought it was a secret place for secret things.

I learned the pledge of allegiance by the second day and would leap to attention, hand over my heart, once the announcements were over. ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible before God with liberty and justice for all.’ It was like the Our Father in English assemblies only a bit shorter.

`They say the first primitive moths fluttered over giant dinosaurs a hundred and forty million years ago. Imagine that. The butterflies came much later. Forty million years. Really they are the new kids on the block. The moth is beautiful. Here, look.’ From inside her folds of brown clothing she removed a large black-rimmed magnifying glass, which she held up to the moth near my head. ‘Look. See how it has a tiny kind of hook-and‑- bristle thing linking its fore and hind wings? It can fly better than an airplane. Land more accurately than a helicopter. Of course some female moths can’t fly at all.’ She put down the magnifying glass and looked at me.

`Butterflies and moths are unique. Almost every part of their body from their wings to their feet is covered by thousands of delicate scales. That’s what gives them color and pattern, but we don’t see them. Do you like insects?’

`I don’t know. I don’t like spiders.’

`A spider could catch this moth. Some spiders can make a smell like a female moth and attract the male.’ She nodded at me confidentially. ‘Attraction is all about chemicals.’

‘Touch an elephant and you receive enlightenment. Buddha himself was born into the body of an elephant in an elephant trainer’s family. On the night of his birth, an elephant entered the dreams of Buddha’s mother, Queen Mahamaya, and Gautama Buddha was thus born patient, strong, meek and unforgetful.’

One bull can produce as much as a liter of ejaculate.

Did you ever see two herons court­ing?’ she asked. ‘They wrap their long necks around each other and reach such a pitch of emotion that I could have wished to be a heron so I might experience it.’

`Camels have very civil breeding methods although otherwise they are rather bad-tempered and I do not recommend them for a pet. If a female in the camel pack . . . sounds like a cigarette . . . anyway, if the female goes into heat then the males won’t fight for her. They just line up single file and in an orderly fashion to “service” her. When they’re done, they get off and go back to the end of the line.’

My country, ’tis of thee
Land of grape juice and tea,
Of thee I sing.
Land where we all have tried
To break the laws and lied!
From every mountainside The bootlegs spring . .

`Oh, we don’t give a damn
For our old Uncle Sam.
Way, oh, whiskey and gin!
Lend us a hand
When we stand in to land.
Just give us time
To run the rum in!

We had talked a lot about size. I mean to do with the elephants. We had probably built the world’s strongest enclosure out of the old train tracks but I still don’t think we were ready. Well, I wasn’t. I stood there watching three men unload the elephants from a large truck. Artemesia came first. The truck had rough slats as a walkway for her to come out of the vehicle so her feet were kind of at my eye level. At least it’s what I noticed first. This massive animal walked almost silently. The only noise came from the creaking wood as she swayed down toward me with incredibly precise footsteps. A silent walk with the track of her hind legs coming to rest precisely in the spoor of the front. Her sole spread out to take weight at each step. It was slow and deliberate. As she lifted her foot I could see the cracks and ridges under­neath. Like the grip on a great pair of sneakers. Then her foot would descend again, its built-in shock absorber of fatty fibrous tissue cushioning the impact. It was so neat.

Her feet had shiny round toenails. A smart lady out for the evening. She could have followed a dance card on the floor, this elegant, shimmying thing. So slow and precise and so silent.

As she got closer I moved up to her legs. They were tall, straight columns which supported her massive bulk, and she was big. I expected the vast expanse of gnarled skin. I knew from Helen’s reading that she was a pachy­dermata. It came from pachys, meaning ‘thick’ and derma, `skin’, but I didn’t know so much of it would be so soft. A great deal of it was like upholstered leather — a patch­work quilt. I reached out, completely unafraid. Her sides were prickly to feel — covered in short, stiff hairs. I moved my hand toward her head. She was mostly coarse and grainy to touch but some places were pliable and spongy, like around the loose baggy pants above her back legs. Endless rivers of wrinkles stretched above my head. A great Ordnance Survey of life across leather skin. The lines almost made grill marks across her sides and flanks, but it was at her head that I fell in love.

Artemesia looked at me. She had a constant, shy smile. There was not a wicked bone in her body. Mother would have said that the hair all round her mouth and chin looked like it needed plucking, but I loved it. It was a full and fearless growth. Her eyes seemed small for the size of her head and they had long lashes Judith would kill for. Soft brown eyes fringed with lashes as long as a hand. Her ears, the shape of Africa, flapped slightly in the warm night air. At the outer margins of her ears you could just see vast rivers of blood vessels surging with her life. Inside her ears and around her mouth, her skin was paper

thin and delicate. I reached up to touch her face and she bent down to help me. I put my hand behind her ears and felt a place as soft and cool and smooth as silk. Something happened in my stomach. I didn’t know, but I suspected it was my first encounter with sheer passion.

The other elephant was smaller. A lot smaller. Maybe three foot tall and just a few months old. I couldn’t tell. I mean, baby or not, she still must have weighed two hundred pounds. She was just as beautiful but maybe a little fatter. The mini-Jumbo was covered in soft baby fuzz and had a hunched, shuffling gait. Her skin was really too big for her body. She looked as though she had been dressed in an oversize gray Babygro. It bagged and sagged around her haunches. The baby was less delicate in her movements. She thumped out of the truck, tread­ing on and tripping over her trunk. Although the two had made the journey together she hurried to greet Artemesia. The baby put down her head as she ran to the larger elephant and they both began to make low rumbles at each other. They gently used the tips of their trunks to snake over each other’s heads, fondling, feeling and smelling tenderly. Then the baby snuggled close to her mother, put her trunk in her mouth and sucked at it like a baby with a thumb. She stood under the protective umbrella of Artemesia’s great body — like a child hiding in Mother’s skirts. I had never seen such open affection.

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