Rabbit


 

   Given the beautiful feel and aspect of the hamster-lined coat I talked about in my last post, I was wondering why more coats like that are not still around. When that coat was made hamsters were being slaughtered en masse due to their being an agricultural pest. This was before Syrian hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus) had become familiar as a living toy, so the associated taboos would not have been in operation (all domesticated hamsters are descended from a pregnant female captured in 1930, they were first of all used as laboratory animals). Maybe hamster fur simply went out of fashion, as has happened with rabbit. I remember the almost unbelievably soft rabbit fur that lined my father's motor cycle gloves. He had worn them years previously when roaring around sinuous English lanes on his Triumph Thunderbird. This was in the days before fatherhood obliged him to cram himself into the driving seat of a Ford Prefect, his gloves condemned to the ignominy of the sock drawer.

   But the rabbits – Rabbit fur may be out of fashion but rabbit farms still exist, certainly here in France where it's mainly older people who eat rabbit meat. I read in an English newspaper that people who keep cats don't mind feeding them cat-food made from chicken or lamb or cow, but baulk at rabbit – they find the last option immoral. I suppose it's because rabbits are kept as pets. It would be a bit like feeding one's cat to one's dog, or indeed, eating one's dog, an exercise which would assuage hunger but increase loneliness – and which could explain Fido's slavering eagerness to be our best friend.

   Of course when times are hard everything gets eaten. I read that during World War II flayed cat torsos could be found hanging in London butchers' shops where they were euphemistically referred to as “Roof Rabbit” (the German equivalent being Dachhase - 'roof-hare'), the article stated that only an expert could differentiate between a skinned, decapitated and dismembered cat and a skinned, decapitated and dismembered rabbit – apparently the shoulder blades give the game away.

   Christian Gonzenbach has an exhibition at the moment that eloquently illustrates some of the absurdities inherent in our relationship with, among other animals, the rabbit. It can be seen in Roubaix, near Lille, in the north of France, and is called “ZOOnomia, de la nature humaine”.

   Gonzenbach made this 5 metre high rabbit from 650 rabbit skins discarded by a rabbit farm;
 



  'Great Stuffed Rabbit' 


These lambs, bound for the abattoir, have had their lives extended for the duration of the exhibition;

 Le Sursis' - The Stay of Execution (This is a preparatory image - the actual fenxce is, unfortunately, higher)


These tragicomic ostrich boots are made of ostrich leather;






 

Tom

  

   Alice Thomas Ellis opined that “There is no reciprocity. Men love women. Women love children. Children love hamsters. Hamsters don't love anyone”.
   Hamsters are right to be circumspect, a life in a cage whose only entertainment is a treadmill leaves a lot to be desired. And that's not all...

   Tom Higgs was a friend of mine who died last year after having lived a long and full life. His son Bill, similarly a friend, has a beautiful chess set carved by Tom during the years he was incarcerated in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, a period he talked about only when pressed and then without rancour.

   A taciturn man with a dry wit, Tom was an accomplished accordion player who would enliven a social gathering with impromptu performances. He was also very dapper with an eye for the unusual, for instance, his overcoat was lined with hamster. Bill kindly gave me Tom's coat which, despite being several sizes too small for me, takes pride of place on my coat rack.


     The 28 hamster pelts that line Tom's coat are those of the European hamster (Cricetus cricetus), a large hamster species under threat of extinction here in France. When Tom first had his coat they were being enthusiastically eradicated from the French countryside as they were considered an agricultural pest (they are fond of root crops). Unusually for a hamster they readily take to water, using their inflated cheek pouches as an aid to buoyancy.


 
     Speaking of inflated quadrupeds; I recently came across a video clip of a man called Risto Todoroski. Risto's musical ability, combined with his unusual choice of instrument (a form of 'gaida'), reminded me of Tom. I think he would have enjoyed this;

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Nearing perfection


 

   I found the remnants of a card album in a local antique shop. This mouflon sheep card was a loose one. There was no cover so I don't know what kind of cards they are. They seem too big (9.5 by 13.5 cms/ 3 ¾" by 5 ¼") to be cigarette cards. A French friend tells me she remembers how similar cards were given out as rewards at school (the pages have no printed information and could well be those of a simple cahier).

   Each illustration has an art deco border incorporating plants from the relevant environment, in the mouflon's case the flowers, leaves and pods of the carob tree. I think the composition and execution are exquisite. I've no idea who the artist is. The text on the reverse side is by Eugene Muller.
 



 

Half a lion is still a lion...







  The gorilla illustration is not too lifelike; I think it is of a museum specimen prepared in the days when stuffed gorillas were made to look maniacal.
 



A rare elegance.

ô


 

   It's raining here in France; il pleut. Rainfall; pluviosité. The French for 'rain' derives from the Latin pluvius. If the French republican calendar were still in operation we would now be in the month of Pluviôse (a three week month, each week ten days long, extending from late January to mid February). The National Convention that oversaw the creation of the calendar decreed that a circumflex should not be used on the 'o', but that directive was generally ignored - which makes sense as the 'o' would need a hat in the rainy month.

 
This is my Peewit or Lapwing or Green Plover (Vanellus vanellus)

  This plover has several common names (and many more regional ones) as it is a striking, widespread bird that feeds in a variety of habitats.

   'Peewit' derives from its call.

  
Until recently I'd assumed that the 'wing' in 'Lapwing' was there as a direct result of the bird's lolloping flight (I'm sure I'm not alone in this, which is no doubt the reason the term has remained current), but Francesca Greenoak, a reputable etymologist, says, in 'All the Birds of the Air';

   “... the word Lapwing comes from the Old English Hleapewince which has the quite beautiful meaning of a 'leap with a waver in it' which conveys so well the tremulous power of the Lapwing's flight. The autumn and winter group flights are particularly 'hleapewince', a flock surging and turning, showing first the green-black upperside of the wide wing, then the brilliant white of the underside, moving together like a flickering chequerboard.”

   The French term for a plover is pluvier, which used to be plovier and was Anglicised as such when the Normans invaded England. I imagine the word would have quickly spread, along with the other French-inspired gastronomic replacement words (mutton/sheep, beef/cow, Pork/swine), as Lapwing eggs were a popular dish. In various dictionaries there is much talk of the plover/pluvier/pluvius/rain connection (the German for plover, Regenpfeifer, means 'rain-piper'), but, according to 'The Oxford Dictionary of British Bird Names' by W B Lockwood, these associations are erroneous;

   “The name is basically imitative of the clear, far-reaching call, in this case heard as plō (the Norsemen heard it as lō), but associated by folk etymology with plovere (Classical pluere) to rain, imparting a meaning something like rain bird. It is needless now to add that the many attempts to find a rational connection between the Plover and the rain, by writers ancient and modern, have necessarily been in vain.”

   Another plover association comes to mind, one beautifully surmised by Robert Williams Wood in 'How to tell the Birds from the Flowers' (1917);


The Imperative Mood of Must


 

   Many elephants found in provincial museums ended up there because they were circus animals that died when touring in the vicinity. Circus owners must have been delighted if they could dispose of the carcases in this way and thus save on their transport and burial.

   'Punch', a bull elephant on display in the Toulouse Museum of Natural History died the 11th December 1907. He belonged to Pinder circus. After he killed a couple of horses and badly injured his trainer the army was called in to shoot him, twelve soldiers formed the firing squad. Punch remained upright after the first fusillade so a second was fired.
 





   'Punch'
 
   'Fritz', a bull elephant on display in the Tours Museum of Natural History, died the 11th June 1902. He belonged to the Barnum and Bailey circus. Fritz had killed a circus employee in Bordeaux earlier that year and had once more become unmanageable, so they elected to put him down. Of the 18 elephants on this three-year Barnum and Bailey tour 6 died (including all the bulls).
 
   The illustration below shows Fritz (transformed into an African elephant) being strangled by a team of men, but in reality the ropes were pulled by two horses. It took hours for him to die. Choking an elephant to death in this manner was not an isolated event; in 1888 the Adam Forepaugh Circus had strangled to death 'Big Chief' - only this time the ropes were pulled by two elephants. As elephants are highly social and hierarchical animals, one wonders what the psychological impact was on the two executioners. It also makes one question why Fritz and Big Chief weren't shot like Punch, unless bullet-ridden hides and shattered skulls were less valuable to natural history museums...





  'Fritz'
 
   There were various reasons given for the sudden aggressiveness of these animals – Punch had had a change of trainer, Fritz had been burnt by a cigar – incidents which may well have played a part, but it would seem most likely that these elephants had entered 'must', the period when a bull elephant's testosterone levels are many times higher than normal and his temperament changes accordingly.
 
   I have visited dozens of natural history museums and, somewhat conveniently, have never dwelt on the manner of dispatch of the animals therein, at least not beyond classifying them vaguely as victims, the older specimens of colonialism and the more recent ones of speeding cars.
 
   It occurs to me there are human parallels with these circus elephants that found themselves doubly victimised. If a man is convicted of murder he receives a life sentence or capital punishment; Punch and Fritz received both.



Afore ye go!

 

                                                                         Odd Nerdrum
 

The City

You said: “I'll go to another country, to another shore,
Find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
And my heart lies buried like something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
Where I've spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won't find another country; another shore.
This city will always pursue you.
You'll walk the same neighborhoods,
Will turn gray in these same houses.
You'll always end up in this city. Don't hope for things elsewhere:
There's no ship for you, there's no road.
Now that you've wasted your life here, in this small corner,
You've destroyed it everywhere in the world.


By Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933).
Translated from the Greek by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.

This, that and the Other


 

   Whenever I'm doing whatever it is I do I usually listen to a French radio station called 'France Culture'. It's where I first heard the word altérité (a philosophical term equivalent to 'otherness'), I raced to look it up, which was just as well as they sometimes use it several times a day. Such esoteric terms are typical of the station. My friend Declan refers to 'France Culture' as 'Radio Snob', he is adept at parodying the announcers' delivery, employing a confidential whisper and ludicrously long words to describe some banal idea. Declan has a point, but I'm a sucker for sesquipedalia, especially when performed by a sultry French woman who sounds like she's resting the microphone on her epiglottis.

   I recently heard 'France Culture' review a contemporary circus, hushed feminine tones argued that the performance was close in spirit to the circuses of old. The voice was seductive, but I remained unconvinced. I've seen several contemporary circuses and have been impressed by the athleticism and wit of the performers, but the experience was nothing like that of attending an old-fashioned circus.

   In Britain enlightened types have managed to ban most traditional circuses from performing on the grounds that they are cruel to animals; here in France enlightened types organise governmental grants to keep small family circuses going on the grounds that they are a dying art form.
 


 
   I remember once, when driving through deepest Burgundy, seeing a bedraggled camel tethered to a tree. Pinned to the tree was a circus poster featuring snarling tigers and that day's date, so later I tootled along to see the show. There was a shabby tent containing about twenty spectators. I settled down on one of the empty benches. The lights dimmed and revived to a recorded fanfare, the family patriarch, dressed in what seemed like Turkish national costume, then jogged into the ring dragging behind him that afternoon's bedraggled camel, along with a goat and a small cow. He then walked them in circles. This act was followed by a couple of clowns who shouted and fell over. I can't remember much else, but I do recall the lack of snarling tigers. After the show I mentioned their absence to the man in the fez, he told me the tigers were sick and motioned toward an empty tiger trailer. They must have been in hospital. An alternative explanation would be that he toured with an empty tiger trailer to warrant putting tigers on his posters. In some ways it was the perfect circus; all the expectation of untamed exoticism with none of the pathos of actually seeing some institutionalised big cat get prodded with a stick.


   I attended a less imaginative but more memorable circus a couple of years later. It was a big one, 'Pinder' I think. To get a close look at the animals I sat in the front row where I was soon joined by some small children. No sooner had the show started than we were swamped by hordes of other children from the cheaper seats (policing of seat allocation was very lax). The first act had six or seven elephants rearing on their hind legs, unnatural behaviour that must have put enormous strain on their ligaments. Then came Sven. Middle-aged and corpulent, Sven was heralded as 'The Man who feels no Pain'. He lumbered into the ring in an ill-fitting faux leopardskin leotard whose gusset had seen better days. After stumbling over a bolus of elephant dung he started to growl and bend metal bars around his neck. The bars were quite long and I felt that given the leverage this wasn't too Herculean a task, but everyone clapped enthusiastically (no one more than myself – I didn't want Sven challenging me to have a go, he'd already been eyeing my choice of seating with some suspicion). But what Sven did next was impressive; he started pushing knitting needles through his face. He convulsed and grimaced as he passed the spikes through his cheeks (I thought it strange he convulsed and grimaced if he felt no pain, but to remind him of this seemed churlish, and, given his increasingly hostile glances, reckless). I think many in the audience thought his actions were legerdemain, but for those of us in the front row their authenticity made for a sickening sight. A number of my neighbours returned, distraught and chastened, to their original seating.

   There you have it; self-mutilation as entertainment. Behind the crooked smile I could see Sven's tired eyes as he took his bow and slowly backed out of the ring. The 'France Culture' woman would have gagged on her audio equipment, but if it was altérité she wanted it was here, incarnate, slouching toward its bloodied pillow.

"Nothing, like something, happens anywhere"




Now this is a room you can think in;

    I discovered it in the Natural History Museum of Maastricht. No electronic distractions, just objects of interest and a crystalline silence scratched only by the complaints of my borborygmic gut (it was approaching luncheon's hallowed hour), whose stifled complaints reflected perfectly the room's sense of rebellious nature barely contained.

   There were bustards and monkeys and stacked boxes of wonder;


An anatomical display of a fish's air bladders; a mystery explained, only to reveal more mysteries...
And underneath, crustaceans, alert, knowing, waiting for us to understand.

 I sat in a corner of the room for some time, soaking it up, my umbrella tightly furled.
 


   I was motionless and suffused with contentment when a cleaning lady arrived. She was light of foot despite her heavy build, sliding noiselessly on the parquet in her foam-soled slippers, her ostrich-feather duster respectfully stroking the exhibits. I muttered a salutation but it went unacknowledged, my grasp of Dutch is slight and my mumbled enunciation of Goededag mevrouw was hesitant and may have been attributed by her to my voluble duodenum. My corner position meant it was difficult for me to evade her presumed route, the lady was wide and her dusting erratic, so I sat tight, my eyeballs following her plumes as they danced around me. At last she slid from the room and we all relaxed and rearranged our feathers and scales and spectacles, and went back to doing nothing.

Beware the Bald Noumenon





 
  “He had never indulged in the search for the True Substance, the One, the absolute, the Diamond suspended from the Christmas Tree of the Cosmos. He had always felt the faint ridicule of a finite mind peering at the iridescence of the invisible through the prison bars of integers. And even if the Thing could be caught, why should he, or anybody else for that matter, wish the phenomenon to lose its curls, its mask, its mirror, and become the bald noumenon.”

  - Vladimir Nabokov on Adam Krug in 'Bend Sinister'

   Despite Krug's objections there remains something seductive about the idea of the shaggy phenomenon being shorn and becoming the naked noumenon, exposed and vulnerable to our prying minds. Not that I think that is what would happen. It strikes me that were Krug, against his better judgement, to straddle the hairy beast and press home his whirring blades the real noumenon would be that which is shorn off, it would be the mass of infinitely variable strands of hair whisked away by unseen hands as he wrestles the flailing limbs. When he unplugs the shears and examines the floor it would have already been swept clean, when he looks for the sack of sweepings it would have already been hurled into the back of a revving truck, by the time Krug rushes outside (having tripped over the smirking false noumenon) all he sees is a distant cloud of dust.

Head case



   This is my 'craniotèque', an old dresser I found in a junk shop for 100 euros into which I've put my collection of skulls. I could refer to it as my 'skull cupboard', the Germanic clunkiness of which I quite like, but my calling it a 'craniotèque' amuses my French neighbours, so 'craniotèque' it is.
   I think my gorilla skulls look more at home now; a pseudo-scientific dresser being a marginally more suitable ossuary than their previous abode, an authentic china cabinet;


    These two skulls are extremely old, I have always felt ambivalent about displaying them. Their present home seems somehow more 'respectful', though I think the context of the craniotèque would be improved if there were more primate skulls present, including, one day, my own.

    The skulls belonged to male gorillas; the male crania have a bony ridge, the sagittal crest, which anchors massive jaw muscles to the top of the head. Female gorillas lack this crest but their jaw muscles are still attached to the top of the skull. We are the only primate whose jaw muscles don't reach so high; ours are anchored just above our temples.



     In 2004 Hansell Stedman of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine postulated that a chance genetic mutation, occurring 2.4 million years ago, caused the temporalis jaw muscles of one of our ancestors to reduce in size. Stedman suggests that this change, despite putting the weaker-jawed mutant and his or her descendants at a physical disadvantage, meant that the cranium was free to expand. This transformation has been referred to as the 'room for thought mutation'.

   Other scientists have criticised this extrapolation as being “too pat”, but I think it will gain popular ground regardless of its scientific merits as it's an easy and flattering transition to visualise - our brain cases inflating like fecund mushrooms and separating us for ever from our low-browed prognathous relatives who, bowed with shame, scuttle into oblivion while our spectacular cerebral expansion enables us to... well, you know the kind of things we get up to.

   It's interesting, despite frequent disappointments, what our big brains have led us to do; it's also interesting what our big brains haven't led us not to do. For instance, my arranging of my skulls in the cabinet has a semblance of intellectual inquiry, but it seems to me the underlying reason to do such a thing is motivated, at least in part, by something more primitive; a search for patterns and the enjoyment derived from establishing them. I suspect that this process is a vestige of an ancient survival mechanism, an atavistic need to remember where food sources are, or to predict where dangers lie, or to find our way around using the courses of rivers or the configurations of stars.

   As our intellectual abilities developed we became capable of creating our own patterns less intimidating than the swirling motifs that ruled our lives. I think my displaying of skulls in a cupboard reflects, albeit palely, the aims of a weak-jawed ancestor who placed his hand on a cave wall and spat ochre at the splayed fingers, the stencilled outline recording a moment of stillness, an artificial respite from constant change.