Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life

Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life

Article excerpt

My grandson Oscar, now nearly two, hardly says a word when he and I are out together.

It's like being out with a dog the conversation is so one-sided. He understands well enough.

He's attentive and interested and usually in favour of anything you care to mention. But he barely speaks. Which is strange because his parents are beginning to complain of his loquaciousness at home. 'You've gone all quiet now grandad's here, haven't you?' says his Mum, not without a touch of sarcasm at her child's new-found gravitas the moment his grandad hoves into view.

When Oscar and I went to the zoo last week, he hardly said a word all day. It was a day of astonishing late autumn beauty, of russets and golds and flaming maple leaves, and the sun's unseasonable warmth felt like a rich blessing. The animals were all outside, basking in it. At first I worried that Oscar's silence was a sign of illness or unhappiness. But once I'd settled into his company, I saw sense. On rare, miraculous days like these, why speak?

We went inside the rhinoceros house. There were two stalls in the rhinoceros house, each with one rhinoceros in it. I think they were shut in, rather than indoors voluntarily. Neither of them seemed to mind, however. One was lying down, staring at the cement wall;

the other was stripping twigs and leaves from a branch he'd been given as a snack. A sign requested us to be quiet because rhinoceroses are sensitive to noise.

I lifted Oscar and sat him on the rail of the stall with the snacking rhinoceros. We were not more than ten feet away from him and his earthy smell was overpowering but not unpleasant. His movements were ponderous, yet we also had a sense of dexterity, sensitivity and enjoyment. We contemplated him quietly, as asked. When I cleared phlegm from my throat, the animal's ears instantly swivelled 180 degrees to pinpoint the source of the noise. I didn't try to explain to Oscar what we were looking at. We were in a room with a dinosaur. It was listening to us. What word or comment by me could clarify a situation like that? 'Big'? 'Rare'? Even the word 'rhinoceros' didn't seem up to the job. So we simply looked, quietly.

After that we went to see the lions. The lions' leafy enclosure extended for an acre or so. …

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