Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life: Jeremy Clarke

Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life: Jeremy Clarke

Article excerpt

'Get ready for the stink,' said Oscar as we walked up the concrete ramp to the entrance of the ape house. As we pushed through the swing door, the smell of herbal manure and the humidity were momentarily overwhelming. Once our eyes had adjusted to the darkness, we saw the usual crowd gathered in front of the reinforced glass window that separated the mountain gorillas from the human beings. We had stupidly left Oscar's iPad on the first bus of the three it had taken us to get there, but by now our devastation had given way to depression. The sight of these mountain gorillas made the iPad seem curiously irrelevant.

I have a theory that the gene responsible for obesity in humans also compels them to go to the zoo. Eight out of every ten people walking around Paignton zoo that day were, I swear, massively fat. Some were on wheels, either electrically powered or propelled by other fat people. Walking sticks, frames and Neoprene supports testified to the weight exerted on knee and ankle joint. Every hundred yards or so we passed a kiosk selling ice creams and snacks with a queue of overweight people standing in front of it. 'Variability of the species,' said Darwin, 'may be partly connected with an excess of food.' When compared with the species held captive in the cages, paddocks and enclosures, the variability in the size of the human beings was much greater. Also, the captive species were more composed, their powers of concentration were greater, and outwardly they appeared more content.

In the gorilla house, the unfavourable comparison was unavoidable. The great apes were lying around in the rope hammocks provided for them, deep in their own thoughts. 'Who is the most intelligent, do you think?' I asked Oscar. 'Gorillas or people?' Oscar interrupted his own silent contemplation of the gorillas to join me in comparing the behaviour of the watchers with that of the watched. The watchers were the more ignoble species, clearly. And the apes probably had fewer gothic tattoos. Initially unsure of what to make of the magnificent organisms confined on the other side of the glass, and of their relationship with them, the majority of the humans resorted to lewd gestures, scatological observations and arrogant levity, which was taken up with gusto by the children. Speaking for myself, I had as little trust in the convictions in the minds of the onlookers as I had in those in the minds of the apes. …

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