Thursday, March 15, 2012

In The Pines

A couple of days ago we took our coffee for a walk through the pines behind the zoo, which is where we go usually when life is getting a bit samey and we want to see the elephant.  I'm not sure how many people know this, but there's a few places around Western Springs where you can get a good look at the elephant, and she quite likes it I think when we go and say hi, because she doesn't have a buddy anymore since Kashin died and the horse the zookeepers said they were going to get her as a pet doesn't seem to have turned up yet.

There's something comfortingly medieval about the idea of an elephant having a pet horse.  It evokes an orderly worldview, a nice tidy Great Chain of Being in which everything has a place in an Aquinian hierarchy: God at the top of course, then the Angels, The King, Noble Cats, Peers of the Realm, English Yeomen, Foreigners, Women (domestic), Women (foreign), Greater Beasts of the Field, Hounds, Lesser Beasts of the Field, Fowls (of the air), Fowls (domestic), Vermin & Serpents (Marine and Terranean), Hypothetical Unsaved Antipodeans, Strolling Minstrels, Vagabonds, Demons, all the way down to nasty old Lucifer brooding away in hell down there. It makes perfect sense on this view for anything higher up the chain to own anything lower down - so an elephant can clearly have a pet horse, or God could have a pet anything, but a domestic chicken, for example, could not keep an ox as a pet because that would be absurd.

But anyway, for whatever reason the zookeepers decided that the elephant didn't need a pet horse after all, so she just sort of mooches round her field and tries to make friends with the rabbits, who aren't really up for much.  We go and visit her once in a while, as I said, to keep her spirits up, and I think she appreciates the company, even at a small distance.  Elephants are OK to look at from a distance because they're reasonably large.
This time round, we were peering though the pine trees and waving a little bit so she could see we were there, and we were suddenly reminded (presumably the association was with the loyal Elephant Cavalry of Imperial British India) that this year is the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.  That elicited a round of back-slapping and respectful congratulations with coffee-mugs raised generally Northwards, very much in the tradition of Scott's men when they were on the ice. Then, since we were in a remembering mood, I remembered something strange that happened a long time ago and I'd almost forgotten.

"Have I ever told you the story of the time I played the tambourine By Royal Appointment?" I asked. 
"Nope.  Have you been saving it up?"
"Well, I'd almost forgotten in fact.  These sorts of things happen tediously often, you know." I was adopting an airy tone, suitable for the out-of-doors in reasonable proximity to wildlife.
"They don't at all, you know.  It's just that your memory isn't what it was because you tend to make things up instead of actually trying to recollect them."
"That's a good point, but this did actually happen I think.  Somewhere, I have a green T-shirt with a crown on it, about the right size for a goofy-looking ten-year-old."
"That sounds like the kind of thing you would have worn when you were about eighteen, actually, and picked up in any op-shop in Lower Hutt."
"Well. I confess I did try to wear it then, but it was pretty tight even on a goofy ten-year-old.  On a goofy eighteen-year-old there was just too much midriff.  I can't remember though whether that specifically was the problem, or whether it was just that it didn't match my eyes, but  anyway I did try and fail to wear it as an eighteen-year-old.  The provenance of the shirt, however, was not in doubt.  It was handed to me, I recall, shrink-wrapped, by a matronly-looking woman standing in an enormous warehousey thing in Earl's Court Stadium.  I think it was a stadium.  Something like that."
"Why was she handing you a t-shirt?"
"She was handing it to me, I think, because I could not be otherwise persuaded to leave the buffet table.  I think we were supposed to go up to the front and get them ourselves, but there was an abundance of free food and I didn't have many manners in those days."
"That sounds very likely.  But why were you there in the first place?"
"Well. As a Tambourine Player by Royal Appointment, it was my duty - my honour, really - to play the tambourine for Her Majesty on the occasion of an earlier jubilee.  The fortieth, I think.  Silver? Gold? Is that fortieth?"
"I'm not sure.  It would definitely be a metal though I'd say.  Let's call it silver, and leave gold for fifty.  That seems reasonable."

When we got home and consulted the Commemorative China, we realised
that silver is actually 25 years, and it happened in 1977. We still don't know 
what metal forty is. All other details in this story are accurate though, more or less.

"OK, it was the Queen's Silver Jubilee.  So she got me to come an play the tambourine for her."
"In a tight green t-shirt with a crown on it?"
"Naturally.  This was 1992, of course, and tight green t-shirts with crowns on them were the very height of goofy-looking ten-year-old fashion."
"OK.  What were the princes wearing?"
"Um. I don't know.  Suits, I'd imagine.  You have to remember that even as a Tambourine Player by Royal Appointment, you don't necessarily get to access all areas. I have to confess I don't recall seeing the princes."
"Not at all?"
"Not that I recall.  There was a lot going on though.  I'd just been introduced to Dungeons & Dragons, for example, so I was a bit distracted."
"Introduced to Dungeons & Dragons? By the matronly lady with the t-shirt?"
"No, she only features in this story as a t-shirt deliverer.  The Dungeons and Dragons vector was a boy called Colin.  He was, I think, a Triangle Player By Royal Appointment."
"So this wasn't a solo performance?"
"No, I had a band I guess.  Sort of."
"Oh, that's a shame, I kind of imagined you in the drawing room at Buckingham Palace waggling a tambourine like that boy from Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, all by yourself on the Royal Carpet."
"Transfixing the corgis with my scintillating rhythm?"
"That would have been cool. In my green T-shirt."
"And the Duke could have dropped a race-bomb, and you wouldn't have even know because you were only ten."
"And a little bit goofy-looking."
"With a crown on your shirt." The elephant did a bit of a snort around now, showing that not everybody wanted to hear about this couterfactual scenario.

"Yeah that would have ruled, but remember I didn't have very good manners - so I would never have got that kind of gig. I totally could now though, because I'm really good with old ladies and the Queen would love the now me. Back then she would probably just have not been amused."
"And you would have eaten all the asparagus rolls at the garden party."
"For sure.  No, the real life thing was different. It was like, every country in the Commonwealth had to send some kids along to this thing called The Great Event at Earls Court Stadium.  I think it was a Stadium.  Something."
"Sort of like The Hunger Games?"
"Yeah but way more lame.  Like nobody got to do any fighting or anything, and I don't think there was a death penalty involved."
"That already sounds lamer than what I know about the Hunger Games."
"Which is actually not heaps, eh?"
"You're right, it's practically nothing.  So it wasn't really like the Hunger Games at all then?"
"I don't think so.  I don't really know anything about the Hunger Games either, so let's say it was more like the thing at primary school where all the choirs have to go to the Lower Hutt Horticultural Hall and do a performance."
"Oh yeah and you sing something like There's a Fraction Too Much Friction and the singing teacher gets real grumpy because all the kids sing essentially the same word for Friction and Fraction and it makes her look bad in front of all the other singing teachers."
"That's the one.  Except instead of Schools, it was Countries, and instead of the Lower Hutt Horticultural Hall it was Earls Court Stadium."
"Or something."
"Yeah, or something.  And instead of singing teachers, it was - I'm pretty sure I'm remembering this right - some dudes from the Army."
"I think so.  It kind of makes sense, like maybe they were the Brass Band or something."
"So these guys from the army taught you all to sing a song?"
"That was the interesting thing, actually."
"Finally." The elephant looked up expectantly as well.

"Nah, stay with me here. This story has The Queen in it, remember? No, the thing was, they figured we would all be way too unruly and retarded to learn a song, so-"
"So they gave you, what, a bunch of percussion instruments?" Millicent Crow has a post-graduate diploma in Primary Education, but you don't need one of those to know that this plan was doomed from the start. The elephant shook her head.

"Yeah, weird eh? There were maybe a few hundred of us.  How many countries are there in the Commonwealth?"
"Counting Zimbabwe?"
"Yep, this was 1992, remember? They were still in the club then."
"Right. Um, no idea."
"Me neither, but I reckon fifty or so.  And there were about six or seven kids just from New Zealand, so that makes, what? Heaps of kids."
"Heaps of kids."
"Way too many to make it a good idea to hand out percussion instruments. But they did! I think I lost faith in the Army as an institution around about then."
"I bet you didn't, because you've already told me that there was an unlimited buffet."
"You're right.  Sorry.  I shouldn't impose my current prejudices on my goofy ten-year-old self. No, plus I think I thought their uniforms were pretty cool."
"That sounds more likely."
"So they had these percussion instruments, and all these kids, in a massive warehouse-"
"You said stadium."
"It was more of a warehouse.  And they gave us our lunches in paper bags."
"Not a buffet?"
"I think - I think - there was both. Which would make this about the best thing that had ever happened to me up until that point and probably quite a bit further on as well."  I grew a little bit misty eyed, and the sun slanted through the pine trees in a Golden Age kind of way.  "And we were there for two days!"

We were there for two days, I remembered. Oddly enough this was all coming back to me as we were talking, although it seemed like a strange sort of thing to forget in the first place.  Two days in what I remember now as a large empty warehouse or aircraft hangar, presumably somewhere in London - possibly behind Earl's Court, which is more of a hall than a stadium now I look at it on the Internet - with children from all over the world, many of them in colourful national costume (we got the t-shirts, apparently New Zealand doesn't have a national costume) and everybody milling about, hitting woodblocks and cymbals, twirling around and getting underfoot, eating asparagus rolls handed out by a bunch of crewcut blond dudes in military dress uniforms. It was sort of like if you got Baz Luhrman in to design a high-concept refugee camp, with a lot of emphasis on camp. A really good place at any rate to get recruited into the ranks of goofy-looking ten-year-old Dungeons and Dragons players.

Each group of kids had to learn the rhythm - just the rhythm, no words or even actions or anything - to our 'national song.' At least the main hook to that tune, anyway - the killer middle eight that would get Her Majesty sitting up in her seat reflecting on the loyalty of her subjects and the vastness of her empire.  This was 1992, so it was still OK to say 'empire,' of course.

"So what song did you guys learn?"
"That was one of the weird parts.  It had to fit in with this big long piece that the orchestra was playing" (let's say it was the London Philharmonic, or at least the BBC Pops, something with a little class) "and it was really quite long, so they sort of squished us in a bit."
"Squished? Like how?"
"Well, we all sat on this big map they'd painted on the floor of the stage, all the kids on their own countries.  Or it our case and with like Fiji and stuff, it was more that we were sitting in the sea near our countries, because they were using azimuthal projection, which unfairly favours the Northern Hemisphere.  The Canadians were positively rattling around, and Northern Ireland had plenty of room.  Didn't stop them stretching their legs South a little though, bless their Loyal hearts."
"So there you were, sitting in the sea."
"There we were, sitting in the sea.  And for some reason - I don't know who the arranger was or anything, but we were getting the short straw left and right.  Not only did they give us this tiny little squiggle to sit on" - here I was becoming indignant, no wonder I had buried this memory - "Not content to squeeze us into the sea, guess what our 'national song' was?"
"Ooh, um? Gosh... Blam Blam Blam, There is No Depression In New Zealand?"
"Try again.  National song. Synonymous in the minds of the Royal Family with these shaky isles and their verdant land uplifted high."
"No, I give up.  Go on."
"I'll tell you: Waltzing. Matilda. Waltzing Bloody Matilda. The national song of the Loyal and Ancient Dominion of Australiaandnewzealand, apparently.  That's when I became a communist."
"No you didn't, that was later on at University when you saw a picture of Che Guevara looking smoking hot."
"OK, you're right, but I should have.  Anyway, we got our own back in a way.  It really is a daft idea, giving a pack of kids percussion instruments and expecting them to wait quietly until their cue.  We really wanted the Queen to notice us, so we sort of joined in with the other National Songs as they happened.  Lots of vim and enthusiasm, but my god some of those National Songs are tricky! Talk about embarrassing your singing teacher - I expect the Army Brass Band guy in charge of training the ANZAC contingent is scrubbing latrines in Afghanistan as we speak."
"Do you think she noticed?"
"Well.  This was twenty years ago, and she's had two chances since then to invite me to play at her Jubilees.  Which, conspicuously, she hasn't done.  So my guess is yes, she noticed."
"Not amused?"
"Not only that, she hasn't even come to visit since then.  She keeps sending the kids instead. Or going to Australia."
"Which she obviously thinks is the same place anyhow."
"Yeah.  Waltzing Bloody Matilda."

I shook my head. My faith in the Great Chain of Being had been dealt another blow.  The elephant snorted, took a final trunkfull of grass, and ambled back inside her Elephant Hutch.  The rabbits sniffed the air and bolted for their burrows as the baboons across the creek began their post-prandial howl.  The light had gone from gold to red and we toasted the Queen, packed up the picnic, and headed for home through Western Springs Park.