Monthly Archives: May 2006

Kakapo Jayne

I love kakapo.

I love them so much I know their Latin name, Strigops habroptilus, without looking it up. I love them so much I once named a canary after them. I love them so much I sometimes listen to their calls on my CD player while I’m washing up. I even have a list of all their names pinned to the wall of my kitchen. My favourite (though I’ve never met him, and probably never will) is a kakapo called Gumboots who was caught in the wild in 1988.

I love them so much that I can’t help but feel sad.

Why?

Because there are only 86 kakapo left in the entire world.

Picture the world’s heaviest parrot: completely flightless, with a longer lifespan than pretty much any other bird on the planet (nobody knows for sure, but it seems they can live for up to 60 years). Hailing from New Zealand, like many of that beautiful country’s flightless birds they suffered greatly when men settled on the islands, falling prey to rats, cats and other introduced carnivores. Since the 1980s the Kakapo Recovery Plan has been struggling to increase their numbers, rounding up every bird in the wild – not that there were that many in the first place – and settling them on two islands free of predators. Slowly, kakapo have been breeding, their numbers rising. There are so few of them that every chick who doesn’t make it is named and mourned.

Kakapo are among the rarest and most extraordinary creatures this world has ever seen. Douglas Adams wrote about them in his book Last Chance To See, loving the way they climbed trees and threw themselves from the branches, apparently oblivious to the fact they couldn’t fly. (Luckily, the ground in New Zealand is very mossy and they bounce quite nicely.) Other than this endearing habit, kakapo are known for their booming mating call and, mostly, for their exotic scent – nowhere summed up more poetically than in this paragraph from Wikipedia.com:

“One of the most striking characteristics of Kakapo is their pleasant and powerful odour, which has been variously described as like flowers and honey, an air freshener or the inside of an antique violin case.”

Isn’t that just exquisite? How can a bird smell like the inside of an antique violin case? How lovely is that?

The reason I’m waxing lyrical about kakapo is because yesterday my friend Martin paid me a visit and, as is my wont whenever I get the chance, I took him to the Natural History Museum for the afternoon. And there, in one of the display cases, not far from the stuffed dodo and the thylacine and the other faded jewels of the animal kingdom, sat a dusty, ruffled kakapo, peering out through the glass at the ghosts of his disappearing brethren.

There’s something unutterably sad about seeing a dead kakapo gathering dust in a museum.

86.

In the whole world. Think about it.

86.

“The kakapo is a bird out of time. If you look one in its large, round, greeny-brown face, it has a look of serenely innocent incomprehension that makes you want to hug it and tell it that everything will be all right, though you know that it probably will not be.” – Douglas Adams.

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How To Review Doctor Who Without Reviewing Doctor Who

I had a text message from Biddy earlier. “We’re off to a barbecue tonight,” it said. “Which means free food (woohoo!), but sadly I won’t be able to watch Doctor Who until tomorrow. Don’t text me any spoilers after you’ve watched it tonight!”

It finished airing at 8pm. Despite the fact I was busting to screech about Cybermen, all I texted her was this:

“The Doctor’s hair was particularly lovely in that episode.”

She replied: “A nice, non-commital review. You should work in journalism.”

I don’t know why, exactly, but I laughed so much at that I dropped my phone.

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The Sultan’s Elephant

My friend Natalie came to stay with me this weekend. She’s emigrating to Turkey and this was the first time we’d seen each other in a year and a half – lord knows when we’ll meet up again. I’ve tried my damnedest to get her to move to London rather than go overseas, but she’s set her heart on all those beaches and bars and, more importantly, lots of men in swimming trunks, so I’m fighting a losing battle. However, during her visit this magnificent city called London did its very best to woo her. Frankly, I’m amazed she even got on her plane today…

We were walking through Trafalgar Square on Saturday and I was wondering why all the roads were blocked off and barriers had been erected. I asked one of the crowd control officers and he said, “It’s because of The Sultan’s Elephant.”

“Huh?” said Nat. “What’s that?”

Now, I’d caught a few seconds of a news report about an elephant the night before, although I’d had no idea what was going on because the sound was turned off. I did register that it looked wonderful: a puppet elephant with a moving trunk and some kind of seat on its back. Armed with that meagre image – I couldn’t even tell you how large the thing was – I turned to Nat and said, “We have to see this; I think it’ll be great!”

We sat in Trafalgar Square for ten minutes before discovering The Sultan’s Elephant was running late, so we decided to nip up to a little café I know just off Leicester Square for lunch. There we were, chatting away, oblivious to the crowds around us… then we turned into the Haymarket and had the shock of our lives.

The Sultan’s Elephant was walking towards us.

Several children standing nearby learnt some new swear words that day. We were so stunned by what we saw, so staggered, that all we could do was swear. The elephant was three storeys high, completely animatronic, strolling down the street with a vast crowd at his feet walking backwards in front of him, unable to tear their eyes away from the sight. On a lorry behind him rode a band playing beautiful Indian music, ghostly and jolly and magical, and the elephant rolled his eyes and blinked and flapped his ears high above the crowds, exactly like an elephant should do except 20ft higher than any elephant in the history of the world. As we watched, transfixed, he raised his trunk, spread his ears and trumpeted, an almighty sound that somehow went perfectly with the music. On his back rode a handsome couple in bright Indian costume; the elephant’s animatronics were controlled by people in bright red uniforms hung all over him in special seats. Half the creature was made of giant, wooden windows, as though he was part-mastodon, part-building, and he was draped in garish cloths and jewellery. He looked like something from a Terry Gilliam movie crossed with an Indian swami’s opium dream.

Plodding regally down the Haymarket as though he owned it, the elephant resembled some mammoth god surrounded by his worshippers; it was enough to bring a tear to my eye. The same happened to Nat, who admitted later that she almost cried until she looked around and saw everyone else was dry-eyed. They were certainly open-mouthed, though, which wasn’t a good thing with the elephant raised his trunk and shot water over them.

Then, from a side street, a giant marionette of a little girl came walking into the throng. The elephant met up with her as the crowd gasped. We were completely ignorant of what was going on, but later on their website (www.thesultanselephant.com) we discovered this was a street theatre piece about a time-travelling elephant and a Sultan obsessed with a giant puppet girl. It didn’t matter that we didn’t know this at the time: we had too much to process as it was.

The Sultan’s Elephant reached the bottom of the road and went to turn into Trafalgar Square. It promptly jammed itself against a tree and stood for 15 minutes as chainsaws appeared from nowhere and the people on board starting hacking off branches to let it pass. As we were laughing at the sight of a gargantuan elephant trying to squeeze past a fully-grown plane tree it suddenly raised its trunk and began picking leaves off the branches, just like a real elephant! Amazing… and also really moving, somehow. It seemed more alive than any piece of street theatre had any right to be; wonderfully peaceful and calm, like a living being. It walked on by, its expression regal and beautiful, and then it was gone.

Nat and I stared at each other, shocked. “That was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” she declared, and I was inclined to agree with her.

Still stunned, we had lunch surrounded by families who spent their meals checking their cameras and grinning at all the pictures they’d taken of the creature. Then we wandered into Leicester Square, where we finally got our minds back and began to talk normally again. However… London, obviously fully aware that Nat was about to leave it behind, decided to pull another fancy trick from up its sleeve.

“Hey, see this cinema?” I said to Nat as we walked by the Odeon. “This is where they had the premiere for The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers. I was in the crowd for that and it was brilliant. I saw loads of the stars going in and everyone went wild for Peter Jackson when he got out of the car. There were also…”

Nat interrupted me, talking urgently through gritted teeth. “Look. Who’s. Walking. Behind. You!”

I turned round, and there was Andy Serkis pushing a pram with a huge smile on his face.

“Oh,” I said. “There’s Gollum.”

So then it took us another 20 mins to collect our thoughts, this time from the sheer coincedence of it all. Six billion people on the planet and one of the stars of The Lord Of The Rings walks by us as I’m talking about it. Mental!

After that, it all got even stranger. Nat and I visited the Bodies Exhibition at Earl’s Court, which, if you haven’t heard of it, is made up of lots of preserved human remains which you can peer at and study. I’m not squeamish in the slightest – and Nat was dying to see the exhibition – but we both came out feeling rather ill, if only because there wasn’t a sign anywhere in the building explaining where the bodies came from or if they’d given their permission to be gawked at. Urgh. There are news reports circulating that they were all Chinese prisoners who’d been executed and their remains turned over to the exhibitors – oh dear. They certainly looked fascinating, and was definitely a brilliant way to learn about our bodies, but when you could go up so close you could see their eyelashes it all seemed a bit… intrusive.

I won’t be going there again in a hurry. As Nat said, “You’ve seen one dead body, you’ve seen them all.”

She got to handle a human leg bone, and when we got home I wouldn’t let her touch anything in my flat until she’d washed her hands. Then we spent the rest of the evening watching four episodes of Lost to erase the sight of dead foetuses and ripped-apart spinal columns from our minds. Thankfully we could watch Sawyer with his shirt off – rather that than some guy with his SKIN off, thank you very much.

“I love your flat,” said Natalie after half a bottle of wine. “When you die, can I have it?”

“It’s not mine,” I pointed out. “I rent it. And anyway, you live in Turkey now!”

“Oh yeah,” she said. “I forgot.”

I did bequeath her The Mighty Boosh, however. She looked at a picture of Vince Noir on my wall and observed, “He looks like a gimp.” Offended, I forced her to watch “Tundra”… and 30 minutes later she was in love with him and the show. She even bought the box set the next day to take to Turkey. I should be on commission – those guys have earned a fortune out of my recommendations!

But yes, I’m sorry to say that Natalie still left England. She turned her back on London and all its delights and buggered off to the sun, despite having bathed in the glow of everything from The Man Who Played King Kong to a motherhumpin’ big elephant.

I hope Turkey’s worth it, Nat, I really do. And I’ll miss you!

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Sweet Sunday

Yesterday was a perfect Sunday. Not the kind of Sunday you spend doing absolutely nothing except eating biscuits and watching Antiques Roadshow; nor the kind of Sunday you use to go for a picnic in the park; nor even the kind of Sunday you spend in bed because, dammit, it’s the weekend and you’ve got to catch up on all the sleep you lost during the working week. No, yesterday was a perfect Sunday because…

1) I managed to arrive at Leicester Square at dead-on 1.30pm to meet my friend Stella. Yeah, doesn’t sound too exciting, but when you consider all the mainline trains from my local station had been cancelled, I couldn’t get on the Underground at Richmond because of a signal failure and I somehow got into London by catching a train going in completely the wrong direction, it’s goddammed miraculous. After three trains and one long wait after someone pulled an emergency lever, I. Was. Still. On. Time. How did that happen? I can only be because I’m so skill.

2) I had a lovely lunch with Stella. Doctor Who and The Mighty Boosh were discussed. Yummy.

3) I met up with some of the gentlefolk from SFX magazine and took part in a quiz as part of the Sci-Fi London festival. We came a very respectable second, too. I’m glad we didn’t win – seeing as SFX sponsored the quiz, it would have looked like a fix. Second was fine and dandy… and congratulations to the people who beat us!

The quiz was great fun and the best question was this: “Name the film poster Agent Mulder pissed against in the X-Files movie.”*

You wouldn’t hear that on Mastermind.

4) Everyone else on my team won beer, but as a tee-totaller I sloped off with a photograph from 2001: A Space Odyssey signed by actors Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood. I can’t look at it without giggling – not because it’s funny, but because it’s such an odd thing to own. It’s even humourously creased and battered, like it’s had a long, unloved life. I hope it’s happy on my wall.

5) I got asked for my autograph. I love it when that happens. (I would insert a ‘smiley face’ here to accentuate the point, but I hate the little yellow bastards.)

6) I finally got to have a good chat with SFX editor Dave Bradley, not to mention his lovely missus. I’m still reeling from the fact he used to work in the Waterstone’s down the road from my house. Small world. Incidentally, old SFX editor Dave Golder was at the quiz, too, and the Daves were introduced by the Quizmaster as “the new and old Doctors”. Bet they loved that!

7) I took a stroll along the Thames on the way home, passing a feeble funfair in Old Deer Park (which was in the same spot last year and was nicknamed the “no-funfair” by my mate Biddy). They were giving away goldfish as prizes and I came very close to launching an Animal Liberation-style commando raid to rescue them. To be fair to the funfair, they weren’t actually in little plastic bags but in a proper fish tank and were being sold with a full goldfish kit, but it’s still bloody dubious giving live creatures away as funfair prizes, isn’t it?

As a recently-bereaved pet-owner their little golden fins were very enticing. Thus I would like to thank Pet Shop Anny, who talked me out of rescuing them when I called her for moral support. “They’ll die the minute you get them home,” she pointed out, probably correctly. Thank heavens for a clear head. (Now if I can only get her to stop sending me pictures of her baby rats… I don’t want another one, Anny, honest!)

8) Eventually I got home, had a nice meal and watched the latest four episodes of Supernatural one after another. Marvellously, now that it’s nearing the end of its first season Supernatural‘s finally hit its stride: there were some corking stories in that quartet. Scary, too. I’m ashamed to say I had to turn the lights back on for one of them; it featured a Poltergeist homage and there was no way I could watch it in the dark. I haven’t been so scared since I saw the Buffy episode “Hush”! But then, I am a giant girly wuss.

If all those hours spent watching Jensen Ackles isn’t a good way to round off a Sunday, I don’t know what is. I also have to admit that getting an eyeful of Jared Padalecki’s chest in one episode wasn’t too scary, either…

Altogether now, girls: “Phwoar!” Sorry to reduce you to a sex object, Jared.


*Independence Day. I got that one right.

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