Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Living Abroad Matters 17 - London Zoo

Animal Magnetism Blitzes Palace Pomp
To be honest, if I have to look at one more ostentatious painting or gilded artifact of the privileged aristocracy I will scream, a really blood curdling scream. There are only so many art galleries, museums and palaces a girl can stomach. Like rich chocolate, such extravagances must be savoured sparingly.

And besides it’s hard work; all that squinting at explanatory signs, listening to audio commentaries, wandering in circles and getting your head around the lineage of the monarchs. Fair go, I’m a card-carrying member of the proletariat on the brink of rebellion. I’m up to my eyeballs in inequity. Viewing the pampered chambers of Queen Mary, knowing the masses at the time existed in squalor and misery, well it’s enough to make a descendant of a convict spit!

A carefree Friday afternoon and I am out on the loose by myself while Andrew monopolises the laptop and does a conference call to Gabriel in Mexico in his world domination plan! Thought I better leave him to it.

I am visiting Kensington Palace, the favourite home of the martyred Princess Diana. Like most women, I sympathised with her suffering in enduring the torture of craving love from a callous cad in a loveless marriage before desperately turning her neediness on an adoring public and countless opportunistic men. I am curious to see her digs but the section she lived in is not open to the public. Visitors can only view the ancient rooms of King William and Queen Mary, Queen Anne, George One and George Two (whoever they were. Apologies to sensitive royalists!)

There is also a lame exhibit (Sorry again. My cynicism is showing) about debutants of the 50’s and a discreet collection of Diana’s more demure evening dresses (not even her most spectacular ones!) And there’s some sad, old footage of her dancing with Prince Charles, both of them stiff and awkward and seething with mutual loathing, thinly disguising what we now know was a sham marriage. Prince Charles, from all reports, fully intended from the outset to lead a double life with his bawdy mistress in great dysfunctional royal tradition and assumed his na├»ve young wife would comply in exchange for the perks and lurks. But Diana wasn’t adept at hypocrisy. As a young bride, she actually thought she was going to have a real marriage and a devoted husband. Silly girl!

I can understand how bizarre it must have been for Diana to live in a public building in a public park as a tourist attraction! No wonder the royals are anxious to escape to the privacy of Balmoral Castle in the Scottish highlands. I imagine it is handy to have a few castles scattered around the kingdom to choose from! But really I feel sorry for those unfortunates who are born into the anachronism of the aristocracy. They are cursed as much as privileged by their royal status. The idea that any human being or class is superior in intrinsic worth to another human being or class is a false and pernicious premise. An office might be elevated and even sacred, but the people who fill the roles are quite obviously as flawed as the rest of us!

So today I am having lunch with myself (very intelligent conversation) at the elegant 18th century restaurant, The Orangery and then I stroll through the ornamental formal gardens, ablaze with summer blooms, and on into the trendy streets of Kensington and Knightsbridge.

I can’t help but be impressed by the opulent monument to Prince Albert, a memorial from Queen Victoria to her beloved husband who died at 41 of typhoid in 1861. The young wife was not as prudish and frigid as history would have us believe. The amorous lover and mother of nine children didn’t just lie back and think of England!

And wow, the Royal Albert Hall, what an impressive circular building which seats 7000 people for concerts and all manner of entertainment. At least royalty has bequeathed to London a legacy of magnificent buildings and an abundance of culture.

I walk past the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum, all of these bountiful treasure troves are open every day for free, providing amazing learning opportunities for children and adults. But today I am overloaded. I just can not face any of them and walk right past, determined to return when my mind is fresh and uncluttered.
I trek all the way to Harrods, that famous exclusive department store, ironically teeming with casually dressed tourists rather than well-heeled shoppers. And instead of being delighted by the glamorous goods on display I giggle at the ridiculously impractical shoes and clothes. I’m a slave to comfort more than a slave to fashion. Over-priced trinkets offer a temporary thrill that inevitably fades to ‘buyer’s remorse’ and disappointment. Material things will always fail to fill up inner emptiness that can only be filled by love. I am not seduced by designer labels. I know they won’t keep me warm at night!

Sunday morning when Andrew suggests the Tate Modern Gallery, I cringe at the thought of more art. Instead I am experiencing a strange desire for some animal energy. I am missing our exuberant Labrador, Bonny and last I heard Justine and the House of Babes have given her a make-over, exchanging her jolly red collar (blondes do look stunning in red!) with black leather and silver studs. I’m not sure if it’s an evening or punk look.

Why doesn’t someone bottle the scent of ‘puppy breath’ or ‘horse fur’? I need some real life animal contact, fresh air, sunshine and nature. “Let’s go to the zoo!” I squeal with childish glee! London Zoo is set in Regent’s Park and just a short Tube ride away so we decide to avoid the human zoo of the city streets and opt for animal encounters instead. I fall in love with the Alpha gorilla. When we arrive he is sitting with his back disdainfully to the crowd, his black fur glistening in the sun, munching on a whole branch of leaves. When we return later in the day, he turns to face the humans, like a movie star deigning to take a photo call. He poses regally while we snap frantically; his deep-set eyes seem to contain wisdom and sorrow. I admit it, I’m projecting human qualities onto an animal!

Andrew on the other hand is captivated by the gracefully giraffes and takes several horizontal landscape shots before I suggest that vertical portrait shots might be more suitable for this subject! The male and female start necking! Ahh! Watching the gangling lovers is just as heart-warming as observing the majestic lion smooch with his lioness on an aerial platform. He licks her ears. She nuzzles him and they snooze and cuddle together, oblivious to the onlookers! It is obvious to see how natural it is for mammals to mate for life and form strong family groups.
I never knew there were so many species of monkeys! The London Zoo is home to Red Titi’s, Pygmy Marmosets, Tamarins, Goeldi Monkeys, Lemurs, Gibbons and many more. They are all so beguiling and they stage a brilliant show swinging through the trees, nibbling food and preening each other.

I am fascinated to discover animals I have never heard of before. There are Red River Hogs with elaborate ugly facial features that give meaning to the phrase ‘a face only a mother could love’. African Hunting Dogs with speckled coats and piercing eyes prowl in packs; warthogs bury their snouts in the ground and there’s a timid creature called an Okapi with stripes like a zebra on its rear.

What an afternoon of entertainment! Animals really bring you down to earth. Sunday night we tune in, coincidently, to a delightful show about dogs, hosted by Martin Clunes. He travels to Montana to research wolves and Fraser Island in search of dingoes. Who would have thought the journey leads back to Australia? It makes me wonder, if every dog has his day, what does a dog with a sore tail have? A weak end.

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