It was a sea creature which unintentionally saved the life of Evelyn Waugh. The unhappy author of Decline and Fall once swam out to sea with the intention of committing suicide, but a sting from a jellyfish caused him to limp back to shore instead.
Recognising the undoubted literary credentials of our watery brethren, Tobias Hill has selected the Aquarium at London Zoo as the setting for the first public event of his newly acquired position as zoo poet-in-residence. On Wednesday, Hill will be reading among the conger eels and cuttlefish with dry-witted Whitbread Poetry Prize-winner Carol Ann Duffy (the ticket price includes free wine, a chance to explore the Aquarium, and interval music from a harpist, presumably to humour the angelfish).
"We could have had the reading in the elephant-house, but it's rather small and smelly," admits Hill. "Besides, I really like the Aquarium because the keepers are very chatty. I suppose you get that much less chat from a box-fish."
"It's a bit like being in a Damien Hirst in there," he adds, "with those huge tanks of water suspended overhead and all the sharks up against the plate glass. My favourites, though, are the deep-sea fishes, amazing creatures like something out of Hieronymous Bosch."
HilI is currently trying to find suitable verses to spread around the enclosures as a poetry-trail. "It can be hard finding animal poems which aren't too sentimental," he warns. "Anything with fur and not-too-sharp teeth seems to get the treatment. But luckily there are lots of good poems about fish."
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