On the inside of a modern menagerie looking out

Click to follow
The Independent Online
'WHEN this place was first built, the world was different. The world was our oyster. Anything we wanted, we could get by clicking our fingers. Those days have gone - fortunately, they have gone. The zoo cannot be the same again - why should it be? It's got to change, it's got to evolve, otherwise it's dying. I think we have lost our way a little bit.'

The zoo? Was it just for the London Zoo that so many people found themselves weeping as they watched Molly Dineen's marvellous BBC television series The Ark, which ended last week? Was it only for the elephant and the lynx and the sea-lion, struggling as they were torn away from familiar, well- loved faces and places and driven off into unknown futures? Or for the keepers, maintaining dignity against grief and shame as they carried out orders to betray what they had understood to be their trust - paying for mistakes made by those who governed them?

It was not, of course, just for the London Zoo. Molly Dineen takes her place in the company of Jonathan Swift, George Orwell, Angus Wilson: artists who invoked animals to play human dramas. It did not need the keeper of small mammals, talking to Molly Dineen against the background of the deserted Mappin Terraces, to spell it out. 'I'm not just talking about the zoo. I'm talking about the country. It's a funny old country, England. But that's what makes England England or (he politically corrected his terms with faint impatience) Britain Britain. They seem to be almost ashamed of it . . . This place will be back when there are animals back on those rocks.'

This place which has lost its way is also England, or Britain, or this royal and multinational 'Ukania' in which we live. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, in its last decades, also reached a stage at which the study of any social detail - promotions in the army, changing crime patterns, school textbooks, sexual behaviour - released a swarm of metaphors for the decline of the Empire itself. Molly Dineen herself made a film a year or so back about the Angel Tube station in London (its eternally defective lifts, its staff meditating about their own wasted lives and unrealised talents) which rang like a gong with ominous resonances.

Times of decline are times when people wish desperately that things might stop changing. 'Meetings?' reflected one melancholy zoo keeper. 'Looks very good on paper. I don't think they achieve much really . . . I would like things to be as normal as possible. Normality] I'm not a revolutionary really. Not everyone can be a revolutionary. If everyone is out there rioting and shouting, there's no one here doing the work.' Another of his colleagues showed a truly Victorian nostalgia. 'You had a balance here once upon a time. You had a very strong, experienced group of people who ran the zoo. There have always been groups wanting change, but that change just slowly comes about.' He could have been quoting Walter Bagehot on the British constitution, that complacent old text on which our political leaders are still raised.

But change would not wait. The zoo was going bust, threatened with closure. A 'reform group' had set itself up among the Fellows of the London Zoological Society and was challenging the society's council which runs the zoo with a no-confidence motion. Unheard of] But the council members were reassured that, under a charter of 1827, they did not have to resign even if the resolution were passed, but could stay on by invoking their duty to 'think of the interests of the society as a whole'. A discreet airing of views might do no great harm. One official, though, found the very fact of challenge to authority monstrous. 'This minority group is out to sack the council, the executive directors, the non-executive directors, the whole shooting-match which is properly constitituted, properly elected. I tell them to get stuffed] I don't beat about the bush]'

All this was matchlessly English. But the challenge itself reflected the paradoxes of post-Thatcher Britain. The reformers, it turned out, were in some ways the conservatives: they wanted the zoo to stay with its old principles ('the function of a zoo is to keep animals'), and to concentrate on the breeding of endangered species. By contrast the council and David Jones, the director, were proposing total transformation. Instead of just keeping animals, there would be 'themed areas' - a bit of plastic rainforest, a savannah park and so on - to bring back the public. The reformers detested this approach, echoing the fury of the Labour movement against the spectacle of living factories and mines being turned into 'heritage theme parks' for tourism. 'What it means is that the animals will be there simply as actors . . . as props to illustrate these so-called conservation themes.' The reformers accused the council of selling the soul of the zoo in a fit of trendy, panicky commercialism. The Zoo Establishment, in return, accused the reformers of snobbishly ignoring 'what the public wants' and turning their back on economic reality.

Eventually the meeting happened and the no-confidence motion was actually passed. But continuity was saved on the brink of the abyss. The reformers decided not to press their advantage, but left it to the council to draw conclusions. Meanwhile, the zoo staff tried to peer through the doors of the meeting where their future was being decided without them or their representatives. Nobody told them anything,during the meeting or afterwards. But then they had no rights. Only duties.

The council decided to drop the director, but crisis persisted. Then, as the threat of close-down returned last year, a huge cash donation arrived from Kuwait. Remember the arrival of North Sea oil in the 1970s, which saved our bacon in the short run but in the longer term postponed treatment of Britain's deadly industrial weakness?

It is wrong, all the same, to treat a work of art as good as The Ark as a one- to-one parable. The relevance is subtler, more pervasive. We are all living in an old zoo in a time when zoos are passing out of fashion. Those at the top cast around wildly for schemes of modernisation which can preserve venerable patterns of authority while ditching equally venerable patterns of responsibility. Those at the bottom carry on stoically, but feel that their values have been abandoned by those who are supposed to be the guardians of values. There is a deep nostalgia for a time when the zoo was in sure hands, when the staff polished its buttons, when there was no Them and Us, when the bears of the Empire - white from the North, brown and black from the South - patrolled the ramparts of the Mappin Terraces in harmony.

Push the parallels no further, or they will hurt. Is the Queen the scapegoat zoo director, kneeling among cardboard boxes as she clears her desk? Or is she the dying koala bear whose subjects helplessly stroke her fur? Most mysterious of all is the way in which the film makes us sometimes feel like keepers, but more often like animals. For the deepest of our instincts is that a human being deserves respect not in return for being obedient or useful but simply through the fact of being alive on this earth.

The keeper of small mammals looked at his charges, and said: 'They aren't obliged to give you anything in return. They earn their keep by just being there.'