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Jumbo: The Unauthorised Biography of a Victorian Sensation Paperback – 15 Nov 2014
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`This isn't just a book about killing elephants; it's a book about being horrible to elephants in more general ways. It's very good. It's one of those books that shows you the world through the lens of a small part of it. Sutherland's tone throughout is one of dry wit; the track where Jumbo died, he points out, was known as `the grand trunk'. Sutherland makes Jumbo his main character, and shows us that by looking at this elephant's life, and the lives of other captive elephants, you can learn a lot about people too. It's a tall tale. And rather superbly put together.'
`Hugely entertaining survey of Jumbo's sad life and strange legacy.'
`This book is so wonderful, so charming, I promise it will allow everyone to find the little Jumbo inside themselves.'
`A treasure trove of elephant ephemera with eye-popping statistics on trunks, dung, sex and characters from Chunee, Jumbo's popular show animal predecessor in London, to Disney's fictional Dumbo. The best of the details are fascinating.'ÿ
`I can think of nobody better to trumpet the elephant than Sutherland. Academic yet conversational, and at times very funny, he is the perfect guide.'
`It's a fascinating story, told stylishly and wittily.'ÿ
'It is a "fantasia". Or rather, an "elephantasia". The word sets the tone. The author, a former professor of English at University College London, is out to entertain-punning, digressing, mixing it up, high and low. But, behind the banter, he has a savage story to tell.'
`A wonderfully engaging and learned narrator.'
`Sutherland's fascinating and eclectic book is a fitting tribute toÿLoxodonta africanaÿand it deftly evokes the manifold and ever more pressing threats to the species.'
`Elegant cultural history. Jumbo is a compelling portrait of a wonderful creature and less wonderful human motivation.'
‘A treasure trove of elephant ephemera with eye-popping statistics on trunks, dung, sex and characters from Chunee, Jumbo’s popular show animal predecessor in London, to Disney’s fictional Dumbo. The best of the details are fascinating.’
‘Elegant cultural history. Jumbo is a compelling portrait of a wonderful creature and less wonderful human motivation.’
‘Sutherland’s fascinating and eclectic book is a fitting tribute to Loxodonta africana and it deftly evokes the manifold and ever more pressing threats to the species.’
About the Author
Formerly the Editor of Granta, Alex Clark is a critic, literary journalist and editor-at-large at Union Books.
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Jumbo was to start in zoos and graduate to the circus. He had been born around 1860 in what is now Eritrea, an orphan so early that his mother was not around to socialize him into being a proper elephant. He wound up in a zoo in Paris, and failed to prosper or make a hit with the public. At the Zoological Society of London he had at least a sympathetic keeper, Matthew Scott. This did not save him from being tormented by whip or spear, but Jumbo was more tractable when Scott was around. Scott had a fondness for the bottle, and any success he had in bonding with Jumbo or getting the elephant to do his bidding is at least partially because Jumbo got his dose, too. When Jumbo was old enough to go through the aggressiveness of hormone-driven male elephant sexuality, the zoo was eager to get rid of him, and P. T. Barnum made a timely offer. The British press milked the protests against selling Jumbo to a Yankee; even then, reader rage was encouraged to increase circulation. But a deal was a deal, and with enormous difficulty in 1882, Jumbo was crated and shipped to his new country. Jumbo was a popular circus attraction until 1885 when he and the rest of the Barnum and Bailey circus were being loaded onto train cars after a show in St. Thomas, Ontario. There was some sort of rail confusion, and a train headed for Jumbo, who for some reason, charged into it, dying instantly as his tusks were driven into his brain. It was not much of a setback for Barnum. He promptly told the papers that Jumbo had died a hero, protecting another elephant. Then Barnum had Jumbo skinned, and stuffed (with extra volume added so he would look bigger), and displayed at a quarter a view. It was a sad end to a sad life.
There is so much more sadness here. There is Topsy the elephant who in 1902 killed a drunken visitor who abused her by feeding her a lighted cigar. She had to be executed, and there was just the man to do so: Thomas Edison wanted to show the world how dangerous alternating current was, and did so by arranging Topsy’s electrocution. To make sure everyone knew that alternating current was so awful it could even kill an elephant, Edison arranged for the procedure to be filmed, and you can see it on YouTube to this day (using alternating current for your computer, of course). Another elephant was hanged for homicide (the unpleasant details of how one would hang an elephant are here). It is happier to learn about Dumbo the elephant, even if the Disney film failed because of Dumbo’s flying attack on the circus, funny enough when the film came out but not funny after Pearl Harbor a few weeks later. Sutherland’s delight in literature is on show; John Donne wrote about elephants, as did Dorothy Parker, and of course Rudyard Kipling. But so did Joseph Conrad; remember that in _Heart of Darkness_, Kurtz was an ivory hunter. And the ivory went to billiard balls and piano keys, and though we have substitutes for those now, there are still rich people who want genuine ivory tchotchkes, and don’t care about cost or elephant welfare. Humans have not played the elephants fair despite our abiding affection for the big, lumbering beasts, and _Jumbo_, for all its weird and funny and sometimes touching stories, is a sorrowful and angry book.
Oh how wrong I was.
25% or so of this book concerns itself with Jumbo. 70% is horror stories of death and cruelty. Sutherland gleefully writes these accounts with morbid detail and a distasteful pessimism about the future of elephant survival.
There's no denying that both the past and future of elephants are bleak, but this book doesn't advertise itself as the morose jaunt through a history of torture and tragedy that it is.
Beyond that, Sutherland's book is full of an obnoxious style wherein he will start a sentence (much like I am doing right now in parody) and pause with parentheses to insert a dry witty aside. More often than not, these are not worth the time. I stuck with this book to the end to be fully informed before writing this review. Avoid this book if you love elephants, read away if you get off on snuff.