Some Good Books, 1: Shire Library

I was originally intending to write a book review blog post before Christmas, but a publisher’s deadline (December 31st) intervened; so my plans had to change. And then I thought about it further. What was it that irritated me about Christmas? Half a second’s reflection gave me the answer: recommendations of things that would make good Christmas presents. That’s fine so far as it goes, but books are more long-lived, more important than a mere festival. So this post will be about books you should buy for yourself, to enjoy over the long evenings of the early New Year. I decided to postpone writing it till the New Year – and I’m currently tapping away on my computer in front of a roaring fire while outside the rain is pouring down. It’s the early evening of New Year’s Eve, on a warm, wet El Niño winter.

Book reviews can be deadly dull. And academic ones are the worst: not only are they boring, but all too often they are intended to show readers that the reviewer is far better qualified to write the book than its actual author. So I tend to avoid the review pages of most learned journals. I’ve also long had a penchant for books that are far less pretentious than the sort reviewed in the major journals. These are the kind of books that are read by people who ‘have always had a bit on an interest in’ – whatever it might be: garden gnomes, seaside piers or shell-work grottoes. All of these have tickled my fancy over the years – and some still do. ‘And what’s so wrong with that?’ I hear a strangled cry from behind the sofa, as Maisie searches through a pile of books that’s been waiting for a place on our over-crowded bookshelves for at least five years. Quite.

So this post, if I can ever get round to starting it, will be the first of two about unpretentious books that convey information in an interesting but comprehensible fashion. And I shall concentrate on two publishers. The first will be Shire Books, the second the Geffrye Museum, Kingsland Road, north-east London.

Shire Books have long had an interest in archaeology. Indeed, I’ve even written a book for them, on my excavations at Fengate, Peterborough, but long since out-of-print. But it’s not their archaeology titles that I want to consider now. The four books I’m interested in are in the Shire Library Series and are, I suspect (having thumbed through others while browsing in Toppings Bookshop, Ely), fairly typical of others in the Series. I chose just four (a) because their titles interested me, (b) because I couldn’t afford any more and (c) because our shelves are already over-full.

I’ve always been a fan of Shire books. They were founded in 1962 by John Rotheroe, who was a charming man and had a very clear idea of what his customers were looking for: good, clear English, many illustrations and a compact, slim format. Initially Shire books were motivated by a widespread feeling of nostalgia that accompanied some of the disillusion of the post-war decades. Quite rapidly they established their own identity, which stresses accurate, up-to-date information and jargon-free writing. The Shire Library lives up to these ideals. The books are big enough (210×150 mm) to slip in your pocket when travelling. They are printed on high quality paper and feature colour illustrations throughout; each book also has an excellent Index. As you will discover, they are very reasonably priced.

The English Seaside in Victorian and Edwardian TimesI read my first choice in just two sessions as soon as we had returned from Toppings. The English Seaside in Victorian and Edwardian Times, by John Hannavy was published in 2003, and with 128 pages is slightly longer than most in the Series (£9.99). It makes a special feature of using contemporary photographs, many of which were machine-tinted or hand-coloured in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Some of these images look disturbingly modern, with crowds of visitors and children playing on the beach. Only the absence of cars, and the fact that ships have sails and ladies billowing skirts, betrays their true age. You can almost smell the salt on the air. The book begins with a very clear Introduction and overview of the subject, which features a useful discussion of early photography and colour tinting processes. The resorts are then considered one-by-one in alphabetical order, starting with Bexhill on Sea and ending with Worthing. The photographs of Clacton-on-Sea pier in 1896 were frankly jaw-dropping, as was the view up a narrow cobbled street in Clovelly, complete with men and boys accompanying donkeys with side-panniers, taken in the same year. It’s great overview of something we English have always done very well and it does the subject justice. I only wish I had come across it when I was researching The Making of the British Landscape.

It will not have escaped assiduous followers of this blog that I have a slight penchant for garden gnomes. I can’t say it’s something I’m particularly proud of, but it’s there: it’s a part of my make-up; it’s who I am, as an individual. Not pretentious, no, Heaven forefend, but a caring, sensitive person who is not ashamed of confessing his minor weaknesses. The matter is made more difficult by my wife who openly encourages this tendency and has been gnown to slip the occasional gnome into our trolley of groceries at Aldi. There! Our shameful little secret is out. We will never be taken seriously as gardeners again. Gone are the days when we could hold our heads up at the annual Chelsea Flower Show – where so much as a sitting gnome’s bum-print in your potting compost would forfeit your hard-earned Silver-Gilt medal.

Garden Gnomes: a HistorySo it must have taken the most extreme courage, not to mention bare-faced cheek for the eminent garden historian Twigs Way to write the second of our Shire books, Garden Gnomes: a History (2009, £6.99). This book is a straight, but not too straight-faced, history of garden gnomes in British gardens. It starts with their first appearance as porcelain copies of German originals that were allowed out of the house in the 18th Century, to the first robust garden versions, which appeared in the new rockery of Lamport Hall, Northamptonshire in the mid-19th Century. Lamport’s rock garden was purged of gnomes by its builder’s two, presumably rather prim, Victorian daughters so that only one survives to this day. He is known as Lampy and is insured for £1,000,000. But even Victorian propriety could not eradicate gnomes, which began to feature heavily in many larger Northants gardens in the latter half of the century. However their real explosion in popularity happened in the 1920s when mass-produced gnomes invaded suburbia. Today their victory is near-complete, except in gardens of Good Taste where a sense of humour is as unwelcome as it was in the closely similar rarefied and snobbish Aesthetic households of the 1880s and 1890s. Gnomes and Good Taste make uncomfortable and inappropriate bed-fellows. Happily gnomes are currently enjoying something of a renaissance and caricatures of Tony Blair are proving particularly popular (a fine one is shown on p. 5). Doubtless they are enjoying a big export trade to the Middle East.

The English Rococo GardenMy final two books are devoted to garden history and to periods I have never really understood. I have always regarded Rococo as an architectural movement/style that was mostly confined to the continent and never really took hold in Britain. But in gardens it did. The English Rococo Garden, by the noted garden historian Michael Symes (2011, £7.99) is a clear and concise introduction to the subject that avoids all the obscure terminology of art history. It takes you through stage-by-stage and covers topics such as Chinoiserie, garden sculpture and shell houses, before turning to individual garden designers and major Rococo gardens. The book includes a bibliography with a separate listing of books on specific garden designers and architects. Finally there is a list of gardens to visit, complete with phone numbers and websites. The book would be worth getting just for the Bibliography and list of gardens.

Having spent my childhood and teens years in a small Hertfordshire village a few miles outside the first Garden City at Letchworth, I had acquired a rather jaundiced view of the Arts and Crafts scene. Letchworth was notorious locally for having no pubs (Ebenezer Howard, the founder of the Garden City movement, didn’t approve of public drinking) and consequently the Closing Time buses and trains from nearby Baldock (home of Pryor’s Brewery, later bought up by Simpsons and Greene King, then demolished by a Philistine local authority) would be very rowdy. Unfortunately for those who were to live there subsequently, Letchworth was built a few decades before the introduction of cars, so none of the houses had garages – which also made locals a bit irritated, not that the well-intentioned Mr. Howard could have seen into the future. But I’m starting to digress.

The Arts and Crafts GardenThe Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th Century was undoubtedly a major British contribution to European culture and I personally would rate the Movement’s gardens even higher than the architecture, the furniture or the art. I also suspect they may last rather longer. It’s the variety of British Arts and Crafts gardens that is so remarkable and my final recommended book covers them all – and not in too much detail, either. The Arts and Crafts Garden by Sarah Rutherford (2013, £7.99) is something of a triumph, if only because the author manages to cover the entire field, without any obvious omissions. You could think of it as a delightful taster menu. There are many new photographs, but illustrations from old books are also used quite extensively. In fact the short lists of the Rococo book are here replaced by three substantial appendices. The first (in actual fact it’s the final chapter) is an illustrated survey of the main books produced by the various designers. This is followed by a full Bibliography and then a summary of the principal designers and their gardens. The indispensable list of places to visit is very full and covers Britain, region-by-region (I know I shouldn’t admit it, but I’ve already photocopied that list and put it in the car glove box).

I’m fully aware that bookshops are full of expensive and lavishly illustrated books on garden history. And good luck to them. But if, like me, you are the sort of person who would rather visit a garden than look at photos (which can never do the real thing justice, if only because they lack movement, sound and scent), then I would suggest you invest in a few of the modest volumes in the Shire Library. Then next summer you can spend the money you’ve saved on a slap-up cream tea in an English country garden. Could anything be more pleasant?

Posted in books, Gardening, History | Tagged , , , , , ,

2015, the Best Autumn Colour for Many Years

We are told that this year’s astonishingly good autumn colours were down to cold nights and not too many strong winds, that would bring the leaves down. But for some reason, too, the colours have been incredibly subtle. Yes, the reds and yellows have been good and very strong, but plants with less strident hues – grasses for instance – have never looked better. And the other thing about autumn in England is the way the colours change and develop from one day to the next. I used to love Fall when I lived in Canada and would head south to New England for weekends. Screaming scarlet Virginia Creeper looks superb, for example, growing up tall hardwoods on the edge of woodland. Across the Atlantic it’s the first frosts that trigger leaf fall, but once the process has been started in earnest, the season thunders along, often being finished in two or three weeks. Over here, our gentler, maritime, Atlantic climate allows autumn colour to extend over six to eight weeks. The only colour we tend to lack are the reds of North American oaks and Japanese maples. The scarlet leaves of sumac, Rhus glabra, the equivalent of our elder, are a feature of the fringes of New England woods and make a wonderful display alongside Virginia Creeper, in the eponymous State. Sadly, we don’t have anything remotely comparable on this side of the Atlantic.

This year the autumn colours were looking pretty good in mid-November and a few oak trees and hazels are still (just) in leaf, in the first week of December. In fact a couple of the hazels in our wood have already produced catkins, which they did in the last week of November, before all the leaves had dropped off. Although as I write, a series of quite severe storms are currently doing their best to blow everything to Kingdom Come. Normally I reckon hazel catkins should start sometime after Christmas. Then they begin to fade away as the first snowdrops start to appear, towards the latter part of January. This is going to be a very early winter and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we didn’t have snowdrops and aconites in early January. In cities like London they’ll probably be in flower before Christmas. Global warming? Almost certainly, but remember, we’re talking here about weather, as opposed to climate – something that climate change deniers (why does that word put me in mind of ladies’ stockings? The spelling looks odd, but it’s even odder with a ‘y’: deny, denyers? No. That won’t do at all. But I digress…). Anyhow, those people don’t seem to understand that it’s part of a process that can be statistically linked to the first industrial-scale burning of coal in the mid-19th Century.

My obsessions aside, this has to be an example of a situation where one picture can say a thousand words. So here are eight pictures. All were taken on November 2nd, 2015. Just a month later some of the colours already look improbable, compared with the drabness of early winter. How time flies!

The back of the barn with the scarlet red of Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus tricuspidata.

The back of the barn with the scarlet red of Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus tricuspidata.

Pen strolls through the Glade, oblivious to the leaves of golden alder above her.

Pen strolls through the Glade, oblivious to the leaves of golden alder above her.

The top end of the long border where Maisie has successfully combined yellows and blues.

The top end of the long border where Maisie has successfully combined yellows and blues.

The tassels of the giant grass Mecanopsis sinensis against the bright red of the Virginia Creeper on the back of the barn.

The tassels of the giant grass Miscanthus sinensis against the bright red of the Virginia Creeper on the back of the barn.

A selection of grasses and sedges in the Glade, against the turning leaves of Golden Alder and the hornbeam hedge.

A selection of grasses and sedges in the Glade, against the turning leaves of Golden Alder and the hornbeam hedge.

A view along the Serpentine Walk towards the Glade with the turning leaves of various birches catching the low afternoon sun. And why are modern gardeners so obsessed with sweeping up leaves? I think they add a much-needed touch of variety to an otherwise uniform green lawn.

A view along the Serpentine Walk towards the Glade with the turning leaves of various birches catching the low afternoon sun. And why are modern gardeners so obsessed with sweeping up leaves? I think they add a much-needed touch of variety to an otherwise uniform green lawn.

A view across the Meadow towards the trees at the edge of the wood. Pen has never appreciated the colours of autumn, but she does like it when the leaves have gone, because then she can see and bark ferociously at the unfortunate grey squirrels.

A view across the Meadow towards the trees at the edge of the wood. Pen has never appreciated the colours of autumn, but she does like it when the leaves have gone, because then she can see and bark ferociously at the unfortunate grey squirrels.

We planted this young northern red oak (Quercus rubra), from North America, to provide autumn contrast with the yellows of the birches behind it. It’s a very fast-growing tree which loves our heavy, wet soils.

We planted this young northern red oak (Quercus rubra), from North America, to provide autumn contrast with the yellows of the birches behind it. It’s a very fast-growing tree which loves our heavy, wet soils.

Posted in Gardening | Tagged , , , , , , ,

Why the Fens Aren’t Flat and Boring

I hate our boring preconceptions about places. London isn’t rich, crowded and stuck-up, any more than Liverpool is gritty and down-to-earth. They’re just places where people live, love and wish-away their lives. Reality is what we all want to be real. Anyway, that’s why I wrote this brief post about the Fens. That, and the need to sell more subscriptions to my latest Alan Cadbury crime thriller! So read on:

Why the Fens Aren’t Flat and Boring

The bog oaks of the Fens come from trees that were fell thousands of years ago. Gradually buried and preserved in peat bogs, they lay undisturbed until the draining of the Fens.

The bog oaks of the Fens come from trees that were fell thousands of years ago. Gradually buried and preserved in peat bogs, they lay undisturbed until the draining of the Fens.

If you think this place looks flat and boring, well, you’re very much mistaken. It’s full of archaeology and is the perfect place to dispose of a body, but only if you choose the right spot…

When I was first contemplating writing a murder mystery set in the Fens, most people would look at me a bit oddly, as if to say: are you sure that’s such a good idea? After all (the unspoken message went) they’re so very flat and boring.

But they are neither of those things. For a start they aren’t all that flat – especially in the south, where the Isle of Ely dominates the surrounding landscape and can be seen from dozens of miles away. Ely Cathedral is known locally as The Ship of the Fens because of the way it seems to float across the horizon.

Which is appropriate, because this is a watery landscape where the many ancient dykes, drains and rivers conceal more than archaeology. There are dark secrets, and local communities who retain long memories …

– See more at:    DigVentures


Posted in books, Landscape | Tagged , , , ,

Archaeology and the English Language


This is a guest blog I did for my crowdfunding friends at DigVentures. It’s very serious indeed and should provide some useful material for undergraduate dissertations. The picture is particularly worthy of mention. The duck is called Mephistopheles, or Quacky, for short. Are your appetites whetted? Now read on:

George Orwell and friend

Sloppy writing leads to sloppy thinking. And that’s why every archaeologist needs to read George Orwell’s timeless essay ‘Politics and the English Language’.

About three weeks ago I was walking across Soho Square, thinking about the possibility of getting seriously involved with a bowl of Udon noodles, when a familiar figure stepped – I won’t say strode, as he had stumbled rather unsteadily – out of a pub. It was Alan Cadbury. Being a very disciplined sort of person, I mentioned what was on my mind, viz., noodles. And Alan gave me the blankest of blank stares. It was the sort of look you give people who casually mention noodles when you’re both standing in the middle of a dark peat Fen field that once formed the bed of Whittlesey Mere.

Anyhow, and to cut what is developing into an extended tale short, it would appear that Alan had spent the first part of the day with Maiya at DigVentures’ HQ in Bethnal Green Road. It would seem they’d been talking about badly-written archaeology and hit upon the idea of a blog taking George Orwell’s wonderful 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ as its starting point. Being Alan, he had of course agreed. And with exuberant enthusiasm. Which made Maiya smile hugely. Smiles all round.

Now read on at the DigVentures website (dot, dot, dot)

Posted in Archaeology | Tagged , , , , ,

Why Archaeologists Make Good Murderers | DigVentures

I’m sometimes asked if archaeologists would make good murderers. Of course we would! What a stupid question. Anyway, here’s why I’m so convinced that Lord Lucan had a close friend who was an archaeologist. Of course it’s just a thought… But it’s not a bad one, you must admit.

Now read on.

Posted in Archaeology, books | Tagged , ,

Sharing a Taxi with a Dead Ape

Most authors like to write and talk about the people, events and things that influenced or still affect their writing. Being somewhat vain, most of us choose to discuss aspects of life which made our work better, or which gave it its special atmosphere, or colour. Inevitably, we steer a bit clear of those personal tensions which may have embittered us, or given our writing a sour edge. But I don’t want to discuss such fundamental influences here. It involved me accompanying a dead ape, in Toronto, in high summer, in a taxi …

This short tale will also be about the circumstances that gave rise to the creation of one of the key scenes in my crime/thriller, The Lifers’ Club. As you will discover, sometimes the reality behind fiction can be stranger than anything your imagination can create. So our story starts in a low-key fashion, as most things did in those email-free, text-less days of 1969, with a phone call:

‘Hi,’ short pause: ‘Are you Francis?’

The voice was Canadian, as one might expect in Toronto, and although I was still relatively new to the country I knew better than to make a smart-arse reply. I had just enjoyed a good breakfast and was feeling relaxed. Soon my wife and I planned to walk downtown to one of the then fashionable ‘underground’ markets where one could buy tie-dyed t-shirts, expensive hookah pipes, water-beds and spicy food. The Vietnam War was at its height and Toronto had a huge population of US draft-dodgers. We had some good friends in that community. But I soon realised that our trip downtown was not to be.

‘Yes, I am,’ I replied.

‘My name is Englebert Humperdinck, and I’m a Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology. I was given your name by Doug. He said you were the kind of guy who wouldn’t mind doing something unusual.’

I should mention here that he was called neither Humperdinck nor Englebert, in fact I can’t even remember his voice, but I did hear that my name had been mentioned by my boss, the Chief Archaeologist of The Royal Ontario Museum, the late Doug Tushingham. I had just joined Doug’s department, the Office of the Chief Archaeologist, as a lowly technician and was keen to climb the ladder towards a full academic, or curatorial job. So if Doug had said ‘fly’ I would have flapped by arms.

The man on the phone went on to explain that he had just been told by a contact at Toronto Zoo, that when they had done the final inspection, late last night, they had discovered a female orangutan had died, probably of a heart-attack. They had taken her to the mortuary, where she was ready for collection. He then went on to explain that he had a few practical problems: they were short of staff; it was a weekend and Monday was a Public Holiday. To make matters worse, the Zoo’s chiller had broken-down and it was going to be yet another baking hot day in August. For a brief moment I couldn’t think why on earth he was telling me all this and then I suddenly realised: Vertebrate Palaeontology wanted her bones for their reference collections. He had been reading my mind:

‘You’ve gotta understand, Francis, she’s rare and we need her bones for our Reference Collection.’

I was about to reply along the lines of ‘Yes, orangutans don’t grow on trees,’ but thankfully thought better of it. He then arranged to meet me at his Department’s Biological Cleansing Facility, where he wanted me to deliver the ape and gave me the entire contents of the Facility’s Petty Cash box. His final words were succinct:

‘So I don’t care how you do it. Just get her here by Tuesday. And have a couple beers on us, when you’ve done.’

I watched as he strode out of the small courtyard, then I headed into the street. A few minutes earlier we had collected the Petty Cash box from the secretary’s office, where a calendar above her desk showed a tasteful picture of An Ape a Month. By some strange coincidence, August was Orangutan Month and we were treated to a close-up of an orange-haired female cradling an infant. It was very touching. Of course I knew a little bit about the Great Apes from my physical anthropology courses at Cambridge, but their bones gave me no idea they could be so charming. That calendar also taught me that the name orangutan derives from two Malay words meaning ‘person’ and ‘forest’. As I headed out in search of a taxi, I had visions of nimble, youthful orangutans swinging nimbly from branch to branch, like so many playful red squirrels.

There was only one yellow cab in the taxi-rank. The driver, who was in his later middle-age and enormously fat, was leaning back in his seat, snoozing. The windows were wide open and a newspaper lay across the steering-wheel. I coughed to gain his attention. He woke-up, shook his head and said in a North American voice, but with a strong hint of London’s East End:

‘Sorry, mate. Dozed-off in this ‘eat.’

He immediately recognised me as English and then mentioned that he grew up in Bethnal Green and had come to Canada after the war. The important stuff over, he asked me where I wanted to go. I explained my mission, fully expecting him to refuse, as it was more than a little outrageous. By rights, of course, I should have hired a small van, but life was too short and I hadn’t bothered to get a Canadian driving licence, as we didn’t yet own a car. Little did I then realise what a big mistake that short-sighted decision was to prove. He paused when I’d finished explaining.

‘Blimey, mate, got to hand it to you for cheek. Collect a dead ape, you’re saying?’

‘Yes,’ I replied, trying to sound as reassuring as I could, ‘She only died last night. So there won’t be any smell…’

He gave me a look which said that he’d seen and smelled things far more unpleasant in the War. Then he took a deep breath.


I produced the wadge of notes I’d been given from the Petty Cash box.

His eyes grew round. At last he smiled.

‘OK,’ he said, ‘But not on this.’ He reached up and switched off the meter. ‘A hundred bucks?’

That was a big sum in those days. Quickly I leafed through the notes. I could just do it.

‘OK,’ I replied.

‘And in advance.’

This was said with what he hoped was a disarming smile. I felt neither charmed nor won-over, but I had no alternative. So I paid-up. Desperate times call for desperate measures.


Toronto’s world-renowned Zoo sits on the edge of the great city, which sprawls along the northern shores of Lake Ontario. As we drove away from the lake along Yonge (pronounced ‘Young’) Street, the city’s principal thoroughfare, one could occasionally catch glimpses of gleaming water through the shimmering damp heat-haze of high summer. In Britain we think of Canada as cold, but in actual fact Toronto is 500 miles south of London and their summers are a great deal warmer – and steamier – than ours. I hadn’t been this far from the city centre before, and the taller buildings of the downtown banking area looked magnificent – a miniature New York set on the edge of what seemed like an inland Atlantic Ocean.

I think I must have drifted off – it had been a frantic and rather tense-making morning – when I was rudely awoken by a sharp tap on the window. It was a uniformed security guard. I read him the details of the man we were to meet at the Mortuary. He went back into his booth and I could see him pick up a phone. The he reappeared and gave the driver instructions. By now I was feeling so relieved: we were nearly there. Soon it would all be over. But little did I know.

We followed his instructions and when we got there, the Zoo’s Mortuary turned out to be a surprisingly unimpressive building. Admittedly it was on a weekend, but there were no scurrying vet-nurses in green head-to-toe overalls, as one might expect today. Instead there was a bell, which the driver managed to push – I had never seen such a long, fat arm – without leaving the cab. Then we waited. And waited. In the distance we could hear unusual shrieks and catcalls which sounded more like a school for the kids of hyper-active comedians than a zoo. Or maybe I’m being unfair. But it was odd, disarming and a little creepy, given where we were parked. After what seemed like an eternity, during which time my driver successfully ignored all my attempts at small-talk to lighten the mood, a door to the left of the one we were waiting by, opened, and a man in ordinary workman’s overalls beckoned us over. Slowly we drove the few yards to meet him. Just around the corner of the building was a pair of double-doors, which were then opened from the inside. We drew-up alongside them.

I don’t make a habit of visiting mortuaries, but like everyone else, I do have certain expectations. I wasn’t anticipating somewhere evil at all, but I had hoped for a slight element of fear, regret or sadness; a cool-to-cold atmosphere; sympathetic, if silent, staff and everywhere the powerful aroma of disinfectants.

But this place more resembled the delivery bay of a small engineering works in one of the new industrial suburbs that were then springing up around most of the cities of the western world. In the background I could hear a radio, tuned-in to CHUM-FM, a popular local acid rock station, and two men were sitting at a table drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, surrounded by fuse boxes and the usual paraphernalia of a workshop. I began to doubt whether we had been shown the right place at all. It wasn’t remotely like a mortuary, although come to think of it, there was a strong smell of disinfectant. Rather hesitantly I gave one of the two men the piece of paper with the reference number I had been given at the Museum. He glanced down at it. Then took a sip from his coffee. A puff on his cigarette. All the time in the world. I could feel my palms starting to sweat – and it wasn’t just the heat.

‘You from the Museum?’

This was asked in a Scottish Canadian voice.

‘Yes, I’ve, I’ve come to collect…’ I couldn’t think of the right word, ‘to collect a specimen. It’s for the Department of Vertebrate Palaeontology.’

In my experience long words could often open closed doors. But not today. He said nothing.

There was a further long pause while he finished his coffee. Eventually he looked up:

‘You’ll have to give me a hand.’

I glanced at the other man who was reading the sports pages of the newspaper. He studiously ignored me and remained sitting at the table.

We walked across to the double doors and my taciturn companion looked right and left. Then he turned to me:

‘Where’s the truck?’

‘There isn’t one.’

For an instant a look of incredulity flashed across his otherwise inscrutable face. But sadly it didn’t set me thinking.

‘So it’s the cab?’

I nodded.

‘That’s right.’

I detected a faint exhalation and a slight upwards glance. By now I realised he was acting oddly. He didn’t think it was going to work. But I was still quietly confident. For a moment I could see orangutans swinging nimbly through the trees. Everything was going to be fine. Of course it was.

We went back into the building, where the second man was still reading his newspaper, but this time we crossed to the opposite corner and entered a smaller pair of more hospital-like double doors, which swung shut behind us. He turned on the lights to reveal a featureless corridor with another pair of swing-doors at the end. Just in front of the far set of doors was a stainless-steel, heavy-duty trolley, whose blankets concealed something the size of a small cow. Maybe a young moose or an antelope, I speculated as I walked past. For a moment I waited in front of the second double-doors, for my companion to open them. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned round, suddenly with a feeling of cold foreboding. As I watched, he pulled the blanket off the trolley to reveal a vast expanse of dark brown skin and orange hair. I was stunned. Far from swinging through the trees, this female could have uprooted them.


As a sheep-farmer I’ve long been aware that animals have a certain dignity in death. OK, the Church may say that they don’t have souls, but then it’s not unusual to hear rubbish from a pulpit. And if anyone had a soul, this poor dead orangutan had one. Her dark eyes, which were wide open, if somewhat clouded, seemed to look at one in a strangely disengaged fashion. It was as if she was observing me: she was now the anthropologist and I was the ape. I hadn’t appreciated until then how high an ape’s eyes were set in the skull and there was – or did I imagine it? – a distinct change between the hair on her head and the rest of her body. Like many middle-aged and elderly humans today, she was generously proportioned, but there was nothing unfit about her. Her muscles were massive and had plainly been used. I don’t think she’d have looked odd pushing a vast supermarket trolley in some simian Sainsbury’s. And I’m absolutely certain she would never have worn tight leggings and horizontal stripes. But she was vast. Could we fit her in the taxi? And if not, what on earth was I to do?

The two of us pushed the trolley out onto the forecourt and up to the taxi. The driver had the window down. He lowered his newspaper – still on the same sports’ page – and stubbed out his cigarette. But did he open the door? Did he, Hell!

We pulled off the blanket and as we did so, I glanced across at the driver, who showed no emotion whatsoever. We could have revealed a trolley-load of spark-plugs and spanners for all he was concerned. Eventually he offered advice:

‘It’s a big’un. You’ll have to lift out the back seat. Then stick it in the trunk.’

How that ‘it’ irritated me! I also remember thinking he’d been in Canada long enough to say ‘trunk’ for ‘boot’. But he didn’t offer to help us. I thought for one awful moment that my only practical assistant was going to return to his companion at the table. But he decided against it. In hindsight, I think he was beginning to enjoy himself.

Together we removed the rear seat and squeezed it into the boot. Then, rather ingeniously, by partially lowering the shelf of the trolley, which was secured by butterfly-bolts, we slid the dead ape into the cab, which tilted quite dramatically at the impact. At that, the driver must have turned on the ignition, because an internal alarm sounded. He poked his head out of the window and announced:

‘Uneven load. The cab won’t start unless you shift it.’

That ‘it’ again. I was beginning to get annoyed.

But the driver didn’t care. He was reading the damn newspaper.

After much straining we managed to man-handle the poor creature across to the cab’s nearside. When we had wedged her upright, I shut the door. Sitting so very low down in the vehicle, her huge head was at the same height as a human’s. Standing on the outside looking in, I found it spookily strange. To make matters worse, she was staring out of the window. This made my companion smile. I could see he had the Scots’ dry sense of humour, but I suddenly became very aware that her vast and unearthly gaze would terrify any passing pedestrians, especially when we drove through the crowded streets downtown. So I went round to the other side, reached in, and gently angled her head towards the front. Somehow that looked a little less odd.

The driver didn’t want her to or roll over, as that would set-off the Uneven Load alarm again. And in those days cabs weren’t fitted with seat-belts. So I sat next to her on a pile of collapsed cardboard boxes that we had to fish out of the garbage skip. For some reason they smelled strongly of garlic, which I didn’t object to (a) because I’m very partial to it and (b) because all the manipulation had caused our dead companion to release the preliminary gasses of putrefaction – which were neither pleasant, nor unexpected, given the heat and humidity of the day.

I slipped the helpful Zoo assistant enough money for a few beers and we set off back to the Museum. And then something very odd happened. The driver suddenly started to act like a cabby: all cheerful questions and banter about local politics, beer and the Toronto Maple Leafs. I fully expected him to say something chirpily sexist to our dead companion. But strangely, he didn’t. I’ve never been much good at small talk, but in this instance it helped keep my mind off the problems at hand – which were about to get critical.

We came off the fast freeways that skirt the metropolitan area and joined Yonge Street, which in its uptown stretches is dual-carriageway. As we bowled along I found I was thinking about that rather strange name: Yonge. I’d just learnt from a friend in the Department of Canadiana that Sir George Yonge was an expert in Roman Roads and was a friend of John Graves Simcoe, the first colonial administrator of Ontario, who named the street after him in the 1790s. Anything to keep my mind off the dead ape beside me – and the increasingly dreadful smell. I’d always been led to believe that after a few minutes your nose gets used to powerful odours, and they vanish. But that hadn’t happened to me. Not even slightly.

By now, the buildings we were passing by were becoming older, larger and closer together. There were more people on the sidewalks. But still the happy cabby continued the brainless chatter. I’d completely given up trying to respond. It was pointless: he was on a looped tape. At the mid-town junction of Yonge Street and St. Clair Avenue, we paused briefly to allow a tram, complete with ringing bell, to pass in front of us. Then we headed down the hill, presumably the Ice Age shoreline, towards the lake, the Museum and downtown. At this point the burble from the front started to break-up and fade. He’d remembered something. I could see him glance at his watch. Then rapidly he reached across and switched on the radio. He’d nearly missed it: the big game. Toronto Maple Leafs, I think. Or were they ice hockey? Doesn’t matter.

My driver was obviously a big football fan and the sound of the radio in the background wouldn’t normally have intruded – in fact I’d have welcomed it, as it did signal an end to the chatter. Unfortunately, however, along with the chatter seemed to go his concentration. His mind plainly wasn’t on the job at hand. Up until just south of the second major mid-town junction at Yonge and Dundas his driving had been smooth. He had seemed to be aware that he was carrying a huge and unstable deadweight; so he made allowances: no swerving, no rapid braking, nor acceleration. Then that bloody game began in earnest.

I was also becoming aware that two other factors were about to compound my problems. The first was geographical. We were now on the fringes of the late 19th Century city. From here on, Yonge Street was two-way, albeit with two lanes in each direction, and there were traffic lights at roughly every other block. The second was chronological. It was August, and the blanket of anonymous darkness was still several hours away. We could be clearly seen from the sidewalks. To make matters even worse, it was now early Saturday evening and people were heading out for the pubs, restaurants and night-clubs of downtown. It was only too apparent that many young men had already enjoyed several beers, doubtless in the knowledge that tomorrow was ‘dry’: pubs closed and churches opened in the quest to reap the Sunday dollar. I must add that today onetime prim and proper ‘Tory Toronto’ is very different – in fact it’s the gay-scene capital of the Eastern Seaboard. But not in 1969: in those days you made the most of your Saturday nights.

By now we were in the heart of downtown, but at least traffic was moving. Once or twice, when we had to slow down, I think I might have spotted the odd nudge or pointing finger, as people on the sidewalk caught glimpses of our cargo. But they probably thought we were heading out for a fancy-dress party. Then I noticed the driver’s head twitch: the quarterback was making a break. The crowd roared. He threw a thirty yard pass. Wild cheering from the crowd – and the driver. A few seconds later: touchdown! The stadium went wild, The driver punched the ceiling with both hands and the cab lurched across into the fast lane. But the lights were red. So we squealed to a standstill. The ape had collapsed forward, over the front passenger seat. And there was something slightly unpleasant drooling from her mouth.

Why is it that when you want a car of deaf-blind pensioners to draw-up in the nearside lane, you get a bus-load of eager students? Because that’s what appeared alongside us, just as I was pulling the poor ape back from over the front passenger seat. And as we had discovered back at the zoo, her head lolled naturally towards the window, where the bus-full of students were treated to a clear view of her huge face, cloudy eyes and drooling mouth. I’m pretty sure it was too much for them, because for a brief instant I thought we had got away with it – as there was silence. But it was very short-lived. Suddenly all hell broke loose. It was a hot day, the bus windows were open and you could have heard the screams right across Lake Ontario in Rochester, New York State. In those days most cars didn’t have air-conditioning, so everyone’s windows were open. After a few second I glanced in the mirror: several cars back, people were opening their doors. And getting out. Horns were blaring and the screams were getting worse and worse. But my driver was blissfully unaware. One or two people had started to head towards us from the sidewalks And they were looking menacing. Things were beginning to turn nasty. Then, mercifully, the lights changed. I held my breath – but we didn’t budge. The driver’s brain was still with the Maple Leafs in that bloody stadium.

In desperation, I politely nudged his shoulder – again, desperate times call for desperate measure – and thank God: it worked. He drove away, as if nothing had happened. No roaring engine; no squealing tyres. But we had escaped. Out of the back window I could see the pandemonium we had left behind us. All vehicles had stopped. Pedestrians were everywhere. A few people looked and pointed in our direction, but no cars followed. It had been a close-run thing.

I sat back and closed my eyes. My body had relaxed, but my mind was still in a whirl. Then I found myself wondering how many future students would know anything about the colourful post-mortem history of the bones they were handling in the Reference Collection? To them, they’d just be yet more dry, white specimens, this time of the female orangutan, Pongo abelii. I smiled at the memory of her name as I looked down at the collapsed and festering bulk of my vast companion. Poor Pongo. At least she was about to find a certain odourless immortality in the Museum. And me, how did I feel about it all? To be quite honest I was completely knackered. Forgive the weak pun, but I couldn’t have given a monkey’s.

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Archaeology Podcast Network

My recent crowdfunding campaign has produced some interesting spin-offs, including this trans-Atlantic podcast in which I am interviewed by two colleagues in the United States. It was great fun to do – and I think that comes across quite well. Click and enjoy!

Posted in Archaeology, books | Tagged , , , ,