This was my first reading of Angus Wilson’s 1961 novel The Old Men at the Zoo and I confess I was disappointed. When, a few years back, I wrote my dissertation on the influences of Margaret Thatcher on contemporary literature [The Blue River of Truth is available to read and download on my website.] I discovered a group of seemingly very right-wing novelists who were writing in the sixties and seventies of the last century, and who wrote dystopian predictions of both Communist and Fascist revolutions taking hold in the Disunited Kingdom as a continuation of and/or reaction against post-war militant trade unionism. I called them Pre-Thatcherist novels and they were examples of what the able critic D J Taylor labelled ‘bourgeois hysteria’. I cited novelists like Kingsley Amis, Anthony Burgess, Margaret Drabble, Piers Paul Read and the lesser known Julian Fane. To this list I must now add Angus Wilson on the evidence of The Old Men at the Zoo.
In assessing a book written in 1960 and that predicts a European war in the late sixties from which Britain would not emerge victorious, one must avoid the pitfall of too much hindsight. It didn’t happen, did it, and some of the language and attitudes Wilson gives his characters now seem faintly risible. However, the novel is an excellent example of the kind of political and social thinking that was prevalent then – when, for example, hanging was still legal and homosexuality was not yet so.
The narrator, Simon Carter is a sometime zoologist turned civil servant and administrator who has been seconded to London Zoo as its Secretary in order to install order into its chaotic administration. He has the good fortune to be married to a wealthy American heiress which means that he does not need to subsist on his modest salary. The book opens with ghoulish humour as Carter recounts how an inexperienced young keeper has been killed by a normally tranquil giraffe. While Carter wants to have the whole matter investigated and the causes publicly revealed, the ‘Old Men’ want to sweep the problem under the cage for fear it affects the TV programme the Director is working on or the public’s attitude to the Zoo and to their research. Carter begins to emerge as something of a young prig and as a narrator who is not aware how much he is revealing himself as he relates the story.
The Zoo’s President, Lord Godmanchester, is an ageing politician currently out of office but who feels that (like Churchill perhaps) he is the only person who can unite and save the nation. He also wants to establish a National Nature Park on the Welsh Marches where the wild, non-native creatures would roam free. There is a suspicion that this is also a ploy to evacuate the Zoo’s animals from a capital under threat from the war that might break out.
Wilson does an excellent job in depicting the various Curators of the different species and their personal quirks and obsessions; their insistence that the role of the Zoo is research rather than public entertainment. He describes the conflicted Carter, trying to balance his blissful domestic life with his battles with the Old Men. He is less successful, with me at least, in retaining the reader’s sympathy with and for Carter.
War does break out and, for a while, it goes very badly for Britain. Fascist Uni-Europeans take charge and one of their leaders becomes the Zoo’s President. He has the aim of bringing back the Roman Circus where the Zoo’s bears would publicly tear miscreants to pieces. Carter, accused of being a modern-day Vicar of Bray, survives the changes of political control right through to the restoration of pre-war quasi-normality and his marriage is threatened by his willingness to continue as an administrator for the sake of the Zoo rather than oppose the rulers and maybe die for his pains. Thus, serious issues emerge from the author’s mild humour and the narrator’s conflicts. There is a final resolution of sorts.
While I really enjoyed Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, my Norman French attitude to this book is one of mild disappointment. I suspect that nowadays The Old Men at the Zoo is probably only going to be read by academics. Sorry Sir Angus!