I have a thing about elephants these days. Define thing, I say to myself. OK, I reply: the image of an elephant on objects that I own is pleasing to me—and when I see in a store a carving of an elephant or a piece of jewellery in the shape of an elephant, I get a rush of acquisitiveness. Why is this? I don’t really know, but I’m not alone in relating to a symbol of the animal world: my daughters have both gone through stages where they like t-shirts with a monkey logo and my friend C is into dragonflies; cats, cows, and ladybirds have their adherents.
For a recent birthday, I received a card of a Toulouse Lautrec drawing called Théorie des éléphants. This image shows the absurd charm of the elephant: a bizarrely improbably creature, really. This is the ancestor of the Babar, the Dumbo. Some popular elephant imagery stresses the size and power of the animal, but I like the friendlier interpretation.
T&P asked me what elephants have meant to me in my life. Well, of course, I told them, as a child I went to the zoo to ride on an elephant. What? they said, choking on their cappuccinos. Yes, I said, this was in the days before zoological correctness. Rosie, the elephant at the Bristol Zoo, gave rides to countless children. I remember looking up at the huge ears and trunk, the loose, ancient-looking skin, the tiny eyes. She would kneel, as commanded by her handler, and we would climb up into the howdah. Then she would straighten up and walk slowly along the paths, with a good deal of swaying and lurching for her squealing passengers. Somehow, she retained a certain amount of dignity throughout the process.
So maybe it’s the contrasts that I like: the combination of that alien appearance with being comfortable in their own wrinkled skin; huge, yet apparently gentle; powerful, yet playful. Whatever. I love elephants.