My Brother, Old Movies and Dublin Zoo.


If the designer’s name had been Duckworth, or Pigeon or perhaps, Fish, the fortunes of MGM could have been very different. For one thing, I would not have had to hide under the seat the first time I went to the cinema. It was supposed to be a treat. Son of Lassie. Lassie was a bitch, a beautiful white and tan collie. I had seen the posters. She was a beauty.  I gathered in later years, that there were several Lassies, stand-in Lassies and stunt Lassies. Some of the Lassies were in fact, rather effeminate dogs. But who cared?  Ars Gratia Artis and all that.  Obviously one of those dogs got through the security and past the many minders that protect Hollywood royalty, because Lassie had a son who followed her into the family business. It can be an advantage in Hollywood, to have a famous parent.

However, the designer for MGM was Lionel S. Reiss. The clue is in the name. I went with my parents and older siblings. It was night time. I got sweets. I was almost a grown-up. It was all very exciting. The lights went down. The curtains opened. A beam of light came from overhead. There were specks of dust in the beam, motes, as they are called in the Gospel. I looked around. The light came from a small, rectangular opening up near the roof. The light was almost blinding. I turned back towards the screen. I blinked to get the green and red spots out of my vision.  Suddenly there was a terrifying roar. There was an enormous lion glaring down at me. He roared again and looked around. I hit the floor in panic. Nobody else took any precautions. My brother, John, laughed.  ‘It’s not real’ he said. ‘You can come up. It’s only a picture.’  I got back on my seat, as the lion faded away but I kept a wary eye out for him. If 3D had existed at the time, I would still be under that seat.

The film was in Technicolour, the wonder of the day. Lassie’s son, if I recall, was involved in the Great War. He ran through No-Man’s-Land, between explosions and screaming shells. Machine guns went takka-takka-takka. All the humans shouted at one another but Lassie’s son stayed calm through it all. He carried messages and unwound phone wires. It looked dangerous but still, I watched out for that bloody lion. John explained aspects of the film—as was his wont—but I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. We discussed many films late into the night, in the years that followed, discussions that flared into arguments, until the Old Man intervened and told us in no uncertain terms, to go to bloody sleep. We were severe critics. But did anyone listen? As Sam Goldwyn himself said: ‘Critics! I don’t even ignore them.’

Legend has it that one of the MGM lions was from Dublin Zoo. A Northsider. I met his grandson the other day. Was I scared? Not a bit of it. I had two sturdy lads to mind me. I have a tenuous faith in armoured glass. There used to be iron bars. Isn’t he the image of his grandfather?  Hollywood royalty, no less. He was taking it easy. He never even roared at me.

Zoo, painting 2014 005

He also looks like the lion on the Tate and Lyle golden syrup tins—without the bees or whatever they are. Maybe they were  bluebottles or blowflies. I don’t know the difference. It seems a strange logo for a tin of golden syrup, but it tastes like Heaven. It comes from the sugar cane, ‘the reed that yields honey without bees.’ When you think of it, wouldn’t you prefer honey that comes direct from the cane than second-hand honey that bees have carried around, stuck to the hairs on their legs. Bye and large, I don’t really want any food that was stuck to the hairs on anybody’s legs, not even those of Cyd Charisse, legendary Hollywood legs, insured for a million dollars, against all eventualities, presumably even theft.

It lashed rain in the Zoo. My minder had a map. He pointed out the hippos on the map…and the elephants. He pointed out the monkeys. Monkeys always give good value. ‘Look at his bum!’ It was bright red. As we say in show business, ‘If you’ve  got it, flaunt it.’  He had and he did. We moved on. The map deteriorated in the rain. We hacked our way through elephant grass and malarial swamps, pressing on gamely until we reached an outpost of civilization, an indoor playground. I was a bit nervous of the slide but our intrepid guides took to it immediately.

 Zoo, painting 2014 016      Zoo, painting 2014 014

The bearers took up their burdens and we struck out towards The Mountains of The Moon and the African Savanna. My geography and my glasses, get a bit hazy in the rain. We passed a lake full of flamingoes that had been left too long in the washing machine with somebody’s red socks. The Masai like red robes. I wonder. We took shelter in a settlement where we bartered some beads for Southern Fried Chicken and French Fries. SHE Who Must Be Obeyed, needed coffee and so did I. And icecream. I think there was honey in the chicken sauce, but what the hell! We were probably within a day’s march of King Solomon’s Mines and the hippos….and the elephants.

Zoo, painting 2014 011

Over yonder glinted the snows of Kilimanjaro. We were approaching elephant country. We saw giraffe, gazelle, rhino, zebra and ostrich. (It is compulsory to use the singular—-great white hunter speak.) and maybe some good gnus. Zebra, ‘Donkey ‘ngo Football Jersey’ in Fanakalo, the pidgin English of South Africa.  I like that. The gorillas were taking it easy and keeping dry. There was no Attenborough around to talk to them. In fact they haven’t spoken to anyone since Hanno, the Carthaginian, met them two and a half millennia ago. The only word he could make out from their strange speech was Gorilla.  There’s a coincidence.  They looked a bit bored. They were not interested in how we had evolved over the years. We have lost the prehensile toes…which would have come in handy. (There is no other way of saying that.) We still prefer to sleep upstairs, as they do, but we can’t digest sticks. Maybe we have devolved, but we have developed better umbrellas.

Zoo, painting 2014 029

No hippos opened their ponderous jaws to destroy our flimsy craft. We must have taken a wrong turn or perhaps, being south of the Equator, we just miscalculated. Next year’s expedition will take place in the dry season, when the wasps migrate to the bins to gorge on the honeyed scraps and the icecream wrappers. At last, just as supplies were running out, we came to the elephants. Tembo, the greatest of all mammals, placid and wise in manner, with the solemn eyes of General de Gaulle. Thank you, Tembo, for allowing us to pass through your territory. We intend no harm.

John explained many things of a scientific and astronomical nature.  He was at times, a cantankerous old bachelor. He was not blessed with luck. We often argued.  He loved maps and charts. He read the night sky. He left us last week, taking with him a book, The Stars in Their Courses by Sir James Jeans, his lifelong guide to the Universe. He will no longer ring me to give notice of The Sky at Night on television. He missed a good one last night about the Moon and its influence on the Earth. Apparently it acts like the governor on Paddy Noonan’s steam traction engine, keeping the Earth’s rotation on an even keel. It is moving imperceptibly away from us. In a billion years we will be in trouble. He can explain it to me when I meet him again. I will listen, this time. I confess that I often saw the mote in my brother’s eye, rather than the beam in my own.

Zoo, painting 2014 039

Looking around me in the rain, at my bedraggled companions, I realised that I had indeed found the incalculable riches of King Solomon’s mines.

Zoo, painting 2014 002