Dear Readers, I’m not quite sure why this story made me teary-eyed, but I loved it so much that I wanted to share it. Josh Gabbatiss started his ‘Book of Animals’ when he was just nine years old. I love that, as he says, he knew even at that age that he was in it ‘for the long haul’ – he started with worms, corals and other invertebrates, and planned to work his way through the animal kingdom until he arrived at the primates.
I suspect that he didn’t know that it was going to take him twenty-two years, however, because he finally finished the book earlier this year. In the meantime he’d become a zoologist, and then a climate consultant. Josh says that he worked away at the book pretty much consistently until he was in his early teens, when there started to be big jumps in time between sections. In his late teens, he moved onto mammals, but then when he went to university, it all stopped – the book was ‘too precious to move to a different city’. Finally, during the Covid lockdown he got stuck in again. What a talented artist he is! This is the final picture.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone out there published it? Josh’s website is here in case anyone has a hankering.
I have a great fondness for animal encyclopaedias, because when I was growing up, I was gifted one by my Auntie Marie. Auntie Marie wasn’t a real auntie – she worked with Mum, and they had a great fondness for one another, despite being chalk and cheese. Marie had, let’s say, a theatrical background – her hair was always black as coal, her lipstick ruby-red, her eyes lined with kohl. In my memory she has a cigarette holder (though I am possibly conflating her with Cruella de Ville, most unreasonably). We were a very poor family, just about making ends meet, but Marie would lend us her caravan in Whitstable once a year for free so we could have a holiday. And when we went to visit her in her huge apartment, which overlooked Clapham Common, she would always live up to her reputation as being the world’s worse cook, something that my poor younger brother bore the brunt of. She heard that he loved saveloy sausages, and so she cooked him up six of them, and looked on with pride while he tried to eat the lot. Once, she made a trifle out of stale Christmas cake, including the icing and the marzipan. No amount of begging could stem her largesse.
But, her generosity in the giving of books was the thing that I most remember. She introduced me to Thelwell, he of the little fat ponies, and to the Molesworth books, my favourites to this day. And the Readers’ Digest Encyclopedia of Animals that she gave me was so pored over that I memorised whole sections. It gave me a way to fit the animal kingdom together, even though so much has changed in the years since I was a child (I just found out that anteaters and sloths are no longer Edentates, but Xenarthrans). We didn’t have a lot of books, so this one was my most treasured possession. At some point, it got water-stained (probably through me reading it in the bath when we finally got a bathroom) and then, somehow, it just disappeared from my life, leaving a spark of interest that has never gone out.
The last time that Mum saw Marie, she was in hospital and her hair, still black in her eighties (a miracle!) had finally grown out, and was white. Mum told her that it suited her, but Marie was adamant.
“As soon as I get out of here, I’m grabbing that dye bottle”, she said. “I don’t want people to think I’m old”.
When she died, the only people at her funeral were the gay couple from the flat upstairs, who had taken her under their wing much as she’d been doing with other people all her life, and Mum and Dad. But the ripples of her life went much further probably than she ever realised. She helped me to make the connection between the animals that I saw in the garden and the world of scientific inquiry, something that I’m finally uniting in my life now with my Open University degree.
And she gave my brother a life-long loathing of saveloys.