A gorilla called Alfred

2010-10-20, Comments

After a long day in London my train pulled into Temple Meads a few minutes early. I had time, just. A vampire and a zombie lurked in the trees fringing Queen Square. Heading up Park Street, a male streaker ran alongside me, hopping off the pavement and into the road to overtake pedestrians. I pulled away from him at the triangle, parked my bike at the office, swapped the laptop for a sketchbook.

Late opening at the city museum is one of Bristol’s best kept secrets. Turn up after 5 on a Wednesday and it’ll be you, a few staff, and the empty galleries. This evening, though, the building was teeming with brownies. They were dancersizing in the rear hall. Thump went the speakers. Flash went the lights. I walked around them and up the stairs, past the sculpture of Eve at the fountain, past the case of Chinese ceramic horses, into the world wildlife gallery.

Western Lowland Gorilla (Alfred)

I pulled a child-sized chair from the kids’ play area and drew it up in front of the Western Lowland Gorilla. I started sketching. Three brownies skittered past, quietening when they saw me. That’s a good drawing, one said. The bright lights behind the case. The muted thudding of the disco music.

Elephants, this way

The sign for the Zoo on the triangle shows an elephant but there hasn’t been an elephant there since Wendy died, and there’ll never be another. Gorillas, though, are very much present. They have their own island fitted out with a gorilla-sized climbing frame. The silent specimen in the case is — was — Bristol’s original gorilla, Alfred, “an international animal star … an icon for the city through times of peace and war. His powerful persona and image have been etched on the collective memory of the city and have survived long after his death”.

Yes, powerful.

Alfred was regularly taken on walks round the zoo at the end of a collar and chain, often wearing a woollen jumper. He was said to dislike bearded men, double decker buses and aeroplanes. He died in 1948 after suffering from tuberculosis for over a year. He was then stuffed and displayed in the museum. In 1956 some students stole him as a rag week stunt.

Western Lowland Gorilla (Alfred)

The gallery attendant walked round. No, I didn’t have to go yet. She shut one of the doors so it would be easier for her to close up later, and when she came around again, a few minutes later, I did have to go. The party was still in full swing. I walked around the gallery. Brownie helpers looked down on the action. Leaning against the railing were black bin liners filled with balloons.