Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The clowns take over the circus

Like every decent parent on the planet, I want my son to be better off than I was as a child.

Materially, it is no contest. He is growing up in a centrally heated house that does not have ice on the inside of the windows in winter, for a start.

Although not yet two, he also owns at least ten times more toys than I had accumulated by the time I deemed myself too mature for that sort of thing, and re-categorised myself as a model railway collector.

In the same spirit of improvement, on Friday his mother and I took him to Chester Zoo. Zoos never featured in my education, since there was not a convenient one on offer. My parents filled the gap with circuses on the Town Moor, where I saw pretty girls riding elephants, foolhardy men entering cages with lions, seals playing horns and dressed-up monkeys performing tricks.

Given that the animal rights activists now have zoos in their sights, it would not surprise me if they go the way of the animal-based circus in another half century or so.

I am not sure how much the boy got out of it. The lion’s roar clearly made the biggest impression, closely followed by the big digger removing the elephants’ dung.

The lion: before it started roaring
Some elephants, wisely keeping out of the way while the digger man scooped up their dung
Though his favourite exhibits were undoubtedly the remarkably tame wild ducks that have volunteered to make the zoo their home.

The best bit of the whole Zoo, which he could have seen at home

I found myself chiefly interested in the other visitors, most of whom wore a uniform of grey tracksuits and sounded as though they came from Merseyside. Despite deliberately picking a weekday during school term for our visit, we found the place reasonably busy. And it is not by any means a cheap day out.

It also receives no public subsidy, leading me to ponder on the mystery of how the split between public and private finance of various activities evolved in the first place. Whenever I take my dog to the vet, I am struck by the apparent ease with which people who look relatively poor hand over wads of cash to pay for the treatment of their pets, yet expect their own healthcare to be provided free.

Isn't God brilliant, though?  Having the foresight to provide his giraffes with perfect camouflage against Cheshire stonework

Why is it, in so many people’s view, a good thing for the state to subsidise the provision of live theatrical performances in remote rural areas? If you want access to a theatre, surely the simple answer is not to live in the back of beyond, and to pay for it yourself.

I am a great fan of opera, but can think of no reason at all why those on low pay should be taxed to indulge my hobby.

Libraries have been a great source of public good in the past, but I honestly question their relevance as technology moves ever onwards. Living a two hour round trip from the Lit & Phil, it seemed sensible to assemble a pretty good collection of reference books of my own. But now, even when I know that the answer can be found in one of the volumes shelved right behind my desk, I almost always find it quicker and easier to search for information I need online.

So should the state’s focus now be less on keeping libraries open than on making high-speed internet access available to all?

I merely ask the question. Increasingly I fail to see the logical connection between such Government policies as deciding that elite universities may charge up to £9,000 a year in tuition fees, but only if they simultaneously make it easier for those from deprived backgrounds to gain access to them.

Sack RAF pilots, scrap aircraft and then bomb Libya. Where is the joined-up thinking there? Increasingly it’s not so much a zoo as a circus, and it looks as though the clowns have taken charge.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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