When taking high tea with a camel, Be careful, you shouldn’t upset This most anti-social of mammals – You wouldn’t want one as a pet.
His manners are frankly appalling, His personal hygiene is low And if he should sit at your table There is something you really should know.
When asking ‘Do you take sugar?’ – And, surprisingly, some camels do – You should always take care not to snigger When querying ‘One lump of two?’
Like everybody else that has ever been on holiday to Egypt or Tunisia, I have ridden camels. They are smelly, uncooperative, uncomfortable and unevenly tempered – it is like riding a history teacher. Only 6% of the world’s camels have two humps (Bactrian – including the critically endangered Wild Bactrian) whilst the remaining 94% have only one (Dromedary) – balanced, presumably, by a chip on the shoulder. The camel’s hump (or humps) does (or do) not contain water (they carry that in a recyclable bottle in their backpack) but actually contain fat that metabolises very rapidly into water when the animal is unable to drink (think fat-free mayonnaise). A camel’s faeces is so dry that the Bedouins are able to burn it without further drying – although it still, presumably, smells of burning shit and almost certainly explains the lack of appetite for toasted marshmallows in Bedouin culture. A camel’s eyes and nostrils are designed to keep out wind-borne sand and its thick coat keeps it cool (much like a Parka in the 90’s). Its feet are especially designed to stop the heavy beast sinking into shifting sands and its toes are uniquely shaped to give teenage boys something to titter about. They mate whilst sitting down – something we have all attempted to do at the back of the cinema back in the day. Evolution has turned the camel into one of the most incredible, biologically adapted creatures in the natural world – but they remain deeply unpleasant and they still smell of old socks…
Thompson had snapped up the last gazelle, Melville had bagged him a whale. Attenborough had almost half of a zoo, Steve Irvine had all of a snail.
John Cleese got a furry young lemur, Doc Salmon, herself, got a germ. There are hundreds of folk got a beetle, The Beatles, themselves got a worm
Nomenclature becomes daily harder – A wasp was the option for Muse – But when Kirk had accepted his Dik-Dik There can’t have been much left to choose.
I’m always intrigued about the business of having things named after you. First it was animals, then insects, then bacteria and parasites. Why? I guess it was ok in the past, when you got an antelope or a whale, but now everybody seems to get an invertebrate of some kind. I never even dreamt that there were so many types of wasp** (although I will dream about the little buggers now). Nobody cares about the name of something that has just stung them: they care about squashing the blighter. And let’s face it, nobody wants a disease named after them. Just ask Mr & Mrs Covid from number 19. Now it is planets and stars and I start to understand. Sooner or later, we are going to discover life out there and the odds are, I suppose, about 50/50 who is going to be hunting whom. If they turn out to be the hunters, I guess it must offer some kind of protection to be able to say, ‘Did you know, by the way, that your planet is named after me? Yes, honestly, I am Derek…’
**I do like the fact that Greta Garbo has a solitary wasp named after her.
Be careful of them – vicious things Can break your arms with beating wings – And if you venture near their eggs I’m sure that they could break your legs.
And if they’ve got a Cygnet brood Don’t try to calm them down with food: You won’t appease them with your bread They’ll only peck your heels instead.
They’re always ready for a fight, Like Al Capone all dressed in white. Don’t think that this is Donald Duck, These giant birds don’t give a damn*.
The fearsome reputation of the swan is undeserved and erroneous. I have fed swans from my hand many times, if anything they are more circumspect than ducks or geese – and certainly less likely to take a chunk of flesh than a squirrel. The trick is to let them approach you. Like all birds, they will attempt to protect their nests and chicks – they will make themselves look as big as they can**. Swans, like most birds, have hollow, lightweight bones: their wings will snap much more easily than a human arm. They do have powerful legs though, and clawed feet that you might want to keep out of the way of. We all know how the upper, serene part of a swan’s body is at odds with the maelstrom that is paddling madly below-decks. I think if I was expected to remain impeccably stately at all times, whilst being obliged to paddle like the clappers beneath the water line, I might just get a bit short tempered myself from time to time…
*For those scant few people of the same age as me – like Nausius in ‘Up Pompeii’, I couldn’t think of a rhyme there.
The chimpanzee would be a fool, To turn his brain to making tools: To evolve himself to number one, Far better if he made a gun.
I’m always puzzled by why, exactly, we became what we are whilst chimpanzees did not. They have brains, they have opposable thumbs, they are bloody minded and, at times, blood thirsty – why are we the ones with the overdrafts? Why do whales allow themselves to be harpooned, why do dolphins get caught in fishermen’s nets? They must know something we do not – and God help them if we ever find out what it is…
I have just realised that chimpanzees also appeared in week 12 (although a completely different rhyme) of our little glide around the zoo. You know what it’s like, constantly finding yourself back at a cage you’ve already seen…
Never wave an ice cream cornet In the presence of a hornet, If they want to taste the thing They possess a fearsome sting.
And, unlike the Bumble Bee, Are very much less mannerly: Always happy to inject Their poison where you least expect.
If you’re walking round the zoo And you somehow find that you Are trapped between the beast and sugar, Swat the stripy little bugger.
So, science tells us that every creature has carved for itself an evolutionary niche: every creature has a role to play. Tell me, please, what is the role of a hornet? Other than being even more belligerent and bloody-minded than a wasp, what does it do? It seems to have developed as a consequence of some entomological arms race: more likely to sting than a bee, more painful than a wasp, bigger than them both; it is the China of the insect world and every bit as unreliable. If you avoid being attacked by it, it will probably find a toddler to attack instead.
PS I do sometimes have readers in China. No more I guess…
Built like tower cranes on feet And rendered pink by what they eat, Thank the lord that politicians Do not provide them with nutrition. (Because nobody wants a shit-coloured flamingo).
Come on, everybody knows the joke about ‘you are what you eat’, but flamingos, at least to some extent, really are. Everybody loves a flamingo don’t they? Well no, not me. Have you seen those beady little eyes? They may be pink – and nothing pink is ever bad – but surely the knowledge that they only get to be pink by eating certain algae and shrimps gives some pause for thought. What colour would they be otherwise? Would they still be cute if they were brown? Why, evolution being what it is, do they not eat stripy algae so that they are disguised in the reeds? There must be some natural advantage to being pink. Maybe it’s a visual warning to all predators: I taste just like one of those god-awful pink wafers that you always get in a biscuit selection, and nobody wants to eat one of those…
I write these little rhymes in batches simply because when I start one, the opening couplet to another unfailingly pops into my head – annoyingly distracting me from the original which can then take some time to finish. (Limited space in my brain, only room for one rhyme at a time in there.) Originally I thought that I might do a dozen, but it has stretched now to 26* – half a year’s worth – so I thought that I might go for the full year. Who knows, by the time I get there, fifty-two may well be the number of animals in the world that have not yet made it onto the WWF Red List. I have to remind myself from time to time that these rhymes are not meant to be ‘clever’ they are meant to be silly. I’m not really made for ‘clever’. My attempts at ‘clever’ usually emerge as ‘pompous’, so by and large I leave that to other people. Childish is much more my cup of tea. On a scale of Stephen Fry to Charlie Cairoli, I come in somewhere adjacent to the Chuckle Brothers. Pomposity appears to me to be the domain of the politician. I would never make a politician. I do not have the necessary conviction that I know best and I have a face that even my grandchildren cannot take seriously, but if I do sound like a bit of a dick from time to time, I rely on you to tell me. If I sound like a dick all of the time, then I apologise, but would suggest that you and I are probably not suited as companions going forward.
I know just what a panda is, I know the panther too. The parrot is well known to me, I’ve seen one in the zoo.
We all know how a penguin looks And pigs are nothing new, But what a pangolin is like I haven’t got a clue.
It could be that it’s tangerine, It could be that it’s blue… I thought I’d try and draw one And this is what I drew.
It isn’t great – I know that’s true, I’m sure it could be neater, But have you ever tried to draw A shy, scaly anteater?
As a boy I was very taken with the ‘Little Willy’ poems. Sadly, I have absolutely no recollection of who they were written by, nor where I read them, but I do remember that the form of these little rhymes never varied. I can remember two of them today – over fifty years on:
Little Willy with a shout Gouged the baby’s eyeballs out; Stamped on them to make them ‘Pop!’ – Mother cried, ‘Now William stop!’
Little William with a roar Nailed the baby to the door. Mother cried, with humour quaint, ‘Careful Will, you’ll mar the paint.’
A have absolutely no idea why they appealed to me so greatly, but I thought it was about time that I allowed myself to take inspiration from them. I hope that whoever wrote the originals will forgive me…
Little Willy, with a yen, Threw baby in the lion’s den. Mother seemed to be quite happy – ‘It was almost time to change his nappy.’
Sadly, it was at this point that I realised that at least fifty percent of my readers (‘Hello’ to both of you) will not know what a nappy is (actually the diminutive of napkin I believe – although how it came to be wrapped about a baby’s nethers I am not sure). I understand that American babies have diapers (the etymology of which completely escapes me) and I couldn’t make that rhyme in any sensible way, so I tried again.
Little Willy with a yell Dropped the baby down a well Filled up with piranha fish – Mother whispered ‘Make a wish.’
Never say ‘No’ to a hippo, They don’t really like it you see, And all of the hippos that I know Rarely ever listen to me.
If a hippo just wants to get past you Then probably let him, I’d say, ‘Cos they don’t really listen to reason If they feel that you’ve stood in their way.
If you think they’re like George out of Rainbow* Then I’d urge you to please think again – If you stand between hippo and water You will land in a sea full of pain.
*Rainbow was a UK educational programme made for pre-school children and watched primarily by adults. Everybody watched Rainbow, but few admitted it. George was a pink hippopotamus – everybody’s favourite. George, Bungle (an androgynous bear) and Zippy (a puppet so inclined to ‘shoot off at the mouth’ that the others kept zipping him up) all lived with human companion Geoffrey and the show promoted social development: the importance of kindness and understanding. This was many years before the Rainbow was adopted as a symbol by the LGBT community and even further ahead of its adoption as a sign of hope in the UK during the covid pandemic, but it always spoke of inclusion and hope. Best of all, Rainbow gave the world Rod, Jane & Freddie.
(Ask any UK adult between the ages of 40 and 60 to sing you the theme tune to ‘Rainbow’, you’ll see…) ‘Up above the streets and houses, Rainbow climbing high. Everyone can see them smiling Over the sky. Paint the whole world with a rainbow…’