As a very young child, I remember a visit to my maternal grandparents’ home in Hinckley, Leicestershire. From the old wooden bookcase, I fished out a big old encyclopedia. In those days, enyclopedias were laid out similar to the way dictionaries are today, but with slightly fuller descriptions of the entries. They had few pictures or photographs and, if they did, these were restricted to three or four collections of ‘plates’ within the volume. Turning to one of these sections, I was captivated by a full-page photograph of a crocodile. It may only have been in black and white, but the image had caught the creature in full attack mode, seemingly lurching straight towards the camera, eyes staring, jaws gaping. Over the next few days, I became rather obsessed with this picture, returning to the bookcase to take a further glimpse at any opportunity. After a few days, we left Hinckley and returned home to Sussex.
Everything was fine for a few weeks, then the nightmares started. I’d wake, bolt upright, sweating and crying, the attacking crocodile image clear in my mind. I’d make my way to my parents’ bedroom and pad round to dad’s side of the bed – always dad. He would take me back to my own room. On most occasions, his words were enough to calm me and, after a while, I’d fall back to sleep.
But things got progressively worse. I refused to go to sleep unless mum – always mum – checked under the bed, in the wardrobe and behind the dressing table to make sure none of these terrible beasts were lurking there. This then escalated to a ridiculous level where I was having her check three or four times before I would settle. And, even then, the nightmares continued from time to time. Apparently, it got so bad that – and I don’t remember this part at all – mum and dad could see no choice but to take me to see my GP. Dr Dart listened and then announced, in his matter-of-fact tones: “Easy to fix! Take him to London Zoo and show him some!”
So, the following Saturday, we apparently – because I don’t remember this, either – caught the train to London and visited Regents Park. I did indeed see some crocodiles and, from that very moment, the nightmares vanished. And to be replaced by a fascination for the brutes which lasts until this day. In fact, only recently, Carol and I visited La Ferme Aux Crocodiles, Pierrelatte, France where I was again captivated – this time by hundreds of the beasts living in a simmering tension under one enormous roof.
To all you crocodiles out there
When I was a young lad, I was terrified by what I saw as simply power and ferocity. But to see you calm and tranquil in the surroundings of captivity replaced that terror with awe and fascination. I still admire your stalking, fighting and destructive capabilities but I’m now as much entranced by your physiology and the tenderness with which you care for your young. But I guess the thing that intrigues me most is quite how you seem to be the only beings on Earth who have defied the principles of evolution.
A few years ago, someone asked me to think of my favourite animal, followed by my second and third favourites. I replied: “crocodile, dog, cat” in that order. She said: “that means you see yourself as having the characteristics of crocodile, others see you as a having the traits of a dog but the truth is you behave as a cat.” I will leave others to assess that judgement!
So thank you, boys – for a long and sometimes bizarre association and fascination. And keep up the two fingers to Darwinism!