Well Our Zoo seems to have been a riveting success and I guess you all liked it too. Most of the search terms I got for The Chronic Chronicler in the past month has been stuff like “When is Series 2 of Our Zoo?”, or “Was Lady Katherine Longmore a real person?”, and of course the inevitable question: “Did Mew and Archie get married?”.
Well to answer (at least some of) those questions I was led to June Mottershead’s book Our Zoo: The real story of my life at Chester Zoo. I just want to say a quick thank you to singers2 for putting me in the direction of this book as without that comment I may have never have known of its existence. So thank you very much and I hope you, and everyone else, enjoys this review!
June Mottershead describes her life from the age of four when she moved to Oakfield in 1930 to her marriage to her late husband Fred Williams in 1949. In that 19 year span of the book, June notes the troubling times the zoo faced in its early days, the continuous need for funds, the troubling war years, her own as well as Mew’s development as the zoo’s keepers, and of course anecdotes about the zoo’s many animals.
To be clear on this, Our Zoo is not purely on the workings of the zoo, yet it is also not a wholly autobiographical account either. It mixes somewhere in the middle to lend a unique view of the development of Chester Zoo through a period of much turmoil of the zoo and for Britain.
It’s now I have to apologise to some people because it is now I must say that Mew never marries Archie. Archie exists in the same way Mr Tumnus exists. But before you punch a hole through your computer in utter disgust at this realisation, you must remember that June even notes that the BBC series is “not a documentary. It’s a drama.” This book puts to rest some of those questions, but also gives the reality of the situation which is satisfying in its own way.
But now onto the book and, to be fair, it’s quite an entertaining read. Not all the names for people and animals are there, being forgotten over the course of time, and sometimes names are mixed up, like a penguin previously referred to as Oswald being named Charlie a few lines down as it was the penguin before Oswald. Yet these are only minor errors which, although slightly irritating, don’t take the entire shine off the book.
June gives very good detail to anecdotes about her family and how they really in in comparison to their portrayal on screen. Firstly, Chester Zoo was not the Mottershead’s first interaction with animals, having owned a zoo at Shavington and sold animals before then. It really throws you having watched a series to find such changes were made, but again, it was a drama.
George in June’s book appears to be a bit more stern than Lee Ingleby’s portrayal gave, seeking publicity in a greater fashion and pushing forth the idea that the animals are not pets and cannot be treated as such, especially it seems to June. But this does not make him unlikeable; rather it makes George a more realistic character, seeing the zoo not just as a place to house animals but as a way to provide for his family.
The character of Mew is also vastly different from her onscreen portrayal as, instead of the mopey teenager turned able keeper, Mew in June’s book is much more able. Being ten years June’s elder, Mew is much more involved in the creation of the zoo, often rearing chimps and cubs as well as tending to sick animals. It’s quite a strange difference from screen to page but it is almost comforting to know that, while the screen portrayal gave a different, but still watchable view of Mew, the real life Mew was still as interesting to learn about.
June also gives accounts of the animals and, while some are merely listing who and what there are, some animals get near to entire chapters devoted to them, like the lion cub Christy, Punch the Polar Bear (not a suggestion, the name of the polar bear) and the duo Victor/Mowgli (he changes his name after the film The Jungle Book came out in 1942) the lion and Peter the Terrier. The stories vary from joyous to solemn, but they all make for an insightful read of the zoo’s early days.
The book is also very detailed on how many people came in certain years, how it affected the zoo, and who fronted the money to keep the zoo afloat. A lot of mention is made of the aristocratic ladies, such as Miss Tomkyns Grafton (who “adopted” Punch during the war) and Miss Geraldine Russell Allen of the three Russell Allen sisters, all of whom played a part in the zoo’s finances.
June makes sure that their contributions to the zoo are noted for, as she rightly puts, there help meant the zoo managed to stay afloat. It’s quite a nice touch, and I assume this is where Lady Katherine Longmore arrived from, to embody all these people through one voice.
This book, while perhaps may not immediately grasp the attention of those who did not watch the series, is definitely something that will add to the series’ experience. The accounts all appear to be very personal, showing how June and Chester Zoo develops because of them.
It’s a light read, with several photos interspersed throughout the book that keeps your appetite for animals stories perked up. While there are times of emotion, like the tragic deaths of animals and the harder times during the war years, June manages to keep the story of Chester Zoo to be one of triumph over hardship and one which I would recommend to have a look, even if it’s just in your local bookshop.
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