Monday, 28 April 2014

Report on a couple of Pygmy Elephants book launch events, and a vaguely related new project

The London launch for Pygmy Elephants on 13 March at the Big Green Bookshop was a big success, with thirty people dropping in during the course of the evening, and yes, I did shift some copies. Everyone who bought a copy got a little drawing of an Elephas falconeri skeleton from me on the title page, after I was desperately practising these at work earlier that day.

A proper palaeontologist turned up – Dr Darren Naish, of Scientific American's popular Tet Zo blog all the way from the University of Southampton, was in da house, with one of the London-based "@TetZoo possee", John Conway, paleoartist. I've since got wind of a Tet Zoo Con event upcoming. See here for the background to the Poundland komodo dragon model I ended up giving him on the night.

Also putting in an appearance was Oliver Simmonds, who I knew as Olly Simmonds at school back in the early 1980s, and who told me he has a new book on the way, after an absence of his name from bookshop shelves of a couple of decades – he wrote Delirium just after leaving university. And Rosanne Rabinowitz, author of Helen's Story - she's a character out of occultist Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan. Most of the NUJ London Freelance Branch committee were in evidence, and events were considerably enlivened shortly after-kick off by one of our number accidentally breaking a bottle of white wine. It turned out the Big Green's assistant behind the counter that night is in LFB too.

A former colleague from my English language teaching days back in the early Noughties attended, and Rosie from London Cryptzoology Club. There were even a couple of old enemies who seemed to be getting on well. We had apologies from Prof. Adrian Lister of the Natural History Museum's Palentology Dept, who has a regular adult education gig in Finchley on Thursdays.

Darren had heard the legend about Jumbo the elephant laying down his life to save the Tom Thumb elephant from that oncoming freight train at that marshalling yard on St John's Ontario in September 1885 – and I was able to confirm that it was just a that, a legend – possibly the sort of tall tale PT Barnum liked to make up for publicity purposes. Darren was also able to clear up the possible confusion between gaur (Indian bison) and water buffalo. I showed a slide of a herd of wild cattle thundering past in Neyyar Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary, reputed habitat of the kallana pygmy elephant of Kerala. Tracker Mallan Kani said they were gaur, but Mr
A. Marriott Hyde in a letter to Fortean Times cast doubt on Mallan's identification saying my photo showed water buffalo. Nope, said tetrapod zoologist Darren, they were most definitely gaur.

Definitely gaur, not water buffalo, apparently. Photo: copyright Matt Salusbury

The book reading at Freedom Bookshop in Whitechapel on Saturday 5 April was an altogether more surreal affair. None of my so-called friends who said they were coming turned up in the end, including some people who promised to come to the March Big Green event and didn't come to that either!

In the event, I ended up reading aloud extracts of Pygmy Elephants to a small audience mostly of Green and Black Cross legal support people (there were at Freedom there giving back-office phone support for arrestees at a Occupy anniversary demo in Trafalgar Square that day. In the event the plan to "Occupy Trafalgar Square" unsurprisingly didn't get off the ground, so they didn't have much to do.) One of their number was a trainee lawyer up from Liverpool, where she worked with one of the Hillsborough support groups.

One of the trainee lawyers said she laughed so much she was crying, but this was nothing to do with Pygmy Elephants, which wasn't written to be funny, but down to the hand signals that Freedom's manager "Legal Andy" was making behind my back while I was reading. His hand movements mostly involved miming the actions of the elephant I was describing, by sticking his forearm up against his nose and waving it in the air as if were a trunk.

We had one of the most impressive apologies I've heard for not attending, from Dr Victoria Herridge of the Natural History Museum, who had suddenly got a gig hunting for mammoth bones in Siberia, and who therefore at short notice had to be out of town. Prof Adrian Lister's apology due to an imminent journey abroad may well have been the same gig.

There will be a "Devon launch" of Pygmy Elephants sometime during the weekend of 15 and 16 August at Weird Weekend. I am one of the speakers, giving a talk on a subject I stumbled across while writing Pygmy Elephants – a bizarrely straight tusk of a mystery animal found in the ivory markets of Addis Ababa by Baron Maurice de Rothschild and his team during his East African expedition in 1907. While most cryptozoology today attracts zero funding and is the preserve of the perpetually skint, this was an example of very well-resourced cryptozoology where money was no object. (Maurice seems to have lost interest after his one East African expedition, in his twenties, and gone into horseracing and art collecting instead.)

His associate Henri Neuville wrote it up a fifty-page study of the "enigmatic tooth" (they weren't even sure if it was a tusk) a few years later.

Front cover for the purposes of a review or critique (Copyright Act 1988)

Neuville concluded that the grain of the tusk under a microscope didn't look like that of the tusk of any known animal that had tusks, it wasn't fossilized, nor did it look like any of the "anomalous" deformed tusks of elephants or hippoes that had been collected by museums over the years. You'll have to go to the talk for more.

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