Notes on ‘Old Roffe’ by Nigel Jarrett
After the event, I can always tell you more about the trajectory of a story than about its provenance. Having allowed the destination to permit an exegesis based on how the story finally turned out, the precise origins themselves become the subject of almost clinical speculation. This is certainly true of ‘Old Roffe’.
Anthropomorphism is not to be encouraged in adult writing but it has a certain useful pedigree. It enables one to get closer to the animal kingdom and allows one to exhibit what one hopes are charitable attitudes towards it. Part of that response is to do with marvelling at form, function and behaviour, especially behaviour hitherto undiscovered. So my academic training as a biologist would have sent me to Bristol Zoo, specifically to the Primates, and more particularly to the gorillas. ‘Old Roffe’, however, is not an anthropomorphic story.
Before the acceleration of an enlightened response to animals in captivity, Bristol Zoo was typical in offering elephant rides and opportunities to gawk at giraffe and polar bears, which could never be properly at home in a typical zoo compound and were often manifestly under stress. But it was famous for a long-lived gorilla called Alfie. Maybe he was under pressure too. There’s a statue of him outside the current gorilla area, which is commodious inside and out, unlike his quarters were. He’s therefore an unwitting martyr to progress in wild-animal husbandry. These days it’s possible to press your face against the thickened glass and be less than a metre from an inscrutable silverback. Visitors are instructed not to meet the animal’s gaze, for no more sound a reason than that the animal doesn’t like it. Progress, indeed.
All this would have fed into my writer’s hankering after a Big Theme, so the other elements arrived fairly quickly. I should say that I begin writing with very little settled in matters of form and substance. All I know is that a Big Theme requires people, and possibly a metaphor. For the latter I settled on a failing zoo (the failure is hinted at here and there). Because I rarely write about my immediate surroundings – though a product of the industrial valleys of SE Wales, ‘Valleys Writing’ bores me rigid – I decided to set the scene in Sweden. Why not? There is a place called Ornskoldsvik but I don’t know if it has a zoo, failing or other. As for characters, I chose an odd, innocent young woman (Evelina) and a couple (Lagman and Mrs Beckstrand). And one who is almost human – namely the ageing gorilla Roffe.
That settled, writerly things began happening quickly, goodness knows how. Roffe becomes a delinquent whose days are numbered; Evelina witnesses Roffe do something miraculous, perhaps in scientific terms epoch-making, but grossly misinterprets what’s been going on at a human level between Lagman and Mrs Beckstrand. In a much longer first draft, I had Evelina taking her observations on Roffe to the authorities and being dismissed; I also involved her in an Eureka! moment to do with a Twilight Zone, where at night the lights were turned off by the authorities when reason dictated, so Evelina realised, that they should be turned on (our night being the nocturnal animals’ day); but I rejected these episodes in the interest of credibility, even though they produced some cracking images. The final version has Evelina’s startling discovery vanishing with her when she leaves the zoo. The others depart also – Mrs Beackstrand through terminal illness and Lagman because of his misdemeanor. The ‘envoi’ deliberately raises the status of the all-seing narrator in order to drive home the metaphor and indicate the indifferent passage of time; this is life, this is the world, spinning on despite our weaknesses: we, its custodians.
So I end up with something I can describe in a way that I couldn’t when the story began or when it was being written. And I describe it thus: ‘Old Roffe’ is a story about innocence, human fraility and the wonders of the animal kingdom. But who or what put it into my head in the first place and suggested that these three elements were linked I neither know nor care. Well, I do care, because that reflects the speculation I mentioned in my opening. Almost needless to say, it never comes to much.
Copyright © Nigel Jarrett, 2015.
Nigel Jarrett is a winner of the Rhys Davies Prize for short fiction. His first story collection, Funderland, was published to wide acclaim, notably in the Guardian, the Independent, and the Times. His début poetry collection, Miners At The Quarry Pool, was published by Parthian in November 2013 and described by the New Welsh Review as ‘evocative, provocative and gritty’. A former daily-newspaper journalist, he is now a freelance writer, and reviews poetry for Acumen magazine and jazz for Jazz Journal. He lives in Monmouthshire.