Remember this image because it’s absolutely perfect for this piece. It’s about my nan, affectionately known as Nelly, who was indisputably the kindest, warmest, most decent person I’ve ever known and I loved her utterly. She’s no longer with us of course – she died just before Carol and I got married almost 40 years ago. But I think of her often and this evening I had a fond smile at her memory sparked by a clip from tonight’s TV.
The programme was about the summer season in Blackpool, which regular readers will know was my home town when I grew up (well it was the nearest big town, as we lived 3 miles away in Poulton-le-Fylde which, be honest, you’ve never heard of have you?). There’s been a short season of these programmes looking at the town’s reputation as the ‘Las Vegas of the North’ – no sniggering at the back – and it’s been poignant to view them because they evoke so many memories. But tonight I had the most telling flashback. There was a feature, inevitably, about Blackpool Tower and it’s a fact that beneath the 4 legs of the structure sits the quite marvellous Tower Circus. Now we used to go every year to see the show and because my dad delivered to the venue where the main performers stayed, he managed to secure some back-of-house visits for us post-show. In those days many of the acts were animal-based and the biggest thrill I had was being shown the big cats by the very glamorous lion-tamer. But the biggest of the animal acts was the elephant troupe and the TV programme showed a few scenes from one of the performances. I always remember how poorly treated these animals were behind the scenes.
All these animals were kept in cages behind the scenes during the sumer season and the elephants were regularly taken out in the morning to exercise in the sea across the promenade. This always seemed like a scene one of those Attenborough documentaries from the Serengeti rather than a drizzly morning along the Lancashire coast and whatever the weather it usually attracted a huge crowd. Candy floss and pachyderms – only in Blackpool.
Another little known fact about these lovely animals was that during the off season they were kept at a farm in nearby Staining which was famous for its ice cream production. Now that farm was only separated from where my nan lived in Whitemoss Avenue by an apple and pear orchard at the rear of my nan’s garden (and which supplied the fruit for her unbelievable apple pies).
You may be ahead of me here but one evening as my nan was sitting in her lounge cosied up to the fireside and probably sewing as she always used to do before her eyesight went, she heard this loud knock on the back door. I always remember her telling me that it was a real thudding sound and it completely startled her. She was alone and understandably she was a little hesitant to go and see who it might be. But she realised from the strength of the knocking that it must be something serious. So she made her way quickly through the hallway, into the kitchen and opened the back door with a sense of trepidation. As she peered around the gap an extended trunk tapped her on the face and stood there was this huge elephant, just like the one in the picture above, which had escaped from the farm and had been gorging on the fruit in the orchard. And here it was all 8,000lbs of her staring my nan in the face at her back door.
How she didn’t have a heart seizure I’ll never know. A little old lady in her 50’s but she was made of oak as they all were in her generation. Of all the things it could have been – escaped prisoner, crazed psychopath, desperate neighbour, the Sweeney, the Spanish Inquisition – the last thing you’d expect to find knocking at your back door is a frigging 3.5 ton African elephant! If it had opened up and said ‘Have you ever seen our publication the Watchtower?’ it would have been sublime. Even so, as surreal experiences go, it was pretty damn awesome.
I like to imagine that my nan simply told it to pack its bags and f**k off back to the circus but she was an angel so she’d never use that language nor turn any lost soul away. Fancifully I rather think she probably fed her some apple pie and gave her a bucket of water and cared for her until the handlers arrived though reality is she calmly shooed it off and closed the door, sorted her hair and went back to her sewing. Old school. But don’t you think it’s a little profound that a lost female circus elephant ends up knocking on the door of someone called Nelly? I like to think it’s a little bit of Blackpool kiss-me-quick kismet.