A human mother knows that it only takes one baby in the crèche to start crying to provoke a chorus of wailing from the assembled tots. There’s no shame in this, because exactly the same thing happens with baby gorillas. It would be nice to think that baby primates instinctively grieve in sympathy for one of their number, but common sense suggests that this is unlikely. Babies tend to divide the world into things to grasp and things to put in their mouths – making common cause with other babies is a feat of solidarity that is probably quite beyond them.
I got an insight into this baby puzzle when Princess Diana died. Her fatal accident occurred in my final season with the circus, after a show we gave in Dorchester. I heard the news on awakening to my radio alarm, which was tuned, as always, to the BBC World Service. I have to admit taking it all rather in my stride to begin with, rising only to pour myself a glass of mango juice, which I swigged with my customary relish. I only began to appreciate the true dimensions of the tragedy when I left my trailer to find our all-female acrobat team huddled around a TV set.
“I knew something like this would happen,” sobbed one of the tearful wenches. “They never gave her a minute’s peace.”
“I blame Charles,” sniffed another one bitterly. “He never loved her and she was only going out with Dodi to make him jealous.”
“I can’t forget the way she cuddled those sick children,” whimpered a third, drying her eyes with a pink vanity tissue. “She was the only human one of the Royals.”
On witnessing these poignant reactions, I joined the girls in watching the TV intently. I could feel the emotion welling up inside me as the unfolding drama progressed: the grieving multitude outside Buckingham Palace; the weeping old biddies delivering flowers and condolence cards; the quivering lip of the British Prime Minister as he gave his eulogy. The impact of these sorrowful scenes was magnified by the sighs and laments of the young women around me. When the coverage switched to footage of the late princess in her prime, tilting her head in that adorably coy way of hers, it became too much for me to bear.
“Sweet darling Diana!” I wailed. “Our chicken! Our baby! Our star! A rose of your fragrance will never again perfume the blessed air of England!”
This outburst prompted two of the girls to pat and caress me in my moment of anguish, while another kindly handed me an orange tissue for my snuffles. Overcome with grief, I retired to my trailer to ruminate on the tragedy which had befallen the nation. When I got there, I felt like an almighty fool. I had nothing against Diana, of course, who for the most part had been an inoffensive young floozie. But it would be exaggerating to say that I’d been one of her admirers, let alone an acquaintance of sufficient intimacy to blubber like a schoolgirl at the news of her death.
As I reflected on my behaviour, I realised that the tears I had shed were for myself rather than the princess. Although I was pleased to be returning to the jungle, there were surely many things about the circus that I would miss: the cheerful face of Smacker Ramrod as he whacked another quadruped on the rump; the sniggering of the clowns as they watched the ringmaster’s fat arse waddling around the ring; the bawdy squeals of the hussies in the audience when I came on wearing my scarlet pantaloons. The tragic death of the tender-hearted princess had given me the chance to express my sadness amid the crescendo of weeping and caterwauling.
So when a human baby starts bawling after hearing the cries of another, the little nappy-pooper is probably recollecting a recent trauma of its own – maybe the milk of the last feed was unpleasantly sour; maybe the midwife had cuffed it during a postnatal visit. The woes of the naked ape begin early.
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