By Jamie and Jim Clubb
Published by Aardvark Publishing, 2008, ISBN 9781872904368, £20
This book's subtitle is "The Amazing Story of Britain's Most Famous Elephants". I am not sure that elephants have "fame" outside the world of those interested in circuses or zoos, but the book certainly lives up to the claim to be "amazing"! It is perhaps amazing that it is possible to produce a biography of two elephants at all so the authors deserve great praise for coming up with such a detailed story.
The attractive glossy paper cover of this A4 148 page book features the elephants themselves on the front, and an attractive Broncho Bill's Circus advert on the back with a few notes to put us in the picture, plus two recommendations - one from Nell Gifford and the other from Dr. Heather Valance. Thus, anyone picking up the book casually should soon be persuaded that this book is going to be a good read. As the blurb says, "Never has the story of their lives been told in its entirety. Until now…"
After a short prologue the story begins with a dramatic telling of a tragedy that occurred in Salt and Sauce's lives in 1904, resulting in the death of George Lockhart. It is proof that a good story does not always begin at the beginning, as describing this incident makes sure that reader comes face to face with the "amazing" qualities of the story without further delay. Once our attention has been grabbed the authors return to the chronological approach we would expect of a biography but we have to follow it with the knowledge that the heroines of the tale are as much the subject of "legend" as of truth.
The book therefore cleverly proceeds on two levels. On one level we follow the eventful and colourful life of two elephants - meeting many interesting human characters along the way. On another level we pursue a detective story - the Clubbs searching for the elusive truth. It is this constant attention to the business of disentangling the story while telling it that makes the book so fascinating. Only authors with an ability to penetrate the circus world could have dealt with such complexities.
The Clubbs are well served by the witnesses and archives that have been available to them. My only regret is that I was unable to "organise" a meeting between the Clubbs and John Swallow - the grandson of Broncho Bill. John had helped me explore a little of the story of Salt and Sauce when I had been researching a book in the 1990s. As a result of a misunderstanding I had the impression that he was no longer interested in helping anyone explore his grandfather's part in the story. The truth turned out to be that John Swallow was not well. Once I discovered this, and found out his new whereabouts I was able to send him a copy of the book. John died on Tuesday 15th July but I gather that the book meant a great deal to him during the last few days of his life - and helped him to connect with an enjoyable part of his past. Just before he died he wrote: "Now my two best boyhood pals are giving me thoughts about what I would have never have known about them."
John was a schoolboy when he developed his friendship with his grandfather's elephants and they obviously meant a great deal to him. The book shows that Salt and Sauce meant a great deal to lots of the people they encountered. Whether that is true of all circus elephants or whether Salt and Sauce were extra special you will have to judge for yourself, but the book will give you plenty of food for thought. So, once again I must congratulate the Clubbs, father and son, who have produced a book that lives up to its claim to be "amazing", creates an interesting tension twixt "fact" and "legend", and leaves the ready with plenty to think about. Read it and buy copies to give to your friends - it deserves a wide readership.
For details on the quarterly publication "King Pole" please follow this link http://www.circusfriends.co.uk/kingpole.html