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The Marx Brothers and Other Animals

Thursday, 3rd July 2003, West Yorkshire

pile of bricksI've decided that to get the wildflower meadow I'm after I need to dig over the area and re-seed it with grass - a mixture of fine-leaved fescues without any of the vigorous perennial ryegrass. I'll then plant wildflowers into the turf as pot-grown plants.

I start by moving the pile of old bricks that is parked in the middle of the area.

As I dismantle it, brick by brick, and reconstruct it by the hedge, between a habitat pile of old logs and a plastic dustbin (made redundant when wheelie bins were introduced) full of sieved garden compost, I realise that I'm relocating, or evicting, the tenants of a miniature block of flats. I'm replacing low-rise apartments with a high rise tower.

Hoppity Goes to Town

Woodlice scurry in bewildered panic as floor after floor is deconstructed. To me they seem to be overacting - like extras in one of those 1970s disaster movies.

As I continue the task the movie that comes to mind is Max and Dave Fleischer's Hoppity Goes to Town (1941), a feature-length cartoon telling the story of a band of insect friends striving to reach the Shangri-La of a roof garden at the top of a skyscraper that is under construction.

How would a 1940s animator give these small creatures silver screen personalities?

Another Fine Mess

spotted slugThat big recumbent slug is obviously Oliver Hardy, in an elegant spotted silk dressing gown, trying to look dignified when woken unexpectedly while snoozing in his apartment.

By the way, this particular resident of the block of flats doesn't get relocated - I throw him into the meadow. I guess the thin grey slug on a lower floor, who also gets chucked over the hedge, must be Stan Laurel.

I can imagine the next scene of the two of them picking up their battered hats down amongst the grassroots:

slug'“Redbrick Mansions!”' says Ollie as he dusts himself down, 'This is another fine mess you've got us into.'

'I'm sorry Ollie,' says Stan breaking into tears and squeaky voice, 'how was I to know they were going to demolish it!'

Groucho Dancing

spiderA big startled orb spider skittishly starts and stops, moving back and forth, it's choreography like Groucho dancing a waltz-come-highland-fling with Margaret Dumont.

Or with those eight legs it could be Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly AND Carmen Miranda doing a novelty number in a Busby Berkley musical.

Chico's Hat

woodlouseThere's something about the scurrying-in-circles, head-down attitude of the woodlice that reminds me of Chico Marx. They're much the most numerous lodgers in this crumbling brick tenement. Of the Marx Brothers it was Chico who came over as the common man (Groucho was a middle-class bounder, Harpo seemed to originate from some magical world of his own).

Chico's hatwoodlouseBesides, Chico's floppy hat was , as I remember it, about the shape of the carapace of a woodlouse.

woodlouseYes, I can imagine the woodlouse, when it's not running pell-mell from trouble, in the Chico role:

'Ice-a-cream! Ice-a-cream! Getta your tutti-frutti ice cream!'

And, one of Chico's most memorable lines: 'Hey, you can't kid me, there ain't no Sanity Clause.'

The Lodger on the Third Floor

brown-lipped snailI want to put Peter Lorre, one of my favourite 40s/50s character actors in somewhere, so I guess he's the brown-lipped snail: a displaced, lonely, quietly spoken misfit of indeterminate mid-European origin, living in a seedy apartment near the fire escape on the third floor.

This particular snail has a story. I found it while digging a veg bed, head tucked firmly into its shell and put it on the pile of bricks to draw later. When I looked again it had gone, evidently finding the brick pile a great place to live, with it's shady crevices.

Again I guess he could be wearing a dressing gown, a stripy one this time. In my sketch he's turned out more like Groucho, but Peter Lorre was famous for his bulging eyes.

The Surface Film

centipedesmooth newtThe climax to this comedy melodrama is the big scene on the ground floor in the entrance lounge. A crowd of residents, mostly woodlice, mill about in panic along with a few sinuous snake-like millipedes and centipedes (an exotic dancer played by Dorothy Lamour?) but our attention focuses on the main character which is curled up, motionless, at the centre: a female smooth newt: with those eyes it must be Greta Garbo ('I want to be left alone.')

But actually for my purposes I'd like Orson Welles in this role. You remember the famous scene from The Third Man where eventually the elusive Harry Lime appears, in a dark doorway in the rubble of a wartorn city; the still centre of the machinations and double-dealings.

The newt stays rigid as I gently pick her up and I'm worried she might have been injured as I carefully removed the bricks even though I'm aware that playing dead is a defence strategy used by newts. I lower her into the pond, sliding the palm of my hand out from beneath her and she floats for a few seconds on the surface film before swishing into action and swimming away into her watery element. A double life indeed.


earthwormA final irony: the teetering pile has been reconstructed in reverse order. That humble earthworm who was down with the lowest of the low in the basement has ended up with a penthouse apartment on the top floor.

Hoppity Goes to Town ends in a roof garden, one of the Marx Brothers movies ends up on the roof of a skyscraper (all the film's sponsors were given rooftop billboards) and in King Kong the gentle giant, an ambassador for the natural world, meets his inevitable fate at the hands of 20th century technological man at the top of the Empire State Building.

Earthen Cells

earthen cellsI found these earthen cells about halfway up the pile, apparently constructed on a 'ceiling' in a thin horizontal gap between the bricks. They might just be droplets of a dried mud coating, or perhaps they've been made by some insect or other invertebrate. I wish I'd taken a closer look. I've probably exaggerated their regularity in this sketch drawn from memory. next page

Richard Bell