The Melancholia of Guy the Gorilla

I remember Guy the Gorilla — probably the only real-life ape to ever achieve celebrity status in Britain. In the simian firmament, he’s right up there alongside King Kong, Cheetah, and the PG Tips chimps. A great ape indeed. The poet Philip Larkin used to keep two framed photographs of him — in lieu of the habitual wife and kids — on his desk when he was head librarian at Hull University. Quotations from Goethe and Wilde, pasted on the pictures, seemed to emanate from his gaping mouth like speech bubbles in a comic strip.
To be honest, I hadn’t thought of Guy for a long time, but a documentary about Tony Hancock on BBC Four jogged my memory. It included archive footage of the celebrity primate in his cage, showing off his trademark alpha-male moves. Hancock, we learned, loved going to London Zoo. On one occasion, the keepers even let him slip under the protection barrier so that he could get a closer look at the star attraction. Apparently, he found the experience very moving, which doesn’t surprise me at all. Guy the Gorilla could knuckle-walk with the best of them, but he also had the uncanny ability to stare at the camera as if apeing his human observer’s melancholia.

The last time I visited London Zoo was in the summer of 1977. I remember being shocked by the gory, mutilated corpses of white mice that had been fed to many of the animals on display. I remember observing a Teddy boy with his blonde ponytailed girlfriend. I remember wearing a blue T-shirt laden with with safety pins and badges. I remember reading a review of the Stinky Toys’ first single (which I’d already acquired) in one of the music papers. It was a glorious summer’s day, and we sat at a wooden table, on a wooden bench, outside a cafeteria. I remember the bittersweet fragrance of the sun-warmed wood. I remember relishing the family outing but already feeling — with a sharp pang of regret — that I was outgrowing this sort of thing. I remember sensing that there was pretty much nothing I could do about it.

I can’t remember for sure if we saw Guy the Gorilla that time, but I’m almost certain we didn’t. I still recall the poster that had adorned my bedroom wall, at my mum’s, a few years earlier. It was a full-length portrait framed by a yellow border that almost matched the colour of the wall. By July 1977, Guy the Gorilla was a fading memory; a rolled-up poster in my chest of drawers. The following year, he died of a heart attack during an operation but, for me, he had disappeared on that warm summer’s day when we probably failed to pay him our respects. Seeing my loss mirrored in his liquid eyes would have been heart-rending. He had to be sacrificed.

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