Jim and Snowy live with us every winter. They arrive in a horse-box just as the nights are beginning to close in and they go back to their Summer duties in the same horse-box, when the Summer season is beginning to loom. It is up to us to amuse them, in the meantime.
There is a comprehensive school just down the road and it amuses the older children, sometimes, to let the Donkeys out onto the road to fend for themselves. That’s why we have to keep the gate padlocked. The younger children like the Donkeys a great deal, enjoy petting them and giving them carrots.
We have to give the Donkeys hay, and muck out the poos from their stable. This takes up a lot of our time. When our Grandchildren come to visit us, we give them rides on the Donkeys. We have five grandchildren of various sexes and ages.
In the summer, they give rides to the children on the beach. For £1 a ride! A hundred yards out, turn around and then a hundred yards back. And that’s your lot! It seems a bit of a swindle to me. The Donkeys put their heads down and plod. Backwards and forwards they go and the only rest they get is when they come to us in the winter. Except, there is a very nice owner, who gives them days off, from time to time. They are beautifully looked after and cared for in the summer months and we visit them occasionally just to check on how they are faring. We like to see them on the beach, they always look so happy and well.
‘On the whole,’ says my wife, ‘British Donkeys have a pretty cushy life,’ and you have to agree she’s got a real point there. Look at the way they are treated in the Middle East. There they are, indeed, Beasts of Burden and treated as such. Watch the way huge men sit far back on their hindquarters, with their wives trotting behind them, swatting at troublesome flies or waving at their friends. All of whom will, inevitably, be male. Sometimes, the Donkeys are made to carry vast loads of firewood or even stones on their backs.
Wives, in those parts, seem to be used to this treatment and the men never give a thought to Donkeys under their grotesque bottoms. Or, their wives. They seem to group both lots together as beneath men’s contempt.
Many years ago I read a book, which recounted what happened to a Spanish family’s faithful old Donkey when it got too old to go on serving them. Believe it or not, they simply threw the old family retainer away. On the local rubbish dump. It was still alive! And there they left it to die its own silent death. Which it did, after several days of feeling ‘rather redundant and thrown away.’
Ann is right, Donkeys in Britain do, indeed, have it pretty cushy.
One of the interesting things we’ve noticed is that Snowy and Jim never lose sight of each other. Where Jim goes, Snowy goes too. When they go to the top of the field to catch the last rays of the sun, they both go. They are never more than ten yards apart. They feed together and when they go into the stable for their night-time feed, there they are together, as well. They are truly inseparable. Which leaves me with the question ‘what are they like on the beach? Are they inseparable there, too?’
One day, perhaps out of idle curiosity, I was gazing out of the kitchen window when I happened to notice that Snowy was singing to himself.
Jim was, as ever eating hay. He always eats hay when under pressure and Snowy’s singing was certainly putting Jim under a certain amount of pressure. Or jealousy. Maybe Jim wanted to sing too but his mouth wasn’t quite the right shape.
I need to explain why I have called this piece ‘Donkeyana.’
When Charles Darwin first published his theory about the origins of Man, there was widespread derision, mainly from God-fearing Christians, who thought that Darwin was questioning the whole basis of their deeply held faith. Journalists took up the cry and cartoonists, in particular, echoed the popular derision. One of the results was a series of cartoons, depicting apes and monkeys with apparently human faces but with monkey features, holding forth on human affairs. This was in reaction to Darwin’s seemingly preposterous suggestion that humans and monkeys came from the same root stock and that we and they share the same distant ancestors. These cartoons, in time, came to be known, collectively as ‘Monkeyana.’
That is why I’ve called this piece, ‘Donkeyana.’ I think it fits.
But, to go back to Snowy and his singing. Of course, I rushed out, as did Ann, to learn more about our singing Donkey. But Snowy had shut up shop and that was the last we were going to hear of Snowy’s singing, for that day, at least. When we joined the Donkeys in the field, they couldn’t have looked more innocent.
The only interesting thing was that Snowy was talking to me in what sounded like a perfectly normal voice. So, Snowy could talk as well as sing. I marvelled at the versatility of our Winter visitor. This is what Snowy said to Ann and me ‘Singing? What me? I’ve never sung a single note in my whole life, and I’m not starting now. No way! Never heard anything so utterly ridiculous, in all my born days. Singing, not me. Honest!’ said Snowy. ‘Shameless liar,’ I said to myself.
And there they were, looking the picture of utter innocence. Snowy gave me a loud ‘snorty’ bray, just to demonstrate his total ignorance in the extraordinary incidence of his alleged singing and to me who’d never heard a bray from either Donkey, this was, indeed, a privilege.
Ann didn’t believe me either, so there was I, feeling a total fool, who’d dragged us both out of the kitchen for no obvious reason at all. I tried to point out to Ann that Snowy had spoken to me but she was way beyond any powers of persuasion I might have been blessed with, so that came to naught as well.
The very next day, as I was again looking out of the kitchen window, there was Snowy singing away like there was no tomorrow. I called Ann over. ‘Snowy is singing again. Trilling he is, practising his scales. Come with me.’ I said.
Ann and I were more circumspect this time, more devious. We were trying to catch Snowy unawares. And we did. We caught the wretched Donkey unexpectedly. In full flood, as it were. It worked like a treat. ‘Gotcha!’ I said to Snowy. ‘Caught you red-handed, I did, singing like a song-bird, you were!’
Snowy owned up immediately. He said, ‘Sorry about that. Just practising, actually. The thing is,’ coming over all coy ‘Jim has heard me singing and says I need lessons. He’s been listening to me and says I need some brushing up, polish up the rough edges, that sort of thing. Says I should do some more work on the scales side of things. Anyway, that’s what Jim says.’ I can’t say I knew Jim was an expert, till then. Still you can’t know everything.
Then Snowy said, ‘and that’s where you come in, fix me up with lessons so I can sing like a bird, etcetera. That sort of thing, like, gottit?’ Snowy looked at me expectantly.
‘Expecting miracles, is our wretched Donkey,’ I said to my amazed wife, who still hadn’t got over the shock of seeing Snowy talking to me, let alone singing.
Snowy was in the middle of Nessun Dorma when we broke into his sequence. Pretty high class stuff it was, too. ‘I could listen to that stuff all day. Nessun Dorma, that is.’ I said to Ann. ‘Beats Classic Radio into a cocked hat, that stuff does.’ Snowy and I chatted for a while about this and that, till the subject of Snowy’s singing lessons came up, again.
I tried to let Snowy down as gently as I possibly could. I tried to tell Snowy that it wasn’t as easy as that, finding someone to teach singing to a Donkey. Singing Instructors don’t normally do that sort of thing, teach Donkeys to sing. They might be embarrassed. Or they might think I’ve gone completely off my little rocker, gone a bit mental, been out in the sun for too long. ‘Queer people, music teachers are. Not quite normal, they aren’t,’ said Snowy. I don’t think Snowy believed me for a single instant. He looked at me with a disbelieving look on his face, so that conversation didn’t go too well, on the whole.
‘Very weird,’ said Snowy ‘Very weird indeed, fancy you not knowing anyone, who can give me singing lessons.’ Snowy and I debated this for a while till Snowy got bored and decided to wander off to the top of the field for a bit of peace and quiet. And to get a bit of warmth from the fading sun.
Try as I could, I simply couldn’t persuade anyone to give Snowy singing lessons. That he had a superb voice was self-evident. But what on earth to do about it, that was a totally different matter. Scales, Arpeggios, Trills, these were as nothing to this particular quadruped. But to get someone to take our singing Donkey seriously, that was quite a different matter. And what was worse, Summer was fast approaching and then Jim and Snowy would go back to the beach and my last chance to fix lessons for Snowy would be lost for ever. Or, at least, till the following year. Oh Dear! What am I going to do?
I had one last despairing try. I called all the singing teachers in the local telephone directory, there were only four listed and the conversation went a bit like this, ‘Hello, am I right that you give singing lessons? Well, the thing is that a friend of mine is desperate to brush up on his singing voice and you have been recommended to me as someone who might fit the bill (the lies I tell for my friend Snowy, he’s suddenly become my friend, by the way) and I wondered if you could fit him into your busy schedule. Oh, by the way, my friend is a Donkey, maybe I should have mentioned this before, only I forgot.
So that didn’t work.
It’s amazing how rude people can be on the telephone.
Eventually Summer did come around and Snowy had to go to the children and the hundred yards out, hundred yards back routine.
And what of Snowy and his friend, Jim? Snowy never sang again and Jim never mentioned the extraordinary quality of Snowy’s singing. Snowy and Jim were of the opinion that Snowy’s voice would be totally wasted on the children on the beach at Weston-super-Mare.
I think Jim and Snowy were entirely right!