Dabbler Diary – A Giant Tortoise, Rampant

There is a new monkey at the zoo. It’s a drill – like a baboon with a gorilla’s face – and it has usurped the spider monkeys in the first enclosure at Bristol Zoo. I don’t miss the spider monkeys, I was never on nodding terms with them and they were notoriously unforthcoming. The drill is much bolder, already master of his see, perching regally on his most prominent platform with buttocks aloft, impassive gorilla face defying you to laugh at his absurdity. We are all absurd. Every time I visit the zoo I am struck anew by the bewildering spectrum of life and the desperation of our attempts to categorise it in species according to the handy archetypes we learned as children. There are so many animals you’ve never heard of – every niche on the continuum seems to have been filled – and species-namers are reduced to ever more unlikely combinations in order to squeeze them into our paradigms. Spider-monkeys, for example. But what about the mouse-deer (like a cross between a mouse and a deer, you see), the mongoose-lemur, the lion-tamarin, the rhinocerous-iguana? Give them a Latin name instead and it sounds like we’ve got a grip on the great boiling mess of evolved life. We haven’t.


‘Two lions rampant’. The phrase sprang unbidden to my lips as we watched the young Asiatic lions frolic and instantly I was transported, not to a place or event but to an enthusiasm. As a boy I was briefly keen on heraldry and would design complex coats of arms, heavy with symbolism, for imaginary noble houses. These houses existed in cod-medieval, Tolkeinish worlds: I would also draw family trees, castles and, especially, maps, always featuring forests, mountain ranges and citadels. Many boys do this. In his masterpiece Father to the Man, Jonathan Meades argues that children like to play with miniature worlds – figures and villages etc – not because they want to control the world and be a God, but because they wish to be able to perceive its whole and its limits, which is how they (wrongly) assume that adults perceive the real world. It occurs to me that if I hadn’t grown out of that cod-medieval Tolkeinish heraldry phase I might have written Game of Thrones by now and be a multi-millionaire. Oh well.


It is surely testament to the suggestive power of language in the hands of a trained expert that the instant – the very instant – that someone introduces himself as ‘a qualified NLP practitioner’, I want to leave the room.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming – it’s a load of bollocks, isn’t it? Perhaps an NLP expert dabbler, if there can be such a thing, can tell me otherwise. All I know is that my heart sinks whenever I come across it or similar Derren Brownish methodologies for attempted psychological manipulation. Where it isn’t ridiculous it’s creepy. For reasons too tedious to go into here, I was this week required to complete a questionnaire to determine what sort of ‘learner’ I was. It consisted of a long list of damned impertinences (‘I can hum tunes in my head’; ‘I enjoy using maps; ‘I put on weight easily’ for goodness sake), and you had to count up the number of ticks to find out if you were predominantly a Visual, an Auditory or a Kinaesthetic (feely) learner. Naturally I rigged the system to make sure I was exactly equal in each box and thus uncategorisable (though doubtless there’s also a category for such petty subversives, the bastards think of everything) and had there only been a possibility of claiming I was an Olfactory leaner, gaining all knowledge of the world through sense of smell, I would have pretended that. What surprised me, however, on reading the profiles of the ‘types’ proffered by whatever Derren devised the test, was how bizarrely specific they were. A Visual learner (which, without rigging, I supposedly am), is ‘likely to have tight, thin lips’ and favour ‘pointy shoes’. Wrong on both counts. As I said, a load of bollocks, but from a Popperan perspective I admit I was impressed by the falsifiability of the predictions.


Alas, I was forced to tick the damned impertinence ‘I put on weight easily’. I’m actually in quite decent nick at the moment but it’s a constant struggle. Booze is the biggie, as Gaw and I agreed as we glugged our third beer in a fine but overpriced Vietnamese restaurant in Hoxton last Wednesday. Booze is a triple whammy, as it (1) is fattening in itself, (2) makes you hungry and (3) makes you not care what you eat when you are hungry. From a Popperan perspective however, the odd thing is how many thin alcoholics there are.


You may not like the man, but what you have to realise about Russell Brand is that underneath all that showy vulgarity and verbose pretension there lies a mind that is both pretentious and vulgar. Here he has (over)written a tiresome article in which he (and his mate Noel Gallagher) presume to pass judgement on Charles Moore, a man who weekly produces more insight and original thought in a single column than Brand will manage in his entire life.


To assuage any fears caused by the last Diary’s cliffhanger, C loves her new school. Every day is The Best Day Ever. She knows all her sounds and numbers, has several stamps to indicate her recognition of written words and is correcting my French pronunciation. “I say ‘Bonjour je m’appelle C’”, she said. “And do you say ‘Au revoir’ for goodbye?” “No daddy, we say ‘ovwaa’.” Separating fact from fiction in her reports of the school day is the tricky thing (one day she announced that there were two new children in the class called Hansel and Gretel. This turned out to be an untruth) but after two and a half weeks we met her teacher in our first parent’s evening and she reported so glowingly that we bought a celebratory fish and chips on the way home. C is keen, quick, happy – yes yes yes, but what do we parents most long to hear? – and she’s also popular.


Cool September morning sunlight on the enclosure of the Giant Tortoises. As we approached from the fruit bat end it was already obvious that the tortoises were peppier than usual. There was a tang in the air. At the top end a trio of females were huddled in huffy gossip, shells turned on the world. At the bottom end another female, the smallest, was affecting an attitude of demure indifference as she nibbled on a leaf. For lumbering towards her was the male, a gargantuan prehistoric beast. His intent was clear from his ardent look and the prodigious erection he carried beneath him. By the time he had successfully mounted his concubine a crowd had gathered, and we were bonded by an awareness of the privilege of witnessing a rare and awesome natural event which also happened to be very funny. “What are they doing?” the children all asked. “Playing piggyback,” said a quick-thinking parent much to the relief of all. The Giant Tortoise performed his duty. It was terrible indeed to behold, partly because of the size difference between the partners (think Kahl Drogo and Daenerys Targaryen) but mostly because of the sheer effort he was having to put into it. With each thrust he emitted a dreadful guttural roar, like a vast dining table being dragged along wooden floorboards in an empty auditorium. His eyes looked like they would pop out of their sockets. It was humbling. After five or six momentous assaults his work was done, and in awful slow motion he sank sideways from his mount, head lolling, quite spent. A few lecherous cheers went up, but I was looking into those reptile eyes and what I saw there was… was what? It was the betrayed stare of one who finds that life really does go on long, long, long after the thrill of living is gone.


Dabbler Diary is brought to you by Glengoyne single malt whisky – the Dabbler’s choice.
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25 thoughts on “Dabbler Diary – A Giant Tortoise, Rampant

  1. k.sheehyw@gmail.com'
    September 23, 2013 at 10:09

    The good news about the learning styles nonsense is that once the ‘diagnostic assessments’ are gathered in, the documents are then filed away conscientiously in a folder somewhere, never to be looked at again.

    • Brit
      September 23, 2013 at 13:34

      Another phrase that makes the heart sink. ‘Human Resources’.

      ‘Personnel’ was so much more…human.

      • peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
        September 23, 2013 at 15:06

        That’s precisely why they changed it, Brit.

  2. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    September 23, 2013 at 10:32

    Rumour has it that the BBC bug-man, the one with a beard, whilst plummeting the depths of some Peruvian cavern has discovered a new species. The wee beastie likes cuttlefish and perching whilst gathering stalagmites with it’s trunk.

    Bearded bug-man has named it ‘bugiana budgiephant.’

  3. Worm
    September 23, 2013 at 10:37

    The only person I know who claims qualifications in NLP is also a complete weirdo, verging on autistic, with possibly the very least amount of social skills of anyone I’ve ever met. Perhaps their total ineptitude is actually an act and they are forcing me to somehow divulge my secrets without realising…?

  4. markcfdbailey@gmail.com'
    September 23, 2013 at 10:42

    Lovely stuff, Brit.

    Can we stop talking about bloody Brand? He was all over that rag The Sunday Times yesterday – would you believe it, he is going out with that squillionairess loon Jemima Khan? Brand, Assange, Grant. She’s the butt end of a compass for picking quality.

    • Brit
      September 23, 2013 at 13:32

      Mrs Khan, or Miss Goldsmith as she was known then, was a near-contemporary of mine at university. She stood out, it’s fair to say.

  5. peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
    September 23, 2013 at 13:27

    One of the reasons I love this site, and particular Dabbler Diary, is that it enriches me on subjects and experiences every cultivated man seeking a full life should know, but which are hard to come across elsewhere. Now that I have vicariously experienced the sights and sounds of rutting Giant Tortoises so vividly, and in such erotic detail, I shall die wiser and more fulfilled. Thank you, Brit.

    • Brit
      September 23, 2013 at 13:29

      De nada.

    • law@mhbref.com'
      jonathan law
      September 23, 2013 at 14:44

      D.H. Lawrence wrote about the “terrible to behold” antics of rutting tortoises in a series of faintly self-parodic poems, notably ‘Tortoise Shout’:

      Male tortoise, cleaving behind the hovel-wall of that dense female,
      Mounted and tense, spread-eagle, out-reaching out of the shell
      In tortoise-nakedness,
      Long neck, and long vulnerable limbs extruded, spread-eagle over her house-roof,
      And the deep, secret, all-penetrating tail curved beneath her walls,
      Reaching and gripping tense, more reaching anguish in uttermost tension
      Till suddenly, in the spasm of coition, tupping like a jerking leap, and oh!
      Opening its clenched face from his outstretched neck
      And giving that fragile yell, that scream,
      From his pink, cleft, old-man’s mouth,
      Giving up the ghost,
      Or screaming in Pentecost, receiving the ghost.

      Torn, to become whole again, after long seeking for what is lost,
      The same cry from the tortoise as from Christ, the Osiris-cry of abandonment,
      That which is whole, torn asunder,
      That which is in part, finding its whole again throughout the universe.

      Brit’s “vast dining table being dragged along wooden floorboards” seems to say it all so much more succintly.

      • peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
        September 23, 2013 at 14:53

        The same cry from the tortoise as from Christ, the Osiris-cry of abandonment,

        jonathan, would you join me in voting that the most appallingly offensive metaphor in the history of poetry?

      • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
        September 23, 2013 at 19:33

        Ha ha – that is brilliantly silly. And presumably DH is only on about normal tortoises, rather than Galapagos giants?

      • Gaw
        September 23, 2013 at 22:19

        I feel you should have saved that for a special Dabbler Verse feature, JL. There must be other rutting tortoise poems out there. It seems such an apt subject for poetry.

        Incidentally, how does one tell Lawrence’s ‘faintly self-parodic’ stuff from his straight stuff?

        • mail@danielkalder.com'
          Daniel K
          September 25, 2013 at 01:26

          Indeed. Even by DH Lawrence’s standards, that is pretty rancid stuff.

          • law@mhbref.com'
            jonathan law
            September 25, 2013 at 15:39

            Odd thing about DHL’s poetry is the way you get some lovely stuff –funny, wise, brilliantly observant – mixed in with the utter tosh. The same series of tortoise poems contains this charming vignette of a day-old tortoise making its solitary way in the way in the world – “a tiny, fragile, half-animate bean”.

            You draw your head forward, slowly, from your little wimple
            And set forward, slow-dragging, on your four-pinned toes,
            Rowing slowly forward.

            The touch of sun excites you,
            And the long ages, and the lingering chill
            Make you pause to yawn,
            Opening your impervious mouth,
            Suddenly beak-shaped, and very wide, like some suddenly gaping pincers;
            Soft red tongue, and hard thin gums,
            Then close the wedge of your little mountain front,
            Your face, baby tortoise.

            Little Ulysses, fore-runner,
            No bigger than my thumb-nail,
            Buon viaggio.

            With your tail tucked a little on one side
            Like a gentleman in a long-skirted coat.

  6. zmkc@ymail.com'
    September 23, 2013 at 13:33

    At last a positive about living in Canberra – no-one has ever come up and introduced themselves as an NLP practitioner to me here.

  7. zmkc@ymail.com'
    September 23, 2013 at 13:37


    • Brit
      September 23, 2013 at 13:39

      Perhaps that joke was one for the men.

    • Brit
      September 23, 2013 at 13:41

      Incidentally, I meant ‘humbling’ in the traditional, literal sense. Not ‘humbling’ as it is commonly used nowadays to mean the exact opposite. As in “Thank you for this Academy Award, I am very humbled to win it.’

      • johngjobling@googlemail.com'
        September 23, 2013 at 14:03

        I humbly proffer that Mr Uriah Heep was very ‘umble, possibly meaning ‘I know my place, I do not intend to mark out my territory, kind sir.’

  8. zmkc@ymail.com'
    September 23, 2013 at 14:00

    I wish I hadn’t followed that Brand/Moore link. Ugh

    • peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
      September 23, 2013 at 14:37

      zmkc, that just proves you don’t care as much about human rights as our Russell.

  9. zmkc@ymail.com'
    September 23, 2013 at 14:01

    Oh phew, I was worried it was the Academy Award usage

  10. Gaw
    September 23, 2013 at 22:29

    The funny thing about Brand’s being rude to Germans about the war is that he reveals himself as the Basil Fawlty de nos jours. Sadly his crass xenophobia doesn’t raise a laugh, unlike the original:


    I now join Recusant in hoping he henceforth receives a total ignoral.

  11. george.jansen55@gmail.com'
    September 24, 2013 at 01:49

    I had always thought that NLP stood for “Natural Language Processing”, a branch of computing in which one attempts to use various techniques to plow through quantities of text.

    If you ever come to Maryland, you will be able to purchase “Fear the Turtle” tee shirts and other garb. The Terrapin, emblem of the University of Maryland, is usually shown militant (clenched fist) rather than rampant, though.

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