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Angus Wilson: The Old Men at the Zoo

This is definitely a change for Wilson, moving away from his bitter comedy of manners to what might best be described as a political fantasy-cum-allegory. Its themes are freedom and power and, particularly, where they intersect – what we might now call accountability though then would probably have been called responsibility. As it is Wilson, it is also a vicious satire – on politics and politicians, on civil servants, on sex and sexuality, on the European idea. But what it most is a particularly effective allegory on power and freedom.

The book is set in the future – Wilson’s, not ours. Published in 1961 it is set in the period 1970-73. England is run by a benign, incompetent and anti-European government (when the book was published the Macmillan government was in power.) A vaguely suspicious and historically unlikely entente between the French and Germans, called the European Alliance, is threatening Britain. (Macmillan was, at this time, negotiating Britain’s entry into the European Communities.) They are supported in Britain by a group called the Uni-Europeans. All this is taking place in the background, though it comes to the fore later on.

Meanwhile, at the zoo – London Zoo – Simon Carter, our hero and narrator, a former Treasury official and amateur zoologist (interested in British fauna), has become secretary to the Zoo, which seems to be run almost entirely by ex-public school (i.e. expensive boarding school) boys who call each other by their surnames and are so specialised that they know everything about their domain but nothing else about zoology. The non-executive president is the very wealthy Lord Godmanchester who wants to be Prime Minister but gets involved in the Zoo while waiting the call. The executive director is Edwin Leacock whose dream is to set up a British National Reserve, à la Whipsnade Park (which, in this novel, has been closed down). Carter was essentially appointed by his wife’s godfather, Sir Robert Falcon, who favours the traditional zoo. Falcon thought Carter would be his ally but he is not. There are assorted curators and keepers all of whom have their own characters and, many cases, their own personal problems.

There are three main plot problems. Firstly, when will Carter become Director? It does happen but not without a lot of trial and tribulation. Secondly, will the British National Reserve be created and, if it is, will it survive. The answers are yes and no, both with the help of Lord Godmanchester. The third issue is the pending war which also happens and which has a variety of interesting and unexpected repercussions. There are myriad subplots and complications which make this novel entirely fascinating but, around them all, is the issue of old men in power and how they misuse it (as the title makes very clear) and the issue of freedom, which is, at least in part, discussed around the freedom of animals – in the traditional zoo or in the reserve – but is also discussed around the freedom of the British, particularly in a European context (Wilson is clearly not pro-European).

The book is so cleverly worked out, so detailed and so complex, that it is impossible to give more than a flavour here. But anyone interested in power games and the incompetent (rather than malicious) abuse of power and in the idea of freedom and how we all have responsibility for it and any Brit who still has doubts about the European Union would be well advised to read this first-class novel.

Publishing history

First published 1961 by Secker & Warburg