The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II
By Vicki Constantine Croke
Illustrated. 343 pp. Random House. $28.
A book comes along like this once in a lifetime. You read it as a small child, or even an adult, and never forget the images it conjures up of a wonderful Englishman who lives in the mysterious forests of faraway Burma and of the kind native people who teach him about their lovely country. But most of all, you never forget the elephants! For this is a story about those magnificent creatures. Though he was officially known as Lt. Colonel J. H. Williams, the author was known to the world at large as “Elephant Bill.” That is because he spent 25 years living with the elephants in the mountains and forests of Burma.
The above review refers to the original ELEPHANT BILL but Vicki Constantine Croke’s new biography, ELEPHANT COMPANY, is just as well reviewed.
Stories have astonishing power, appeal, and durability—to the point where you would have to wonder. After all, the real world is so remarkable in itself—on just about every level—that you might think that reality alone would be enough.
Consider the endless wonders of nature and the fascinating developments in technology just by themselves. Surely, these should be adequately fulfilling.
Clearly they are not—because we fill our lives with stories at every conceivable opportunity. Some, of course, are true—or as true as we humans can manage (which is decidedly not the same thing) but many—probably most—are not. Somehow, we crave fiction. It is so often more satisfying than real life, it is free of the friction that characterizes reality—and it is certainly neater. It also distracts, entertains, educates, gives hope, and satisfies deeply.
In fact, when you think about it, it is hard not to ponder the notion that we might be vastly more content if we lived largely escapist lives—and the reality is that many of us do—and probably are wise to do so. Reality is a fine and necessary thing, but it can be wearing in excess.
As I consider this, I find it hard not to be struck by how vulnerable this human need for the impossible expectations raised by fiction makes us to manipulation. We seem to need to be lied to. We pay lip service to rational thought and the truth—but we certainly aren’t rational, and we virtually run from reality towards myth if given a choice.
Still, that’s a heavier subject than I want to deal with today—and the truth is that my concerns about the abuses to which the story can be put (which are considerable) are outweighed by the fact that reading, crafting, writing, editing, polishing, and publishing stories is my life—and where all aspects of writing are concerned (apart from the interruptions which stop me writing) it is a joyous one.
I was introduced to stories by my much loved grandmother, Vida Lentaigne. Due to my mother’s tumultuous life—not to mention her uncertain talents for motherhood, and our difficult relationship—I spent a great deal of time with my grandmother when I was small, and one of her habits and pleasures was to read to me.
She was a wonderful and patient reader—and she introduced me to all the classic children’s stories from The Jungle Book to Winnie The Pooh—and left me thrilled, fascinated, and arguably singularly ill-prepared for real life. Life, as described in these stories, was excitement and high adventure—and positively never boring.
Being read to is a very special thing because the experience is not just that of the story itself, but of the intimacy and coziness of the situation. In my case, much of it happened at my grandmother’s farm in Brittas Bay, Co. Wicklow, Ireland—a place she had bought specially for us children. However, since I was the eldest, and the child regarded as most trouble by my mother, I was often sent there alone—so had both my grandmother and the farm to myself for some years. In fact, initially I was quite taken aback when eventually I was joined by various siblings and sundry cousins. The magic time when I was alone with my grandmother was over. But the important thing—which I have come to appreciate more and more over the years—was that it had happened. It anchored me emotionally in a way that my troubled home life and endless years at boarding school certainly did not. Also, I remained very close to my grandmother for the rest of her life.
Eventually, granny moved from what were primarily children’s stories to a wonderful series of books written by a memorable character called Elephant Bill. These were of particular significance to my grandmother because they were set in Burma, where my grandmother had spent most of her short but deliriously happy marriage. In fact, my mother was actually born in Burma.
Sadly, my grandfather, John Lentaigne, having made it through WW I (unlike so many of his peers) joined the British administration in Burma after leaving the army (he was a Ghurka officer) and there, after all too brief a time, succumbed to cholera. Before he died, he asked two things of my grandmother: that she become a Catholic so that she could bring up my mother in that religion; and that she return to Ireland, my grandfather’s homeland.
My grandmother did as my grandfather had wished—but Burma always retained a very special place in her heart. That gave a special quality to her reading of the Elephant Bill books.
Regarding her return to Ireland, as it happened she arrived during the civil war that followed the signing of the contentious treaty with Britain that gave Ireland independence—but grandfather could scarcely have anticipated that. Her subsequent career in Ireland was distinguished and she made significant contributions to the new state. She was also one of the first people to draw attention to the potential menace of Ireland’s new Fascist Party “The Blue Shirts,” and helped to ensure that it was crushed.
I hadn’t thought of Elephant Bill for years until, a couple of days ago, I read a glowing review of a biography of him. Who would have thought that after all this time he would be remembered—but, by all accounts, he really was a remarkable man—and his empathy for animals was extraordinary. All in all, it’s a fine thing that he is not forgotten.
I think of my grandmother with love and gratitude every day.