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SOS Rhino : In the News : On horns of a story
 

On horns of a story

  Aug 3 2004

By Sam Wonfor, The Journal
IcNewcastle.co.uk

Reading the blurb on the book jacket of Glynis Ridley's debut outing as an author, you would be thoroughly forgiven for assuming you were about to dive into a fiction-filled adventure.

The prefix of "Once upon a time" would surely not look out of place on this opening paragraph:

"In 1741, a young Indian rhinoceros was captured in Assam and was transported by ship to Europe, where she was displayed before everyone from peasants to princes."

But the startling story, documenting the far-ranging travels of a rhino called Clara, is no fairytale.

"It's funny how so many people initially believe this is a work of fiction," laughs 39-year-old Glynis, who has returned to her native Newcastle to promote her first book - as well as catch up with family and friends.

"I suppose that's a great advert for how special, and amazing this story is - and the fact that it is all true makes it even more so."

The book, Clara's Grand Tour, has taken the former Dame Allan's pupil, more than two years to complete.

It chronicles 17 years of Clara's 'personal appearances', made possible by an enterprising Dutch sea captain, Douwemout Van der Meer, who brought all three tonnes of the crowd-pulling animal all the way from Calcutta to Holland - and then to many places beyond.

Immortalised in everything from high art, the writings of Casanova and the finest porcelain to cheap woodcuts and tin coins, Clara certainly made her mark - and her story makes for incredibly interesting reading - not least for the clear demonstrations of modern-day marketing techniques by Van der Meer to ensure the enduring popularity of his "bread and butter".

Although Glynis began writing about Clara for public consumption in 2002, her curiosity was first sparked four years earlier when she was looking for illustrations to use in a paper she was giving in Edinburgh.

"And it had nothing to do with any rhinoceros," she laughs.

"I was looking for old anatomical drawings and I came across this picture of a skeleton, standing bolt upright - with a rhinoceros happily grazing in the background.

"I stopped what I was doing and started trying to find out how a rhinoceros came to be in the background. It just seemed so strange to me.

"My next big breakthrough came when I found out that from the fall of the Roman Empire to 1800, only eight live rhinos made it to Europe. I realised that I could narrow down this picture to one of these eight animals.

"That's when I met Clara."

Glynis, who moved to the US in January to teach 18th-Century studies at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, was spurred to take her initial research further when she was named as the winner of the prestigious Institute for Historical Research Prize.

She explains: "I submitted a sample chapter as my entry for the award, back in 2002. By that stage I had researched a little about Clara and thought that her story fitted the brief of the prize, which was to write about something historical, which would appeal to a wider, general readership.

"I found writing it really enjoyable and it was nice to hear that the judges had liked it, too.

"Winning the prize gave me another year to find out everything else I needed to know about Clara. I found that she was the longest living rhino in captivity and subsequently realised there must be many more representations of her to be sought out."

Glynis admits her job would have been made a lot easier, had Van der Meer left a journal of his extraordinary travels with Clara which saw them take in the lion's share of mainland Europe.

"But that didn't exist," she shrugs.

"However, the great thing for me was that, because rhinos were so rare (some thought they were simply the product of mythical tales), artists and craftsman of the time were very interested in her.

"So it became possible to track her journey through the impact she made all over Europe."

Further research, which included a trip to Cincinnati Zoo to meet two real life Indian rhinos, uncovered an array of Clara memorabilia such as mentions in Oliver Goldsmith's History of the Earth and Animated Nature and Samuel Richardson's, Clarissa.

"It just kept on coming," says Glynis. "And when I sat down to write the book, the great thing for me was having the sample chapter which I knew was liked by the publisher.

"I think it may have been a bit daunting for me had I not had that because this was my first real venture into this kind of writing - but having that as a point of reference was a real help."

Born and raised in Newcastle, Glynis studied English Language and Literature at Edinburgh University, before moving to Oxford to do a PhD on the 18th-Century novel.

"From there, I went up to the University of Huddersfield, teaching English, but also specialising in the 18th Century," she explains.

After meeting her now fiance, John, who had moved from the UK to live and work at the University in Kentucky, many years ago, Glynis began spending much of her free time crossing the Atlantic - or waiting at airports.

"It just didn't really work. We knew one of us had to move and it was fantastic that I got this job in Kentucky.

"We still find ourselves coming back a lot, though," she laughs. "My mum and dad (Derek and Edith) are both retired and live in Gateshead - so I come up to see them as often as I can. I'm always astonished at the on-going and often dramatic developments and changes on Tyneside.

"Although, it's often the smaller things, like a new shop popping up or one disappearing which I notice first."

Clara's Grand Tour, published by Atlantic Books, at £14.99 is out now.



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