20 APRIL 1991, Page 50

New life

Bear effrontery

Zenga Longmore

Last week, Omalara and I went for a stroll around that most unappreciated of public gardens, the lawns surrounding the Angel Town estate. Birds sang, saplings sapled and colourful sheets of the Sunday Sport fluttered merrily in the breeze.

Suddenly, in the midst of the springlike tranquillity, I heard the unmistakeable voice of Mrs Wright, my ninth-floor neigh- bour, raised in plaintive anger. To my alarm, she was engaged in a row with a huge, plug-ugly young man with Edwardian side-whiskers and desperate eyebrows. He looked so like the villain in Chaplin's Easy Street that I half-expected him to bend a lamp-post to the ground and tie it round Mrs Wright in a knot.

Trying to look nonchalant, I steered the push-chair on a course nor'-nor'-east of the wildly gesticulating couple. Olumba was supposed to be catching us up, and perhaps he would do something to rescue her.

`Be off with you, young man, be off with yell' Mrs Wright commanded so forcefully that the giant obeyed, slinking off with only a backward snarl.

`The very idea! Young folk today, I ask you!' Mrs Wright shouted to the world in general.

`What's the matter?' I asked, when quite sure it was safe to approach. Protecting a 20-month-old daughter makes cowards of us all.

`He wanted to use my phone to ring the zoo, damn his diaphragm!'

`Ring the zoo? Whatever for?' I asked, signalling to Olumba who strolled up and craned his neck over my head.

`He knows I don't hold with cruelty! I told him straight I did — no one can use my phone to ring the zoo and ask if he can buy a bear to set dogs on.'

`No one can? No one is likely to!' exclaimed Olumba.

`Bless your innocence!' Mrs Wright whis- pered hoarsely. 'These things happen, my dears. Everyone knows there's a ring of pit bull fanciers who fight dogs for money in the East End.'

`Why would anyone want to fight a dog?' enquired a baffled Olumba.

`No, no, the dogs does the fighting, and the men does the betting. Sometimes they have a struck-off vet there, and he does the vetting. Well, this is a great secret, but 20 years ago, there was a man kept a bear at the back of his pub out East, Hornchurch way. Fights were staged with bear and dogs, three dogs to a bear. They never let it get too serious. In the end, the bear died with his muzzle on, and they dropped him in the river Lea.'

`Have you ever seen a bear fighting a dog?'

`Only once, when I was a little maid. That was out in Kent. A Mr Hayward was the bear-ward. Before the dogs were loosed, he would make a speech to the bear in elegant language, telling it what a fine bear it was and how well treated. Why, the bear seemed to understand every word, and it never believed any of it. Now every- one knows the animals at the zoo are going to be auctioned, it's the talk of the Clay Lane travellers' site. But you have to have a licence to buy wild beastesses, so bidding is bound to be slow.'

However, all this was a fuss about noth- ing. What Mrs Wright did not know is that London Zoo shot its last bear over five years ago. Much as I regret this harsh treat- ment of our ursine cousins, I must admit that I never enjoyed watching the bears pacing up and down their concrete cells, tossing their heads in an obvious state of madness.

`Well, I hope you never see that awful man again!' I said to Mrs W.

`What do you mean, awful man? That's my youngest son, Billy. He's ever such a good boy at heart.'