‘Who has a lion in Essex?’
Just about the only people who took the Essex lion story seriously were the prattish police force.
Having checked out the blurry pictures in the newspapers, they were in no doubt. ‘It’s a fucking lion’, said one. His mate backed him up: ‘a million per cent lion.’
A million per cent convinced? If these two chaps, enjoying the bank holiday sunshine on the Essex coast, have not persuaded you that there was indeed a lion on the loose in Clacton-on-Sea this weekend, then what about the testimonies of the half dozen or so people who claimed to have actually seen it? Here’s 52-year-old Denise Martin, who was staying at the Earls Hall Farm caravan site from where the big cat could supposedly be seen in a neighbouring field: ‘I was looking out of the window and we saw smoke – it looked like there had been a bit of a bonfire. When the smoke cleared I could see this shape in the field, so I got the binoculars out. We had a look and it looked like a lion. I said to my husband: “What do you make of that?” He said: “That’s a lion.”‘
Don’t worry, there’s a few more sightings. Gill and Steve Atkin were also at the caravan site that Sunday evening: ‘We’d just been watching Come Dine With Me and having dinner in the caravan when a gentleman knocked on the window and told us to come and have a look. It’s a lion, that was my first thought.’ But the Atkins and the Martins were not the only ones to glimpse the beast of Clacton. The campsite owner actually went to check it out, as his son David Lord explained: ‘It was a big household cat. My dad went and saw it, and said it looked like a big cat.’ And here’s the killer line: ‘But the police said we’d got to treat it like a lion… Who has a lion in Essex?’
Indeed. Who does have a lion in Essex? That was the remarkable aspect to this whole wild lion chase. There was no plausible reason to take it seriously. Yes, a few people saw something in a nearby field, which judging by the pictures could be anything from a fat ginger tom to a small Boris Johnson. But then again, there have been similar stories of big beasts wandering the British countryside for centuries, be it the beast of Bodmin or the Galloway Puma. And we all take them about as seriously as we do stories of the Loch Ness monster, including those who have claimed to see the offending creatures. ‘[Seeing the animal] would not put us off coming back’, said Denise Martin: ‘It’s not everywhere you can say you have seen a lion in the wild.’ Hardly the words of someone who has just looked into the eyes of one of the most fearsome creatures known to man.
In fact, just about the only people to take the whole piss-takey story seriously were the local authorities. They really did act as if there were a bona-fide, red-in-tooth-and-claw killing machine stalking holidaymakers and locals alike. Thirty officers, a marksman, several local zoologists, a police helicopter and an extensive police cordon were deemed entirely appropriate. Why? Neither zoos nor a recently departed circus reported any big cats missing. Nobody else in the area owns a lion as a pet (apparently they play havoc with soft furnishings). And the campsite owner had actually said it was no more than a big domestic cat – one that looked suspiciously like local Ginny Murphy’s hefty ginger Maine Coon cat. ‘We thought it had to be Ted’, she has since told reporters, ‘as he’s the only big gingery thing around there and he does tend to wander into that field’.
And yet, despite all the signs suggesting to the police that there is not nor ever has been a rogue lion in Essex, they still thought it necessary to go on a bank holiday Big Game hunt. But then the reality of a rogue lion was never really the issue. What really pushed the local constabulary’s feline pursuit team into action was its perception of how people might react to daft stories about roaming lions. They think we will panic; they think we need our fears managed, our anxieties assuaged. In the words of a police spokesman: ‘Public safety is our priority, which is why we are taking the sighting and all associated evidence seriously. We have an increased police presence in the area, which will offer reassurance to local residents, motorists and holidaymakers.’
While the rest of us were enjoying the silliest of silly-season stories, the authorities were busy making prats of themselves. Just about the only menace roaming the Essex countryside this weekend consisted of the constabulary’s finest.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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