Mammoth Tasks

Yesterday I went to one of my favourite hangouts, the National Museum of Scotland, where I saw the Mammoths exhibition. (For more info visit: If you are in Scotland or planning to be before 20 April, I urge you to go see it. In the presence of these remarkable, enormous creatures I was so filled with wonder that I felt about five years old. Softie that I am, I grew teary over the preserved corpse of Lyuba, the baby mammoth, despite reading in bold graphics that the dear girl had been dead some 42,000 years!

The exhibition is kid-oriented, but when I was there most of my fellow visitors — grinning ecstatically, to a man and woman — were adults, including a foursome of white-haired ladies having quite as much fun as I was playing with all the interactive elements. We bonded over the “Guess The Poop” section. There’s something for every member of the family here, and it’s the very best kind of education: entertaining.

One of my school projects was making a woolly mammoth – quite literally using individually-glued strands of wool for its long coat. I don’t know what kids today get up to, but a lot of my school memories are craft-tastic. The only reason we kept flour in the house was for papier mache. I once made a replica volcano (not the spurting kind) using so much plaster of Paris that it took four people to carry it into the classroom. Dioramas were another favourite extra-credit project: a world inside a shoebox.

It has to be said that I love art, and when I tell people about the staggering number of classes I took in high school – a free, public school in suburban Long Island – they stare in wonderment: interior design, photography, a year-long printmaking class (woodcut, lithography, etching, photo-silkscreen, etc.), and much more.

To be fair, I have more enthusiasm than talent. And get a bit sidetracked by the instructions (I blame birth order – we firstborn are such sticklers for authority). One summer at day camp we were building animals using papier mache. (The hours I spent with my hands in flour paste.) For some reason I made a kangaroo. The art teacher urged us not to feel constrained by reality, and to unleash our creativity on these beasts. So instead of dipping my brush endlessly in a pot of brown paint I covered that thing in colours. Joseph’s coat had nothing on this poor demented “Psychedelic” marsupial. Christ, but the 1960s have a lot to answer for!

In another art class many years later, we were handed clay and instructed to make “something organic”. Well, I made a potato. Painted it brown, for verisimilitude. I really thought I was answering the brief. (Today I’d make some kind of “meta” joke about the symbolism of baking a potato and firing its replica in a kiln. It would still be an ugly, dense, turd-coloured thing, but with enough swagger I could call myself a conceptual artist.)

What’s this got to do with woolly mammoths? I had to make one, as I say, and of course being me, I waited until the last minute. And being her, my mother rode in to the rescue, helping to finish the project so that a) it actually looked like a mammoth and b) it was done on time. (Top tip: the ends of wire hangers make great curved tusks.)

This was our pattern. I’d get tangled up in my artistic ambitions and she’d come along and finish them off for me when I became fatally bogged down. I was always grateful for her help, and always impressed by the results to the point of feeling useless and hopeless.

You are way ahead of me as usual. I grew up convinced that nothing I could do would equal my mother’s efforts. I grew up feeling inadequate.

With the wisdom hindsight bestows, I understand that the actual inadequacy was my inability to see the difference between us; to grasp that an adult is naturally more capable than a youngster at pretty much everything. I don’t remember Mom ever making that point, either. She had a lot invested in my adulation. She had her own insecurities.

The legacy of all this is that I’m still easily frustrated when I don’t grasp how to do something straightaway. When I can see it in my head, but not realise it in a concrete way. And I am still hoping to be rescued. It’s only as an adult that I’m learning (still bloody learning, at my age) that all you can do is plug away at it. Fail, but fail better, as the saying goes. Eventually, with any luck, you don’t fail at all.

Anybody know when that will happen?

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