Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo by Julia Stuart

It’s been a while (2010) since I bought Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo and I was pleased when I finally got round to reading it to find that I enjoyed this quirky book, at times comical and at times poignant. It’s a mix of historical facts and odd characters, set in the present day at the Tower of London, but with a strangely old-fashioned feel to it. It’s the story of Beefeater Balthazar Jones and his wife Hebe, who live in the Salt Tower. Hebe works at London Underground’s Lost Property Office, full of weird and wonderful things.

It begins:

Standing on the battlements in his pyjamas, Balthazar Jones looked out across the Thames where Henry III’s polar bear had once fished for salmon while tied to a rope. The Beefeater failed to notice the cold that pierced his dressing gown with deadly precision, or the wretched damp that crept round his ankles. Placing his frozen hands on the ancient parapet, he tilted his head back, and inhaled the night. There it was again.

The undeniable aroma had fluttered past his capacious nostrils several hours earlier as he lay sleeping in the Tower of London, his home for the last eight years.

The Queen has decided that all the animals that have been given to her as gifts are to be moved from London Zoo to the Tower of London. This wasn’t a new idea as the ‘man from the palace’ explained to Balthazar Jones that animals had been kept at the Tower from the 13th century until the 1830s and the menagerie had been an immensely popular tourist attraction. The Queen is anxious not to offend the foreign rulers who have sent her the exotic animals and Balthazar, a collector of rare raindrops and the owner of a very ancient tortoise, is charged with taking care of them in the new royal menagerie at the Tower.

The supporting characters include the Reverend Septimus Drew, who writes erotica under the pen name Vivienne Ventress – he is in love, although he can’t bring himself to tell her, with Ruby Dore, the landlady of the Tower tavern, the Rack and Ruin, whose canary refuses to sing. There are the other Beefeaters, the Chief Yeoman Warder and the Ravenmaster who hates the intrusion of the Queen’s animals, which include an Etruscan shrew, a Komodo dragon, howler monkeys and a King of Saxony bird of paradise.

It’s not all eccentric characters and bizarre situations, there’s love and sorrow intermingled. Balthazar and Hebe had a son, Milo who died young and they are both still mourning his death. Balthazar, though is tormented by a terrible secret, which he can’t reveal to Hebe. Since Milo’s death they have drifted apart and Balthazar is devastated when Hebe leaves him. Will they get back together?  What is his secret and will he tell Hebe?

By the end of this book I was thoroughly absorbed into the world of the Tower of London, with all the irritations of living within circular walls, and the Lost Property Office of London’s Underground, where strange things were left such as a magician’s box used to saw glamorous assistants in two and a wooden box containing the remains of Clementine Perkins.  And, I wonder, do all the Beefeaters really have a ‘ruthless specimen of fungus that flourished on the back of their knees‘ as a result of the rain and ‘the damp from their abominable lodgings.‘?