Tribute To John Aspinall
June 30, 2000
John Aspinall became a close friend, yet I made his acquaintance only a little less than three years ago. We met altogether perhaps six or seven times, yet his parting has left a painful void in my life. While many of our conversations were about the animals that were his guests as it were on his properties in Kent, I think of him as standing for values and principles precious to our civilization and relevant to our ability to master our future.
John Aspinall was often called a typical British eccentric. But this only described his willingness to live by principles which are no longer fashionable, and by convictions many are too afraid of conventional wisdom to avow. He honored the country he loved without posturing by embodying its ancient virtues: reliability, courage, dedication, and service. Progress and achievement in his universe did not require rejection of the past but drawing strength from it; indeed, he considered a break with its past the greatest calamity that can befall a nation. John quoted with approval a sentence from antiquity: The Roman state rests on its ancient customs and its heroes. Aspinall's heroes, he would say, were the chieftains and kings who lost bravely to great empires.
"Had you lived six hundred years ago," I said to John once, "you would have been a liege lord sallying forth from your castle to right wrongs and undertake an occasional conquest." "No," John replied, "I would have been in the front row of my lord's followers, defending him with my broadsword."
John was very well read. He knew well enough that we live in an age of consolidation and globalization. But he did not feel obliged to accept all its manifestations. So he set about to rescue the individual from homogenization and societies from having their identity and history submerged by a bureaucratic or technocratic quest for uniformity. And he measured the significance of a battle by its purpose, not its outcome.
Since John did not think that politics was his métier, he concentrated his passion and activities on arresting, or at least slowing down, the conscious destruction of the natural systems on which depend the health of the planet that had evolved by luck or by evolution over billions of years.
It is in this context that one needs to explain John's love for wild animals. He did not treat them condescendingly as pets or anthropomorphically as analogous to human beings. Rather, he viewed them as part of a creation in the process of being destroyed by man's thoughtlessness and the havoc of technology. Not religious in the formal sense, John was profoundly spiritual in an ultimate meaning of the word. To him, all creatures were reflections of a universal spirit which each expressed in his or her individual and unique way. It was that divine spark which he cherished in his animals. They seemed, to John, to fulfill the qualities that made life worth living: always true to themselves; never pretentious; seeking at all times to fulfill their potential. And therefore he devoted much of his fortune to treating the tigers, elephants, gorillas, buffaloes and many other species in his unlikely refuges in Kent as respected guests, not prisoners.
Two weeks ago, I visited my friend to say goodbye. His devoted wife Sally had warned me that he was often too frail to recognize his visitors or to engage in conversation. But he had rallied for the day. He lay in his study - shriveled, covered by bandages, but alert and capable of the occasional biting comment. Otherwise, he gave no sign that there was anything unusual about the occasion. John spoke about the despoliation of nature, the ravages of science and his hope that friends would support his family's effort to enable his animals to lead lives of dignity. He held my hand and extended his leg from his bed into my lap, but said not a word about his affliction or his pain.
Only when I took my leave did he hint at something special. "It is a pity it was so short." Whether he meant his life or our friendship, he did not elaborate. As man measures time, it was indeed all too short. But as God measures time, his memory will be in the heart of his friends for eternity. Together with the hope that his guests from other species in Kent will be recognized as having been saved by a hero in a great battle and not remembered only nostalgically for the ultimate futility of the effort.