By John Rendall
Bradt Travel Guides
192 pp. £14.99
The fashion crimes that were being committed in the late sixties, particularly in Chelsea, went mostly unpunished, although the hair-styles, complete with mutton-chop ‘buggery-grips’, were even more heinous. Enter the world of the ‘swinging sixties,’ with polo necks, dolly-birds, rock stars, denim, pink bell-bottoms and Biba. Two young Aussies called John Rendall and Ace Bourke went to the Harrods Zoo department and paid 250 guineas for a three-month-old lion cub, which they took back to the World’s End and installed him in a trendy pine furniture shop called Sophistocat, and one does not get a more sophisticated cat than Christian the big cat. He became quite a celebrity, being taken for walks down the King’s Road, visiting restaurants and riding in the back of a drop-head Mercedes-Benz. For a year, he lived happily with John and Ace and their friends, exercising in the secluded, and largely undiscovered, Moravian Close; a walled graveyard belonging to the Fetter Lane Moravian Church, just off the King’s Road, which, in turn, used to belong to Sir Thomas Moore, Sir Robert Cecil and subsequently, Sir Hans Sloane, which was part of his Chelsea Manor. There, every day, Christian could run free and play football. He appeared in a few photo shoots, including one for Janet Reger lingerie, and James Hunt, then an up-and-coming racing driver in Formula Three. A young freelance Fleet Street photographer, Derek Cattani, met Christian and his human pride, and started to chronicle this extraordinary bond between two men and a lion in London.
Meanwhile, eating four times a day, Christian was growing fast, and the two of them had to decide what to do with him. They flirted with the idea of giving him to the Marquis of Bath for his Longleat Safari Park, but then conceded that he might not end up living as ‘free’ as they hoped in the park.Then a chance meeting with the actors Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, his wife, who had played George and Joy Adamson in the film Born Free, led to them asking the Kenyan couple whether they would consider rehabilitating a fifth-generation zoo-bred lion. Contrary to expectations, the Adamsons agreed, and there was a lot of paperwork to get through. They had a great deal of difficulty explaining to the Kenyan government why they wanted an import license for a lion, but eventually one was secured, and the process of transporting him to Nairobi began. He was kept in the airport holding area for two days, and then the 250-mile journey to Kora in the back of a Land Rover began, with a stop at a temporary camp, where Christian’s genetics kicked in when he started stalking a cow. After a few weeks observing how ‘their’ lion was acclimatising to Africa, the two returned to England, leaving Christian in the capable hands of George, the world’s leading expert on lions. After two heartbreaking tragedies** in Kenya, the pair returned a year later to see how Christian was faring in the wild. The resulting reunion was filmed, put on YouTube and is now the stuff of legend. Over 100 million people have viewed the video, on which the book expounds, but there were further shocking tragedies***, as the book also explains, as well as its lasting legacy for conservation. This is well-balanced and delightfully written account of an extraordinary adventure, brimming with fine pictures, many of which have never been seen before.