Tortoises for fun and profit…

Why would a ten year old boy want to buy himself a tortoise ?

There is no rational explanation as to why I did it, I took the profit from selling the four guinea pigs who only had enough good legs between them to make up two guinea pigs and I went and bought a tortoise for myself and my mother bought one for our Ned so that he wouldn’t feel left out, him not being an entrepreneur like his brother and not having the nounce to get in on the guinea pig business before the bottom fell out of the market, or should I say the legs fell off.

I must add that this was back in the day, the days when a person could walk into any pet shop in town and there would be dozens of tortoises in the window for sale and some of them would still be alive and everything, days when traders would send packing cases, a hammer and some nails  to places that tortoises live in (Africa ???) with instructions to a lacky to collect as many wild tortoises as possible – how wild can a tortoise get, slightly annoyed perhaps – fill up the packing case they’d be instructed and if 10% of them are still alive when they arrive back in blighty then goodness me we’ll make a profit.

So inspired by Blue Peter we bought two tortoises and also inspired by Blue Peter we painted the names of our tortoises on the shell although I admit that we didn’t stop and ask ourselves why on earth we had done that, I did mine in luminous paint too so that I’d be able see it in the garden at night when observing from the bedroom window.

We talked of drilling a hole in edge of the shell in order to tie strong rope to each tortoise so that it wouldn’t leave our garden, but we didn’t bother and neither did we have to for they didn’t leave the garden at all, in fact they barely left their shell for the whole of the , erm one summer, that we had them, they were fookin useless as pets, would have had more fun with two rocks.

I’d sit in the garden all day observing my tortoise, all day, and not once did it stretch its scaly head out of its shell to nibble on the lettuce leaf that I’d placed right in front of its nose, not once, by comparison the five pound rock that I’d placed next to my tortoise as a control specimen in my experiment ate all of its lettuce and went for a walk around the garden. That night I stayed awake for bloody ages watching my tortoise on the lawn and still it never moved, only its name on its shell glowed gently in the dark, “Hammy” it read, I named it after my first Hamster.

And then finally that day came around that comes around every year, the day when Val, John, and Peter Purves start Blue Peter with a cardboard box and some straw on the floor in front of them, you know its the autumn of the year when the Blue Peter team pack Fred the Blue Peter tortoise away in his cardboard box for the winter hibernation and so we paid particular attention to how they wrapped him up and made sure he was cosy and warm in his hibernation box and sealed the lid and put it away in a darkened cupboard somewhere in the BBC studios for Fred to snooze away the winter.

“Dad” I asked, “Can you bring me a cardboard box and some straw home from work ?”

He brought me a nice big cardboard box and some “Packing materials” is what he sadi, I opened the box and it was full of polystyrene pellets and no straw, this wasn’t quite what Fred went to bed in every year but hey, it would be warm and tortoises can’t be picky so I snuggled Hammy down in his bed of polystyrene, sealed the box and put it in our garage.

And then, and not before, I swear not before, sometime in the next spring Val, John and Peter Purves stood before a sealed box and they carefully unsealed it, unpacked all of the straw and gently removed Fred, blinking into the sunlight, or studio lighting as the case may be, “Welcome back from hibernation” they’d say and the Blue Peter world seemed like a lovely place to be.

So I went and got my tortoise hibernation box out of the garage and we placed it on the lawn and unsealed the box…

…and the smell was something awful.

Like something was dead, for a long time.

I pushed the polystyrene granules to one side and there was my tortoise, and it seemed to be awake, how excellent, look there was its head and all of its legs and its tail, all hanging out of the shell, how wonderful, “Welcome back from hibernation” I declared and picked up Hammy by the shell…

…and then I found out what the smell was for as I lifted the tortoise out of the box I must have tipped the shell a bit and green gunk poured from it, and then when I could bring myself to look closer I noticed that although I was holding the shell, Hammy’s head, legs and tail seemed to have remained in the box.

The box and all the bits of my tortoise went straight in the bin.

But that’s not all, for when we unwrapped Neds tortoise his was dead too, or at least we think it was dead, but we couldn’t find the actual tortoise bit, we could find an empty shell, but no tortoise bits, its like his tortoise had upped and left during the winter for pastures new – can tortoises escape from their shell and go live somewhere else, or as our dad put it in between bouts of hilarity, “Your bloody tortoise has done a moonlight”

Which brought me to thinking, was Fred the Blue Peter tortoise all he was cracked up to be ?

You see we were just innocent kids in those days and because no-one had video recorders and because the BBC hardly ever showed any repeats in those days, we never got the chance to compare a “before” and “after” video of Fred going into the hibernation box and coming out five months later – how sure can we be that it was the same Fred, yes we all know that tortoises can live for a hundred or more years, but my little bugger didn’t and I seriously doubt whether the Blue Peter tortoise ever did.

“And now we’ll put him in a cool dark cupboard for the winter until next spring” says Peter Purves to the camera after sealing up Fred into his hibernation box and he hands the hibernation box to a studio manager just off camera who walks out of the studio to fling the hibernation box into a skip on a street nearby.

And then sometime next March a studio assistant is looking in her diary and she notices an entry to remind her to go to a pet shop and buy another tortoise ready for the un-hibernation routine next week, and she buys one that’s roughly the same size as the one last year and when she gets back to the studio she paints “Fred” on the shell in white paint and us kids are fooled again for another year and we never question how Fred has got a bit smaller over the winter and his name is written in italics this year and it was in block capitals last autumn…


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