June 21 2011: All About Dinosaurs by Roy Chapman Andrews (1953) & Dinosaurs by W.E. Swinton (1962)
The development of an obsessive interest in dinosaurs at around the age of 5 seems to be a rite of passage for boys and isn’t unknown in girls of the same age. I can certainly say that my own fascination with them was intense, and may indirectly have planted some of the seeds of writing as a career choice early on, since I was prone to fill exercise books with illustrated stories and facts about such creatures as the brontosaurus, ankliosaurus, pterodactyl and stegasaurus and pass them to my grandad, complete with small publisher’s logos sketched onto the covers (then again, I get the impression that all children do this or something similar, so perhaps it only seems significant in the rear view mirror of hindsight).
So what is it about these ancient reptiles that catches the imagination, especially at this particular age? Perhaps it’s the sense that, suddenly, we’re confronted with the reality of creatures that seem wholly imaginary, the preserved fossil skeletons of animals that might be the source of many of our fantastic bestiaries and myths. It certainly seems likely that belief in the reality of dragons could have developed from the uncovering of fossil remains, just as belief in mermaids and sea monsters is thought to have arisen from anthropomorphosed glimpses of such real creatures as seals and squid.
Yet all the rumours I grew up with about the extinction of dinosaurs seem to have been (like those of Mark Twain’s death) greatly exaggerated: watching a flock of geese on Trent Embankment or a swan guarding its eggs in a nest on the canal at Gamston makes it plain that evolution rather than complete annihilation lies behind their superficial disappearance. Take away the feathers, wings and beak of a Canada Goose, then give it a long tail and multiply its size exponentially, and you’re pretty much looking at a living brachiosaurus. Those who use the word ‘dinosaur’ to denote something obsolete, fossilised and outmoded by evolution should take more note of their surroundings.