THERE was just something about that wallaby, the Highgate Wallaby, our wallaby. It sounds like the mark of an emotional mid-life crisis to mourn the death of a wallaby you’ve never seen in the fur, whose appearance was so surprising that if it wasn’t for the clear photographic and video evidence you’d be forgiven for wondering if hadn’t all just been a marsupial mirage.
But there was a lull of silence in the newsroom yesterday when the RSPCA emailed the sad news that Jean had not pulled through from its foot surgery.
It can’t just have been six reporters around a desk who felt the sorrow, maybe a sorrow spiced with a pang of guilt about how much we had enjoyed having the wallaby hopping our streets without predicting how this most curious of stories would end.
There were greater tragedies on the newslist yesterday afternoon, God bless the construction site worker who died in King’s Cross, but the traffic on the Camden New Journal website that we could see, the comments on Twitter and so on, suggested a wave of awww nos across north London for this tale.
Over three weeks, people had become engrossed, in a way they never will by local politics – however many meetings we go to – by the progress of the wallaby.
It felt like E.T. or something, searching for a phoneline home to Oz, or an exotic animal boxer that a cartoon movie might have plonked on an unsuspecting town from a carelessly driven circus train.
Nobody could really explain how it had arrived but the wallaby had, it feels, become a bit of a mascot, conjuring an odd slice of local pride – we’ve got wallabies dontcha know, we could say.
We willed it on to survive the St Jude’s Day storm by hiding out in Highgate Cemetery, as we fastened the windows and prayed for the rocking trees – and it did.
Everybody seemed content with him hopping around, upstaging Marx, skipping past Beadle. I didn’t come across one person who wasn’t taken with the story to some degree, a rare universal love where everybody is rooting for the same team. There were hopes that there was more than one out there, and of wallaby babies in the spring.
Yet the idea that it would stay living among the tombstones in that famous old burial ground forever, for us to see whenever we wanted, or a spotter’s triumph like the wild horses of the New Forest, was always fanciful.
Maybe we were lulled into a false comfort by the fact, despite its appearance and location being so well publicised, animal rescue officers were not rushing to the scene to take him away from cars and sharp objects.
But it was clearly disorientated when he ventured into parts of Highgate that were more grey than green. In the York Rise playground, where my colleague Dan Carrier had to help an RSPCA officer scoop it towards the safety of a van, it had seemed distressed.
The cards, by this time, may have been marked. It was more injured than the Jean fans watching from the mesh-wire playground fences could know.
The RSPCA warned us all then that there were risks if it went under anaesthetic and an op on the foot was suddenly a gamble. So we went from this collective delight from seeing a zoo-level animal roaming our streets, to a collective deflation that the case had closed in catastrophe.
OK, not something we will weep on sofas for and need duvet days to get over. There shall not be counselling.
But it’s a sad one, ain’t it? Here was a little local legend who brightened up the first cool weeks of autumn with a wonderful implausibility.
With no disrespect for those who lay there, maybe they could reserve a little plot in the cemetery for Jean; scattered ashes or a plaque. The Highgate Wallaby has, after all, dug a lasting anecdote in N6’s folklore. The walking tours would always stop and listen.