PET PROJECTS

Macca and Martha‘Oh, I’m looking after my girlfriend’s dog again while she’s at work’; ‘I think that cat lives next-door and it keeps coming in every time I leave the backdoor open’ – just two of the excuses I routinely used when I had both a canine and feline companion when living in rented accommodation and the owner of the property turned up unannounced. Keeping quiet about one’s benefits was one thing – ‘No DHSS’ was something landlords were allowed to state in the same way they’d once infamously stated ‘No Irish, no dogs, no blacks’ – but pets were the ultimate no-no. That said, I lived in three different premises with my cat and dog and wasn’t officially entitled to have either of them whilst living there. Some landlords were more tolerant than others. A landlady I had over 20 years ago insisted on collecting the rent in person and would call every Thursday evening at the same time; but she didn’t just take the money at the door; she’d come in, sit down and natter. Throughout this weekly endurance test I’d have to make sure the cat was out and I’d ask a friend to sit in the kitchen with the dog, bribing him with treats to prevent him from barking.

Potential damage as well as the noise – and possibly odour – of animals appears to be one reason private landlords have always had a downer on them; and, to be fair, there are plenty of irresponsible pet-owners who don’t empty the litter tray and don’t take the dog out for a walk when it needs to do its business. As a pet-owner myself, I was permanently conscious that I wasn’t adhering to my rental agreement by having them and did my best to guarantee they didn’t disrupt the lives of other tenants; but I would’ve attended to my pets’ needs even if I’d bought the property, and the dog barking whenever the doorbell rang would still have been something I’d have attempted to discourage. Not all pet-owners are so conscientious, of course, and I suspect these are the ones to blame for the rest being tarred with the same unfair brush by the majority of landlords.

According to the latest stats released by rental platform Goodlord, just 5% of landlords today allow pets to be kept by tenants renting their properties; when one considers just how essential pets can be in providing the lonely or the socially-challenged with companionship, it seems especially mean. Landlords will tend to fall back on the reasons already mentioned if they’re opposed to pet ownership on their property, and if faced with a choice between a tenant with pets or one without, they’ll usually opt for the latter every time. And even money can’t swing it. A story emerged recently that a far-from skint prospective tenant offered a landlord £3,300 a week for a penthouse apartment for which the landlord was asking £3000, simply because the prospective tenant in question had four dachshunds and figured offering to pay more than the asking price might override any objections; in the end, the landlord accepted a lower offer from a pet-free tenant instead.

However, all this could be about to change. In the past couple of weeks, a white paper has been published to address some of the issues faced by renters. The long-overdue abolition of the contentious ‘no fault’ Section 21 evictions is proposed – this is the system whereby a landlord can give notice to a tenant to leave the property without first providing a reason for the eviction – and not before time; 22% of renters who left their homes in the past twelve months did so without it being their choice. But the Renters Reform Bill also attempts to allow tenants the right to have pets in their rented homes, the first time this will be enshrined in law. No longer will landlords be able to specify those with pets will be barred from renting from them; and, as someone who spent the best part of 20 years living in rented accommodation with one pet or another – and being acutely aware of the risks I was taking – I cannot help but welcome these changes. Considering the boom in pet ownership spawned by the unique conditions of lockdown – and the belated realisation of what a difference a cat or dog can make to those abruptly deprived of social interaction with other people – this is something that needed to be addressed.

If I’d been threatened with eviction whilst a pet-owner, I would’ve found somewhere else to live rather than part with my four-legged friends, and a survey by the Deposit Protection Service recently revealed 30% of pet-owning renters had done precisely that of late. This bill nonetheless includes a caveat for concerned landlords, all the same; reports indicate Housing Secretary Michael Gove plans to grant powers to landlords so they can request their pet-owning tenants have insurance in the event of any damage done to the property by their pet, something that has eased the worries of the National Residential Landlords Association – particularly as landlords are limited when it comes to the amount of a deposit they can hold onto as insurance against pet damage; the Tenant Fees Act of 2019 restricts that amount to five weeks’ rent. NRLA representative Chris Morris said, ‘Our biggest concern has always been that the law, as it currently stands, prevents landlords requiring insurance to cover the significant risk of pets creating damage to a property. We welcome reports that the Government has listened and responded positively to our concerns.’

The Renters Reform Bill will also extend the so-called Decent Homes Standard into the rented sector for the first time, apparently guaranteeing renters the right to a ‘safe and warm home’; as someone who has never rented property with central heating, I look forward to a winter in a ‘warm’ home, though how this bill will make my home warm is a tad vague. Anxious landlords receive additional eases to their concerns with a promise that the bill will enable them to evict antisocial tenants or renters who are wilfully failing to pay rent in ways that are far easier than the rules currently in place allow. But tenants are liberated by the changes too; rogue landlords will face unlimited fines if they don’t live up to the standards expected of them. ‘This is all part of our plans to level up communities and improve the life chances of people from all corners of the country,’ said Michael Gove. ‘Too many renters are living in damp, unsafe and cold homes, powerless to put it right and under the threat of sudden eviction. The New Deal for renters will help to end this injustice, improving conditions and rights for millions of renters.’

Considering 4.4 million households constitute the private rented sector, finally tackling some of the iniquities prevalent in the system is one of those rare occasions when it’s possible to applaud this Government for actually doing something good. The Decent Homes Standard places a legal obligation on landlords to improve properties in such an insanitary state that they affect the physical and mental health of tenants; this will also cut the best part of £3 billion’s worth of Housing Benefit a year that finds itself in the pockets of these rogue landlords, as well as sparing the NHS from the £340 million it annually forks out for in order to treat the ill-health of tenants hospitalised due to the dire conditions they’re living in. Also, disputes between tenants and landlords are to be kept out of court by the intervention of a new Private Renters’ Ombudsman – what a wonderful word that is, Ombudsman (one of the few Scandinavian ones to have settled into modern English, apparently); he will settle such disputes quickly.

But it is the section of the Renters Reform Bill covering the ownership of pets in rented accommodation that will probably register with the most people. For far too long, the healing effects of domesticated animals on their owners has been effectively criminalised by the renting system; the odd bad apple in the barrel shouldn’t brand all pet owners as ‘problem tenants’ and it’s about time this antiquated discrimination was finally outlawed. Looks like that time has come.

© The Editor

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FOUR LEGS GOOD

CircusWhen the wide eyes of a nine-year-old perused the pages of ‘2000 AD’ in 1977, one strip set in the far-flung future of 23 years hence seemed less feasible to me than anything involving robots, ray-guns or spaceships. In it, I recall an irate father was poised to deliver a smack to his misbehaving child when the mother interjected by reminding her husband, ‘We don’t chastise children in the 21st century’. This required more stretching of the imagination than the rest of the stories in the comic put together; I clearly remember thinking how such a scenario was never going to happen in my lifetime. I mean, routine smacks, slaps, clouts and belts from grownups was part and parcel of my childhood experience, and had been part and parcel of all the childhood experiences there’d ever been before mine. That was one of the perks of being over-18 – you could physically put an unruly child in its place, just like parents and teachers did on a daily basis to those of us who were kids back then. The idea that this would one day cease as a legitimate punishment and would indeed be frowned upon, even legislated against, was pure pie-in-the-sky. Judge Dredd didn’t seem remotely fantastical next to that.

Yes, this was the age when it was still okay for adults to dispense a clip round the ear-hole, and it was also the age in which latchkey dogs roamed the streets, impregnating the neighbourhood bitches, leaving messages wherever feet were guaranteed to tread, and terrorising kids who were terrified of them. Owners let Rover loose without a second thought, turfing him out of the house on a morning in the same way they’d turf their children out during the school holidays; they all ran wild and unsupervised in a way that’s utterly unimaginable today. Mind you, some animals I came into contact with during my childhood weren’t given carte blanche to roam; some were put to work and became more like family breadwinners than the human head of the household. Farmers relied on animals to play their part in the running of the family business, but there were also those four-legged creatures whose working lives were entered into purely for our entertainment.

Circus folk, for example, relied on the attraction of animal employees to pull the punters in. Urban children who maybe lived several towns away from the nearest zoo had a rare opportunity to see bona fide beasts up-close when the big top magically appeared overnight on the local common. Elephants, lions, tigers – yer actual wildlife of Africa and India lifted out a context copyrighted by David Attenborough and transferred to the showbiz stage. It should have been one hell of an eye-popping experience, yet even as a child in that radically different and un-squeamish era, the two circuses I saw in person made me feel sorry for the animals. As impressive as their choreographed routines might seem on the surface, performing elephants always had sad eyes that gave the game away; they were like reluctant strippers faced with little option but to take off their clothes in public just to make ends meet; they weren’t doing it through choice.

Perhaps the fact that one circus I saw as a child was a small, rather shabby low-rent affair a long way from the glitzy glamour of the circuses that always seemed to be broadcast as part of the Christmas Day TV schedule also impacted upon my perception of them. The conditions certainly enhanced the drowsy, drugged-up apathy of the lacklustre lions and toothless tigers on display so that even the crack of the whip failed to breathe any sense of urgency into them. All the animals looked worn-out, weary and wasted, going through jaded motions that were an archaic hangover from the Victorian age. I can’t imagine such a set-up being allowed today – and it wouldn’t be, thankfully. Like the boxing kangaroos occasionally wheeled-out to enliven a lacklustre variety show on TV, not everything in the past was superior to now; some things really have changed for the better. When the Wild Animals in Circuses Act of 2019 came into effect at the beginning of last year, circuses in England were belatedly banned from including wild animals in their line-ups, following similar Acts passed in Scotland and Wales a year or two before.

At a time when so much legislation that passes through Parliament seems to constitute little more than the ongoing erosion of civil liberties and all the hard-fought rights of which we were once so proud and are now prepared to give up without much in the way of a fight, how refreshing to see changes to the law that are actually worthwhile and long overdue. The Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill received its third and final reading last week and is deserving of a round of applause. It increases the maximum sentence for cruelty to animals from a paltry six months to a far more substantial five years. Coming at a moment when a vile crime like dog-theft is on the increase, the Bill couldn’t be more timely; whilst the Wild Animals in Circuses Act is intended to curb the exploitation of exotic beasts, this new Bill casts its net wider and turns its attention to abuse of the domesticated members of the animal kingdom, those we are far more likely to come into contact with than lions, tigers or elephants.

All-too often, it seems, animal rights are monopolised by (and assumed to be the exclusive property of) the ‘activist’, the stager of stunts and the disturber of the peace, the kind that arguably does more harm than good in making people aware of animal exploitation and cruelty – just as legitimate concerns over the future of the planet become negatively associated with the disruptive clowns of Extinction Rebellion, putting people off the issue when it’s so closely linked to the prats that use it as a vehicle for their own antisocial narcissism. However, legislation such as the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill and the Wild Animals in Circuses Act wrestle the subject out of the hands of the activist and remind us that this is an issue that concerns all of us. After all, it’s barely a year since the overnight removal of traffic from the roads and aircraft from the skies suddenly opened the floodgates for animals to claim the vacated spaces with amazing speed; the birdsong soundtrack and the surreal sight of deer grazing on suburban lawns served as a salient wake-up call to the fact that we actually share this place and don’t own it outright.

It’s been a long, slow road to getting here – the Proroguing of Parliament in 2019 and then Covid held things up somewhat; but the Statute Book and Royal Assent were finally in sight when the Bill crossed the finishing line at the eleventh hour just 24 hours prior to the conclusion of the current Parliamentary session last week. The various animal charities that have played their part in pushing this deserve credit, and Lord John Randall paid tribute to their work. ‘I commend all the charities involved for the weight and purpose they brought to this campaign,’ he said, ‘to secure one of the most significant changes to animal welfare legislation since the Animal Welfare Act of 2006.’ The Act referenced in his statement had helped lay the ground for both this new one and the Wild Animals in Circuses Act, and even though it won’t end the maltreatment of animals overnight, it undoubtedly reflects a wider change in attitude towards animals within society during my lifetime.

The founding of the RSPCA in 1824 opened eyes to everyday levels of commonplace cruelty that to us today seem barbaric, and perhaps future generations will look back in astonishment at some of the things we tolerated in the same way we now look back at bull-baiting, cock-fighting and fox-hunting. Ah, thinking about it, maybe there’s still plenty of work needs doing yet.

© The Editor

PET SUBJECTS

The actor David Niven once explained how he was able to turn his talents to the written word by finding a secluded spot in his garden that would shield him from distractions; more dedicated scribes like Dickens and Dahl famously had glorified sheds erected in their gardens to guarantee privacy whilst Virginia Woolf emphasised the need for ‘a room of one’s own’. A conducive environment for jotting down one’s thoughts certainly helps the process of jotting them down, and speaking personally I can’t really complain in that the desk upon which I write faces a large, spacious window that gives me considerably more natural light when working than the gloomy ground-floor flat I used to know as home, one with a grim, grey wall to look at when opening the curtains on a morning. The wide windowsill that divides desk from window at one time served as a convenient platform for my late lamented cat to requisition as a handy sunbathing spot in the summer, but still cried out for a permanent purpose. I eventually made use of the windowsill space by mentioning to a friend with horticultural leanings that I’d quite like to acquire a couple of rubber plants.

Why rubber plants, I’m not entirely sure; childhood memory assured me the residence of Minnie Caldwell on ‘Coronation Street’ boasted a few in a hangover of that cluttered Victorian style, and I recall it always looking homely, so why not? What arrived as tiny, malnourished cuttings have subsequently become wannabe Triffids, courtesy of the abundance of sunlight and weekly watering; the two plants have outgrown more than one pot and now reside in huge ones designed for outdoor patios. Unless their flamboyant foliage is routinely trimmed, the plants tend to hog the sunlight I’d become dependent upon, but they do keep me in touch with nature; and nature is something that otherwise exclusively inhabits the world outside the window, a world that recent events have conspired to detach me (and many others) from. The plants were picked-up free of charge from a website – the name of which escapes me, but one that was set up so people could basically get rid of unwanted possessions fast without the need to wait for a buyer on eBay.

The site could have been Gumtree, though money tends to exchange hands on there. In case you weren’t aware, Gumtree is essentially an online version of the old newspaper classified section; it was established around 20 years ago by antipodean expats in London – probably, I should imagine, in the neighbourhood of Earls Court. The name was taken from the colloquial Aussie term for the eucalyptus tree, and like many websites that sprang up at the turn of the millennium and avoided crashing and burning in the dot-com bubble, Gumtree has spread its wings beyond its original remit of connecting Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans in the Mother Country to becoming an international operation, freely accessible in mainland Europe and North America. In the UK, it has an average of 200,000 motor vehicles on offer in its ‘goods for sale’ section; with stats like that, it’s no great surprise the Yellow Pages was discontinued and ‘Exchange and Mart’ ceased to be a physical publication.

However, one area that Gumtree would be wise to steer clear of in order to retain goodwill on the part of the public is the sale of animals. Whenever one is told the story of Christian, the famous lion owned by a pair of Swinging Londoners in the early 70s, the fact the beast was purchased as a cub from Harrods often seems as hard to believe as the truth of an actual lion living in a basement off the King’s Road. Yes, Christian’s status as a bona-fide wild animal adds to the surreal nature of the story of how and where he grew up, but that today’s domestic pets can be bought and sold on Gumtree with little in the way of animal welfare involved appears no more enlightened half-a-century later. With a paltry minimum fee of £2.99 (to meet the requirements of the Pet Advertising Advisory Group), Gumtree is allowed to flog cats and dogs with the barest safeguards in place for the goods being sold. The Gumtree pet policy specifies that a seller can only post two pet ads a year, though this hardly prevents sellers indulging in the piss-easy operation of opening new accounts under different names as many times as they see fit. Home visits to the sellers by Gumtree representatives to check on the condition and ownership of the animal for sale are not part of the process, so the system is unsurprisingly open to abuse.

Courtesy of our old friend Lockdown, there has been a huge increase in the sale of dogs and puppies in particular over the past few months, the price of which has gone through the roof; this in turn has led to an alarming rise in the upsetting trend of dog thefts, stealing beloved members of the family and flogging them at an extortionate rate online. It’s heartbreaking enough when a furry friend has to be put to sleep; the thought that they’re still around but have been taken from you when your back was turned has to be every pet-owner’s worst nightmare. I used to know an old lady whose cat once disappeared and didn’t come home again, despite the lady’s nightly expeditions to locate her feline sidekick; by her own admission, she never got over it. That might induce a sneer in some, but to her – she lived alone – the cat was her sole companion, her only company and dependent, the significance of which is easily overlooked by those who have always shared their lives with other people or have never known the unique bond man/woman can share with a domesticated animal. I feel sorry for them to have missed out.

Any organisation that turns a blind eye to the profits being made from inflicting upset on others – not to mention causing emotional distress to the animal – deserves a dressing down, and Gumtree needs to get its house in order. The opportunities for unscrupulous, unregistered breeders and runners of illegal puppy farms – vile canine concentration camps where the welfare of animals is the last concern – are abundant thanks to the lax policing of classified websites; moreover, stolen cats and dogs are sold in similar fashion to stolen cars, often bought by those who do so in good faith, unaware they’re purchasing someone else’s property. In many cases, the ease with which sites like Gumtree make such criminal practices painless for professional and amateur alike demands either some form of new regulation, which would probably be difficult to enforce, or should prompt Gumtree to cease allowing animals to be sold or re-homed via its site.

The removal of such ads from Gumtree would be a step forward when there are reputable shelters, charities and certified breeders that sell animals which have received full health check-ups and are sold to those who themselves have to prove their credentials as responsible pet-owners beforehand. Animals are not cars or inanimate objects that can be bought and sold indefinitely just for the sake of a fast buck with no care for the consequences. Sure, my home benefitted from the acquisition of two rubber plants-cum-Triffids that brought a little piece of Mother Nature into an abode bereft of a garden, but plants should really be the only living things one is able to purchase on sites like Gumtree. Perhaps the decline and fall of one-time go-to sources such as newspaper classified ads and the aforementioned Yellow Pages – both of which were far more regulated than their online successors – has its downside (one that goes beyond mere nostalgia) after all.

© The Editor

NOBODY DID IT BETTER

Cautious caveats are a MSM prerequisite when reporting the passing of a pre-Woke pop cultural icon today. The BBC News website was naturally required to pay tribute to Sean Connery, whose death at the age of 90 (yes, hard to believe, I know) has been announced; but it also had to stick to the post-MeToo BBC ‘toxic masculinity’ agenda. Therefore, the site’s ‘tribute’ included such Bond era disclaimers as ‘The action scenes are still thrilling; but the sex bordered on the non-consensual’ and ‘Thankfully it’s been a while since 007 slapped a woman on the backside and forced a kiss’. Yes, we’re sad he’s snuffed it, even though he was a horribly misogynistic symbol of the patriarchy as viewed through the stony-faced prism of the century without irony. Personally, I found Connery’s Caribbean tax-exile cheerleading for the SNP far more offensive (not to say hypocritical) than his portrayal of a cartoonish character created before the male of the species was emasculated by the feminisation of the arts, but maybe that’s just me.

Connery’s death comes at the end of a week that has seen a swift succession of deaths of men whose marks were made in a different era – Frank Bough, Bobby Ball, Nobby Stiles – and one cannot help but feel the begrudging necessity of the mainstream media having to mark these deaths when none of them were transgender People of Colour is an inconvenience to the revolution. At least they’re all gone now, eh? But it means jack shit, anyway; by the time Sean Connery returned to the Bond fold following George Lazenby’s one-movie interregnum, he already looked out of shape and irrelevant, bearing the kind of shabby toupée even Frank Sinatra would’ve rejected. 1971’s ‘Diamonds are Forever’ is arguably the worst 007 outing for Connery (nobody acknowledges 1983’s woeful ‘Never Say Never Again’) and it was evident the world had moved on – as had the man himself.

1971 was the year that saw the release of both ‘Shaft’ and ‘Get Carter’ – next to those two, the creaky ‘Diamonds are Forever’ looks like a period piece done for no other reason than spinning the money for a franchise sorely in need of a contemporary reboot. The Bond series was waiting for the knowing, eyebrow-raising archness of Roger Moore to place it firmly in its own cinematic universe of unreality as a means of surviving the nasty new decade, whilst Moore’s predecessor had the nous to be looking elsewhere. 1974’s surreal and disturbing ‘Zardoz’ is far closer to the confused spirit of the early 70s, as is 1972’s ‘The Offence’, the film that brought Connery back down to earth as a Scottish CID man investigating the rape of a young girl whilst struggling to keep a lid on his own unhealthy urges. Both should be held up as examples of an actor willing to spread his wings. Sean Connery was deconstructing his popular image on celluloid half-a-century before the so-called ‘intelligentsia’ caught up with him.

By the 1980s, Sean Connery was established as the kind of old-school leading man who always played the same character, whatever the movie. The likes of ‘Robin and Marian’, ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ and ‘Time Bandits’ are rightly recognised as evidence Connery could be versatile if required, but they didn’t put enough bums on seats to justify the undoubtedly hefty fee the star received to appear in them; therefore, Connery was smoothly assimilated into that pantheon of Hollywood A-listers, happy to grace any old shit with his heavyweight brand if it paid well enough. And that’s essentially where he remained before deciding to retire from the silver screen in the early 2000s; what else was there left for him to do? Anyone who can simply sit down and enjoy a classic Bond movie on its own terms cannot fail but appreciate nobody did it better, to paraphrase a later theme tune by Carly Simon.

I guess for many outside of the Woke bubble, the passing of one of this country’s genuine cinematic giants comes as a brief respite in the relentless assault on the senses courtesy of the pro-lockdown propaganda. In a way, it’s almost a relief to hear of a death that has no connection with something we’re being unconvincingly persuaded is worth destroying society for in order to temporarily stem the unavoidable tide of. Stay safe, stay miserable, save lives, kill yourself. The threat of another futile nationwide lockdown looms as Johnson, Sturgeon, Macron and Merkel lower their respective drawbridges and plunge Europe deeper into the Dark Ages that the complementary forces of Radical Islam and BLM/Antifa/ER/SJWs have already laid the ground for. God only knows how future historians will summarise this era, but when it comes to Blighty I think we can probably safely say the scale of the disaster to come will surpass the respective misfires of Chamberlain and Munich, Eden and Suez – even Blair and Iraq.

I don’t credit Johnson with sole responsibility as PM, for it’s not as if he’s been isolated as a deluded voice in the wilderness amidst a wave of strong and stable opposition to any move made by his administration. The same elite that fought tooth-and-claw to prevent the Brexit verdict being enacted has no party affiliation and has pressed long and hard for a return to the measures that made life such fun in the spring and summer because they’re alright, Jack. Yes, even that self-appointed spokesperson for the lower orders, the Labour Party, has inexplicably come to the conclusion that the one sure-fire way to punish ‘Tory Scum’ for denying free meals to children of the poor is to guarantee the poor remain on the breadline by preventing them from earning a living or living a healthy, fulfilled life. Keep them down and then they can be weaponised as a useful grenade to toss from one side of the House to the other. Honestly, I wouldn’t piss on any of them if they were on fire.

Echoing some of the sentiments I made in the previous post when describing a brief immersion in nature, I draw some solace from a wonderful site I visit regularly by the name of ‘Brain Pickings’. Not only has it proven to be a useful source of birthday/Christmas gifts in its promotion of overlooked books that deserve a far wider audience, but it routinely reminds the reader of how past authors and poets have confronted the crises of their own eras – something that can be a useful bulwark against ours. In the latest post, the 19th century wordsmith Walt Whitman was quoted. ‘After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love and so on,’ he said, ‘what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or a woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons – the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.’

I received a further sample when engaged in my weekly Saturday morning outing walking a friend’s dog this morning; mixed with my admiration of the dazzling shades of yellow on offer at my feet, I mused with discernible envy on the basic requirements of our canine companions – food, shelter, walk, and that’s all you need. No existential dilemmas, just TLC; give a dog that and they never forget; they instantly decide you’re their best friend for life. Maybe their lives being so short liberates them from the encumbrance of the vaster and bigger picture of mankind that can be such an obstacle to the kind of internal tranquillity that has so far been impervious to the encroachment of the Surveillance State into our every thought. So far, I say. The way things are going, we can’t take anything for granted anymore. You only live twice, after all.

© The Editor

JACK OF ALL TRADES

A year ago this week, I smoked my last cigarette; a recent clean of the spines displayed on my bookshelf reminded me how my world used to be coated in a stinky and sickly golden smudge that unknowingly proved to be as great a social deterrent as BO. But it’s only when you sometimes come across evidence of how something used to be that you belatedly realise how much it has changed. Example: A couple of years back, I purchased an archive copy each of the Sunday Times and the Sunday Telegraph; both were printed in 1977. Twenty-odd years of colour newspapers utilising digital technology had served to erase the aesthetic memory of how Fleet Street produce once looked, felt and smelt. The bright clean reproduction of images we’ve become accustomed to (if we still bother with a physical edition, of course) when stood next to the murky monochrome equivalent from forty years ago reveals the latter as having a closer resemblance to a poor photocopy.

The old hot metal printing technique also gave newspapers a distinctive odour as well as leaving its imprint on your fingers if you held a paper in your hands for more than five minutes. Newspapers were relatively cheap in relation to other goods, but had they retailed for pennies exceeding single figures, it probably would have been taking the piss when they were hardly works of art. They were simple, unpretentious and instantly disposable objects, hence their day-after demotion to the chip shop, so it’s no wonder they were something everybody could afford. Mind you, dailies and Sundays sold so much back then that the proprietors didn’t need to charge more than 10p to make a handsome profit.

As a child, there was a strict dividing line between what parents read and what children read. Comics were for us, newspapers were for them – oh, and dad also had a few…erm…‘magazines’ stashed in a secret place that we weren’t supposed to know about. This arrangement suited my tastes, for the content of newspapers was extremely dull to my prepubescent eye bar one page – no, not the third one, but a page somewhere near the back-end of the publication, just before the sports section. This page was the nearest a newspaper would get to a comic, even if the parade of three (or four) panel strips exhibited humour not quite as basic as that in the Dandy or the Beano.

The paper of choice in our household was the Daily Mirror. Its strips included space and time-travelling strongman Garth (who always somehow seemed to visit planets whose female natives had yet to discover bras), old-school northern pisshead layabout Andy Capp (who had a fag permanently glued to his lower lip), The Perishers (which appeared to be a British take on Peanuts), and Bill Tidy’s surreal The Fosdyke Saga. All the national dailies were defined in the child’s mind by which comic strips they featured. The Daily Express could boast Rupert Bear; the Mail had Fred Basset; the Sun had Hagar the Horrible, and so on. Even the local paper had its notable cartoon characters: As well as hosting US strip Marmaduke (a Great Dane I often confused with Scooby Doo), the Yorkshire Evening Post had the bizarre home-grown character known as Alfie Apple (Yes, a walking/talking apple).

Unlike my parents, I didn’t grow up to become a loyal subscriber to any particular paper and I gradually lost touch with the strips; whenever I’ve caught a glimpse of them in recent years the inevitable addition of garish colour has, to me, removed part of their appeal. The loss of their black & white-ness is something that appears to diminish their charm, in the same way that it would be impossible to imagine any of those early 60s ‘Kitchen Sink’ movies in Technicolor. There also seems to be fewer of them, with one of the key tools in securing the next generation of readers now marginalised, mirroring the suicidal dismissal of journalists who were experts in their chosen fields, something which suggested the editors of the papers had already given up and stopped believing there was any sort of future for the medium.

As has been pointed out on several occasions here recently, the allure of the recent past and the rose-tinted hues of unavoidable nostalgia can stretch into many unexpected areas. For some reason the old newspaper strip has fired my imagination of late, and in my increasingly desperate quest to seek constant distractions from the sinkhole I fell into eight months ago, one distraction I seized upon was to pay homage to the genre by making up my own strip. So I have done. Aesthetically, it belongs to a lost world, so wouldn’t be at home in the current excuse for a format that no longer really exists. Instead, I went straight to what used to be a commercial offshoot for the already-proven success – the collected strips in book form. As the book only contains 28 separate and self-contained three-panel strips (albeit every single strip in existence to date), I’m regarding this as ‘the pilot episode’. It may never be granted a networked series, but it’s out there for me to at least try.

I’m English and I was the companion to a cat for eighteen years. These are two things I know about. Therefore, I created a cat with a suitably traditional English name – Jack – and gave him a range of familiar English characteristics to add to his own archetypal feline qualities. I gave him a best mate, a girlfriend and a nemesis. I also gave him an ‘owner’ we never see, just as adults were always absent from the world of Charlie Brown. Unlike Felix or Top Cat, he walks on all fours, but he talks like us. Be a pretty dull strip if he didn’t.

He’s not particularly original; after all, it’s not as if cats have never been turned into cartoon characters before. And I’m not an especially gifted draughtsman either; the drawings are crude and sketchy, but I could say that maybe adds to their charm. Anyway, the humour is wry, dry and droll – and contemporary, I guess, though I avoid any direct references to the news; that would only instantly date them. With the book blurb declaring ‘As seen in the Winegum Telegram’, it felt only right to include a sample…

The transference of the images from sketch-pad to printed page ironically gives them the look of having being sourced from an old newspaper, an act of serendipity that adds to the homage, I guess. Anyway, the book’s available on Amazon for a piddling £2.99 (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jack-English-Cat-called-English/dp/1717944809/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1533553266&sr=1-1) and might provide you with a few minutes of entertainment when you need a break from your Smartphone screen. I make less than a quid from a purchase, by the way, so I shan’t be living it up like Northamptonshire County Council when they sank a fortune into a swanky new HQ before realising it left them with nothing to fund public services. No, Jack the English Cat is not about a fast buck; I just wanted to make people smile, and this is the best I can offer right now. Life is not good and I’m not expecting my creation to be my salvation, but every little helps, as Morrison’s used to say.

© The Editor

SEVEN AND THE RAGGED TIGER

Seven is a highly potent number. It concluded the head-count for both dwarves and Samurai; it provided us with the seas, the deadly sins, the colours of the rainbow, the wonders of the ancient world and the ages of man. It gave us the right quota of brides for the right quota of brothers, the amount of years for a marital itch, the veils needed for Salome’s erotic dance routine, the title of a disturbing 90s horror movie, Enid Blyton’s secret alternative to her famous quintet, the necessary inches for the classic pop single, the correct collection of rogues for an intergalactic outlaw called Blake, and – of course – the assembled days of the week. It seems to have followed me around. I was born in a year ending in seven, lived at a No.7 for the best part of two decades, and my current home is a residence whose separate flat and house numbers add up to…you guessed it. And now I have seven months on the clock to measure my faltering progress through the brave new world I was dumped in as 2017 drew to a grim full stop.

Careful – I’m perilously close to a pattern so familiar on Twitter, that of relentlessly focusing on the one topic over and over again with mouth-frothing fanaticism. I never used to do that, but I never previously wrote for this blog whilst trying to recover from…er…well, a breakdown. No touchy-feely alternative word for it. I certainly don’t want any of my jottings to be viewed as ‘therapeutic’ as a consequence, however. Even if trying to get back into the habit is undeniably a form of therapy for me, I should imagine coming to such posts as a reader when burdened with that awareness could make approaching them akin to a ‘duty’, precluding either enjoyment or stimulation and reducing the whole exercise to the reading equivalent of a professional goalkeeper allowing a special needs child to score a penalty for charity. I’m sure a holiday in Salisbury would seem more appealing right now.

OK, let’s try to widen the picture a little by saying Brexit, Brexit, Brexit. Bored already, alas. Mind you, it was two years ago when we all made our way to the polling station and cast our vote, so should the subject still be the main headline day-after-never-ending-day? Tiresome doom ‘n’ gloom predictions abound on both sides if it does/doesn’t turn out how either want it; and I’m afraid I’ve reached the point where I’m beginning to not care anymore. Most days, I feel as though this country is incurably f***ed anyway, but that’s probably because on many of those days I feel as though I’m incurably f***ed. Sorry, it’s not you; it’s me.

I ain’t no Jacob Rees-Mogg, extolling the economic virtues of Britain breaking with the EU whilst relocating my Russia-friendly business interests to Brussels-friendly Eire; and I ain’t no Lord Adonis, wistfully waving goodbye to the Continent from the window-seat of a private plane flying over the Alps with a teary-eye that foresees endless referenda until the desirable result is achieved. At the same time, much like that gruesome twosome, mine is not an objective perspective right now – though I at least have the decency to leave the subject alone as a result.

I suppose I could indulge in the contemporary trend of anniversary-marking to fill otherwise empty column inches; it’s not like I haven’t before, after all. This year we’ve got 10 since the financial crash, 30 since Acid House, 50 since the Paris Spring, 70 since the birth of the NHS, and a century since women in the UK won the vote (well, as long as they were over 30). The latter two have received the most attention, with the NHS anniversary in particular plumbing a nauseating nadir of sentimental media waffle that has run parallel with – and appears contradicted by – the shocking revelations from Gosport and Chester. Mysteriously, very little coverage has been given to the impenetrable layers of self-interested and self-satisfied management swallowing up the bags of cash that governments routinely throw towards the NHS in the hope some of it will filter down to frontline nurses and patients. But I guess that doesn’t fit the celebratory narrative.

Anyway, I’m not really paying attention. My much-missed feline companion passed away two years ago this month, yet just the other night the light caught one of her long-discarded nails embedded in the carpet – unseen since 2016. This tiny, seemingly insignificant fragment of a friend lost to me forever felt like an invaluable, precious gemstone when I excavated it; but any trinket touched by the lost keeps them close when we can no longer draw them to our breast. Some bin or burn such mementos because they cannot bear to be reminded; others find these articles imbued with a comforting resonance that serves as evidence they really were in our lives and we didn’t imagine them. As someone once said, was it just a dream? Seemed so real to me.

But, what the hell! School’s (almost) out for summer, so let’s switch our attention to the World Cup and Wimbledon. Better that than allow our eyes to linger on ladies’ legs and other exposed body parts lest we incur the wrath of those who permit female drooling over topless Aidan Turner whilst simultaneously condemning male longing to varnish the delicious porcelain flesh of Demelza with one’s tongue. Long may her Cornish bosom heave, for drama is one of the Beeb’s few remaining assets; by contrast, claims by the BBC’s box-ticking ‘comedy controller’ that the Pythons wouldn’t happen today because they were ‘too white’ gives an indication why the corporation’s current comedic output is so dire. The sun must have gone to his diversity-mangled head.

I remember 1976, but it was different then; I did things in hot weather I can’t do today. Besides, fun wasn’t as ‘organised’ forty-two years ago as it is now; adult involvement in childhood summer pursuits was mercifully minimal. I feel fortunate to have had the freedom to climb trees, kick balls past woollen goalposts, and arrange toy soldiers for a pitched battle to the strains of ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’. I steered clear of the Boy Scouts and the Cubs because I didn’t want grown-ups imposing their twee, sanitised idea of fun upon me. Pity the poor monitored kids of 2018’s heat-wave, who have never been left to their own devices and consequently can’t entertain themselves.

No, the best thing about this time of year – if you burn the midnight oil, of course – is reluctantly retiring to bed around 3.00am and catching one last look at the world outside your window. The landscape still consists of silhouettes, but the sky isn’t black; it’s a luscious shade of blue that enables you to already discern the next day on the horizon, as though it were a great wave rolling towards you in slow motion, one that only matures into its finished form when it washes over you several hours later, stirring you from slumber in the process. That’s a nice image to leave you with, at least. You don’t need a weather-man to know which way the wind blows; but may you always have a tiger in your tank.

 

© The Editor

AFTER THE FLOOD

It’s an old question – ‘What would you take with you if your home was on fire and you had to make a dash for it?’ For years, my answer to the question was the same: my cat and my memory stick. I sadly no longer have my cat, so it’s just the memory stick now. Touching wood, I’ll never be faced with that dilemma; but it’s not just fire that can provoke a swift and sudden flight. Hurricane Irma’s trail of death and destruction across the Caribbean and the southern coastal States of the US has forced people into giving their own answers to a similar question. Unfortunately – and, to me, inexplicably – many of them didn’t regard their pets as being top of the list; some didn’t even put their pets on the list at all. For such a God-fearing country as America, it’s amazing how many Americans failed to take a leaf out of Noah’s book.

Living in Blighty, we tend not to experience such extreme weather conditions. Yes, we’ve suffered some terrible floods in recent years and there have been the odd occasions in which Michael Fish has had to regret not taking a can of Mr Sheen to his meteorological crystal ball; but by and large most of us have no concept of having to make a rapid exit in the knowledge that the Big Bad Wolf will probably huff ‘n’ puff and blow our house down in our absence. Having said that, knowing it was coming would enable us to hastily gather our loved ones together and get the hell out of there quick. Nobody but a complete bastard would leave their children behind, so why would anyone abandon such significant family members as their pets?

Wind speeds of 135mph, a storm surge of 10 feet, three inches of rain every hour – that’s what was predicted when Irma came to town, and the people responded accordingly, by packing away all essential possessions and running to the hills; a pity pets weren’t regarded as essential possessions. The sad fact is that animals kept in the home are no more important to some people than disposable and replaceable items like furniture; there might be a hurricane coming that will more than likely condemn the poor beasts to a certain death, but hey, we can always get a new one once we rebuild our wrecked nest, just like we can a widescreen TV set. The mind boggles.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen several heartbreaking videos online of admirable animal rescuers travelling down residential streets transformed into the residential rivers of JG Ballard’s ‘The Drowned World’ in search of pets left behind; and they found plenty. In Florida’s Palm Beach County, the first 48 hours of Hurricane Irma saw Animal Care and Control officers come to the rescue of 38 dogs and two cats that their owners clearly didn’t view as worthy of joining them on the journey out of town. With the saddest of ironies, such a socially gregarious animal as the dog appears to have received the worst of this careless cruelty from its best friend.

Despite the fact that there were many evacuation centres accommodating pets along with their owners, some still chose to not only abandon their animals, but in the case of several dogs, to leave them chained up to poles or in kennels; the dogs couldn’t even make their own escape as a consequence. In Polk County, four dogs were mercifully saved from a watery grave by members of the public; the rising water level in the kennel they found them in was apparently as high as the dog’s chests and the grimy pool was also swimming with horrific-sounding fire ants. It’s worth remembering too that the Animal Care and Control officers have to deal with dogs whose bewilderment with, and fear of, their predicament in such a situation can be manifested as aggression, making their lifesaving work all the more heroic under the circumstances.

Flying debris can be as big a danger as flooding in the conditions that descended upon Florida; experts said as little as a single grain of sand in winds of 100mph can cause a serious injury. The image of confused dogs tethered to immovable objects when Mother Nature is inflicting such a violent onslaught in the vicinity is one that should haunt the guilty parties forevermore; but if they had a conscience, they wouldn’t have left their pets to face it alone in the first place. Some simply dumped animals at shelters before fleeing and probably believe they’re somehow more responsible and humane than those who didn’t think even think their pets deserved that much; but they still left them.

In Palm Beach County, chaining dogs outside a property if the owner is absent is actually a felony offence, so doing so in a hurricane means some stiff penalties are imminent. Returning home, these ‘victims’ of Irma for whom it’s difficult to have much in the way of sympathy can look forward to fines and even prison sentences for their callous actions. The maximum sentence, incidentally, is a mouth-watering five years. The State Prosecutor for Palm Beach said, ‘This is a prime example of animal cruelty. We will find you and we will prosecute you.’ The Animal Care and Control Captain of the same county added, ‘The animals should be a valued part of your family and they should be part of your plan.’

Those who may well receive time behind bars will also not get those pets back and will be banned from owning any pets ever again; meanwhile, those who dropped their pets off at animal shelters before hot-footing it out of town will be placed on a ‘Do Not Adopt’ list; they too will not be reunited with the animals they rid themselves of. Sure, none of us on this side of the pond can picture the nightmarish scenario that people in the path of Hurricane Irma found themselves in; but that’s still no excuse for the cruelty some of them exhibited towards animals in their care. I hope their new homeless status lasts until at least the next storm. Serves them right.

© The Editor

CANINE NINE NINE

It’s reassuring to know some things never change; they’re part of the fabric of the nation, upholding Great British traditions and hopefully continuing to do so in perpetuity. The shipping forecast, the Proms, the football results on a Saturday teatime, strawberries & cream, leather-on-willow, the proud ineptitude of the Metropolitan Police Force. When it comes to the latter, what a relief it is that this one particular Great British tradition is determined not to blot its impressive copybook of cock-ups and sheer stupidity.

Seven highly-trained elite officers were dispatched to a danger zone last Friday – bravely going where few mere members of the public would dare to venture, yet again putting their lives on the line to ensure we can sleep safely in our beds. No doubt clad in protective armour designed for confronting irate mobs of youths probably armed with acid and knives, ready for any horrors this sickening society could throw at them, the officers stormed the home of a pensioner in Kingston upon Thames and seized her Yorkshire terrier. Where would we be without our oh-so brave boys in blue?

Scotland Yard sent its magnificent seven into battle following a shocking incident involving a traumatised delivery man whose cry for help was deemed so urgent that it was six weeks before the coppers took action. The luckless chap was delivering a parcel to the doorstep of 73-year-old Claudia Settimo-Bovio; Miss Settimo-Bovio requested the package be dumped on the doorstep on account of her 10-year-old little dog Alfie adopting the territorial approach to unfamiliar intruders most dog-owners are grateful for; but as she opened the door to pick up the parcel, the delivery man had yet to exit via the garden gate and Alfie did his duty, determined to chase the stranger off the property. Unfortunately, the delivery man evidently had a fear of dogs – even Yorkshire terriers – and tripped-up, apparently screaming like a little girl as Alfie approached him.

The delivery man was rescued from being mauled to death via the intervention of a neighbour who casually scooped-up the offending beast, thus enabling the victim of this savage assault to escape to the safety of his van. Considering his performance when confronted by a four-legged equivalent of a kitchen mop, perhaps it was no surprise the delivery man went crying to the police, and the Met responded with its usual sensitivity by turning up at Miss Settimo-Bovio’s home at 8.00 in the morning to seize Alfie under Section 5 of the Dangerous Dogs Act. A bewildered Alfie was taken away to kennels – an environment of which he has no previous experience – and his owner cruelly left without her ‘out of control’ canine companion.

This case says so much about where we are now. The fact that the police turned up mob-handed to ‘seize’ a pet dog smaller than most cats; that, thanks to one of the most misused and damaging pieces of legislation ever passed in this country, they have the right to do so in the first place; and that a grown man responds to being confronted with a yapping lap-dog by dialling 999. Following a highly publicised series of dog attacks on babies and children by a media that still possessed considerable clout at the turn of the 90s, the brief moral panic of a tabloid horror story prompted the worst kind of knee-jerk response from government, leading to the ‘court of public opinion’-inspired Dangerous Dogs Act 1991.

Four particular ‘types’ of dog were the prime target of the Act – the Pit Bull Terrier, the Dogo Argentino, the Japanese Tosa, and the Fila Brasileiro; the poor old Pit Bull has been saddled with the ‘dangerous dog’ tag ever since the early 90s media storm, taking the place of one-time canine villains such as the Rottweiler. Owners of the four identified types (rather than breeds – and it takes a court to identify the types) can only own them if they have a special court exemption; they must also muzzle them and have them on a lead in public, as well as having them microchipped, registered (not unlike the dog licence of old), insured and neutered. Problems often arise from deciding whether or not a particular dog is a type specified in the law; by avoiding naming specific breeds, the Dangerous Dog Act has needlessly placed hundreds of family pets on death row over the last 25 years because of wrong decisions made by courts that aren’t helped by the vagueness of the legislation.

It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again. There are no such things as bad dogs, just bad owners. Dogs are incredibly intelligent, loyal, loving, affectionate and protective animals; give them a home, feed them and walk them, and they’ll be your best friend for life. Dogs can herd sheep, guide the blind, act as live-in helpers for the disabled, sniff out hidden drugs for customs officers, sniff out criminals for coppers, sniff out survivors in the rubble of earthquakes; and they can spell the respectively best and worst words in the English language from a canine perspective: W-A-L-K and B-A-T-H.

Human beings regularly treat dogs appallingly, yet if we show them kindness dogs won’t hold us responsible for the awful actions of one member of our species; if we give them love, they’ll give it back a thousand times over. It doesn’t take much effort to train a dog properly; they’re remarkably fast learners and eager to learn to boot. Badly behaved children are generally a product of badly behaved parents; dogs follow a similar path. Some adults aren’t worthy of their pets and should never be allowed to keep one – just as some parents should have been sterilised before they ever got anywhere near siring their unfortunate offspring. Sadly, the Dangerous Dogs Act has no such clauses and this inadequate law staggers on, making more misery for many responsible dog-owners and resulting in the ridiculous charade that took place at the home of a distraught Claudia Settimo-Bovio last week.

I accept some adults are inexplicably scared of dogs – probably arising from some childhood incident in which a dog frightened or attacked them; and chances are that dog’s owner hadn’t gone to the ‘trouble’ of training it so that the child would see the good in the animal and learn to love the species thereafter. If this fear fails to be addressed and it remains a lifelong one, even a Yorkshire terrier can spark disproportionate panic; but did it really warrant a phone call to the Met? Pathetic response; pathetic police; pathetic law; pathetic country.

© The Editor

WHISPERING GRASS

dog-sweepSafe in the assumption you’ve probably digested your breakfast by now, I shall proceed. Dog-mess, the most polite term I can come up with, has always been a fixture of pavements as far back as I can remember. It was certainly a key element of the urban landscape in the 1970s, though there seemed to be a greater variance of shades then – white being the chic alternative to industry standard brown at the time. It shared sidewalk space with routine rubbish – empty crisp packets, smashed bottles, closing-time sick, discarded pages from ‘Playbirds’ et al – though the pavements then still didn’t seem quite as depressing-looking as today; the aesthetic carbuncle of the wheelie-bin line-up competes with the nose-to-tail parked car parade in a competition to decide which has rendered our streets the uglier.

I put the proliferation of dog-mess during my childhood down to the way in which man’s best friend (as with children back then) was free to roam in a way that is unimaginable now. What were usually called stray dogs were more often than not family pets that were let out of the house and left to their own devices as only cats are today. These latch-key canines ran wild through neighbourhoods, impregnating bitches at will, getting into territorial tussles with other mutts, striking fear into the hearts of kids who were instinctively scared of them, and even occasionally (as old ‘Match of the Day’ footage proves) finding their way onto football pitches in the middle of a match.

By contrast, a dog wandering alone now is such an unusual sight that people’s first thought is that the creature is lost, either having broken free of its lead when being walked or having escaped from its home without its owner’s knowledge. And that’s one aspect of British life that has undoubtedly changed for the better, both for the dogs and the people. So why is dog-mess still with us?

The best dog-owners today are a more conscientious bunch than their predecessors, preferring to escort their pets around local parks rather than letting them prowl the neighbourhood; and the arrival of the so-called ‘poo-bag’ has persuaded them to clean-up after their dog has done the business. Of course, not everyone adheres to this unwritten rule, and it is these pillocks that are the problem. At the same time, anybody who walks a dog regularly knows that sometimes the poo-bags are accidentally left at home, resulting in grass or leaves acting as makeshift camouflage in such an event; but overall, there’s definitely a greater impetus to exert that kind of responsibility than there ever used to be.

However, the wilfully defiant and the accidental amnesiac are grouped together in law when it comes to dog-fouling. Of late, local authorities have intervened, with the most recently vocal being the Mayor of Liverpool, who last week proclaimed that anyone providing evidence of dog owners failing to bag their pooch’s plop would be exempt from paying council tax for a year. Why not a weekend for two in Paris? Mayor Jon Anderson – who obviously turned to local politics when being the frontman of Yes finally caused him the same pain as it often has record-buyers – told a city cabinet meeting that ‘My wife was walking our dog the other day and came back with dog muck all over her shoes!’ He didn’t specify if counselling was available to his unfortunate missus, but our thoughts go out to Mrs Anderson.

The Mayor of Liverpool claimed his proposal was about restoring civic pride to his city; his idea is that people should provide the authorities with video or photographic proof that could lead to a criminal conviction, thus earning their reward. Fines of up to £1000 for dog-fouling already exist without the employment of grasses to do the council’s dirty work for them, but Mr Anderson believes his brainwave will bring communities together. A strange interpretation of the end result, for sure; dangling the council tax carrot before non-dog owners struggling to make ends meet and bribing them to turn into spies and snitches seems a funny way to bring communities together. Further divisions would seem more inevitable to me.

I once knew of someone who grassed a friend to the DHSS for simultaneously signing-on and working part-time, purely out of spite on account of said friend wanting to become a vicar while the grass was a fanatical atheist. It struck me as an especially shitty thing to do to someone who was supposed to be a friend; though the reasons themselves were ludicrous, just making that nasty phone-call evoked images of ‘collaborators’ in Nazi-occupied France. Okay, so that might sound a bit OTT, but who amongst us has never broken a little law, safe in the knowledge we could get away with it? When the music industry told us ‘home taping is killing music’ in the 80s, did it actually stop anyone copying songs onto a cassette from an LP? And has anyone buying a batch of fags from a bloke in a pub ever been that troubled by the lorry they fell off the back of?

Sure, dog owners who don’t pick up their pet’s mess from the park or pavement give other dog owners a bad name, and if they deliberately avoid cleaning up after Rover, it serves them right if they end up being fined. But Britain’s fractured communities don’t need a cynical incentive from local government to divide them further. The abundance of trashy TV shows that goad warring neighbours into action for cheap entertainment are bad enough; and then there are the warnings to keep an eye on next-door just in case a potential Paedo or Jihadist happens to be on the other side of the wall, advice in danger of turning us all into informers complicit in the surveillance state. It stinks – and the smell is far more pungent than a dog turd.

© The Editor

IN PRAISE OF SILENT PARTNERS

Cat Sunset1998 on paper doesn’t seem that long ago; but 1998 was the year an 18-year-old footballer called Michael Owen scored a wonder goal for England against Argentina in the World Cup; he’s now retired from playing and is struggling to replicate his talent on the pitch by droning into the pundit’s microphone. Tony Blair was twelve months into his decade as Prime Minister and was still largely enjoying a honeymoon period, playing his part in the Good Friday Agreement; he’s now almost universally condemned as a warmonger, doomed to wander from one obscure after-dinner speech to another while the western world craves his head on a plate. DVDs were introduced to the UK in 1998 – as were ASBOs; Bill Clinton was still US President – and 9/11 was three years away. And the house I shared was overrun with mice. Seems like a long time ago to me.

In 1998, the girl I lived with intervened in our rodent problem and delivered a stray cat to the house, something I thought madness due to the fact we had a dog. I’d underestimated the dog’s good nature and the cat’s knack for putting him in his place. The first night this feline recruit spent under our roof, I strolled into the kitchen, switched on the light, and she looked up at me with a mouse hanging out of her mouth. And so the very function that domesticated the cat in the human household proved as durable as ever. Mice, sparrows and (on one memorably gruesome occasion) pigeons had been warned.

That dogs and cats should remain the most popular of pets is no surprise considering the respective talents these once wild animals showed could be of service to us homo-sapiens if we invited them into our homes, whether helping us to hunt down our food or ridding us of vermin. This mutually beneficent partnership was entered into from the earliest organised communities, and while some of the roles these animals performed may have been watered down due to changing social environment in more recent times, it is still a partnership we instinctively crave, and one that both parties derive immense enjoyment and comfort from. The cat that entered my world as a stray mouser eighteen years ago accompanied me on every change of address thereafter (three in total) and finally left my world this week. The impact of her sudden removal from that world has rendered it a far emptier place than it was.

Up until this week, I would have said I’ve lived alone since 1999, though I now know that’s not true. It’s only coming home to an empty flat for the first time in twenty years that’s made me realise I had housemates all along. The relationship one has with a cat or a dog is obviously different to that which one has with a fellow human being, but no less rich for it; they may not be able to answer you back, but a rewarding game of telepathic chess develops over time, to the point where you can anticipate their next move and they can anticipate yours. Actual conversation may be one-way traffic, but I now see that one chatters away regardless; it is the silencing of that chatter that jars so much today. There are so many daily sayings I will no longer utter, let alone the silly singing of songs and altering the words to include the cat’s name. Moreover, I will never hear her miaow again either.

There’s a moving moment at the end of ‘The Dam Busters’, when the camera pans across the canteen at the RAF base from where the pilots dropping Barnes Wallis’s bouncing bombs are launched and we see the empty tables, signifying those airmen who never returned from the mission. Yet, there’s an equally moving moment earlier in the film when Richard Todd’s character has received the news his beloved dog (whose name we’re not allowed to say now, of course) has been killed by a hit and run driver. He holds the dog’s collar in his hand and glances across at his office door, which bears the paw-marks of those occasions when the dog has scratched it to notify him that it’s time for a walk. That’s what hits you when your four-legged companion has gone, all those little and poignant forensic insignias scattered around the house. Confronted by a vacant basket, an unsoiled litter tray, an untouched water bowl and surfaces strewn with her discarded hair, it feels as though she’s just popped out and she’ll be back in a minute. But she won’t.

Having shared my space with a dog for twelve years and a cat for eighteen (ten of them having the pair competing for my affection like a pair of sibling rivals), I know the distinct differences between the two species and also know the characteristics they share. Just as cat owners have to contend with the stereotypes – ageing lesbian spinster etc. – they also have to contend with the misinformation about cats themselves. Yes, they are more independent minded than their canine equivalents and less demanding in terms of what they require of us; but they are no less affectionate, nor (in the case of a house-cat, as mine was for fifteen years) no less dependent on us to ensure they’re fed and their litter is changed when it’s soiled. It’s not much to ask, really; and what we get in return far outweighs the necessity to organise one’s daily routine around their needs.

My cat was fiercely possessive of me, welding herself to my lap whenever a visitor called, sending out the message as to ownership, just in case. Perhaps that was her way of recognising that, without her, I probably wouldn’t be here. At my lowest ebb in my darkest hours, it was always the thought of her being abandoned that ultimately kept me going. I could abandon everyone else, but not her. The cat made me laugh when I didn’t feel like laughing via some daft, seemingly meaningless gesture; the undoubted eccentricities cats exhibit in their occasionally odd behaviour is very much in synch with my own outlook. Also, she was extremely teddy bear-like and became even more receptive to cuddles as she grew older; no longer able to leap great heights – including onto my shoulder, one of her favourite youthful destinations – and needing me to lift her up and down, she relied on my assistance even more and expressed her gratitude accordingly. She was so pivotal to the harmony of the household that it no longer feels like home anymore; it seems wrong that she’s no longer here to share it with me.

She was so robust in health for so long that watching the years catch up with her in the last couple of months of her life was heartbreaking; I never even had cause to take her to the vets until the very last day, when I had the most unenviable of responsibilities thrust upon me. The disparity between human and animal years is often commented on as unfair, something I wouldn’t dispute; but the cycle of life is played out before you with a pet in a way it isn’t with a person; one sees the seven ages from start to finish and adapts one’s relationship as a consequence, from parent to sidekick to carer – to paraphrase Rupert Everett’s lovely description in his memoirs, when referencing his changing role for his dog. Only later does one recognise the privilege in being privy to that cycle; it really is an honour. And confronted by a wider world that appears to grow increasingly ugly with each passing day, there is so much to miss and so, so much to mourn now that my beautiful silent partner has gone.

© The Editor