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Otherwise my novels, short stories, verse, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations,
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Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Furry friends

Shaggy question: Was £10 plus £2 tip well spent?
Is the word pet - (n.) domestic animal - disappearing from the English vocabulary? Does the "pet" concept still exist?

These questions have to do with word usage and the passage of time. Decades ago, at echt middle-class gatherings in Britain, conversations might have kicked off in response to: "And do you have a pet?"

Maybe I don't get out enough but that question seems strangely at odds with the year 2016. These days it's likely to have morphed into "Do you have a dog?" Then, slightly more reluctantly, "A cat?" If the sequence were to continue all the way to "A budgie?" a reference to pet might crop up, possibly out of nostalgia. But dogs and cats I imagine are no longer pets. They're something grander and the subject of rhapsody.

Needless to say I have innumerable theories which I don't intend to rehearse here. I've lived in homes shared with animals but, with one exception, it's been someone else's choice. I even get along with animals although gloomy speculation dogs me: "What happens to the French villa holiday?"

That exception, many years ago, concerned a white rat. During a period of reduced parental scrutiny I acquired it and loved it. In return it ran up my arm and nibbled my ear lobe. By contrast a labrador would have been misanthropic. As I approached with cabbage leaves it emerged from its sleeping shed, pink eyes glistening with affection – for food but mostly for my company. Outraged at the discovery, my father ordered its disposal and I gave it away.

It was definitely a pet. Proving the point I petted it. I wish I still had it so that my 2016 cocktail-party answer might be: “Actually, a white rat.” Writers should always try to arrive out of left field.


  1. The last section of Elizabeth Jane Howard's last novel was told from the point of view of a pet rat. They had a lot of cachet during the punk era, and generally those who have kept them speak most warmly of their qualities.

    I've never much cared for the word 'pet', there's always seemed something a bit simpering or patronising about it, both to the animal and the human. I think I'd probably ask, 'have you got any animals?' 'Companion animal' maybe sounds a bit too self-consciously pc in conversation.

    Dead right about the villa holidays, I'm afraid, or many other forms of travel. Though I'm still wondering about getting Elfie train trained, you see a number of dogs on the TGV to and from Paris; museums would be out but most restaurants accept a good dog, and bakeries generally have a ring outside for tetheing, for pavement walking on a loose leash she's a treasure, and I've always a black plastic bag or two in my pocket.

  2. As boy I pestered my parents for a dog - I loved dogs and still do. They managed to persuade me that a rabbit would be a suitable substitute and when that died, a cat. I never took to it, preferring to offer my services (free) as a dog walker for some of our village neighbours.

    After about four years of marriage I still yearned for canine companionship, in spite of us having been blessed with three children. In those days it was easy - I took a stroll down to the local market where a regular trader kept a stall with a large pen of young puppies for sale (completely illegal now and quite right too). I selected a small black bundle of fur for about £1.00, I think. Then walked home with it tucked into the front of my raincoat (it was raining), peering out from between the lapels. My wife was not pleased and with hindsight I can understand why. That small black collie cross only visited a vet twice in it long life of 15 years. Early on to have his pockets picked and at the end to be put down as old age and disease took hold.

    Since then we have never been without a dog for longer than a year. All subsequent animals have been rescued ones. A red setter (absolutely loopy), followed in succession by three German Shepherds (magnificent and highly intelligent, but all succumbed by the age of about 10 years and were very high on vet bills). Now our last, a little lurcher cross- the first dog which has provoked my to laugh out loud at her antics.

    For us a home without a dog is empty, my wife having become similarly attracted to them over 55 years of marriage. All my children and grandchildren have become dog owners as soon as they were able.

  3. Lucy: Bless you for that black plastic bag. It proves you love humans as well.

    As to EJH I recently learned that her time spent as Kingley Amis's spouse had its problems but that she lived to see her novels outsell his. I'm not sure I've ever read one but I feel I should.

    Has anyone actually admitted to owning a companion animal? Beyond that there is of course animal partner and I have read My Dog Tulip by J. R. Ackerley which covers that somewhat risqué subject. I think I've told this story before: back in Britain for my mother's funeral I called in on Joe in London, had a few tinctures and accompanied him back to Sevenoaks where I stayed the night. The train was crowded, we had to stand, I was a touch emotional and I elected to summarise the contents of My Dog Tulip, competing with the noise of the carriage wheels. Joe nodded a lot but said little. Afterwards he admitted he'd been embarrassed, no small achievement on my part since he was usually cast-iron in similar circumstances.

    Avus: As has been abundantly clear from your blog. But you've avoided the $64,000 question: what did you do when you went foreign before the rules were relaxed.? Most dog-owners I've met go pale and start sweating when the subject of kennels comes up, lapsing into an extreme form of anthropomorphism, talking wildly about cruelty, treachery, never being forgiven, etc. I've always suspected many take up gardening so that the problem never arises.

  4. Luckily I have a dog owning/loving son (I brought 'em up well!) who lives locally so I have never had a problem during trips to Oz and NZ. For local Uk jaunts, we caravanned for about 25 years and the dog always came along as part of the family. I trained all my Shepherds to abide quietly (on a lead) in the back of my estate cars. When going off around towns/ NT properties, etc. I used to leave the back door open, but with an arrangement whereby it was only about half way so the dog had plenty of air (and water, of course). I reasoned that no-one would attempt to open the back any further with a large German Shepherd lying there, especially as they assumed omwership rights and went "ape" if anyone approached the car. For safety's sake I also left a notice propped up in the back, "Please do not touch the guard dog, he may bite", in case some soft idiot thought he was there to be stroked!

    My daughter-in-Oz used to put her Blue Heeler into a local kennels when she came over. As you say, she felt swathes of guilt when she left him, but the kennels said he always settled and had a good time with the other dogs as soon as she was out of the way. (A bit like small children left at a nursery).

  5. Avus: But what about dog stowage during trips to nearer foreign places, when more restrictive quarantine regs applied? Or was the Brexit tendency ever latent?

  6. I know that George V is supposed to have said, "abroad is bloody", but actually I enjoy southern Spain and France. The local son provided dog care when we were away and we reciprocated for him.

  7. Nobody mentioned your shaggy hair photos so I will. I prefer the 'before' rather than the 'after' one but either way, I'm envious of your abundant thatch. Alas, nobody in my family ever had thick hair and time takes away much of what nature hasn't bestowed in the first place.

  8. Avus: I'm astonished. All the years I've been reading you I can't remember a single reference to the fact that you'd holidayed in Europe. Never an echo when commenting on my innumerable visits to l'Hexagone (The Iberian peninsula is another matter; I'm not an enthusiast.) Is it shame that suppressed these experiences? Or was it a version of the love that dare not speak its name? Did someone at the boulangerie call you a Rosbif and cause you to take a vow of silence? If you really did enjoy yourself well there's read-made post for you - not blah-blahing about the wine and the weather but explaining this seeming reluctance.

    Nathalie: Thank you. I too prefer the shaggy look, it fits an imaginary view I have of myself: a buccaneer, a don't-care guy who's above visits to the supermarket, the author of ricocheting prose. But shaggy is high maintenance. I'm unable to get away with a fortnightly shampoo, I'm forced to do it every week. For shaggy is one thing, greasy-shaggy is quite another.

    I'm relieved when I've had it cut, knowing in this case that the next time will probably be in 2017. But it's as if my head had shrunk; I am no longer a buccaneer, I'm a long-term prisoner in a jail in Siberia, there for a decade on a trumped-up charge of sedition. My oral vocabulary is cut to less than a thousand words and I'm less inclined to say "Be of good cheer." when I meet acquaintances en route to picking up The Guardian at the filling station.

  9. Most of my European experiences were as a result of being a member of The Ermine Street Guard Roman re-enactment group. We displayed at Roman sites, by invitation, in Spain, Germany, France, Belgium and Holland. During our "off days" we were able to visit the surroundings, sometimes being guided by our hosts or, even better, finding the restaurants, street cafes, pubs and tapas bars (Spain) for ourselves.

    I think my favourite experience was our three visits to Tarragona, Catalonia. The ancient Roman city centre had the site of the Roman race course now part of a vast concourse of shops and bars surrounding that open area. If you probed behind the shop fronts you could end up in Roman arched back rooms still in use. They served wonderful tapas, too!

    Germany I found "clinical". However I was impressed (and ashamed) at the total lack of litter. We displayd at Xanten, a Roman site, a number of times for their annual "Schwerter, Brot und Spielen" Roman festival with groups from all over Europe. There were over 20,000 spectators on the vast fields for the two days. Yet, in the very early morning when we went to break up our camp after the event the fields and surrounding streets were absolutely litter free. Imagine the scene as it would have been on the morning after in England!

    The south of France in Languedoc - Roussiillon around Perpignan and Laudain was spectacular but far too hot when displaying Roman army tactics in full armour (the sweat played havoc with the metal, too). The commandant of the local Foreigh Legion fort at Laudain came to watch us, together with his "caporal chef". The latter was so impressed by our activities under such heat that he presented us with his "kepi blanc" - a huge honour.

    Well - you did ask!

  10. Avus: What a strange thing to be doing. Not that I disapprove, simply that it would never occur to me. I was going to say that on the whole I'm not attracted to communal activity but that's not quite true as I revealed in a Tone Deaf re-comment a month or so ago. When the company I was working for was hit by an uncongenial managerial decision I wrote a series of playlets satirising the situation; my journalistic colleagues provided the acting talent and I took on the role of interlinking narrator. I was lucky in the quality of the acting I'd accidentaly unearthed and moved by the way my lines took on a new and special life. So there is something to be said for group leisure activity.

    I looked up Laudain but could find no reference in Google. Might it have been Castelnaudary, not far from Carcassonne? We stayed there one night when touring in France; I believe it is the HQ of the French Foreign Legion.

    I have toyed with idea of a fictional re-enactment group, riven by argument such that the display turns into true conflict and the historically wrong side wins. I don't suppose it's remotely original.

  11. Sorry, RR. my memory failed me; the town I referred to is Laudun, not Laudain. See:

    My active involvement with The Ermine Street Guard covered a period of over 20 years and I reached the exalted rank of Decanus (section leader of a contubernium). As age precluded my running around in full armour I stopped such activities, but am still the Society's secretary.

    I joined them when I was about 45 and look back on a wonderful experience. We went to Roman sites all over the UK and Europe and even did a special visit to the USA to promote Roman Gloucestershire (our base). As a somewhat reserved individual it was a late flowering for me and I never had cause to regret it.