Saturday, 20 November 2010

Something I Was Thinking About Bagpuss Yesterday


Bagpuss, dear Bagpuss
Old fat furry cat puss
I wonder
If you knew I'd picked up your 2005 'The Complete Bagpuss' DVD
To save and trap a vole
In a promotional mug
Which my first publishers made
To go with my first book
In the days that publishers
Had money
For frivolous stuff like that
Would you have yawned approvingly
Or been kind of pissed off
And given me a good twatting
With one of your giant fuck off new rave paws?

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Think Animals Don't Feel Emotion? Watch This...

I'm not one for Five Year Plans, usually. Today, however, I have made a Five Year Plan. It is this: within the next five years, I will own an owl.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Cats Like Being Thrown Onto Beds: The Proof

Oh, Whistle And There’s A Vague Chance I Might Come To You M’lad: The Diary Of An Amateur Dog Walker (Part Three)


Part three of an extract from my book, Talk To The Tail! Read part one here and part two here.

25 June 2009
Henry seemed fully recovered when I collected him today.
With the addition of a sleek haircut– the dogwig is gone,
and I can’t pretend I don’t miss it– he actually looks health-
ier than ever. When I arrived at Hannah’s, he commenced
his usual routine, with no noticeable difficulty; this involves
him stealing his lead from my hand, then running in mani-
acal circles for three or four minutes before he allows me to
attach it. I then stroke and pat him, and he seems to enjoy
it, but here I miss the feedback I receive from my cats. I
have no idea whether I’m rubbing him up the wrong way or
the right way and I suspect he doesn’t care.

‘Are all dogs like this?’ I wonder. I know you don’t get purring dogs, but surely some canines are a little more dis-
cerning, and offer a more comprehensive appraisal of your
affections. Having said that, I’m yet to meet one. I suppose
this says a lot about why I’m a cat owner. I love dogs, but I’m
not sure if I truly respect them. They’re too easily pleased,
and their judgement offers no true preparation for the trials
of real life.

Some of this is undoubtedly down to intelligence. Dogs
chase cats in the folklore of cartoons, but the reality is rarely
as simple. In almost every household I know containing
dogs and cats, the cats have the upper hand. In the vicinity
of my last house, there were few sights more satisfying than
watching my neighbour Jenny’s little dog Tansy trying it on
with Jenny’s hulking black moggy Spooky, then getting a
sound paw slapping for her trouble. Even if a dog such as
Henry came to live with my cats and retained the physical
upper hand, the labyrinthine complexity of their mind
games would soon get the better of him.

Nonetheless, I am not sure you could call Henry com-
pletely stupid. Evidence of a primal and mysterious intellect
of some form can certainly be found in the timing of his
whimpering on our car journeys. I still haven’t experienced
the obsession with speed that Hannah warned me about
early on, but I have noticed that a couple of minutes before
I park the car at our destination, be begins to squeak and pip
excitedly. Take today, for example: I’ve checked with
Hannah, and I know Henry has never before visited the
enchanting Arts and Crafts village of Thorpeness, on the
Suffolk coast, yet from a few minutes before I pulled into
Leiston Leisure Centre car park, where our walking route started, his familiar chorus began.

This is not merely a matter of him responding to the slowing of the car. I slow the car down plenty of times on
our journeys– sometimes I even stop for petrol– and Henry
barely stirs. But, in Henry’s mind, who is to say I’m not
going to stop and walk him round a petrol station? This
seems evidence of a different extreme stupidity/crafty intel-
ligence dichotomy to the one found in cats, but it does seem
to share something in common: the overwhelming sense
that an animal is reading my mind.

16 July 2009
Perks of dog borrowing, #173: So far this week I have used
the phrase ‘I’m sorry, you’ll have to forgive me: my car smells
of spaniel’ three times. My car does not actually smell of
spaniel. It is just very dirty.

3 August 2009
My walking regime for this year means that I’ve also been
doing something I haven’t done for with any regularity for
two decades: rambling through the countryside with my
parents. This is rather unnerving for them, as it occurs with-
out me asking ‘How long is it to go now?’ or lagging behind
them and practicing my golf swing, and rather alarming for
me, as there’s a thirteen-year-old part of me that still feels it’s
my duty to not enjoy walking with my parents and to ask
‘How long is it to go now?’ and lag behind them practicing
my golf swing.

I’ve been a bit slow in taking Henry on a walk with my
mum and dad. Not that I could remotely imagine Henry scar-
ing any human being, but my dad was bitten by an Alsatian
when he was young, and has a slightly fractious relationship
with dogs as a result. This is a shame, because in many ways a pet dog of his own would be a perfect apprentice for my dad: a creature who could look up adoringly and non-judgmen-
tally at him as he makes a succession of wordplay-based jokes
and campaigns evangelically to get everyone around him to
listen to the Radio 4 News Quiz. My canine world is one
where you say, ‘Hello!’ to dogs in a posh voice, they say hello
back to you, then move along their way, or at the very worst,
smear their paws on your new Aerosmith t-shirt. My dad’s, by
contrast, is one where snarling East Midlands men in baseball
caps say, ‘Don’t worry, mate, ’e not hurt you’ a split second
before their Rottweiler gnaws chunks out of your cheek.

I often suggest to my mum that she and my dad get a dog,
and not just because, having now got a taste for dog bor-
rowing, I am actually fantasising about building myself a
network of canines available for my use at a succession of
evenly spread points across the British Isles. I tell them it
would suit their lifestyle well, and would be a brilliant addi-
tion to their walks.

‘Ooh no, I don’t think it would work,’ my mum says.
‘Life’s already too complicated as it is. And I don’t know if
your dad wouldn’t really like it.’

It would be an understatement on a par with many of his
own overstatements to say that my dad is prone to exagger-
ation, but I can see there’s truth in what he says: dogs and he
do appear to have some insurmountable issues. It’s as if they
both come into each encounter knowing the mutual history
of their breeds. My dad and dogs don’t just nod and go along
with their business. When they cross paths, Things Happen.
Just a month ago when he was walking in Cambridgeshire,
my dad found a stray golden retriever wandering through a
meadow. Not spotting any owner around, he removed his
belt from his baggy cord trousers, tied it around the
retriever’s neck, and began to lead it back towards a nearby village, in an attempt to find its owner. A mile further on,
he was surprised to find a woman in wellies in her mid-for-
ties charging up to him, accusing him of stealing her
beloved pet.

When my dad walks, he invariably carries with him a ‘dog
dazer’, in case of emergencies: a handheld device that emits
ultrasonic sound waves that stun aggressive dogs into sub-
mission. I made him promise to leave this at home for our
walk with Henry at Blakeney Point today.

‘HE’S NOT GOING TO ATTACK ME IS HE?’ he said
as Henry jumped out of the boot of my car enthusiastically
in the quayside car park.

‘No, no. You’ll be fine,’ I said, and pretty soon the two of
them were striding out over the salt marshes together, forty
paces ahead of my mum and me. Perhaps in consideration of
the immense unspoilt natural beauty of this stretch of the
North Norfolk coastline, Henry opted to wait to empty his
bowels until we had looped back to the main road, leaving
me crouched down on the white line, hurriedly bagging up
the contents as a BMW 7 Series came snaking into view at
60mph.

‘WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO WITH THAT?’
asked my dad, when I had dragged myself to the grass verge.

‘I’m going to put it inside my bag until I find one of those
special dog bins for it.’ I replied.

‘OOH FOOKTIVANO. YOU’RE BLOODY JOKING.
THAT’S HORRIBLE.’

It was a hot day, and, though the excrement was double
polythened, then placed in the relative cool of my shoulder
bag, I felt an acute sense of it changing texture as we walked
on. It really did seem an awful long time between dog bins.

I chose to remain a model citizen for the time being, and keep the offending item in my bag, but I could definitely see
the appeal of hurling it full toss into a nearby field, and the
liberation that would follow: me striding off into the sun, a
shit-free knapsack on my shoulder, all my worries behind
me.

After about five miles, we came to a stile. The fencing
was a little low, and Henry looked up at me, expectantly,
and I lifted him over.

‘DO YOU ALWAYS HAVE TO DO THAT?’ said my
dad.

‘I do if he can’t go underneath,’ I said. ‘He’s a bit
arthritic.’

‘I SUPPOSE YOU COULD SAY YOU WERE DOING
IT DOGGY STILE.’

By now I’ve learned that Henry is drawn to loud people
and, perhaps for this reason, he tended to gravitate towards
my dad. Earlier, as we’d stopped beside the marsh for a
picnic, my dad had even shared some pork pie with him.
You’d have to know my dad, who is notoriously cautious
about sharing meat, even with some of his best friends and
closest relatives, to realise what kind of a breakthrough this
was. Once again I talked about how well a dog of their own
might suit my parents’ lifestyle, and what a great addition it
would be to their walks. However, as fond as they seemed of
Henry, they seemed unconvinced, and my dad, in particular,
didn’t seem to be listening.

‘KEEP IN!’ he shouted as each car passed us on the
narrow country lane.

It was an extremely useful instruction, under the circum-
stances. After all, what with my mum and I not being
scheduled to start our first term as primary school pupils for
another two months, and not yet having any road sense, either one of us could have wandered blithely out in front of
a car at any time without his crucial guardianship.

‘Mick,’ said my mum. ‘You don’t have to shout that every
time a car comes.’

‘WHAT? I CAN’T BELIEVE IT. THE TWO OF YOU
ARE ALWAYS PICKING ON ME,’ said my dad.

A mile or so later, as we turned onto a heath land path, I
gently suggested that an earlier right turn might have led to
an even more scenic route.

‘WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?’ said my dad. ‘I
WAS GOING ON COUNTRY WALKS BEFORE YOU
WERE BORN.’

He was beginning to sulk now. In retrospect, I probably
went too far by following up by asking him if he was ‘the
man who invented walking’. I felt guilty, as I always do
when I’ve been sarcastic towards him. On the upside, Henry
was looking up at him with undiluted admiration. I couldn’t
help thinking back to the photos I’d seen of my dad as a
teenager, in so many of which he seemed to be pulling a
kind of proto punk, mocking face at the camera, and also of
something Hannah had said about Henry: ‘I swear if this dog
had fingers on the end of his paws, he’d spend most of his
life sticking two of them up.’ Watching them picking up the
pace and walking back towards the salt marshes ahead of us
and thinking about the dog dazer and the Alsatian bite, you
might have initially thought it was an unlikely meeting of
the minds, but when you considered it more deeply, there
was something very right about it.

3 August 2009
Email from my mum: ‘Lovely to see you. Was really great
meeting Henry. We both loved him. We’re actually thinking
of getting a dog now. Your dad thinks it would really suit our
lifestyle, in a way, and make our walks even more interest-
ing.’

Sent reply: ‘Really? I suppose I had never thought of it
that way. I probably should have suggested it.’

7 August 2009
Have not seen Henry for a few days and am, just for the first
time, missing him slightly. Received update from Hannah,
to tide me over: a photograph of him happily licking an ice
cream, and the news that, yesterday, he attempted to swing
from her CEO’s tie.

Read the final part of the diary in Talk To The Tail!, published on January 6th, 2011.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Oh, Whistle And There’s A Vague Chance I Might Come To You M’lad: The Diary Of An Amateur Dog Walker (Part Two)



Part two of an extract from my book, Talk To The Tail! Read part one here.

28 February 2009
Henry pissed on his paws again this afternoon. I’m told by
Dee that this is because he has a slightly arthritic hip, and
cannot cock his leg properly. To be frank, I’m still coming to
terms with spending time with an animal who is not entirely
self-sufficient in terms of his own bowel functions, and fur-
ther alarm comes from his habit of taking a dump in the
exact middle of country lanes, usually a matter of seconds
before a four-by-four comes haring around the nearest bend.

Today, a few miles south of Norwich, near the village of Loddon, I was almost mown down by a Range Rover as I
dived for Henry’s excrement, baggy in hand, and rolled skill-
fully over into a roadside ditch. Henry, however, appeared
unmoved by the incident, and raced off to intimidate some
ducks. There’s still a part of me that, as I carry his poo in a
plastic bag, in my coat pocket, is asking myself, ‘You mean
people actually chooseto do this? Every day?’. Sometimes, as
we walk, I’ll forget about the bag, and think about how the
brisk Broadland breeze feels against my skin, or admire a
scarecrow in a nearby field, but my sense of its presence
never fully goes away and, somehow, as I walk further, that
presence seems to expand, until I feel I am walking with not
just one living creature, but two.

18 March 2009
Number of animals encountered on walk today by Henry
and me: seventeen. Number of animals wound up by Henry:
fourteen.

24 March 2009
When Henry and I walk locally, there are now various
neighbourhood dogs we have come to recognize. For these,
we like to make-up appropriate nicknames. Well, I say, ‘we’;
I obviously mean ‘I’, but I feel that, if Henry could make up
nicknames for his canine rivals, he would take great pleasure
in doing so. I suppose he’s quite a lippy, boisterous dog, and
I can see that his goading and cheek can get easily on the
nerves of a snotty Dalmatian or a well-heeled wolfhound,
but at least he’s not aloof or imperious in any way, and is as
happy to say hello to a Jack Russell as he is to a greyhound.
This is more than I can say for the Janetdog, so named by
me because of its striking resemblance to my cat Janet. The
Janetdog strutted past us, snout in the air, fluffy tail high,
this afternoon and you could just tell we were no more than
a couple of dirty specks on its radar. This seems pretty rich,
coming from a creature that looks like one of the most
brainless felines in East Anglia.

7 April 2009
I think I am becoming more commanding in my instruc-
tions to Henry. I can almost feel my voice getting
inadvertently deeper when I shout him. Dee, meanwhile,
has taken to calling him my ‘alter doggo’. I’m choosing to
take this as largely a reference to my walking hat, and its
spaniel-style ears. He’s still a little slow in coming to me,
but he does always come, eventually. There are moments,
like the one a couple of hours ago, on the heath a mile
from home, where I was almost passing myself off as a
proper dog owner. The illusion was only shattered when
Henry began having a ‘conversation’ with two Border col-
lies and a red setter. Was it the item of mod clothing my
dad calls ‘YOUR NANCY BOY COAT’ that blew it for
me? Or my shout of ‘Hey! Leave those ever-so-slightly
bigger dogs alone!’? Weighty arguments, no doubt, exist for
both.

2 May 2009
Henry has had an accident. Whilst staying at Hannah’s par-
ents’ house last week, he broke into their kitchen bin,
despite the fact that, as a precaution for precisely such an
eventuality, said rubbish receptacle had been weighted
down with two bricks. During this adventure, Henry man-
aged to eat 2.5kg of old food, tissues, cellophane wrappers,
and some leftover Chinese ribs. This has resulted in what
Hannah has described as ‘a blockage’, leading to an opera-
tion, and stitches. Henry is currently being carried around
the office in one of the blue woven plastic bags customers
pick up near the entrance of IKEA, though Hannah assures
me that this does not stop him from attempting to jump up
and ‘go for the ties’ of executive male members of staff.

19 May 2009
Am I now officially hound-friendly? It would seem so. This
afternoon I walked, Henryless, between the Norfolk villages
of Castle Acre and West Acre. After a mile or two, I passed
by a welcoming-looking pub, with ‘Don’t Spook the Horse:
7.30’ written on a sign outside. I couldn’t work out if this
served as an advertisement for some live music, or just as a
general instruction for the welfare of passers-by. No horse
emerged, but a small brown mongrel – the kind of dog a
person finds himself wanting to call ‘Rascal’ – did, then fol-
lowed me down a lane leading to a ford. I attempted to shoo
him back, but he seemed quite determined, and continued
to walk a few paces ahead of me. There was a presumption
about this on his part, as if this had all been prearranged by
a third party: his dark lord and master, perhaps, who lived in
a cave at the end of the footpath he now led me along.

This point in my seven-mile route involved a number of
stiles, twists, turns and cross-field paths, but Rascal, keeping
pace ahead of me, seemed familiar with it, and needed no
instruction. I passed another couple of ramblers, and, if they
could sense that he was not my dog, they didn’t show it. But
I worried. What if we passed Jim and Mary from the village,
for example, and they wanted to know what the strange
bloke with the beard was doing with the Brian the
Landlord’s dog?

What if Jim was a nosy type, known for his interfering
ways and bad poetry in the Parish newsletter? I could imag-
ine the accusations of theft, the subsequent trial, with
Hannah standing on the witness stand, a betrayed look
across her face, confessing, ‘Well, I do admit I thought it was
a bit strange when he told me he was into borrowing dogs,
but I thought he seemed trustworthy enough. Now, though,
I realise I was na├»ve.’

Rascal and I must have walked a full mile before he
turned around and scuttled home, in a manner no more
explicable than the one in which he’d joined me. After
that, I only saw two more dogs on the walk, and neither of
them followed me, though one, a Briard, did leap up and put
its muddy paws on my chest. This seemed a more familiar
canine perception of me: not as companion, but as the kind
of sap who would smile, chuckle nervously and not com-
plain if you got a big load of crud all over his Tom Petty and
the Heartbreakers t-shirt.





PART ONE.

PART THREE.

Buy Under The Paw at amazon with 40% off!

Pre-order Talk To The Tail!

Guest Cat Of The Month For November: Boris Bratby



Name
Boris

Nicknames
Borisola, Kitty Malone, Il Gatto. (the rest really are too embarrassing).

Age
6 – going on 50.

Owners
Richard and Annette

Catchphrase?
Damn you, door!

Favourite Habits?
Repeatedly cuffing Annette’s ankles with the flat of my paw. This is the thing with humans – they CAN be trained (it’s a myth to say they’re basically unsociable) but you have to let them know their boundaries. Actually, they prefer it, in the long run.

Rubbing the paintwork on the walls either side of the bedroom door with my paws. I’ve discovered that if you do this, you can make the door open automatically. But it takes perseverance; you may have to keep at it for upwards of an hour.

Springing onto the dinner table from a standing start – especially if there are guests present. They’re sometimes a bit startled: one minute, they’re eating cassoulet; next they’re eye-to-eye across the plate with the head of the household. This is usually a good moment to claim my statutory allocation of their main course, though I find it tastes better once I’ve knocked it about on the floor a bit (doesn’t everything?) Richard and Annette conceal their respect for my skills under a show of apologising – but you can see in their eyes that they’re pretty damn’ impressed. Heck, everyone’s impressed. Why pretend otherwise?

What constitutes a perfect evening for you?
About 6pm I wake up from my 5-hr nap and shout at whichever human is closest until dinner is served. Down in one, out the back door for a quick patrol of the territory, and then back to sleep until the humans prepare their own food. I talk them through the preparation process, ramming their legs at key points to keep them on track. Then it’s served: so straight onto the table and chin down on the rim of Annette’s plate until she remembers to give me my portion.

After dinner, another patrol (and if I’m lucky, a moth or two as a chaser), and then it depends, really. If the humans have performed up to standard, I may join them on the sofa or in front of the fire, maybe even – as a special treat – on their laps. Perhaps a few games of “catch the shoelace” – it’s important to keep their minds stimulated. If not, I’m back off upstairs, leaving them to stew in their own inadequacy in front of the flickering idiot-box.

Favourite Food?
Tuna. Sweetcorn. Tuna and sweetcorn. In no particular order.

Defining moment of your life?
It would have to be the occasion when I saw a meddling vet off with a single commanding hiss. Yes young lady – I will permit you to clip my back claws, but don’t push your luck. “Big boy, isn’t he?” Madam, you’d better believe it.

Any Enemies?
The tabby who patrols behind our house in Lichfield. He’s got a good territory, I’ll give him that: it’s a grassy area called Prince Rupert’s Mound, and it’s a Scheduled Ancient Monument. But if he puts a paw on my patch again, his ears are going to be a scheduled ancient monument, savvy? JUST WATCH IT, MATE.

If you could do one thing to make the world a better place for felines, what would it be?
Lose the cars. Four legs good; four wheels bad.

If you could meet a celebrity who would it be and why?
As a Lichfield cat in a house full of writers, my hero is of course Hodge, Dr Samuel Johnson’s legendary cat, mentor and (I believe) co-author. Hodge dined nightly on oysters and the great Doctor himself fetched his dinner from Smithfield Market. I’d be flattered to be remembered by a statue like this one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hodge_Cat.jpg.

I was deeply honoured when Twitter’s @drsamueljohnson recently told me that “Young Boris, you seem to display the Character of my dear Hodge & Master Eric CARTMAN in equal Measure”

Which one of the cats in Under The Paw would you like to be stuck in a lift with?
I think The Ponce (Monty). Being any human’s first (serious, I mean) cat is a big responsibility, and he really sounds like he knew what he was doing. We could compare notes; plus I, too, offer a personalised fuzzy wake-up service.

Biography

I prefer to draw a veil over my early years. You know the story; I was raised on the streets. No igloo beds and James Wellbeloved Complete Kitten Food in the badlands of South Birmingham: you did what you had to, and only the tough survived. I made mistakes, did a few things I regret. Heck, we all did. But I make no apology. It made me the cat I am today: 100% full grown Tom (well, 98% since that strange episode at the shelter…but let’s not dwell on that).

There were only two ways it could end. I guess I got lucky – though it didn’t seem like it at the time. They caught me, took me in, called me (I can still hardly believe this ) “Splodge”. Once again: “Splodge”. Seriously. Because I’ve got a black “splodge” on my back. Bet they won a Booker for that one.

They stuck a collar on me and gave me to a family. A family…with children. Look, people – children: they shriek, they chase, they put sticky fingers on fur. Have YOU ever tried licking Sunny D off your tail? I don’t care what you told the Cats Protection League: it’s not “anti-social” to try and instil a bit of ten-clawed discipline in the little rats. Whatever: it was back in the slammer for me – South Birmingham CPL Adoption Centre.

Then Richard and Annette rocked up. I’ve seen better material, but I reckoned I could work with it. They wanted a small, well-socialised cat with no health problems. Ha! Like it was up to them. The keeper opened the pen door, and I moved straight in with the full “nice kitty” act – the purring, the lifted tail, the head-rubs. Apparently Richard’s first thought was “Cats That Look Like Hitler”. Annette’s was “I Can Haz Cheezburger”. Both agreed that I looked a lot more like a Boris than a Splodge. Back – as they say – of the basket.

I now live with them in Lichfield, Staffordshire, assisting with their various literary projects. I enjoy lengthy naps, stealing food and controlling the moth population, and divide my time between Richard’s pillow, the back of the sofa, and (particularly when deadlines are looming) the space between Annette’s keyboard and VDU.