The 'Pider Under The Step
The 22nd anniversary this last week of the death of our family's springer spaniel, Gunner,
has started me thinking about the place and role of animals in our lives. People can have strong opinions for or against sharing our homes with other creatures. On balance, I'd say most of my friends are in favour. Less so my relatives. Whether this is representative is hard to know, as perhaps those of us who are animal-friendly are drawn to other people who share the same enthusiasm and sentiment?
For me it all started with the 'pider under the step. My late father was trying to play football with me in our little garden in pre-genteel Cobham, in Surrey. Well, football was a lost cause in any case, but on this occasion it was lost to the sheer fascination of the spider under the kitchen door step. I remember the garden, and the step, and I have other memories going back to that time, which ended when I was about three, but this memory I think is strictly speaking one I have borrowed from him. To his credit, he gave up on the football, and came to have a look at the 'pider with me. It was the beginning of a shared fascination which was a big part of our friendship.
One memory which I know to be true is from about the same time. It was a garden, possibly an indoor one, at some kind of department store, which had a pond with pathways over it, full of goldfish. This was immensely fascinating. I remember the huge size of the fish - they weren't koi - which reflects my own smallness, so I know it's a true memory. And of course, there is the added thrill of giving one's parents the panic of possibly toppling in and drowning, and how embarrassing that would be in public on a Saturday afternoon.
From then, it became an enthusiasm for animals of every sort. I was not so grand and intellectual back then to dismiss the popular ones - the polar bears (one, Pipaluk, was born at London Zoo when I was two, just in time to help me learn to read - I still have the book), giant pandas, tigers, gorillas, and the rest. A schoolfriend dismissed my interests as those of a "woolly naturalist", but fascinating too were the creepy-crawlies underneath the rockery in the garden of our house in Wimbledon, newts, butterflies, Chinese alligators, tortoises and turtles, snails, and a host of others. When I was about ten, I think, I was determined that we must find a toad. These days I would head straight for the Houses of Parliament, but then it was a matter of marshalling my father and his car, and stopping at every pond and muddy ditch we saw, overturning stones and fallen bits of tree, and all in vain. Then one day, on a visit to friends of my parents in Bexhill-on-Sea, I found a toad in their garden. In jubilation, I brought it in to show the grown-ups who were having tea after lunch; it was sitting apparently calmly in my cupped hands. And then it pissed. Toads are not very big, and I don't suppose my hands were then, either, but altogether, the toad and its panic measure, filled them. I fled to the garden door, to spare the carpet, and my ears the sound of adult guffaws. "Woolly naturalist" indeed!
I was a regular at London Zoo from the late 1960s, and remember seeing Chi-Chi the giant panda there shortly before her death in 1972. My oldest memories are of animals and even buildings and complexes which no longer exist. Being indulgent people, my parents would take me to the zoos within reach of London - Whipsnade for its rhinos, Windsor Safari Park for its killer whale, Woburn for its bongos, and Fritzi the hippo, amongst many other beautiful creatures. And we went on holiday to places near some of the best zoos in the country - Bristol (okapis), Chester (Indian elephants), Marwell (Siberian tigers), Howlett's (gorillas and snow leopards) - and stayed on or near farms which had their own marvellous fascination of poultry and cattle and donkeys and dogs.
Livestock of our own were longer coming. My sister had a much-neglected rabbit, Fluffy. My father and I caught some "tiddlers" (sticklebacks) in the Thames one time (he had to catch me several times during the expedition), but they didn't last long in a tank, and I didn't much mourn them. There were Tommy and Fred, the tortoises who, rather embarrassingly, ran away. Then in 1977 along came Claudius the Hamster. I don't recall his having very much character, and what there was, wasn't very pleasant, but he didn't smell, and rarely bit, and when he died in 1979, I was heart-broken. Two years later George, his daughter, died too - she had been the product of a mating with a schoolfriend's hamster. I happened to have an enormous crush on the friend at the time, but I'm not on the couch today, and we're not going there. George was little more pleasant or interesting than her father, but her death, which was sudden and dramatic, was a sorrowful trauma.
But by then we had a consoling presence in the house. In the autumn of 1980, Gunner arrived. We had done immense amounts of research to find a good-natured, child-friendly, all-rounder breed of family dog, and we got it just right, he was perfect. And we were lucky with him, too, he was scrupulously fastidious, and very quickly house-trained. He even agreed to use only one particular patch of the garden for deposits, which made tidying up after him very easy. When my parents were trying to sell the house the next year, we (my sister and I) and Gunner were locked in the front room while viewers looked round. He banged on the door repeatedly to go out, and we told him to be patient because he wasn't allowed. It was only when the viewers left that we looked behind the sofa to see why he'd been banging on the door. More fool us - he'd given us every chance. One special blessing of Gunner's arrival was that it coincided with our Grandad's departure. We didn't know he was dying, although in retrospect with increasingly chronic lung disease after a lifetime's smoking, it was pretty obvious, but he adored puppies, and there are few dogs more puppyish than a spaniel. He had had one of his own as a child, many years before, when he was living under the kitchen table as a deposit on a debt to a "friend" of his father. Two of the sons of the house ran the puppy over with a cart as a laugh. Over later years, he had many dogs, but none who lived to old age - they moved house so many times, the dogs were usually given away when they passed the puppy stage. He adored Gunner, and the feeling was mutual, as absolutely no one else would let Gunner lick their ears.
And then we moved to Sussex, which was a change of scene, and lifestyle, of birdlife, and places to walk. Gunner now had half an acre of garden to run round (the day he found a dormouse, which ran up his ear, and hid there, with him manically trying to find it, until it could leap off to the safety of a rose bush, was delightful in every way - I'd never seen a dormouse, still less one that could provide such panto), but even so he preferred to be out and about - new smells, please! We could never walk him safely off the lead - in Wimbledon for fear of the roads, in Sussex, for fear of sheep farmers and their shotguns (they only have to return the collar, no questions answered) - but he and I walked miles and miles through the Forestry Commission woodland, and onto the South Downs, and saw pheasants and partridges, and hares, and deer (Japanese imports, but beautiful nonetheless), and kestrels, and bluebells, and violets, and cowslips, together. All new things we hadn't seen in London. And at home, I kept geese (Pompey, Wombat, Josie, Tiny, Pegleg, and the ill-starred Trotsky and Adolf).
Then there was a long, long, break. I went to Oxford, and obviously no pets were allowed there (although Ben O'Flynn smuggled his beagle, Tracker, in and out of the college in a holdall, with the connivance of the scouts and porters) and then to a life of bedsits and small flats and sharing with people who were not generally very animal-friendly. Back, home, Gunner grew old and died, so did the cats, which were brought down from London a few years after we moved to help with the rats and mice who found the geese just as interesting as I did. A new dog, Bertie, a cocker spaniel, came along. I had four jobs in the Church of England, but only the first afforded me a garden. At the time, I was toying with the idea of getting a bloodhound, a breed with which I had fallen in love on a farm in Somerset when on holiday many years before, but I dithered (they are very slobbery) and my next job came with a first floor flat in the middle of Cambridge.
It wasn't until leaving the paid ministry and its accommodation that at last I acquired a pet of my own. Or rather, being a cat, she acquired me - or us. It was New Year 2011 when we first saw Cleopatra in the arms of a young couple who had rung our doorbell and wondered whether she was ours. We weren't allowed animals of any kind. As we chatted, she broke free, and zoomed round the house, entering every room, but perfectly tractably being handed back. A few nights later as we put the rubbish out, a small dark shape hurried in, and never left. It was as if she had cased the joint, and we were Chosen. A few months later, Ruby came along, originally intended as a Fathers' Day gift for my father, who rather liked Cleo, and His Lordship didn't understand the convention that you don't give live animals as presents without prior consent. So, Ruby stayed, and then we had two, and I wouldn't be without them. When we had to move in June, from a convenient ground-floor flat to a less convenient first-floor one, I was convinced they would move out and find a better offer. But no, they are prepared to suffer the inconvenience of the new regime, and once again, we are Chosen. It is rather a nice feeling.
So what is this business with animals all about? Over the years, I've been a member of various clubs connected to London Zoo, the Otter Trust, the Parrot Society, the WWF and its present incarnation, and the RSPB. The domestic enthusiasm is backed with a national and a global one. Most of us who like them at all, like animals in general, and some animals in particular.
With pets, for some, it may be a sort of power. Dogs, of course, lend themselves to this more than cats. Dogs have owners, cats have butlers. Fish and birds have fanciers, which always seems amusing. But if power is the key in any relationship, something hasn't grown right. At its best, any relationship must have something to do with love. We are fashioned capable of many different sorts of love, and sometimes the supply - as we see when a new dog or cat or budgie or aspidistra or rowan tree or friend comes into our lives - seems inexhaustible. And with other creatures, there is the fascination of differentness, wondering how they think and feel, and whether and in what respects their experience is like ours. They can provide an undemanding company - some food, access to the garden, a walk, a cuddle, some idle banter; they ask for very little, but we don't feel alone with a cat sleeping quietly in the corner of the sofa.
John Donne said "all divinitie is love or wonder". Love we have seen. And the wonder? That all comes down to the 'pider under the step. I hope never to grow out of that.