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We didn’t have pets where I grew up in Hull in the 1950s, we had Dralon. Cleanliness was two steps ahead of godliness. Scouring powder was revered as much as penicillin. We didn’t throw ping-pong balls at suspended ducks at Hull Fair for fear we might win and be forced to take home a plastic bag full of goldfish. My father, a “Gentleman’s Outfitter”, once brought home a puppy given to him by a seaman in lieu of payment on a suit. It lasted 12 minutes in the house, after micturating on the coconut matting. Our shrieks and pleas fell on deaf, but spotless ears: the puppy was given to a less hygienic home.
In consequence, both my brother and I, on different continents for most of our lives, are philotherians, and, therefore, rule our lives by animals. I had a maidenly cat, Pushkin, for 19 years, a tortoise, Zuckerman, for 11 years, and now lodge a dog inside and a rabbit outside my lower ground-floor London flat.
Over in Brussels, brother Geoff has anything up to four dogs, three cats, a civet and the odd limping crow. My daughter has a malicious tabby cat called Gribiny, roughly the size of a beer keg, who has been known to hook a claw into my daughter’s lip, as a means of expressing that she is ready for her breakfast. So far, my son and his wife have resisted philotherianism on the same grounds as my mother’s – hygiene, a fact borne out by “dirtyclean” being my 21-month-old grandchild’s first word, and her favourite toys being a brush and shovel.
Most of my friends have leads, collars and poo bags in their halls, alongside the crusted boots and Nora Batty hats. Valerie and Trevor favour Dalmations, have had a run of them over the years and much of their decor, pottery and cushion collection reflects this love. Earl and Susan’s dog of choice is a liver-coloured Weimaraner and there have been at least four in my memory. I greet both couples’ darlings by calling them by at least four wrong names.
Does this slim CV and having once swum with dolphins, admittedly in a pool in Florida, make me well suited to writing about pets for the Financial Times?
Probably not. On the other hand, I watch David Attenborough religiously and not exclusively because there is nothing else to watch on television save charismatic detectives solving serial child abuse and lonely hypochondriacs in run-down hospitals. Sometimes I watch him explain cacti in Kew gardens, heave his adorable old body alpaca-wards up the Andes, and chat-up piranhas – with hand gestures and bubbles under a coral reef – all in one evening. He is, of course, the nearest thing to God on earth that we have and attention must be paid.
Am I a responsible and knowledgeable pet owner? Well, Diva, my eight-year-old Basenji, is, according to my friends, well named. The Basenji is not for the faint-hearted. She behaves like a cat with none of the advantages. For a start, she has never been left on her own. Basenjis have no bark – the bark was bred out of them in their land of origin, the Congo, to fight lions in a pack – and I must say, in terms of Kensington Park Gardens, it seems to have worked. She throws back her swanlike neck and yodels for as long as it takes to drive my neighbours to the noise abatement society.
She is very foxy and according to Maria, owner of the local Dog Hotel, “the cleberest dog I have eber seen.” Maria is from South America and was very sad when she had to ban Diva from returning as a client. I couldn’t blame her. Diva chewed through computer wires and caused the disappearance of a whole Armani belt – both offences rightly punishable by a restraining order.
Similarly, Dame Diana Rigg, in a production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, in which Diva had a small but resonant role as a dog, asked me, darkly, why I didn’t get a proper dog. “But I love her,” I murmured. “Well, she doesn’t love you,” was the response. (Overheard in the auditorium after the show: “It was very good but why did it have to be set in Russia?”)
In spite of being labelled as impossible to train, Diva can do 16 tricks in as many seconds and is as agile as they come. Warren, my apricot-velvet rabbit, is just plain curmudgeonly and has a habit of kicking the dog if she gets too fresh. He expects, and gets, an hors d’oeuvres of cabbage, broccoli, parsley, walnut, cranberry, sweetcorn, carrot, apple and rabbit pellets, and leans heavily on the glass doors from a standing position. He is almost nine and, sheltering from the rain in my dining room, is pulling tufts out of a very expensive rug as I write. Still, I’m very happy.
Maureen Lipman is a British film, theatre and television actress who loves animals
Agony uncle David Tang’s column will return next week