In this season of peace and goodwill I am hosting a reception this evening for my garden’s local wildlife. Readers will know what an act of godless generosity this offer represents on my part. I am inviting animal delegates to a reception in my drawing room to celebrate its latest hanging. The hanging is not one of a badger or a grey squirrel. It is the hanging of every father’s ideal present, a specially commissioned artwork of himself, given to him by his daughter. I am sure the animals will twitter with delight when they see what I have been given by my matchless daughter Martha, our National Digital Champion.
First I must explain why I call them “delegates”. In each Christmas season the animal kingdom sends reps to a summit meeting which they call the B2O. Twenty Beastly reps gather outside my garden shed and debate the animal world’s affairs, naturally to no effect. I know they have this meeting because I see their tracks in the mud on the morning after. They are less inhibited about their true desires than our human delegates to the G20, let alone to recent meetings of the IMF. There are bloodstains on the gravel and the only way to explain some of the footprints is to realise that their owners have been having sex in public. Furry young chambermaids, I gather, are not even invited.
This year I know exactly what is under debate. I know it because I belong to the fabled Chipping Norton Set. I shop in my local Chipping Norton (twinned with Magny-en-Vexin). On horseback, I have even eaten a sausage offered by Rebekah Brooks’ fair hand. So I am applying Chipping Norton’s widely reported tactics in order to snoop in private. I have located the one mole left alive in my garden and bribed him to hack into his fellow-animals’ network. He has done it with his usual professionalism and is passing to this column the subjects under discussion. They are so fascinating that I will be sitting by the telephone and ignoring the garden all day.
For a start there has been a quarrel about eligible members. My one living badger is presiding but he has just snarled at a stoat who turned up with a placard saying ECB. He believes that it stands for “Encourage Culling of Badgers” and contravenes the pre-Christmas spirit. Meanwhile a white female ferret has turned all the male heads by arriving in a provocative T-shirt which says Go Pussy. She says she was sent it from Berlusconi’s Italy and that it means Cats Keep Out, but three male weasels have read it differently. Their excuse is that a white ferret is the star turn in London’s Leonardo show at the humans’ National Gallery. Leonardo painted a white ferret smirking in the lap of the under-age concubine of an Italian political leader. If humans keep on doing it in Italy why cannot British weasels join in?
One of the rats has just insulted the cock pheasant by calling him a “failed peripheral”. The reason is that he is artificially maintained by humans so that a party of visiting Germans can shoot him dead on Boxing Day in return for their downpayment. Order has only been restored by the traditional Animal Press Awards for 2011.
I think the FT should be very proud. It has taken the top two slots, both the “for” and “against”. The “against” was a unanimous vote by the hawks at the meeting to cull Sir Max Hastings for his printed opinions this summer about feathered predators’ behaviour on his bird table. If they cannot savage a little finch when Sir Max is looking on, how ever will they survive the winter without starving? The “for” has been more controversial. The rooks wanted to vote it to Matthew Parris on The Times for describing Mrs Thatcher’s walk, when not played by Meryl Streep, as being timid “like a partridge”. The partridges promptly blocked the motion. They are no longer Old English partridges, because modern Cotswold farming has exterminated them. They are French partridges with red legs and euro-sympathies.
Attention then returned to the FT’s very own Gideon Rachman, cat lover though he is. I am pleased to report that he has just been voted first place. The real pussies in the audience are sharpening their claws but Gideon’s recent proposal for escape from the financial crisis has had the vote of every feathered delegate in the B20. He observed, you remember, that it makes economic sense to insure one’s cat, kill it and claim the over-insurance because there is no shortage of homeless kittens and a replacement will cost much less than the sum assured.
If I hear the hacking clearly, there has been some ugly biting in the back row. A fox has turned up paw-in-paw with a biddable young male rabbit who says he is a special adviser. Nobody recognises the invitation card which the adviser has been brandishing but he has now vanished down a burrow. Without him the debate has turned to the main agenda.
It is nothing less than contagion. The Guernsey cow has tabled it despite the squirrels’ insistence that cows like her never pay their animal taxes. The motion is a warning to the animal kingdom that they are only fiddling at the edges of a massive hazard. The threat is not euro debt: it is TB. With truly human slowness last year’s B20 accepted a cull of badgers among cattle but Miss Guernsey regards it as a peripheral distraction. The urgent need is a cull of every single hedgehog. Fuzzypeg is as much a carrier of TB as any badger in bovine company and unless the entire species is wiped out there will not be a living cow left. The world markets will seize up without drinkable milk.
I cannot describe the animal furore which this proposal is provoking. Hedgehogs are as sentimental a subject as Paris is to Woody Allen and even the B20 cannot bring itself to grasp it in their claws. Contagion may be sapping human Europe but it is also rampant in its animals’ grassy meadows.
What can I offer instead? The B20 will break up without positive results, but I am then inviting the delegates for a private view indoors. Naturally the white ferret is included.
What Martha has given me is my very own portrait by our genius of a British artist, Natasha Archdale, widely admired in the press this summer. Natasha makes portraits from ingenious montages of bits of the financial papers, recombined into animal form. Of course mine is made of pink clippings taken from the FT. They are not any old clippings. They are bits of my gardening columns at significant dates in the past 41 years, including the day of Martha’s birth. In the middle is the clipping from the January FT in 1970 which announced the arrival of the new gardening columnist, the one who has been with you weekly ever since. She has even recycled my accompanying FT photo. Above all, she has woven the collage into a brilliant picture of a dog fox. I have never hunted a bolder one. There is not a special adviser in sight.
Tonight as the stars come out I will be inviting the B20 to admire the new masterpiece. The drink on offer? Milk, of course, TB tested and served in saucers. I promise I have not laced it with Prozac nor even with garden weedkiller. In the name of art and Christmas, even animal hostilities are suspended.