Roy Hattersley once wrote a plangent passage about a painful aspect of the human condition: the short span of animals’ lives. The owner who commits his affections condemns himself to the pain of bereavement. This thought has come to my mind recently.
Roxy Beaujolais, that glorious ale-wife, has already been celebrated in this column. Her public house, the Seven Stars, is just behind the Law Courts and has almost acquired the status of a fifth Inn. I popped in the other day and found to my delight that it was as good as ever. Cured herring followed by rare cold roast beef: Roxy would be horrified if you described the Stars as a gastropub, but it could easily pass muster as one. As ever, she pulls an excellent pint, concentrating on Adnams and Harvey’s, superbly hoppy beers which are a vital means of rehydration during the rigours of an English summer.
We mused about the difference between the male and female palates. Roxy herself developed a taste for bitter while she was in training to become the best female licensee in the Kingdom. But she agreed with me that few of her sex share that enthusiasm. Girls who will happily drink Armagnac or malt whisky, accompanied by a good cigar — Roxy keeps a small but excellent range of Havanas — will not touch bitter. Curious.
Change and decay: the Seven Stars seems immune to both. If only the same were true of the habitués. Roxy reminded me that I first visited her in the company of Richard de Lacy, a good musician both as a performer and a connoisseur; a fine lawyer who should have been a High Court judge. He died too early: barely 60. We raised a glass to his memory. I realised that something else was missing. ‘Where is Tom Paine?’ I enquired, referring to a handsome black moggy who used to adorn the bar. He would sometimes allow himself to be stroked, while giving the impression that he was conferring a great honour on the stroker. ‘It is a while since you’ve been here. Tom is longish gone. But he was a good age; the vet reckoned around 18.’
Roxy recruits her furry bar staff from vets whose customers decide to give their pet away. She recently acquired two new cats and as is her wont, named them after lefties. That is her sole defect of character. The girl cat was called Eleanor Roosevelt. But she turned out to be an incorrigible scratcher and biter. Perhaps she was merely offended by her moniker and Roxy should have renamed her Eleanor of Aquitaine. Then again, she too knew how to use her claws. Anyway, and although one admires any creature that can stand up to Roxy, Eleanor had to go. The other mog, Clement Attlee, is settling in well, learning how to catch mice and patronise the customers. Long may the Stars shine.
Elsewhere, a sun is setting. My friend Professor Branestawm, the great female educationalist who has also featured here, has a Basset hound called Nelson. He is a wonderful animal. Despite living in a house full of cats and daughters, he has an imperturbable temperament. Nelson is nearly 14, a good age for a Basset, but his innings is drawing peacefully to its close. That led me to quote just about the most moving passage in all literature. After 20 years, Ulysses has arrived back at his palace. No one recognises him except his dog, Argos. Twenty years earlier he had been a magnificent hunter. Now he is lying on a dunghill, wholly neglected, covered in fleas. Yet he knows his master. Argos has just enough strength to thump his tail and waggle his ears. Then he dies. Nunc dimittis. We discussed this over a bottle of ’95 Léoville Barton, which I have praised before and which can never be praised enough. It was a perfect wine to toast Nelson, Argos, Tom Paine and all the faithful servants from the animal kingdom.