Bevis Hillier

Curiosity killed the cat

Some stocking-filler books are funny, or meant to be: those I shall cover at a later date. This week, I have been looking at an allied, but different group which might be classified as ‘curious’. Some are curious in the best sense — that in which antique treasures used to be called ‘curios’. They attract our curiosity and satisfy it. Others are curious in the less good sense — that in which one says, ‘Waiter, would you mind trying this fish? It tastes curious to me’ or ‘He had a curious idea of what it was right to wear to a funeral.’ Rather as we talk of funny-ha-ha and funny-peculiar, I think we might talk of curious-enjoyable and curious-offputting. Sam Leith’s Dead Pets: Eat them; Stuff them; Love them (Canongate, £9.99) is definitely curious-enjoyable. That subtitle promises humour and you won’t be disappointed if that is what you’re after, for Leith is a wry commentator. He is a humorist, but, much more than that, a realist; a philosopher, but much more a brilliant reporter. His prose reminds me of the non-experimental James Joyce of Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Malcolm Muggeridge was fond of saying that death had become the new pornography: one could talk about sex till the cows came home (or rather beyond that, in the case of bestiality); but the morbid and the macabre were out of bounds — an exact reversal of Victorian mores. Just a couple of pages into Leith’s main text, he is recalling the death of a pet hamster, Silky, who had ‘escaped from Stalag Luft Hamster’. Silky had unwarily settled down between Leith’s mattress and his bed. ‘And my careless six-year-old bottom had crushed him to death.’ <i>When I lifted the mattress, what I saw was pitiful. His small body was perpendicular to the side of the bed, just half way up, just where I had sat down to mourn him. And his nose, so often dabbed with my blood, was now soggy with his own. The whole front half of his body was scarlet; the back still pale and furry. The image that strikes me now, though I doubt it would have then, is of a partially used tampon.</i> Leith further observes (here we see the philosopher): <i>Silky, then, was my introduction to dramatic irony. But he was also my introduction to death. And nearly everyone’s first encounter with death, if they are lucky, comes in the form of the death of a pet; everyone’s first preparation for the lifelong task of grief.</i> Soon after that, there is a condiment dash of wit: ‘I think of the colonnades of lollystick gravestones…’ It would be so easy to make a book on this subject arch or twee. One is in no danger of that with Leith. There is a blithe randomness about the book: <i>A note on the methodology: there isn’t one… I have jumbled real historical dead pets with mythic ones and, for the home enthusiast, included some pointers as to how to stuff them or to stuff yourself with them, as you prefer.</i> I enjoyed the historical snippets most, about famous pet-owners, their doggies and moggies. Thomas Hardy’s dog Wessex was given goose and plum pudding to eat at Christmas and was psychic, barking his head off, then piteously whining, when introduced to Mr William Watkins, honorary secretary of the Society of Dorset Men in London, and prodding him with his paw with sharp cries of distress. (Watkins died an hour later.) Hardy wrote a poem to Wessex’s memory, of which the last stanza begins: <i>Should you call me as when I knew you,<br> Wistful ones…</i> Leith, not just unsentimental but anti-sentimental, comments, ‘I found this poem almost unbearably moving until I realised that it can be sung, with some jollity, to the tune of “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain When She Comes”.’ He records that the childless Hardy and his first wife had a cat called Kiddleywinkempoops. Poops for short, no doubt. Leith is affectionate about his own cats; but as I am a dog person rather than a cat person (I like adulation), I feel he is often making a strong case against the feline race when he thinks he is making one for it. Here the syndrome is similar to the idea that Graham Greene is a ‘Catholic novelist’, ignoring the fact that several of his books were dumped smartly on to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Leith seems to find endearing cats that ‘know … unerringly which particular story you are reading in a newspaper, and will unfailing sit on it’ or which ‘have learned that ten front claws speared firmly into layers of first denim and then human flesh’ are sufficient to bear their weight. Ugh! I still have a tape-recording of my interviewing a top Disney executive for the Los Angeles Times. In the middle I emit a screech. ‘Wassamad- der?’ the exec demands. ‘Your bloody cat has just dug its claws into my thigh!’ But, once again, just as we think Leith is on the brink of become gushy, these words hit us: <i>I was writing a book about dead pets before I owned a live one. When I got him, I thought: ‘Good. This is a win-win situation. If he stays alive I have a cat. If some terrible accident befalls him, I have some more material for my book.</i> There are fictional cats, and writers’ cats, but I found the section on taxidermy a little too macabre to be enjoyed. Leith records that there is a taxidermist in London called Get Stuffed. That reminds me of an experience I had in Sao Paulo, Brazil. There was a man on the pavement who would make you a rubber stamp — words supplied by you — in one hour. I wrote on a piece of paper ‘GET STUFFED’, thinking that a rubber stamp with those words might come in useful one day to stamp all over somebody’s rude letter to me. When I returned after an hour, the man smiled brightly and said. ‘Here your stamp, Senhor Stuffèd.’ The usual place one finds farmers’ daughters is in dirty jokes, but Leith attends a course in taxidermy with a farmer’s daughter whose husband has ‘sent her on this course as a present’. Just what I wanted, darling. Leith’s section on cooking pets is even more macabre than that on stuffing them. I’m still not sure whether ‘Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Puppy Satay’ is for real, or whether Leith is just winding us up. (‘Trim the puppy of any tough sinews and cut into smallish cubes. Combine all the other ingredients as a marinade, and toss with the puppy … Serve with a simple peanut sauce …’) Along with all the old jests about doggone and polygon, there must be a new one to be made about dying pets murmuring, ‘Leith dismisseth us’, but, as with a complex game of Patience, I can’t quite work it out. The Rough Guide to Conspiracy Theories by James McConnachie and Robin Tudge (Rough Guides, £9.99) is a book oddly similar to Leith’s, in that it deals mainly with deaths, is unusually intelligent and well written and laced with black humour. The authors do not set out to solve any of the conspiracy theories; they are just interested in how many have been spawned on any given topic, the more bizarre the better. Their introduction is very Leith-like: <i>To conspire once meant to ‘breathe together’. It is an image of the most intimate and secret complicity … it must involve more than one person — no ‘lone gunman’ can make up a conspiracy of one. It must have goals that are either criminal, hostile or nefariously political — no one can conspire to forgive Third World debt or feed the homeless. And it must be secret — conspirators do not announce their manifestos to the world.</i> One at once begins to feel confidence in writers who can frame such a finely phrased definition. They revel in ‘the sheer creative and iconoclastic energy of the conspiracist world’. While they don’t resolve the conspiracies, or begin every sentence with ‘supposedly’ or ‘allegedly’, they do sprinkle — in some cases, drown — the theories with scepticism or derision. They don’t have lots of time for Holocaust deniers, for example. They warn us to approach all of the notions from a position of ‘complete disbelief’. They note that most conspiracy theories emanate from the Right. Why? Because ‘people with absolutist, black-and-white world-views tend to believe that the powerful operate in an equally absolutist way’. <i>If a political enemy is seen as basically evil — rather than, say, misguided or incompetent — then all their actions must surely be the result of sinister machinations. And all ‘accidents’ are therefore the result of conspiracy, not cock-up.</i> In this book you will find almost all the theories about who killed Kennedy, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Princess Diana, Dr David Kelly and many more. They go into ‘The Blood Libel: the longest-running conspiracy theory of all’, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, satanic ritual abuse, Watergate, Waco, Nazi gold, fluoride, the cause of Aids, the Apollo moon landing and alien abductions. I wondered how sardonically they would present my own favourite theory about the Kennedy assassination; that LBJ did for JFK. Johnson’s marvellous biographer, Robert Caro, has poured cold water on the idea, but it was he who wrote, in his first volume, that LBJ ‘would do anything for power’. Anything? I am gratified to find that McConnachie and Tudge lay out my pet theory in temperate terms, with the minimum of lip-curling: <i>Perhaps the most basic of all theories poses the simple question: who gained the most from the assassination? It was Vice-President Lyndon Johnson who ascended to the presidency, and who, as a Texan, would have known the right people in Dallas to pull off the hit; and it was Johnson who stopped all the other investigations in favour of the unreliable Warren Commission.</i> There is more: ‘the plot was aided by the Kennedy-hater J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI…’ and so on. On Diana, I go for accident, caused by drink, paparazzi and speed (that’s the speed of the vehicle, not the drug). The authors give this fair houseroom, along with Mohamed Al-Fayed’s allegations and all the others. There has to be a prize for the wildest conspiracy theory in the book. Perhaps it should go to the charge by both Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam and the New Black Panther Party that Aids is a Jewish plot to wipe out blacks. I cannot bear to think that the 1969 moon-landing was a fake: it would erase a moment of awe in my life as I watched it on television and wept. But what about that flag mysteriously flying in the moonscape? The answer, my friend, is apparently not blowing in the wind. The Bumper Book of Fads and Crazes by Richard Lewis (Atlantic Books, £9.99) is well done, though more illustrations would have been welcome and could have been amusing. Every generation will immediately look up the crazes it remembers best. For mine (born 1940) it was the Slinky, the hula-hoop, the yo-yo and (in our thirties) flared trousers. (Thank God I wasn’t born in the generations who swooned over Beanie Babies, Cabbage Patch Kids, Mr Potato Head or Purple Ronnie.) What the book calls the Slinky, my sister and I called the Slinky Spring, and if ever an object needed an illustration to convey it, that one does. It was a coil of wire that you put at the top of a flight of steps, and it ‘walked’ down. Spooky. The hula-hoop was a dead loss as far as I was concerned. It was the late 1950s period when I was known as Snake-Hips Hillier, and the thing refused to gyrate round my waist, just slipped down to my feet like a successful hoop-la throw. Yo-yo vanished from the scene but was resurrected as a distinguished Chinese cellist. I have photographs of myself in flared trousers: about the one thing (or rather, a pair) that I had in common with Starsky and Hutch. This is a fun book, but it would have got a higher mark if the author had not omitted a date from several of these evanescent crazes. The Book of Duos: The Stories Behind History’s Great Partnerships by Ian Harrison (Cassell Illustrated, £14.99) scores higher, if only because there are splendid pictures and photographs throughout. When I saw the title, I thought we were in for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and Laurel and Hardy. We are; but also for Cain and Abel, Sodom and Gomorrah, St George and the Dragon, Punch and Judy, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Burke and Hare, Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson, Hillary and Tenzing, Marks and Spencer and Yin and Yang. We get Gilbert and George as well as Gilbert and Sullivan. Some will complain that Morecambe and Wise are missing. Not I: I never thought them very funny compared with Dud and Pete (also absent). My main grouch is that the sections on the duos — normally, if aptly, two pages — are far too short. There just isn’t room to analyse what happens when two people elect to be or work together for most of their lives — or sometimes do so against their inclinations. (Siamese twins may get sick of each other, but separation can be fatal for them.) When living in Los Angeles, I had a long talk with Fred Astaire on the telephone; and in London I queued for an hour at Hatchard’s bookshop for Ginger Rogers to sign her autobiography (I don’t think I would have queued that long for anybody else in the world, even Nelson Mandela.) Her memoir makes it quite clear that she was not over-fond of the perfectionist Fred, but none of that gets into this book; neither does her comment, ‘I’ve done everything that he’s done — backwards, and in high heels.’

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