Matthew Parris Matthew Parris

RIP Gussie, my plainspoken llama

Our camelid Gussie, now sadly dead, made an excellent intermediary

Gussie is the name of a grumpy and ill-natured llama, her coat largely white and somewhat unkempt, and much given to aggressive expectoration. When there’s corn in a bucket, it has been her habit greedily to spit other llamas away, not because she wants corn but to stop them getting any.

And Gussie is also the name of an entirely imaginary creature — another llama, but who can make phone calls, surf the internet, and send emails and texts. This Gussie has been a keen if censorious student of human nature, a particular student of the faults and foibles of my partner, Julian, and me.

The fictional Gussie grew from the real one, taking such distinct shape over many years that by the end there has been virtually no connection between them. Their gradual divergence has taught me something not so much about camelids as about humans.

My first experience of anthropomorphism was as a toddler, with my little brother, Roger. Sometimes, when (say) he or I would bang our knees on an inconveniently placed chair leg and start to cry, our mother would scold the chair leg: ‘Naughty chair’ — and sometimes give it a smack. This playacting would cheer Roger and me up no end, and we’d stop crying, join in the scolding, and soon forget the pain. There was, I remember, one especially naughty chair.

Sometimes, too, if we were rough with the cat, Mum would impersonate the cat, who would seem to protest in a strange cat-like little voice — and even to cry — making us feel guilty.

I learned the mind split that enables us to know that something is unreal, and yet suspend disbelief and immerse ourselves in the fiction. The reasons may be quite various.

I cannot remember when Gussie began to intervene in my partner’s and my relationship, or express her views on some of our friends — on questions of housekeeping, on politics (especially Ukip, which she supported) and the world generally (she had a high regard for Putin) — but it soon caught on.

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