Confessions of a catnapper

As Christopher Snowdon recently pointed out, the past few governments have had a habit of passing laws that are either wildly ambitious or incredibly trivial, while neglecting the real problems Britain faces, such as the housing shortage, the productivity crisis and the eye-watering dysfunction of the NHS. An example of the former is the net-zero emissions law passed in 2019, as if the energy policy of a small island in the North Sea can affect the world’s climate. An example of the latter is a bill that will make it a criminal offence to get cats to follow you down the road. Believe it or not, this had its second

A purring cat is not always contented

Large cats cannot miaow. (Lions and tigers, I mean, not moggies who have overindulged on Whiskers Meaty Selection in Gravy.) The largest feline ever to have lived was a sabre-toothed cat in South America, which weighed nearly half a tonne. Female house cats can copulate up to 20 times a day when in the mood. Male cats have a bone in their penis. Cats are green-red colour blind. There are probably more than half a billion cats alive in the world at this moment. These are gleanings merely from the footnotes of Jonathan Losos’s The Age of Cats, which is portly with information. The book, surveying cats’ evolutionary history, behavioural

The naming of cats

All sorts of animals have been kept as pets over the centuries. We know of sparrows in Catullus and John Skelton. There is a badger with a collar in a fresco by Signorelli – probably not much more biddable than the lobster Gerard de Nerval supposedly took for walks in Paris. The word ‘puss’ seems not to have referred to cats before the late 19th century but to hares, either a pet one (William Cowper had three, of whom Puss was sweet-natured and Tiney ‘the surliest of his kind’), or one being hunted in Surtees. Dogs always occupied a special place, with names and a position in the household. Cats

The Spectator’s letters page is hazardous 

Question time Sir: Your leading article ‘Sense prevails’ (13 April) is a valuable précis of the Cass Review into NHS gender treatment. However, it also raises several questions. How are the actions of these individuals, groups and organisations different from those of others who have been found to have acted unprofessionally, causing harm to patients who were entitled to place trust for their health in them? Where was the ethical and executive management oversight within the NHS? What other unproven ‘treatments’ are being carried out under the ever-growing demands for more money to be allocated to the NHS? Finally, what sanctions are to be meted out – or will we

Why the story of the Holocaust still needs telling

In Chekhov’s The Seagull Dr Dorn is asked which is his favourite foreign city. Genoa, he replies: in the evening the streets are full of strolling people and you became part of the crowd, body and soul. ‘You start to think there really might be a universal spirit,’ he says. I remembered Dr Dorn when I was discovering Genoa in October. Then it suddenly came to me that I had been to the city before. Genoa was where my family embarked for the Far East, when I was 18 months old, fleeing the Nazis. I don’t know about the universal spirit, though. I’m reading Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews

Just how much lower can the Conservatives sink?

This is the year in which Michael Gambon died, so by definition a grim one for theatre. Of all the tributes, one of the most acute was by Tom Hollander, who recalled how expressive Gambon’s voice was after 30 years on stage. He could reach hundreds of people while seeming to address only one or two. That’s essential theatre acting. When Gambon turned to cinema, his voice had become supple and mellow. It set me to thinking of other great cinema voices. Simone Signoret came first to mind. Then Jeanne Moreau, James Mason, and above all, Henry Fonda. These actors have you at hello. I would have added Marlene Dietrich,

The insane craze for dog ice-cream

During the few hot days we had in June, I came across my first tub of dog ice-cream nestled among the Häagen-Dazs in my local supermarket. Scoop’s vanilla: ‘Tubs that get tails wagging.’ My first thought was that it was a joke, or perhaps for people who identify as dogs. So I looked it up as I stood in the queue, and it was as if a door opened onto our national psychosis. Purina ‘Frosty paws’, Wiggles and Wags ‘Freeze-Fetti’, Frozzys dog ice-cream, Pooch Creamery Vanilla, Wagg’s Sunny Daze blueberry, Higgins dog ice-cream, Dogsters ice-cream-style treats, Jude’s, Smoofl, Ben and Jerry’s… the market for dog ice-cream is limitless and it crosses the socio-economic

A magpie proves a troublesome pet

With his swashbuckling gait, ominous associations and garrulous demeanour, the magpie is the dandified razor boy of our avifauna and provokes ambivalent feelings (the ‘pie’ part signifies many a mixture). His pilfering reputation has inspired work from Rossini to the prog-rock band Marillion, and in lab tests he’s one of the few creatures brainy enough to recognise his own image in a mirror – even some Marillion fans can’t do that. But it’s hard to see how this corvid could be truly lovable. The artist and poet Frieda Hughes, however, fell for a little foundling Pica pica back in May 2007 when she was refurbishing her ramshackle new home. He

Good luck enjoying eating salmon ever again

‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by cat videos,’ begins Henry Mance’s How to Love Animals, winningly. That is the paradox he sets out to unpick in this densely factual and intermittently horrifying book: how a world in thrall to cuteness, endlessly compelled to click on videos of kittens and owls having a special friendship, can remain indifferent to the suffering of almost all other animals, whether farmed, in captivity or in the wild. That’s a tough brief. I’m not sure it’s a book I would choose off the shelf, because the subject matter is deeply unpalatable. The facts and figures — intensely researched and carefully woven

How not to walk a dog

Watching a woman driving a dog past my house like a carthorse is just another ‘new normal’ of lockdown. This moron had two long ropes attached to a harness around the body of her huge dog and was trying to steer it along the village green by long-reining it from behind as though it were a pony. The poor dog looked utterly fed up. I don’t know, because I couldn’t face asking her, but I got the impression that like the rest of the idiot new dog owners out there, she thought this system was less cruel than putting a conventional collar around its neck attached to a conventional lead.

All these lockdown puppies come at a price

‘Book H in for a colonoscopy at a private clinic,’ begins one entry in Sasha Swire’s enjoyable diaries about her husband (which she should have called What Hugo Did During Term-Time.) She accompanies him to his appointment — whether for juicy material or moral support, we are not told — and relates how the bored consultant bangs on in detail, not about her hubby’s bum, but about the time his pointer swallowed a budgie. ‘As for their fees, simply extortionate!’ the expensive consultant whines in conclusion of a ‘violent diatribe’ against our world-beating veterinarian profession. At this flagrant pot and kettling, Lady Swire flares up: ‘It’s a racket — not

Spare me the ‘furbabies’ – the humanisation of pets has gone too far

‘Can my dog meet your horse?’ asked the woman, as her German shepherd lunged at me, making my thoroughbred jump up and down in panic. We had been riding through the woods, a friend and I, when we came across one of those dog-walking clubs. Up to a dozen of what looked like former guard dogs and their owners came round a bend on the track towards us. ‘He just wants to say hello!’ the woman persisted. How many times have we all heard that from a dog-owner in the park before said beast pounces and humps us half to death? So I told her very firmly: ‘Absolutely not. Do