One of the bonuses of living alone is that you can choose your companions, human or otherwise. The late Mr B was one of those strange characters who prefer people to animals – in other words a convinced speciesist. He and Sir Ernest Shackleton, our rescue tabby, tolerated each other, but were never bosom buddies, in spite of the latter being named after Mr B's hero.
As he is now approaching 100 in human years, Shackie (as he is familiarly known) has become more grumpy and demanding. He behaves like an abusive partner, staying out all night partying with the cats next door, coming in at 3am shouting loudly for food, rarely showing affection except when he wants more food, and pulling his fur out to attract attention. I suspect he came from a dysfunctional litter but recently I've rather guiltily been wondering what I could replace him with when he finally shuffles off his feline coil.
I have never had a dog, even though as a child I saved up my pocket money to buy a £1 premium bond so I might win enough money to buy one. I still have the premium bond and sadly it's never won anything, but nowadays I could certainly afford enough to acquire a companion from the SSPC rescue centre down the road. I suspect that the local canine population knows I would like a dog, because they keep running up to me and licking my hand – and I've begun saying hello to dogs instead of their owners.
I'm not fussy about appearance but I'm not so keen on little dogs like those terriers that have funny short legs like Queen Anne chairs, and I have a fancy for one whose ears stick up. The only trouble is that Shackie might well live for a good few more years, thanks to the ministrations of our excellent local vet, and would certainly object strongly to another rival for my attention.
Rats and bats
As human animals, it seems our response to other species is hardly rational. There's the question of what is a 'cute' animal, and one that is simply dinner. I've always thought that bats might make an ideal pet for those who were out at work all day as they only wake up in the evening. But poor bats have such a bad press with many people (and quite unjustified, for they don't get tangled in your hair, and in fact use sonic impulses to avoid obstacles). Equally, many people hate rats, yet I'm assured by a friend who kept several as a child that they have many endearing characteristics, such as a well-developed sense of humour! Conversely, I had always thought donkeys were sweet and good natured animals who were often abused by humans, but the owner of a donkey sanctuary I know pointed out that some of her residents can be quite bad tempered and aggressive.
So why do we hate the idea of eating donkeys or horses, yet we – well, the carnivores amongst us – quite happily eat cows and pigs, animals that are apparently equally intelligent? And if you thought it might be acceptable to eat chickens, another friend keeps them and assures me they all have delightful personalities. But the problem vegetarians have is that carnivorous animals such as cats and dogs need a substance called taurine, only found in meat, to survive, so even if you are vegetarian or vegan, your companion animal won't be. And this obviously also applies to large carnivores like lions and tigers, which are endangered species in the wild, so there's an interesting philosophical question for Robin Downie...
Careers for girls?
Reverting to the human species, the lockdown, sad though it has been, provided an excellent excuse not to attend a couple of landmark celebrations this year from my school and university. I'm never sure how worthwhile such events are, as I didn't enjoy my student days, so fail to appreciate the resultant nostalgia-fest. In fact, I could happily do without the unpleasant resurgent memories. However, one positive aspect of my pressurised academic education was that my parents, although they were what might be termed 'aspiring working class' – i.e. they were working class but didn't want to be – were totally committed to the idea that I should do well at school and go on to university. There was no suggestion that as a girl I didn't need education as my role in life was marriage and producing a family.
This must have been drummed into me from an early age, as I remember at the age of 12 or 13 discussing with a couple of girlfriends, Jackie and Anne, what our favourite games were. 'Me and Jackie play pretending we are typists on Compact
', said Anne. Now, Compact
was a long-running TV soap opera from the 1960s about a women's magazine (thinking about it now, it's actually quite a good title for a women's magazine). But I remember even then feeling horrified that anyone would want to grow up and do a boring job like being a typist – I would have wanted to be the editor of the magazine, at least. As it happened, I never had the talent or drive for such a role – but at least I had the ambition.
Nowadays, I wonder what happened to Jackie and Anne, and other girls like them, who at that time in the 1960s wanted nothing more from life than to become typists. Interestingly, though, they may have found more challenging careers later, as the early versions of computers in the 1980s required a high level of typing skill, whereas academically educated girls like me would miss out on an IT career, having been advised never to learn typing as it would mean being forever relegated to a subservient role. So while I struggle even typing this piece, my old friends Jackie and Anne, I hope you ended up somewhere in Silicon Valley running a division of Microsoft!
Dr Mary Brown is a freelance education consultant