It was W.C. Fields, wasn’t it, who made that enlightened and penetrating remark about the wisdom of avoiding animals and children?
I am no great animal lover. Not that I’d do them any harm, mind you, but I always circumnavigate paddocks containing beeves that look the least aggressive and I’ve always thoroughly disliked zoos.
I think I was finally put off animals when, as a small boy on a school outing to a zoo, I bit into a packed lunch at precisely the same moment as an adjacent ostrich decided to relieve itself. They are large birds and quantity seemed no difficulty. Needless to say, my Marmite and lettuce filled roll finished up being torn apart by some gibbons; or were they rhesus monkeys?
I guess I had been set up, by illustrated books received from indulgent aunts at Christmas, to expect animals to be colourful, clean and sweet smelling. They never prepared me for the truth that elephants are covered in grime, hippos have stained teeth and vile breath, and that the back ends of sheep merely prove what terrible things ruminants can do to sweet meadow grasses.
In my household, which is far too democratic for my liking, I have in the past been forced to live in uneasy propinquity to up to five cats. But, so far, I have managed rigidly to bar our German shepherd guard dog from crossing the threshold. It is far too large an animal to share with us our tiny house.
Even outdoors I ignore it completely but despite that it follows me everywhere. The Lovely Mrs Donovan says the dog is devoted to me. Yet I know that it's simply ensuring its presence when I drop dead, whereupon it will eat me in marginal preference to dog roll. At that point, thankfully, I shall not be able to hear it eating.
When I visit friends (and enemies, I guess) their damned cats and dogs make bee-lines for me. I know, with absolute certainty, that when all others at the gathering are cooing over the cats and trying to attract them to their laps, they will, unerringly, make for me.
But I have reached an age where I can handle unpopularity; where, once, I should have smiled a sickly smile and put up with unwelcome attention I now openly reject the advances of precious pets and, if they also smell repulsive, I draw their olfactory offensiveness to the attention of their owners.
Proud owners seem not to have sensitive noses when it comes to their pets. I can smell smelly dogs a mile off and when I tell their owners that their dogs pong it’s interesting to see the tussle that goes on in their minds – is Donovan’s friendship that important to me? Or shall I back the dog? I don’t always win.
Children are the other side of W.C. Fields’s caveat.
I quite like children but I am no great baby lover. I guess I haven’t the patience that Nature demands. I have never been able to understand why it takes so long for the little horrors to gain control of themselves. Every hole seems to leak interminably – the plumbing’s third rate. And babies are ridiculously immobile. In that respect, at least dogs can run away from a well aimed shoe within a few days of birth.
Human kids can’t walk for about a year, yet they poo and wee with reckless abandon. They belch and break wind indiscriminately. They dribble, they wail, they do nothing useful. Newborn babies, to me, look variously like baked apples, micro-waved potatoes, partially deflated balloons, saveloys, badly filled salamis, larvae, cream horns and plastic bags. Yet they induce, in women, a desire, almost as uncontrollable as babies’ apertures, to just about swoon with admiration upon peering into the nearest pram.
At this point the sexes are farthest apart. Men have no place in women’s lives when there’s a baby around. Our opinions are worthless. If we try to lighten the atmosphere with a witty observation it is either ignored or taken as an affront.
For example, I was in the supermarket the other day and saw a woman wheeling a chariot of wire towards me upon which was an infant lying in its special compartment. The baby had a look of intelligent pre-occupation, as if it was counting the fluorescent tubes in the ceiling, but it was probably only putting one of its little outlets to use. In a friendly sort of way I said to the mother ‘I see you’ve brought your lunch with you’, but she couldn’t seem to see the funny side of my remark at all and I gained the distinct impression that I’d said the wrong thing.
I suppose, if you’ve read this far, you think I’m a bit of a curmudgeon; an irascible old misery. But I’d like to point out that far greater brains than mine have reached similar conclusions to mine when it comes to babies and animals:
Cats - they smell and they snarl and they scratch; they have a singular aptitude for shredding rugs, drapes and upholstery; they’re sneaky, selfish and not particularly smart; they are disloyal, condescending and totally useless in any rodent-free environment.
Or if you prefer: A soiled baby, with a neglected nose, cannot be conscientiously regarded as a thing of beauty.
And finally: If I am asked by a doting mother what I think of her baby, I am not obliged to tell the truth.
GEORGE BERNARD SHAW