26 October 2007

"Sox, don't hit him..."

As I started this blog with stuff about my dogs, I thought I'd better complete my foolhardy menageric picture by mentioning the feline branch of the household. And a substantial branch it is too; substantial in number, manipulative power and general luxury.

I was brought up with cats, although the family record of keeping "fuskers" when I was a lad wasn't initially great. The first, a loveable black and white RSPCA rescue cat called Bonnie, was run over at just six months and is buried in my parents' garden. The second, a fiercely independent white and black Cats Protection animal called Lucy, disappeared also at six months to live her own life, never was she a settled pet, and attention from humans was rarely welcome. My mother was upset at a second loss so soon after the first and vowed not to have another.

Then she walked past our local pet shop one day, and there were two tiny black kittens in the window. My mother's resolve evaporated instantly and she went in to buy both; she came out with one, as the other had been pre-ordered. This cat never really developed a name but became a fine pet, as independent, bloody-minded cats go, and when she died in 2005, she was 19 years old. She's buried next to Bonnie in the garden.

I never owned my own cat in adulthood until I met the Natural Blonde and she moved into my home. With her came a silvery, skinny but perfectly affable house cat called Twizz, who was her pride and joy. Twizz talks to her (she can actually say the Natural Blonde's name during the night, it's really eerie, although the name in question lacking distinctly in hard consonants does help, so none of that manual manipulation of the mouth is required, a la the That's Life "sausages" mutt of the 1980s) and is generally mouthy when you ask her to get off a settee or chair - she yells at you, often without being arsed to open her eyes. Not that you want her to get down; there's just an idle, mediocre sport to be had in making a cat talk to you when the majority of them have little human contact urges unless hungry or in need of strokes.

The breeder of our Bassets also breeds cream short-hair cats, and one day - for a reason I genuinely can't remember - we decided to invest in one of them. So, home with us came an oversized, permanently scared thing called Harvey (as in cream, although the kennels aren't in Bristol) who makes tooting noises as he runs past you and is an equivalent of Bentley the Basset, in that he's the biggest and heaviest (we got him on the bathroom scales once and he weighed in at exactly a stone), and yet also the scarediest. But even allowing for his permanently panic-stricken disposition, he is often the one happily lying next to you on the bed when you open your eyes in the morning. The picture is of Twizz and Harvey.

We went on holiday a few months after Harvey had settled in. The dogs went to kennels but we kept the cats at home, as they're not outdoor animals and therefore we just needed a kindly neighbour to be on food, water, stroking and tray duty. We were blissfully assured on the telephone by our neighbour that all was well even as we reached the ferry terminal, only to get home and realise that Harvey was absent entirely.

My father had been refitting our bathroom and had left a large hole in the bathroom floor for plumbing reasons. Despite meticulous checking each day, Harvey had managed to get into this hole. Unfortunately, his utterly petrified disposition meant that he wouldn't budge when either father or neighbour made cooing noises to get him out, and therefore nobody had anything foolproof to suggest he was actually there.

We got home, couldn't retrieve him and started to wonder whether he had escaped the house while stuff was being brought in and out on a daily basis by my father. The Natural Blonde was frantic; the neighbour was distraught and I found myself wandering the village looking for a cat who could have been gone for days. The neighbour said she had spent whole evenings laid on the bathroom floor, verbally beckoning Harvey from the hole, but had no idea whether he was actually in there.

We'd just started to believe he'd left the house and our lives forever when Twizz, who had no reason to like Harvey as he'd taken some of her attention, went upstairs. We then heard three or four of her screeching yowls of the Natural Blonde's name, before she came downstairs to rejoin us. Immediately, a noise came from the ceiling above us and we ran like Donovan Bailey up the stairs, just arriving at the bathroom in time to see Harvey's head pop out of the hole.

So where humans failed, an ageing cat of no real companionship to her fellow feline succeeded straightaway.

Back to the kennels we went a few months later to collect Oliver, an eight week old cream kitten, lighter in colour than Harvey, who immediately became the bigger cat's new playmate. This was some achievement, as Harvey was a massive animal but he was so remarkably gentle and patient with his little pal's playing habits that it was a joy to watch. The two would sleep next to one other, often collapsing into each other's paws, until Oliver grew up and began to assert his independence around the house.

Then along came Sox. This was a different proposition, as Sox was an adult female black and white cat with no medical records (although the vet said she'd had a litter of kittens previously) and a difficult personality who we took on from the Natural Blonde's cousin after she had moved into a house which didn't allow pets. Sox - whose name came from the regulation white paws on black legs scenario - had been found abandoned in her previous house, laid on newspaper in a locked room. Had the Natural Blonde's cousin not moved in and found her, the poor girl would have starved to death. As a consequence she was a less than trusting sort, although she was good with the two kids who adopted her. When she came to us, she seemed grateful not to have children constantly picking her up (which she hates) but was not enamoured by sharing a home with three other cats. She still refuses to socialise with them and is prone to batting any or all with a sharply clawed paw when one gets too close. Only Twizz gets the first punch in, and Sox knows she's boss cat. The expression "Sox, don't hit him" is commonly heard in the house.

When my Private Eye pops through the letterbox, or the local free paper is delivered, Sox will commandeer it. She'll lay on it, then roll on her back and stay in that position. She finds newspaper somehow comforting and soothing as it was all she had during those awful hours and days when she had been abandoned as her home changed hands.

That should have been it, really. Four cats to go with the four dogs. Then, when the Natural Blonde did her last stint as weekend cover for the kennel owners in Lincolnshire, she was offered another cream kitten as part-payment. She said no.

Then, after speaking to me, she said yes. So Sidney, our newest recruit, is my fault.

Sidney is identical to Oliver except is considerably more adept at being a pest. He doesn't seem to want to grow out of eating carpets, knocking over bins and doing that strange bed-making act with his claws on our clothes whenever we are in bed or in horizontal positions on the two settees. He is a very loving kitten, but tremendously hard work. He is also very selfish (he kicks a sleeping Oliver awake to play with him, and the unflappable Oliver responds by giving the youngster a wash) and very jealous (stroke another cat for any length of time and he's in, pushing his head through the tiniest gap). Sidney's on the left of this settee pic, Oliver on the right.

Sidney also brought a bug into the house when we first took him home, the sort of bug which cats don't get injected against. Only Twizz didn't get a bout of sneezes and as such, four lots of tablets were acquired from the vet, with the credit card taking a mild pounding. Now, given that Sox largely hates attention anyway, and certainly hates being physically handled, you can imagine the difficulties with tableting her. Harvey, Oliver and Sidney took their pills in the traditional force-mouth-open, rub-throat manner without issue or complaint (although the panic-stricken Harvey took some getting from under the bedside table when he heard the rattle of the bottle).

Sox, however, has perfected the art of a) scratching humans who try to cure her; and b) hiding the pill in her mouth and doing 'pretend' swallowing actions until the human has let her go, then spitting out the pill. The Natural Blonde can force medication down even the most obstinate of feline throats, but I can't. In Sox's case, it was about me on this occasion when the expression "Sox, don't hit him!" was heard.

So now the full story is told; four dogs, five cats, the Natural Blonde and me. People think we're insane to be surrounded by and be responsible for so many animals, but our response is always the same - five cats and four dogs take less looking after than one child, and not one of our beloved pets require new trainers every six weeks nor harbour ambitions to go to university ... with financial help from their parents. As long as the Pro Plan, Kitekat, Wagg and Pal supplies are stocked up, it's a happy and entertaining household.

25 October 2007

"Or, if you're really posh....!"

What on earth has happened to the butler in Joanna Lumley's ads for Privilege car insurance?

It used to pay off with "Or, if you're really posh, have your butler do it!" at which point a bloke in butler's outfit, holding feather duster, would be seen ringing the Privilege number and saying "Hello?" in a mildly snooty voice.

Now he's gone; Lumley's pay-off is the line and the line alone. The visual aid is absent, and the joke (okay, more of a droll observation) has ceased to work.

Repeat fees, maybe? Perhaps the actor was unhappy with playing a character who had to look effeminate in marigolds, with tickling stick, and withdrew his permission. Or maybe the genuinely posh were unhappy with the stereotyping and moaned to Ofcom. After all, only royalty and Shaun Woodward MP have butlers these days.

It's a bit late to get worked up about it, I know. There was a similar issue a few years ago with the "Kev! Bev! Bev! Kev!" ads for cheap motors, when after the initial "meeting yourself in new car" scenario, the actress playing Bev changed. Even the most ardently gullible consumer (at whom these ads are aimed anyway) would have seen the lack of gravitas in the ads if a change in actress had been forced. It's not as if they found a new Bev who was a) physically similar to the previous one; and b) attractive. Especially as she had to cope with acting alongside Kev, aka Stewpot from Grange Hill, whom, the girls in my class all wanted after his heroic snogging session in the book cupboard with Clare Scott.

This is just meaningless wittering now. I really need to pay more attention to the programmes either side of these ads.

24 October 2007

"It's styled, it's neat...."

I have an especially rubbish hairstyle. Indeed, we are seriously stretching the patience of even the most liberal of lexicographers when using the word "style" in relation to my barnet. I would illustrate this with photographic evidence, but suddenly I've gone all shy. There's one on the website listed to your right, if your nervous system is up to it.

My problem is that I don't like having short hair. Most blokes thrive on the convenience of either a simple spiked or parted style, or go further with the electric razor every other month. Manageable? Yep. But that's a word which is used on shampoo ads, and in shampoo ads only women are ever featured, and they are never women with hairstyles like that of Yazz or Rhona Cameron. They have long, flowing, "healthy-looking" (ie, not split or falling out) hair. I want that hair too.

I let it grow very long ten years ago. It was scruffy at times, but when I had it trimmed and tidied and then made the effort it looked okay. I was single and found that hair was a good subject to bring up when chatting to women. Most of the girls I briefly liaised with in the late 1990s had shorter hair than me; annoyingly the one I liked the most prior to meeting the Natural Blonde was the one who disliked my hair the most.

The Natural Blonde's predecessor dumped me (for hair-unrelated reasons) in the summer of 2000 and immediately I decided on a fresh start, implausibly telling myself that having my locks snipped away would somehow mend my punctured ego and mildly grazed heart, consequently restoring my faith in womankind. I got together with the Natural Blonde within a month, and we're still together now. For the lion's share of that period I have forced myself into sensible hairdos.

I had a smart, short haircut on our wedding day last year and have refused to have anything more than cursory trims ever since (the type which hair experts say you need to keep it in good condition). Trouble is, only one section seems to be really growing and I'm forever nipping to the barber to make sure I don't look like the sax player from Spandau Ballet at the time of the Parade album. I want the sides and scalp to grow so I can have the option of ponytailing; instead I end up in serious mullet danger and this needs to be halted.

The fellows with whom I attend football matches mercilessly ridicule me over my hair. Then there are two of my closest friends in radio, Wesley and Alex, who have fabulous long locks and I frequently mutter jealous comments at them when they are out of earshot (Wesley is my age and has not had anything resembling a haircut for 16 years, and looks irritatingly fabulous). At my 80s Night in Stockport, the bar staff and half the regulars aim the line "how your hair is beautiful" from Blondie's Atomic at me with immeasurable sarcasm whenever I choose to play it. Lately The Tide Is High has received preferential treatment from me...

The male bar staff even dressed as me to join in a group of regulars' 80s party lately - the punters came as Madonna (bangles and fishnets), George Michael (CHOOSE LIFE T-shirt, wide shades) etc; the bar staff all bought semi-mulleted wigs in my alleged honour and wore them for six solid hours. I was flattered, and nothing else.

Few people have anything complimentary to say about my hair. The Natural Blonde moans about it constantly (and my mother hates all men with long hair) so the two most precious women in my life are in despair of me. The snoring next to me at night suggests that the Natural Blonde isn't losing sleep over my trichological shambles, and her double standards come to the fore when we watch Top Gear on telly.

Not only has James May re-grown his hair to her partial approval, but now Richard Hammond, the favourite male famous person of the Natural Blonde (apart from Michael Ball, the injustice of which is worth its own blog but I'm not writing it) is beginning to sprout extra locks (although there isn't a photo on the web yet to prove this; the one enclosed is illustratively useful only). It's styled, it's neat, it has a direction to go in and he looks annoyingly suited to it. The reaction from next to me on the settee was one of snorting derision; when I said I could look like that, she laughed and said it was impossible. It suited him, it wouldn't suit me, get it cut. I tried to explain that if I had three hours in a stylist's caravan prior to a television broadcast I'd be as handsome and attractive, with elongated hair, as Hammond. The reaction was even more dismissive. And down I sank into the cushion, waiting for the Star in the Reasonably Priced Car and hoping it would be somebody with poor barnetry habits. It was Helen Mirren.

I intend to pursue my quest for a return to hair of both length and neatness. I have done this before with success and, well, I'm doing it because I'm worth it, to coin a predictable phrase - sorry about that.

Oh, and any spelling errors are because my hair fell into my eyes. Sorry about that too.

"They are not bloody sausage dogs!"

I must use that expression every single day, either with the mild expletive removed in polite conversation, or in thought, or muttered under my breath.

Four boisterous but utterly beautiful Basset hounds live in the grounds of chez Rudd. It was always the caninic ambition of the Natural Blonde to own one if she were ever to become mummy to a dog after she met me. At that time, I had an old and wonderful Sheltie-cross called Paddy, who I'd taken on in his retirement years because the lady who had brought him up was suffering more and more with MS (or something else with initials). When he died, we mourned him for a short while and then began the Basset hunt.

Any dog owner will tell you that after the demise of their pet, the gap left behind is extraordinary. It hits you harder than non-animalists will ever get their head round; you find yourself, in the case of a dog, putting away now needless bowls and blankets and getting photos framed and placed in the areas where your parents may be. Paddy remains on top of my lounge bookcase to this day. And part of the process of grieving is not to replace (impossible), but certainly to fill the gap. And so we got Penny. The photo is of my beautiful Penny.

Bassets aren't the most obvious pets among the dog family. Aside from that cartoon malingerer in the Daily Mail and that one in Dukes of Hazzard, there hasn't been a lot of media representation of the breed over the years. Sara Cox has got one and was often papped walking him, but nobody ever paid any attention to the actual dog. The Beckhams bought one, and the Natural Blonde is frantic with worry about where he is now after Dave and Vicky got the Pickford's men in and went to Spain, and now Los Angeles. There was one in the Beale family in EastEnders for a while, but as is often the case in Albert Square, continuity let it down and the dog hasn't been seen or mentioned since pretty much the week it was introduced.

All this means that rarely will you ever see them advertised privately. The breed by nature is pedigree and high quality, and therefore initially expensive, so people choose to have one in advance rather than pick one by accident. If someone purchases a Basset or similarly high-reaching breed and then can't keep it, for whatever reason, they tend to just sell it back to the breeder at a loss and the breeder then uses their substantial contacts to re-home. We didn't know any of this at the time, but nonetheless there was a female Basset, a year old, in the Dogs section of the Hull Daily Mail the day we decided we were ready to get Paddy's old bed and bowls out again (but yes, we did invest in new ones). By the same evening, money and certificates had changed hands, and the Natural Blonde was bringing Devil In Disguise (kennel name - her litter was named after Elvis Presley songs) home with her. The family sold her because they'd been initially unable to have a baby and bought her as a substitute, then a totally unexpected pregnancy meant that both baby and dog were suddenly present, and dog missed out entirely. She ended up in a cage in the kitchen - not mistreated, but certainly understimulated and underexercised, bless her. They had given her the pet name of Pagan, for reasons connected to the kennel name, but she didn't quite seem enough of a devotee to Beelzebub for us to be convinced. She deserved a more familiarly girly name, so she became Penny.

With her came her documentation, and the Natural Blonde went off on a crusade which has kind of lasted to this day. She contacted the Lincolnshire kennels, introduced herself, nipped across the Humber Bridge to say hello, and over the next 12 months we had somehow recruited two more Bassets from them, loosely related to Penny. Private Benjamin (litter named after fictional soldiers) came first, an eight-week old puppy with the classic Basset "knackered and content" look whom Penny would come to mother, and then Blackjack (litter named after casino life), an over-long male with the world's dirtiest ears and scarediest disposition. They became Ruby and Bentley (the picture here is of Bentley) respectively. Ruby's first major contribution to the household was to eat an entire settee.

That is not a joke.

The walking process with Bassets is tough, as they are so individualised that you need eyes not just in the back of your head, but also in your legs, ears and any other bodily point which makes up a 360 degree line of sight. This became more urgent when Boris joined us. Boris, dear Boris. Best Mate is his kennel name (litter named after Cheltenham Gold Cup winners) and he is nothing like the others. He just took over the whole set-up. At this point, the Natural Blonde and I took the decision to re-house them; from the conservatory to the garage, which we'd had halved, fitted with hatches and doors, tiled, heated, and equipped with comfy beds and other doggy home-from-home gubbins. Honestly, we didn't put so much effort into refurbishing our own bathroom.

Boris is the loudest, naughtiest and toughest of the four; he reacts to other dogs less well, while the other three are all of the wag 'n' sniff variety. But he is ridiculously forgivable, as are they all. And now, with Penny at seven years of age and Boris at three, they are established around the village. Their twice daily walks prompt the same reactions - car drivers and passengers take their eyes off the road; drivers stare, passengers point and even through the more darkened windscreens you can lipread the words "Look at them dogs!" easily. And the local kids flock to us, asking all sorts of questions. But, really, "they are not bloody sausage dogs"! We get that all the time. They've been labelled as spaniels too, which makes me wonder exactly what sort of mutant spaniels are being secretly bred in our village. The four of them know their power - their look, laconic nature and almost appealing tendency to take not a blind bit of notice of anything I say amuses the locals. I should charge a fee, especially when all four of them choose to simultaneously roll on their backs. I'm sure they concoct that plan together in the privacy of their garage at night. When all four are off the lead, Boris (on the right here) runs ahead while Ruby (on the left) chooses not to run at all, but stand still and sniff each blade of grass in turn. And when two run off in opposite directions, you have a serious decision to make as to which one to chase. It's like being on Scruples.

Four is more than enough; despite one cantankerous, lifeskill-lacking neighbour's constant complaints the dogs are well behaved, sillily spoilt and deliriously happy in their boudoir. They never enter the house now except at bath time, and as we have cats too (who never go out) the two conflicting factions only see each other with panes of glass separating them. Nose to nose. That said, when escapee Bassets have made it into the house, it tends to be they who are afraid of the cats rather than vice versa. A cat's clawed slap can really dent a dog's pride, as well as its nose.

We've made a point of checking the local paper for Bassets regularly, not knowing what we'd actually do if one ever appeared, and we can count on one hand the number that have been advertised in the six years since we acquired Penny that very way, proving how fortunate we were to have made that decision to look when we did. There was one, however, just last week, and we simply can't have it. No room, possibility of upsetting the harmony between the four, plus the obvious extra expense with vets et al. So much do I adore this breed that I found myself texting friends in the vicinity asking if they wanted a dog (and, erm, did they have £550 to spare). Reason for sale, according to the ad, was an allergy, which is one step up from "we've got a baby and can't be arsed with the dog" which is what we got from Penny's previous owners. The Basset in question was female and eight months old, only a little younger than our Penny was in autumn 2001. It breaks my heart that I can't have her.

If you want a Basset hound, the worthiest way is through the Basset Hound Welfare, who are wonderful. They are constantly re-homing abandoned or unwanted Bassets, and several times a year associated folk and their luxuriantly-eared pooches meet up for long walks in renowned beauty spots; the reaction of Sunday walkers at Bolton Abbey or on Goathland's former railway line when they see 30 or so Bassets leading their way is always a joy to behold. We've even been asked if we're on a hunt - Mr Fox would be perfectly safe if so. No self-respecting Basset hound would follow a fox's scent when the more acceptable aroma of discarded sandwich or dead bird is encompassed by those lugs; lugs which the evolutionary process designed to capture and hold the scent back in 16th century France. And they're slower than even me; Mr Fox only needs to have working legs and he's away.

Basset Hound Welfare can be found here and there will be equivalents outside the UK - congratulations in advance on your choice of pet. Keep an eye on your settee.