I’m going to be more careful from now on, because it turns out that my wife sometimes reads this column. Apparently, when I wrote last week that the reason we gave up sending Christmas cards was that it was a vaguely depressing and cynical exercise, I was wrong. The reason is to save trees and/or the planet.
Anyway, now that I know that she sometimes reads this, I’m going to take the opportunity to drop a big hint. I really wouldn’t be too upset at all if we got a puppy for Christmas this year.
Now, you might think that, as a grown man, I could buy one unilaterally, but that’s not how a marriage works. Besides, we’ve become a cat household, which is something I never imagined would happen, having grown up on a farm where dogs ruled. There were never fewer than three of them: two sheepdogs and one labrador, which is the standard ratio. There were a couple of cats, too, but they knew their place, which was out in the barns.
My wife, well, I can see now that there is a pattern here: she’s a PC while I’m a Mac; she is a Catholic while I was raised an Anglican; she is a cat person whereas I am a great believer in compromise.
And so it has come to pass that we have three cats, and they are colour coded: black, brown and grey. The black one is called Blackie, the brown one Brownie and the grey one is called, that’s right, Chicken, a name given to her by our youngest child.
Don’t get me wrong; I am quite fond of them. Well, the first two at least. Chicken, though, is a psychopath who spends all her time hissing at Blackie.
But if you have been brought up with dogs, which are uncomplicated creatures and give their love to humans unconditionally, you never quite get the hang of cats. If you bid a cat to come and sit on your lap for a stroke it will look at you with utter contempt in its eyes. It may come over later, in its own time, or it may not.
And what is it with cats and food? They make a big fuss telling you how hungry they are and then, when you put out a bowl of their favourite expensive cat food – lamb in jelly, at the moment – they just stare at it as if you have placed a rotten cabbage in front of them. Later the plate will be empty. Is it pride? I just don’t know.
As Churchill said, cats look down on you, dogs look up to you, but pigs treat you as equals. And, actually, the pigs are another reason I haven’t put up much of a fight about having a dog. I have two of them, you see, that I keep as pets in a little patch of woodland behind our house. Embarrassed though I am to admit this, I often find myself chatting to them, on even terms.
But dogs are the ultimate companions, especially in retirement, when they force you to take regular exercise. My parents always take their labrador out for a bracing walk every day, even when the foul weather means they would rather not.
And knowing this to be the case, I was staggered to hear a retired school governor being interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme the other morning. Animal Lifeline, an animal rescue charity, has told him that, at 71, he is too old to adopt a rescue dog, even though he is fit and healthy. He made the reasonable point that, as the Government expects you to carry on working until 70 these days, looking after a dog, even a lurcher, which is what he wanted, really doesn’t seem like too much of a challenge.
Can you imagine trying to take a cat for a walk, by the way? And why has there never been a bumper sticker slogan reading “A cat is for life, not just for Christmas”? I think we know, don’t we. No one wants a cat for Christmas, and everyone wants a puppy, preferably a big-eyed, pink-tongued labrador.
Or a pony. Each year on Christmas morning when I give my wife a present she rattles it and asks: “Is it a pony?” It’s what she always wanted as a little girl, and never got.