Sunday, 16 May 2010

Fourteen Years of Mild Irritation.

Pets. What’s the fucking point, eh? The dog, for example. Fourteen years of mild irritation terminated by an ephemeral burst of sorrow. I mean, come on, you could simply gouge yourself on the thigh with a steak knife every day and get the same result without having to go out walking in the rain or clean liquid faeces from the sofa. And it’d be cheaper, too. Put it this way, if they ever re-make Ring of Bright Water, I’ll be the guy with the spade for only a minimal fee.

Because look what we spend on the buggers. We spend more pampering our pets than the combined GNPs of the world’s forty poorest countries (Figures from, correct at the time of going to press). Do we contribute to a charity that will provide a fresh, renewable supply of water for eighteen million fly-blown Africans, or do we pop down to Pets-R-Us for some hamster-bedding?

Again, what’s the point? Fuck it, they’re going to die in the end anyway. Pets, I mean, obviously.

But what is it about the little bastards that gets to us? A couple of summers ago my poor old cat went paws-up. I had fish-related experience in this area, having stood by the toilet on many occasions as my daughter flushed Pudge or Goldie off to the great U-bend in the sky as I pretended to wipe tears from my eyes and wondered what was for dinner. But how would a four-year-old girl react to a dead cat? My wife and I picked her up from nursery and sat her down across from us at the kitchen table. We set our expressions to solemn, steepled our fingers, and adopted the usual pose you take when you lie to your kids. My wife nudged me. I was to start the proceedings, then. I suppose that’s because I’m a writer, and fiction is just telling lies for fun and profit.
“Anyway,” I said, “Mummy was taking Mr Tubbs to the cat play-area, and they drove past a lovely farm, all run by little pussy cats. There were pussy-cats driving tractors and pussy-cats cutting hay, and Mr Tubbs said he wanted to go and live there, so…”
“Is he dead, Daddy?”
“Yes, sweetheart.”
“Can I get a kitten?”

Enter Vladimir. I held out for a year, which is pretty good going. He’s ginger. He’s so fucking ginger that if he was human it’d be a registered disability, and he’d get a Motability car and a flid badge, and he’d join a self-help group run by Rupert Grint and Bianca off of Eastenders and everything. He’s fallen off the ginger tree and hit every branch on the way down. He’s been for a makeover on Planet Hucknall. He’s a ginger minger, and I loathe the very litter he shits in. Well I did, until recently.

It was a lovely autumn day, and my wife had gone to work. I had been left in charge of the washing, which had been colour-coded for me before she’d left so I wouldn’t make any serious mistakes I’d need to be told off about afterwards. I flung the windows wide to let the air in, so that the scents of flowers and beautiful autumn breezes could have a chance to overpower the reek from the cat litter tray and the lingering odour of the dozens of “little accidents” the fucking animal had had since we’d got the fucking thing.
“Where’s Vlad?” my daughter asked an hour or so later, and I’m afraid I was unable to tell her. I didn’t have the facts at my fingertips regarding Vlad-location. So we had a look around, but we couldn’t see him. He was probably off impaling something smaller and cuter and furrier than himself.

Then I had a thought, a very bad thought indeed. The last load that had gone into the washing machine had been quite heavy. All the bedding, on which the little fucking ginger bastard liked to sleep. I considered it best not to mention this thought to my daughter, so I sauntered out of the sitting room, whistling, and wandered into the kitchen, giving the washing machine a sidelong glance. There was nothing obvious in the little porthole – no boiled cat, no torn-off legs, no scum of soapy ginger fur, no milky-eyed, bloated face pressed up against the perspex. None of the usual signs you come to expect when you boil the cat. It was just full of washing. I considered the possibilities. I could get a crowbar and force the door of the machine off, but it had been running on a hot programme for forty minutes, so it wasn’t as if there’d be a life to save, and I wasn’t sure if you could claim for this kind of damage on the household insurance. I could try and find the manual to see how to abort a programme, drain the machine and open the door. I could phone a helpline (“If you have locked your pet in the washing machine, press 4…”). But in the end, I just waited.

A hot wash takes a long time. My daughter went off to check the garden and the street. Nothing. I thought about the day after we got Vlad. I’d fallen asleep and he’d climbed up onto my chest and dozed off himself, lying there, about the same size and weight as a child’s slipper. I thought about the time he’d lain on his back under the dog, batting the tip of her tail and ignoring the threatening growls. I thought of him curled up asleep on my daughter’s pillow. Time ticked on. The washing machine began to spin at 1500 rpm. There would be no saving anything now, but at least he’d have a clean corpse that smelled of Lenor Alpine Freshness, and his fur would be all fluffy and nice, and my wife had just bought new shoes and we hadn’t thrown away the box yet. Finally the programme ended and the machine lock clicked off and I pulled the contents out and prepared to check them for ginger fur.

Extreme Horse Panic®

A philosophical Christmas parlour game for an unlimited number of humans and a horse.

How to play: the humans shut themselves into one room of a house and place the horse in one of the other rooms. Then they worry out loud about what it’s doing for a pre-determined period before going to check.
‘Oh, fuck, the sound system! The flatscreen TV and the computer, not to mention the living room carpet.’
‘Bastard’s going to eat the fruitbowl and shit on the kitchen floor.’
And so on…

Now, it’s a philosophical game, this. In existentialist terms, as long as you remain locked in your room, the horse is both alive and dead, there and not there, and its actions are both done and not-done until you check. The horse is a piece of substantive dualism. Substance dualism is a type of dualism most famously defended by Rene Descartes, who said that there are two fundamental kinds of substance: mental and material. According to his philosophy, Cartesian Dualism, the mental does not have extension in space, and the material cannot think, so if you think about your horse, it has no substance, and if it actually exists, it has no control over its mental processes. Its actions are then entirely random, so the beauty of this game is that you can worry about it doing absolutely anything, from eating your pot-plants to writing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. You don’t have to limit your fretting to horsey attributes. For all you know, the bloody animal could have developed opposing thumbs and hosed down the local population with a rapid-fire assault weapon.

The point is, of course, that Extreme Horse Panic® can actually be played without using a horse. You can eliminate the middle-horse by citing philosophical precedent. In his Essay on Phenomenological Ontology (1943), Jean-Paul Sartre states that the expectation of the horse is enough. If the horse is actually there, and has shat on the carpet or won Junior Masterchef, our expectations are fulfilled. If the horse is not there, a philosophical negation has occurred, but it doesn’t really matter, because in our minds, it’s dropped a great big turd onto the floor anyway. It’s a bit like Deal or No Deal in that respect, except with Sartre instead of Noel Edmonds. Your little red box contains £250,000 right up until the moment you open it and find it’s only ten quid and everybody points at you and laughs. So, here’s the real deal. Don’t ever open the box! Use it as a hypothetical deposit on a new house. Find a mortgage consultant with a degree in philosophy, tell him you have £250,000 that exists in a state of both being and nothingness and get yourself a nice little semi (warning: don’t try this with builders.) That’s how international banking has worked, right up to that moment a year or so back when some stupid fucking pragmatist said: ‘show me the money’, and brought the world tumbling down.

Anyway, back to the horse. Let’s look at it epiphenominologically, because Descartes has given us a duality that needs exploring. The history of epiphenomenology goes back to the post-Cartesian attempt to solve the riddle of Cartesian Dualism, of how the mental and the substantive might possibly interact. The idea that even if the horse were substantive and conscious, nothing could be added to the production of its behaviour, was first voiced by La Mettrie (1745), and then by Cabanis (1802), and was further explicated by Hodgson (1870) and Huxley(1874). So the shit it did on your carpet would be both done and not-done until the existence of the horse had been verified, and therefore, while the game’s participants remain in seclusion, the animal only needs to exist in the mind of the players. Which is why there’s no real need for an actual horse. You’re in the box because you’ve put yourself there, because you want to be there, and the horse may or may not be out in the universe, as a kind of reversal of the whole Schrodinger’s Cat thing. But if you have used a real horse, you’d better pop out and check on it before the French eat it.

So, welcome to the fun world of Extreme Horse Panic®, a seasonal game for all the family. Soon-to-be-released variations on the game include Slight Bunny Worry, for the under-eights, Vague Terrier Confusion, for the over-70s, and Mega Rhino Terror, for those gung-ho twats who enjoy bungee jumps and white-water rafting and being stung through the heart by fish.

And the great thing is that you don’t have to stop with horses, bunnies, or small yappy-type dogs. Those of you with imaginations can broaden the notion until it encompasses the whole glorious sweep of panic, guilt, delusion, cruelty and misery that defines the human condition. It’s basically a game of worry, and you can replace the horse with whatever you want! That’s the beauty of it. Extreme Postman Panic – what bills will come flopping through your letterbox this morning? Hide yourself away in your bedroom and you’ll never need to know. Profound Tax Concern – will this be the year they audit your books? Who cares! Shut yourself in the kitchen, put your thumb in your mouth and rock yourself gently to and fro as you stare into the middle distance humming Susan Boyle’s greatest hits for ever. Suspicious about what the missus is doing when you’re out there working your arse off to keep her in Thornton’s Continental Assortment? Then why not play Increasing Cuckoldry Suspicion, in which you lock your wife into a room with all the neighbours then pace the hall on your own for a designated period until you start to imagine you can hear rhythmic squeaking and a whole gamut of noises she never makes when she’s with you. Purists may argue against this, citing the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and the fact that playing the game from the horse’s perspective is like playing Russian Roulette and taking on the role of the bullet. You are tampering with the laws of causality, and this may have dangerous effects vis-à-vis your on-going state of existence. And remember to watch out for the neighbour or friend that slaps you on the back and says: “yeah, I’m up for a bit of that, mate”, with slightly too much eagerness as your wife runs off to slip into something less comfortable.

Oh, and if anyone asks you to do an impression over the festive period, simply grab a piece of traditional French headwear off the heads of one of those philosopher bastards and hurl it across the room. Voila! Chuck Berry. Enjoy your Christmas.

[Postscript: I am greatly indebted to fellow scribbler and online colleague Roland Denning. Roland is a former philosophy student, and he courteously pointed out to me that I was putting Descartes before the horse, something I hadn’t spotted, as my pretentiometer was set too high for the pun layer. Roland went on to tell me of a game from his own student days in which Schroedinger’s Cat was compared to Mrs Slocombe’s pussy, as they were both there and not there until substantiated, which wasn’t going to happen on a family show. Personally, I believe alcohol could have been involved at some level. By the way, Roland’s book, The Beach Beneath the Pavement, is very good indeed.]


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