Saturday, February 28, 2009


The last ten days have reinforced my conviction that humans can learn a good deal from animals. I am thinking in particular of dogs, but creatures at almost any stratum of evolution have something of value to tell us.

I am not unaware of my capacity to be a dog bore but I defend my frequent bending of my friends’ ears on the subject of our dogs by pointing out that we have listened patiently to their reports about their children for more than two decades without (much) complaint (at least, not to them). You might argue that dogs are not as “important” as children and I decline to engage the point. I will say, though, that dogs are assuredly a rather larger responsibility than children. There is not much mileage in packing dogs off to school or sending them to the high street with a shopping list and an injunction that they are to bring back the change (and not eat all the sausages on the way home). In the unfortunate circumstance that he attacked somebody, it is unlikely that your child would be, as they say, “put down”.

You expect that your children will grow up and leave you and you hope that they will duly outlive you, whereas a dog is for life, its span being something most likely to be subsumed within yours. While it might at a pinch survive ferally (quite a few do), a dog is entirely dependent on you, while in your charge, for its shelter, sustenance and general welfare. You can’t teach it to make itself an omelette or take its worming tablets on the due date.

Both my partner David and I were brought up with dogs and we have known many mutts belonging to others over the years. In his various domestic posts, David (who worked as “char to the stars”) often performed dog-sitting and dog–exercising duties and necessarily but easily bonded with his charges. As responsible and sensitive people, we manfully held off through many years of keen broodiness for a dog because we knew that our circumstances did not lend themselves. I have no doubt that many – perhaps most – dogs lead the “lives of quiet desperation” that Thoreau said were the lot of men. We wanted no dog of ours to enjoy less than a safe, stimulating and contented existence. Only in the last decade have we found ourselves able to make such provision.

The first and most defining aspect of dogs is that they are pack animals. Even if the pack consists of no more than the dog and a single owner, the dog nonetheless has its pack therein and needs to feel sure that the pack endures. Separation anxiety is one of the most common and most powerful stresses that a dog experiences. It follows then that a dog left on its own all day at home while the family – its pack – scatters is a dog that is profoundly miserable on a continuous basis. If the dog then tries to assuage its misery – veering from boredom through frustration and even to terror – with behaviour that a senior member of the pack (its master or mistress) deems to be destructive, it will perhaps be “punished” without gaining any sense of why this further misery is visited upon it.

Both of us are at home most of the time. Four hours is our limit for going out and leaving the dogs in the house, where they at least have the company of each other. Longer and we arrange for the neighbours to visit and let them out and, if necessary, to feed them. When we go away, we have house-sitters who know and happily look after the dogs.

We have our own field adjacent to our property in which the dogs are exercised. They are fed natural raw foods according to the BARF diet (see They do not suffer the indignity of being dressed in dog versions of human clothes and are not treated as if they are somehow “little people”. They are, by any standard, lucky dogs. None of this – nor can it – guarantees that they will lead trouble-free lives.

The senior of our dogs, at seven-and-a-half, is a Great Dane, named Fargo after a movie we both love. His likeness provides the avatar on this blog. More than any dog I have ever known, Fargo has been a supreme ambassador for his species. When we first took him to training class (which he still attends, if fitfully), he was alluded to by certain of the more nervous owners as “the beast”, but before long even the most reluctant had begun to dote on him. Now, when there is an exercise that obliges us to handle a dog other than our own, people clamour for his leash. Among our houseguests, he ranks with David’s cooking and the comfort of our guest rooms as one of the chief lures. Even those indifferent to dogs – it seems odd that we should know such people – are comparatively won over. He is that walking cliché, a gentle giant. People anyway do take him for a giant at some ten-and-a-half stone. In fact, he was the runt of an unthinkably large litter of 11 and, though sturdily knit, often stands a little below other Danes we meet. But I would gratefully accept a tenner from everyone who has, however “subtly”, ascribed to him some equine quality (“if you saddled him up, my little daughter would love to ride him, ho-ho-ho”). Fargo takes it all with better grace than do I.

Our Dane is in the twilight of his years. Decades – indeed, centuries – of selective breeding have produced many strains of dog that are much bigger than the animals from which they originated, but their organs have not grown apace. Big dogs have small dogs’ hearts and inevitably they fail sooner. If we get Fargo to ten – and, with his healthy lifestyle, we hope to do so – we shall have achieved something admirable. Meanwhile, he has this year undergone a sad little operation. Variously afflicted by anal polyps and occasional traces of blood in his water, he was thoroughly examined by our superb vet who determined that his issues were hormonal and that a complete and speedy remedy was castration. Most reluctantly we acceded and the unkindest cut was made. I shall ever recall the two little boys – perhaps eight years old – whom we and Fargo passed at the village fête some years ago, only to overhear the stage whisper “cor, did you see the balls on him”. David and I both knew to whom the remark referred.

It must be said that the dog has been unmanned – or undogged – with remarkably little effect that one might call deplorable. His attempts to make love to his favourite chair have declined and his enthusiastic (and noisy) autofellating in response to the protein rush of his supper of raw chicken wings has ceased entirely. There is no evidence of regret about this on his part, hence none on ours. The junior dog made a few half-hearted attempts to renew his bid to be top dog but soon abandoned the mission. Fargo seems perfectly reconciled to his new state and, happily for all of us, is no longer inclined to spend long sessions in licking his poorly bum for the simple reason that it is no longer poorly.

The younger dog is a little over five and he is a Petit Basset Griffon Vendéen. That is quite a rare breed in this country, rather more common in France – the Vendée is the region on the Atlantic coast immediately to the south of Normandy. The breed name indicates that he is a small (about the size of a Cocker Spaniel), low-slung, rough-coated hound. There is also a Grand version: we have surprisingly seen one in our town. He has a beard and moustache, Denis Healey eyebrows and a sunburst of hair between his eyes. Like Fargo, he is a scent hound but he has a much more cultivated nose. He is tricolore – white, black and tan – and carries his tail very erect and ever ready to wag. We call him Tati, after the great French comic and director Jacques Tati, in part because, while he is certainly blithe and drôle, he will never be lanky but he can always aspire to be so. Unfortunately, some people who are not cinéaste think his name is a girl’s and so, being pretty, he must be a bitch. Very properly, he barks at this nonsense.

We first clapped eyes on a member of his breed in Central Park and, polite Englishmen that we are, asked his off-hand Manhattan mistress if we might say hello to him. When we asked of what breed he was, she shrugged “PBGV” as if only out-of-towners like us would not know this. It isn’t the easiest breed name to remember but I recommend to friends that they think of him as Stevie’s PBGV.

Tati is a most energetic dog, full of enthusiasm for every next move. He has learned shrewdly how to handle the much larger Fargo and pays court to him, cleaning his ears and eyes regularly and smartly leaping out of the way when Fargo goes on one of his mad tazzes round the field, less frequently these days. I am acutely aware of the need to avoid anthropomorphising the dogs and so I write this with due thought. But I think Tati is a very kind little dog. That kindness, though, is not an intention; it is a result.

For all our dedication to a healthy regime, both of them have suffered dermatological problems. Such afflictions are anyway almost universal among dogs, especially those who, like ours, live in an environment that is also visited by foxes, deer, badgers, hedgehogs and all manner of other infection- and parasite-bearing wildlife.

Both dogs are regularly medicated in their exposed regions – ears, pits – but Tati’s troubles of this nature, harder to detect under his dense coat, are the more resistant to treatment and, following a battery of tests, the vet has now determined that he is atopic. This means that he is allergic to a wide variety of phenomena – pollen, grass seeds, dust mites, storage mites – and needs more regular treatment. A dedicated vaccination is being prepared for him, designed to alleviate the worst aspects of the condition, and we currently await the insurers’ decision as to whether to pick up the tab for this ambitious treatment.

Last year, Fargo injured his eye. This is not uncommon among dogs who are apt to stick their noses into things without much caution. The eye didn’t heal as fast as it should and, somewhat alarmingly, the vet decided to injure the eye again, following a well-established procedure, the result of which was that the eye soon healed completely. Early this year, Tati suffered a similar injury. His eye also failed to heal immediately; indeed the cornea became disturbingly cloudy. Then he began to misjudge distances and objects at night. Further examination suggested that there might be a deeper-seated problem and he was referred to a specialist. Then his condition rapidly worsened. At this point, we understood that his cloudy eye was his “good” eye and that the more serious matter concerned the lens in his other eye. The complication of a fierce infection in the affected eye now arose. By this time, the dog was visiting the vet daily and undergoing a regime of medication daily adjusted to meet the latest development in his condition. Like his atopic status, the problem with his lens appears to be hereditary.

The crisis has now, we believe, peaked. As I write, Tati is some 100 miles away, kept overnight at a seaside veterinary surgery where, this afternoon, he underwent an operation to remove the front lens of his right eye. This lens was in grave danger of becoming wholly detached and causing more extensive damage than would the operation. The result, we are assured, is that he will be no worse than long-sighted, a condition shared by David. With his unrivalled nose, he should be able to adjust very happily.

And what have I learned from this peculiarly harrowing ten days wherein, pretty much by the by, workmen have daily clattered above us removing and restoring about a third of the area of our roof? Well, it has been instructive to see how the dog adjusted to each development of his condition and attempted to compensate. There is no doubt that he was brought low – indeed, all but overwhelmed – by the complication of the infection, the pain of which needed to be addressed by painkillers. I choose my descriptions with care. I think it would be anthropomorphic to call him depressed but he was certainly, objectively subdued.

I have thought before – and these days have reinforced the thought – that dogs live wholly in the moment. They of course have memories but these might be properly characterised as sense memories: retrieving the appearance and especially the scent of someone who once petted them; retaining a few words of command; recognising the route to a place where they have been carefree; feeling that a meal is due. Tati has had to cope with a changing degree of sight. There was a day or two when he was effectively almost blind, particularly at night, and had to be led round the field. But he works at it, adjusting and compensating. When he returns home with impaired vision tomorrow, he will work with what he has rather than moping because of what he has not. Now that the antibiotics and soothing ointments have done their work and the pain and discomfort that afflicted him are lifted, he will soon get his mojo back. He will learn how to steer around the close hazards in the field and the house and how to cope with differing light levels.

The experience of watching a dog play the hand he is dealt makes one reflective. I have been thinking how the gifts that we humans have (and animals do not have) complicate as well as deepen our experience of existence. Because we have language, we have the means to articulate worry and anticipation, sympathy and intent. I have troubles of my own with my eyesight. Because I have language, I may learn about my condition and my prospects, my treatment and my options. Because I can describe my experiences, I retain them as narratives and so can assess and compare them in quite a detailed way. Unlike animals, humans do not live in the moment. Arguably we live far more in the past and future – I mean, simultaneously – than in the present.

To the question “What is mankind’s greatest invention or discovery?”, I have often thought the answer is not the conventional notion of fire or the wheel or the combustion engine or penicillin or reality television (joke) but the twofold skills that must be learned anew in every generation and by which we break free of nature and become humans: walking upright and talking. With these means, having made the wheel, we can stroll over to the next valley and tell the people there about it. By walking upright, we learn to ride upright and we free our forearms for tasks other than walking (making calls on our mobile phones, for instance). By using language, we create concepts and find the means of exploring and accounting for the world around us. These accomplishments are what Tati cannot do. Because he cannot stand and use his front paws and understand the notions of illness, disability, treatment and cure, he cannot medicate himself nor know to do so. I can do all these things but I cannot, like Tati, discard my known past or imagined future experiences and avoid speculation, calculation, hope and dread.

We are at once liberated and oppressed by our evolution. We have fashioned the world to fit with our upright stance so that most activities suit our facing forwards at head height, the hands free to perform tasks, the legs able to convey us or to execute manoeuvres. One price is that about a third of the human race suffers some degree of back pain or damage because it is not natural for us to walk, sit and do things upright; another is that many of us suffer from too much pressure on our legs and/or feet; and we fret about our armpits made sweaty because they are “unnaturally” kept less aerated than if we proceeded on all fours.

Because we have language, we have invented the notions of dismay, hope, resentment, loyalty, blame, admiration, mendacity, courage, love, hate and all the rest. These complications may have enriched but they have not necessarily lightened man’s short span. John Stuart Mill asked whether it was better to be a happy pig or an unhappy Socrates. The irony in the question is that only the unhappy Socrates would think to ask.

Friday, February 20, 2009


I was never one of those boys who couldn’t get his hands on a toy without taking it to pieces. I found myself to be mildly diverted by gadgets but only by what they could achieve, not by how they achieved it. In adulthood, I have never been seen as a pair of legs emerging from under a motorcar, feet pointing upwards. Indeed, I never even learned to drive. I have signally failed to attest to my manhood by stripping down a motorbike or dismantling a circular saw, two implements wholly alien to me. Changing the bulb in a torch is challenge enough. Sometimes I can’t even get the house keys to work.

So computers hold little intrinsic delight for me. By temperament and aptitude, I am a quill and vellum man. A computer is my friend if it does what I want it to do – indeed, does what I have been led to expect it can do for me – but beyond that I don’t care to know what goes on under the bonnet. Nor am I much given to taking delight in wrestling with – with a view to besting – a dumb but fiendishly clever object such as a programmed computer appears to be.

In a related matter, I derive little sustenance from the instruction books that come with modern electronic appliances. Time was, manuals were booklets of modest length, illustrated with colour photographs and expressed in simple, step-by-step directions. Now they are vast tomes hung about with line drawings and daunting diagrams, translated from the Japanese into unidiomatic English (and several other languages too, presumably with equal lack of feel and ear) and stupefyingly banal in their scope. For instance, they usually begin with tens of pages warning you against such unlikely behaviour as throwing the appliance into the bath while plugged into the mains, using it as a surface on which to stand a Bunsen burner or cut flowers in a vase of water, and allowing your gerbils to fornicate within its workings. Frankly, there ought to be graded electrical goods, some sold to geeks, some to grown-ups who eschew jargon but don’t need to be told the facts of life, and some to idiots. Naturally, I gravitate to Group B.

By now, my smarter readers will have intuited that my recent silence in these environs has been occasioned by PC purgatory. Actually, very specifically not PC. I am a Mac man, entranced around a decade ago by the newly launched iMac that seemed so cool and sleek and desirable. The thing served me well for a few years and was succeeded by a more recent model some three years ago. Perhaps because there is so much that is pleasing about the iMac, perhaps also because as I get older I get more sedentary, I surely spend the larger part of my waking hours in front of its screen, destroying my posture, worsening my RSI and further eroding my already compromised eyesight. My work and much of my communication, information and leisure activity resides in the iMac.

So being cut off from it is a big deal. The problem arose from a failure of the machine to accept or be able to read DVDs. This was a peripheral annoyance but I had stuff I wanted to burn onto DVD and I wanted my pound of flesh from my gizmo. So I bought a different brand of blank DVD, one that I was assured should be readily embraced by an iMac, but the problem persisted. A succession of friends now volunteered their services. Though of differing ages, they were united in being, to a degree, instinctive techies and/or mackies, able immediately upon being confronted with a computing problem to switch into that lateral thinking mode that utterly escapes me.

Not that they have yet been able to prevail. Acting on some strong advocacy, I bought a new external hard drive and loaded everything portable that lived in my iMac onto it, prior to conducting a reinstall of my system. The whole process anyway filled me with gloom, but the gloom turned to despair when the iMac started to react to the external hard drive as if it were a corrupted DVD and refused to recognise it. So I was cut off from all my stuff: it was inaccessible on an external hard drive that my iMac reckoned did not exist. Franz Kafka, thou shouldst be living at this hour.

Well, the successive pals wrestled. Eventually the external HD and the iMac began talking to each other again, sufficiently for me to be able to reload at least the important stuff onto the iMac whose restored operating system was, the while, taking on all the software updates that had been lost in the reinstall. During the course of this, one of my teacher-pals enunciated a rule for wrestling with one’s home computer: “try everything, especially when you know you’re completely right. Then try the opposite”.

Of course “try everything” can be a dangerous philosophy. I know enough to know that, when the iMac again refuses to recognise the external HD, as it is now again so refusing, I should not click on the button that allow me to “initialise” the HD because if I do I will lose everything on it. Meanwhile, my system is crashing and freezing rather more frequently than hitherto, and some programs have been tricky to reactivate – getting the desktop mailer to communicate fully with my mail server was a work of many hours – and others just require a lot of dull repetition to bring them back up to speed – for instance, while all the music stored on iTunes appears to be safely retained, none of my playlists that organise the material has survived, so I am having to rebuild those, track by track. And the original problem – the refusal to read DVDs – remains.

It is the sheer volume of time that all this consumes that is the most frustrating aspect, only bearable of course if at the end of it all I have a computer that bends to my will: we’re a ways off yet (if I may use an American expression). And of course I have not attempted since disaster struck to post a new blog entry until now. Only if you are reading this can you know that this part at least of my computing life still functions. If you are not reading this, it perhaps means that the issues remain and are still worse that I feared. Or, of course, you may be doing something altogether more nourishing. How could you ...

Tuesday, February 03, 2009


The story of the BBC and the appeal by the Disasters Emergency Committee for humanitarian aid to be distributed in Gaza has had a good run – almost a fortnight. My devoted readers, who naturally hold off from forming an opinion on such matters until I have instructed them as to what to think, may have grown impatient for my finding. I have stayed my hand because it seemed to me that the point I would make was so painfully obvious as to be superfluous. But no. No one, at least in my hearing or sight, has advanced my argument and so, if only out of compassion for my devotees, I unburden myself here.

The broad lines of the issue are readily sketched. Medication, surgical supplies and indeed safe places in which to tend wounds and save or amputate limbs; food; shelter; clothing and bedding; sanctuary; the basic infrastructure of trade and agriculture: all these and more are urgently required by the populace in Gaza. The DEC, a federation of 13 aid charities including Oxfam, the Red Cross, Save the Children and Christian Aid, readied a television appeal that, at the draft and shooting script stages, the BBC agreed to broadcast. Then the Corporation decided that, “to avoid any risk of compromising public confidence in the BBC’s impartiality in the context of a news story”, it would not after all record and carry the appeal. ITV cameras shot it instead and the short programme was carried by ITV, Channel 4 and Five. Sky followed suit with the BBC.

The DEC has been putting together these packages for years and the BBC has always been happy to transmit them. The first refusal to carry an appeal based on an objection concerning impartiality came from the BBC over the invasion of Lebanon by Israel in 2006, though it had broadcast the appeal for the Lebanese citizens whose homes were destroyed in the Israeli invasion of 1982. You can be sure that, both through official channels and by more informal means, various Jewish, pro-Israeli and Zionist interests will have worked on the BBC between 1982 and 2006.

Authoritative figures in politics and the Anglican church have weighed in to criticise the BBC’s decision. The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, declared that “this is not an appeal by Hamas asking for arms but by the Disasters Emergency Committee asking for relief. By declining their request, the BBC has already taken sides and forsaken impartiality”. The former BBC foreign correspondent and former independent MP, Martin Bell, wrote that “the coverage of the 22-day conflict was flawed by a misconstruction of the concept of balance – as if a war were a general election and the main protagonists entitled to equal airtime”. The DEC chief executive, Brendan Gormley, had made a similar point: “The BBC seems to be confusing impartiality with equal airtime”. But even the Board of Deputies of British Jews noted that “there is no doubt that any appeal which simply seeks to raise money for innocent civilians should be applauded”.

Sir Michael Lyons, chairman of the BBC Trust, makes a fair point when he says that “the level and tone of some of the political comment is coming close to constituting undue interference in the editorial independence of the BBC”. Ministers such as Douglas Alexander and Hazel Blears would have done better to decline to be drawn into this matter.

The BBC rulebook states that “impartiality is and should remain the hallmark of the BBC … It is a legal requirement and should also be a source of pride”. It is with this text at his back that the Director-General, Mark Thompson, has led the BBC’s counter-attack and refused to budge.

But here’s my take on this. By what criteria is the BBC’s coverage of Gaza – or of any other issue where different factions contend – to be read as impartial? Most of us got most of our information about the Israeli assault from television and print news coverage. That there was widespread revulsion towards that assault among people with no tribal axe to grind is evident. By a week ago, the BBC had received 15,500 complaints about its stance. That is fewer than the number of complaints engendered by the Ross/Brand farrago, which says a good deal about contemporary public concerns (and indeed the mobilising power of The Daily Mail). But it is still an impressive response. Public confidence in the BBC’s editorial judgment has clearly eroded.

Is the conviction that the BBC has been over-zealous in applying its own rules in fact a result of sympathies among the public fostered by the BBC coverage that is supposed to be impartial? It was clear to me, as a regular viewer of BBC Television News, that a great deal more emphasis was placed day-by-day on the impact of missiles and then ground weapons fired into and in Gaza than on the impact of rockets sent into southern Israel by Hamas. But then that is only right and proper. The casualties in Gaza were a hundred times those among Israelis and many of the latter were invading military (some were victims of “friendly fire”). Had the BBC angled its coverage to favour Palestinians in the ratio 100:1, it would have been remarkable but would it have been merely just? Had the BBC made as much of the Israeli casualties as of the Palestinian, that indeed would have been a travesty of the facts.

But what are facts in these stories? In the first place, the facts that are presented by the reporters and their crews are necessarily selective. The information gleaned on the ground and passed on by reporters may be polluted by propaganda or may in subterranean ways of which the reporter is not even aware be skewed by the reporter’s own inclinations and prejudices. Furthermore, in recent years, very much more comment and “interpretation” has been permitted to – indeed, encouraged from – location reporters. These days, to-camera pieces in particular, narrated footage in general, often carry very little objective information. News reports tend to be largely a mishmash of rumour, conjecture, prophesy and received opinion.

How scrupulous, would you say, is the BBC on the matter of, for instance, Robert Mugabe’s government in Zimbabwe? President Mugabe himself would dismiss the BBC’s coverage as “all lies”. Indeed, because of these “lies”, the BBC is banished from the country. Our own feelings about Mugabe are substantially created by impressions formed on the basis of a very few verifiable facts – the rip-roaring inflation, the evidence of refugees leaving for South Africa – and a lot of subjective allegations and images – claims of repression, descriptions by Mugabe’s enemies of the continuing inability to agree on the composition of the new government, Mugabe’s own lofty disdain, anecdotal evidence of hardship and disease. But the “crisis” in Zimbabwe, you could argue, is a construct fashioned by BBC reporters. We want to think badly of Mugabe and the BBC plays to that prejudice. And what else do we have to go on?

What of other issues? Is the BBC impartial about racism, the fall of the Berlin Wall, gang culture, Andy Murray, climate change, Holocaust denial, paedophiles, the Queen? The BBC would no doubt wish to unbundle these matters and would then argue that it cannot be expected to stand neutral on illegality and that stances subsumable under notions of patriotism do not require disinterest. It ought, though, to accept that philosophical debate would be appropriate about each element, and that satisfying no one on anything is not exactly the highest common denominator to aim for.

What the BBC cannot be allowed to offer as an acceptable method is the one alluded to by Martin Bell, treating war – and by extension every issue – as though it were a general election. This is the philosophy of the man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Nor, as I have argued, does the BBC anyway uphold this kind of balance, however vaunted its fastidiousness. Even its coverage of parliamentary and party politics – the stuff that is most nearly like a general election and is most readily policed according to notions of equal or proportionate airtime – is plainly moulded by such subjective and highly partial notions as whether the government (or indeed each of the opposition parties) is “in trouble”. I am convinced that some wonk at, say, the Glasgow Media Centre, could soon come up with a chart that showed that by far the majority of news bulletin mentions of any figure in British politics could be listed under the general heading “in trouble”. After all, it is trouble – whether prime ministers up against it or children being killed or the south of England evidently paralysed by a heavily predicted snowfall – that gets the news editors’ cheeks up. In that sense, the row about the BBC’s refusal to broadcast the Gaza appeal was actually nothing more than a thundering good news story.