Wednesday, September 30, 2009


“The last throw of the dice” is the main headline on today’s Guardian front page over a report on the PM’s conference speech. I immediately banged off my letter to the paper: “I didn’t realize the general election was this week”. They won’t run it, though. They don’t much care for my letters haranguing them for their coverage.

The continuing assumption in the media that the election is already lost is seriously damaging the credibility of the media itself as well as undermining the Prime Minister. That the Tories will win is entrenched as a foregone conclusion so that it gradually transforms into a self-fulfilling prophesy: there will come a point when so many natural and potential Labour voters take as read, consciously or subconsciously, that it’s all over bar the shouting that they won’t bother to go out to vote; the no-shows will mount into such numbers that the more motivated Tory vote must prevail.

The standfirst on Polly Toynbee’s column yesterday said it all: “The election may be lost, but an inspired fightback could give its bright young candidates the chance to rebuild the party”. That isn’t actually what she wrote in her piece – standfirsts, like extracted quotes, frequently rewrite or paraphrase the source and then the meaning changes – but it fairly summarises the stance that she and every other Guardian columnist has taken for a year and more.

You might expect them to remember their electoral history. We’ve all seen the famous wire photograph of President Harry S Truman holding aloft like a victory emblem the premature front page story “Dewey Wins”, another result that was a foregone conclusion. I vividly recall a double-page spread in The Observer (not then The Guardian’s stable-mate) the Sunday before the election of 1970: it was headlined “The agony of Edward Heath”. The following Sunday, Heath was forming his government. That story was wrong five days before the election, not eight months. But, as I’ve noted here before, the BBC’s exit poll gave Labour the victory on the night of the 1992 election and Bob Worcester called the presidency for John Kerry on the night of the 2004 American elections. Angela Merkel was not expected to be comfortably re-elected last weekend in Germany, even after the polls closed. It ain’t over till it’s over.

Now admittedly all but the first of these failed predictions are over-estimations of the vote won by parties of the centre-left, whether in government or opposition. Electorates everywhere tend to the cautious and conservative and indeed Conservative. Parties of the right – including old Communist parties and other reactionary forces – tend to think of themselves and to be seen by their electorates as “the natural party of government”. Parties that are liberal in fact as well as in name – the Liberal Parties in Australia and Canada would not be deemed very liberal by most liberal-inclined people in Britain – tend to be elected only as brief respites from long-serving and/or corrupt right-wing regimes that have lost significant support in the largely apolitical middle ground.

Even after 13 years in power – its longest stint ever in Britain – Labour is objectively the alternative rather than the default ruling party. If the Tories don’t come back in 2010, that really will signal a seismic shift in Britain’s political landscape.

What we voters need to bear in mind – and the politicians even more so – is that the election won’t be won and lost until election day itself. What happens then is what counts and nothing before then – no opinion poll, no columnist’s opinion, no conventional wisdom among the chattering classes – means diddly-shit. Until then, as William Goldman wrote repeatedly in his enthralling account of working in Hollywood, Adventures in the Screen Trade: “NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING” [his caps]. The confident assumption of all the commentators is futile and pointless. If they turn out to be wrong, they look incredibly foolish (and I shall be writing another letter for The Guardian to decline to publish, urging the paper to sack its high-paid “experts”). If they turn out to be right, where’s the triumph in subscribing to so commonplace an opinion? Who will have the neck to crow “told you so”? Perhaps only me if Labour is returned.

To her credit (although, frankly, it’s not much credit, now, is it?), Toynbee did, in her piece today, address some of the policy both stated in and omitted from Brown’s conference speech yesterday. But she still described it, at the outset, as “not ‘the speech of a lifetime’ they said he must make. But it was probably the last prime ministerial conference speech of his lifetime”. Her paper’s coverage didn’t quote a key passage in Brown’s address – “ the election to come will not be about my future. It’s about your future: your job, your home, your children’s school, your hospital, your community. It’s about the future of your country” – because it doesn’t suit the media’s concentration on personalities, crises and party manoeuvres. If the media chose to concentrate on policy and ideology, it would have to forego the simpler fun of constructing the verbal equivalent of a Steve Bell cartoon version of politics.

The danger is that, in following broadcasting’s reduction of politics to a kind of game show for (political) celebrities, the written media changes the nature of the democratic process. If the election of 2010 becomes an X Factor final between Brown, Cameron and Clegg rather than a well-informed national reaction to the direction of national policy, a rather different question is being asked and answered even than was resolved by the American electorate as recently as last November.

At least one distraction has been laid to rest by the conference – temporarily, anyway. Last weekend, the media was again speculating about Brown’s chances of actually leading Labour into the next election. Already, that fox has been shot. It shows how a couple of days can rewrite the agenda. Now Labour needs to despatch another canard, the one that says that Labour “cannot” win the election. Actually, this is not so difficult. The media has long experience of striking a stance that is completely antithetical to the pose it adopted just last week and assuming that its audience will notice no discrepancy. “There is nothing in life that is inevitable” Gordon Brown concluded yesterday. “It is the change you choose”. He’s not wrong.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


The case of Baroness Scotland and the Tongan housekeeper – one for Poirot, surely – is the absolute type of the pickles into which the government seems to find itself pitching almost on a daily basis. Whatever the eventual upshot, it looks like a lose-lose situation.

The bones of it are these: Lady Scotland is the Attorney General, the first woman ever to hold the office and only the second black woman (after Valerie Amos) to have a seat in the cabinet. She was a junior minister, though not in the Justice Department, when legislation was passed making employers liable for employing illegal immigrants. It emerged last week that she had hired a woman whose visa had long expired. A fine of £5,000 – half the maximum the law allows – has been imposed.

This is a sorry situation. Patricia Scotland is clearly a diligent and honourable minister and in every way an ornament to a government short on style and grace. But she is a law officer. Like Caesar’s wife, she must be above suspicion. The test of her probity is harsher than one imposed on you or me. Her somewhat callow dismissal of the offence as equivalent to neglecting to pay the congestion charge does not stand much scrutiny: for that offence, the standard penalty charge is £120. On the other hand, this remark, much quoted in the press, does not actually appear in the Sky News video of its interview with her, the alleged source of the comparison.

Scotch mist (from BBC News website)

No doubt guided from Number 10, Scotland has rolled with the punch and palmed off the inevitable opposition and press cries for her head. This has been the method adopted in just about every case where a minister’s judgment, honesty or loyalty has been called into question and in the majority of such cases the minister has after all gone, just later rather than sooner. It’s the least good option. Saying you’ll stay, along with Gordon Brown saying you have his complete confidence, only pays dividends if two things happen: the shemozzle completely dies away and is forgotten and no bad smell, however faint and indefinable, attaches to you. The best course, but the least often taken, is to resign at once and work diligently from the backbenches to restore your reputation. Peter Hain might have pulled that off if he hadn’t taken so long to resign but some taint still attached to him and, since he rejoined the cabinet, he has been put in to bat for the government far less frequently than heretofore. Charles Clarke might have been back in government by now (not that he deserved to be in office in the first place, in my view) if he could have kept his bloody trap shut.

Now Patricia Scotland has been put in a (surely) untenable position by the resignation of a parliamentary private secretary in her department. Stephen Hesford told the BBC that “you shouldn’t be in a position where the office that you hold could be called into account for something that you’ve done or that you could possibly embarrass the government”. He may not put it very cogently but he’s certainly right. There can be little doubt that he is not alone in his view on the Labour benches.

If Scotland clings on now, she will take a long time to rebuild her authority. If she resigns now, she will look indecisive and weak. Moreover, Number 10’s guidance once again proves to have jumped the wrong way. For here is the nub of this particular embarrassment: one of the senior law officers in the land has discovered to her heavy cost that a piece of legislation brought in by this government is extremely difficult to observe, even by one so close to the matter of legality.

The status, rights and obligations of economic migrants and other seekers of “a better life” in the UK remain unclear and impossible to police. That is precisely because the government – like all its predecessors – has failed to address the matter root and branch. New Labour has now had twelve years to put this right so the phrase “like its predecessors” excuses nothing. Nor indeed, for all its pious talk on the matter, has New Labour done anything meaningful to assist career women who also have families, which is why Patricia Scotland found herself employing a housekeeper in the first place and why such responsibilities always seem to devolve to working women rather than working men.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


The political parties are now competing to look for ways to render more palatable the raising of taxes and the lowering of public spending. Here are some suggestions.

1) Slap a considerable tax hike on alcohol and smoking materials but ring-fence it entirely for the NHS. The tax can be presented as a charge for the “nanny-state” treatment drinkers and smokers will need from the health service in the future. Such targeted taxation is both socially constructive and morally defensible – and rather more effective than the British Medical Association’s advocacy of a ban on advertising and sponsorship. It puts the onus back on the individual to take responsibility for his behaviour. A further range of surcharges might be imposed on fast foods, on food packaging and, eventually, on all processed and perhaps even non-organic foods. Food producers will have an incentive to put themselves in a position where they can demonstrate the healthy nature of their ingredients and processes. This is taxation as organic carrot rather than as resented stick.

2) The government should introduce punitive charges against those whose drunken behaviour necessitates the calling out of emergency services. Specific spot charges for the handling of incidents need not be the thin end of a wedge of general charging for police and/or paramedic services; indeed, voters generally would welcome knowing that they are not having to pay for the clearing up after anti-social indulgence in town centres. This would be a targeted surcharge that would also win a lot of votes.

3) If the courts stopped committing those convicted of non-violent crime to prison, there would be no need for capital expenditure on new gaols. Financial crimes could be countered with swingeing financial penalties over a commensurate number of years (those convicted would have their finances regularly audited by court-appointed accountants). Other white-collar crime, burglary and petty offences could be penalised by rigorous regimes of community service. Incarceration would be reserved for those who are found by the courts to constitute a danger to the public. This way society benefits from – rather than paying the keep of – the supervision of all but its most recalcitrant and antisocial transgressors.

4) Announce an imminent date for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. This would be a popular change of policy. That our occupation of parts of another sovereign state keeps our streets safe from terrorists is a theory, not a fact. Many of us argue that our presence in Islamic countries rather recruits terrorists with a grudge against Britain: “don’t mess with the Moslems” as last week’s convicted would-be airline bomber declared on his suicide video. Nations that do not take it upon themselves to police the world do not, by and large, have a problem with terrorists. But here’s the clincher: we simply can’t afford this monstrous expense. Let the UN take on the task of making the world safe. That’s what it’s for.

5) Then begin scaling down our entire military capacity, starting with Trident. Britain’s present status in the world does not require us to remain armed to the teeth. Maintaining nuclear capacity and a military strength that invites our presence in every international conflict is colossally expensive. We have far greater need for renewed infrastructure, libraries, schools and university places that do not impoverish those that win them. That is what the electorate wants.

6) Bring in a new top tax level of 100 percent for all those remunerated (including supposed bonuses and share options) to the tune of £1million or more per year. In a recession or even not in a recession, nobody has need of more than £1million per year. “Oh,” the city will squeal, “but there will be a haemorrhage of talent to other countries”. To which I have a one-word reply: “Goodbye”. There might be some departures among those who are more interested in raking in the shekels than finding job satisfaction. But frankly the rest of the world is not so short of talent of its own that it would come recruiting here in significant numbers. In any case, few of the city fat cats have demonstrated much in the way of talent in recent years. What the public justly resents is that these titans of business get paid bonuses that make you clench your arse-cheeks even when their businesses are tumbling down the lavatory pan. Had I been a government minister, I would have tendered my resignation because Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling did not make agreed levels of pay restraint a condition of the bank bail-outs that they offered on the tax payers’ behalf.

7) Scrapping the ID cards is a no-brainer and it seems certain to happen whichever party forms the next government. Dismantling much of the surveillance state ought to be on the agenda too. Britain’s infrastructure of surveillance is, as so often noted, the most extensive in the world, yet so many recent cases have shown that the surveillance simply doesn’t work. Whether it is Britain’s tradition of a chronic lack of maintenance skills or the public’s slyness in avoiding being seen while at nefarious activities, the investment is clearly not worth it.

8) I do not favour cutting into the culture of benefits. It always used to be that the left supported benefits even when some people received them who didn’t need them and the right supported cuts in benefits even for people who could not manage without them. But that distinction has become blurred in both directions. New Labour is more ready to let deprived people swing in the wind and the Tories are more anxious at least to give lip service to the welfare state. Better that we risk losing the supposed talent of asset strippers and financial speculators than that we starve a whole class of people that might generate all sorts of talent.

The Chancellor warns of hard choices. These are easy ones.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


“Product placement” is to be allowed on evening programmes on ITV. Hurrah! It’s what I have been waiting for: the clinching factor that ensures that I will never ever watch an ITV programme again. After all, once The South Bank Show has finished its final run that began at the weekend, there will not even be a residual sense of regret at missing any of ITV’s naff programming.

It tells you a lot about broadcasters’ contempt for both the audience and, more bizarrely, its own output. What is “product placement” for? Why, to catch the attention of the audience and drop a cookie-like presence into its brain so that when, god help it, it next goes to buy, say, “oven chips”, it will be sure to buy the brand that was “placed” on the telly.

But if you’re looking at the product, you’re not looking at the programme. What is the point of poor, unregarded Piers Morgan struggling to wrest every nuance from his subtle but definitive appraisal of the caterwauling of some no-talent more than ready to be god’s next gift to the showbiz if the audience is transfixed by the can of cola that he is the while throwing down his neck in a wincingly reluctant attempt to fulfil his obligation to the sponsor? How can we be sure that we are keeping up with Miss Marple’s reasoning as she reaches for the conclusion of her analysis of the way the easily-overlooked facts point to the least likely person in the room as the murderess when our concentration has been shattered by our noticing that the livery of the carefully displayed packet of tea biscuits that the dear lady simultaneously reached for is not quite in period with the noticeably branded computer games console not so very idly discarded on the arm of her armchair?

It’s bad enough that in-programme advertising breaks destroy the rhythm and continuity of movies and other material that was not designed for interruptions and impose an infrastructure of such interruptions on made-for-television programmes that otherwise would lay out a seamless argument. Sport has become unwatchable on television (unless your brain is inured to tuning out visual interference) because the venues, the equipment and indeed the players are festooned with logos and slogans. There have been sporting events (and music gigs too) where bouncers have refused entrance to ticket-holders unless they surrender some item they are carrying that bears the brand name of a sponsor’s rival. Lately it seems – the only sport I see on television is in snatches on news bulletins so the developments that I notice may have been a long time coming – there are animated hoardings around the edges of football pitches, expressly designed to take the eye and so rob the play itself of attention. In other sports played on greensward (but not yet in football, I think), sponsors’ logos are painted in perspective on the grass so that they are readable from the master camera position but appear merely as weird shapes from any other angle. What would happen if, say, a sliding rugby player did such violence to the logo that it no longer performed its promotional function? Would the game have to be stopped so that a re-spray could be effected? Are there painters standing by against that very eventuality?

More seriously, why do clubs want to collaborate in such destructive exercises? Don’t they care that viewers are distracted from the play? Because believe me, if the advertising did not succeed in its aim to take the eye from the sport, the advertisers that pay big money to be allowed so to disfigure sporting venues would not go to the trouble.

Truly, the thick end of the wedge that came into British broadcasting with the setting up of ITV in 1955 has arrived. People still argue that the BBC should give up the licence fee and be made to take commercials. Do these people not recognise advertising for what it is: pollution and mendacity in neon?

You may guffaw at the ferocious speech made in 1952 in the Lords by John Reith, the BBC’s first Director-General, against the prospect of commercial television: “Somebody introduced dog-racing into England; we know who for he is proud of it, and proclaims it urbi et orbi in the columns of Who’s Who. And somebody introduced Christianity and printing and the uses of electricity. And somebody introduced smallpox, bubonic plague and the Black Death. Somebody is minded now to introduce sponsored broadcasting into this country”. I find myself in Reith’s corner. In my view, television advertising has been the single most destructive, corrupting influence in Britain over the last fifty years. It has indeed been our Black Death.

Over the years, advertising has encroached more and more on the output. A so-called commercial hour – the amount of programme left in a one-hour slot after allowing for the advertising – has dropped and dropped. On ITV, twenty or so years ago, it was pretty rigidly set at 52 minutes. It now hovers just above the 45-minute mark, below which it fell some years back on American television. Half-hour programmes made for peak viewing routinely run to 23 minutes. In some slots, particularly those for American imports on Channel 4, the first ad break can intrude as early as before the first three minutes of the episode have wholly elapsed, even before the series title sequence. In the present advertising slump, late-night transmissions often carry nothing but programme trails during the commercial breaks; even so, the culture demands that the transmission must still be interrupted, even if for fewer than 90 seconds.

Advertising is a blight. It is a blanket of lies laid across the urban and rural landscape, a succession of promises that cannot be delivered and guarantees that will not be honoured. It undermines our self-image, promotes greed and acquisitiveness, proposes absurd ideals of how we should look and live and consume, distorts and undermines language and makes prostitutes of all those actors and others in the public eye foolish enough to be corrupted by its easy money. (“Oh but it’s far from easy. It’s really concentrated and very demanding” – “Selling dodgy financial services is harder than playing Lear? Then you’re not playing Lear right”).

Advertising insinuates itself into our most intimate places, our most domestic circumstances, undermining our assumptions that our surfaces are clean, that our bottoms are properly wiped, that our periods do not impede us, that our children are properly cared for, that our time is not wasted in preparing food that we can buy ready-made, that our teeth are sparkling and our breath sweet, that we have not missed the opportunity to sue for compensation or to compare prices on some website, that our homes smell of the most harmonious blend of chemicals, that we have full cover and have acquired every diversion that our children might fancy, that we conform. Adland rarely posits any world that is not spotless, flawless, whole, wholesome and antiseptic. On the rare occasions that it breaks out from the lovely home of Norman and Norma Normal, it courts danger and is usually slapped back by some busybody body or other. The centre of gravity of advertising has grown more down-market, vulgar and flash in recent years because that’s how society has leaned. But it remains quintessentially conventional. Try this simple test: when did you last see an ad that featured somebody Jewish but not funny?

Product placement is the second wave of the commercials marauding out of their designated “breaks”. The first was the sponsorship of programmes that allows a single brand’s brief promo to top and tail each fletch of each episode that falls within the deal. It’s noticeable that the programmes on ITV and Channel 4 (and, for aught I know, on Five if I ever watched it) that seal sponsorship deals are always proven successes – long-running regulars or US imports. (In the latter case, you wonder what the sponsor is financing. Do the acquisitions people make their bids for bought-in programmes in consultation with would-be sponsors? That would give advertisers an actual say in programme policy, something that is supposed to be a breach of the various channels’ respective charters).

Now we are to have brands and logos flourished within programmes, doing potentially fatal violence to the suspension of disbelief that drama requires and the trust in fair dealing that, for instance, competitive game and talent shows depend upon. Such product placement is already familiar in roadshow movies made in Hollywood and after the Hollywood model. The James Bond franchise, for instance, has long attempted to defray a portion of its eye-watering capital costs by embracing placements and even endorsements, but this element has grown more irksome of late. Notoriously, Daniel Craig’s Bond now sports a particular brand of wristwatch. I don’t wish to give it any more free publicity so let’s call it The Crapola. In Casino Royale (which, as it happens, has its terrestrial premiere on ITV this coming Saturday), Bond is asked if his “nice watch” is a Rolex and replies stiffly: “No. Crapola”. That this perfectly stilted exchange has been dragged in kicking and screaming merely to allow the production company to take the Crapola Corporation for hundreds of thousands of dollars is never going to be justification enough for a bad filmic moment.

What kind of numbskull invests in a watch purely because a fictional character is characterised as favouring it? It’s not as if Ian Fleming designated Crapola as the brand of watch that 007 would wear. This is not an artistic, character-driven choice, it’s a pragmatic, fund-raising imposition. Down and down go the standards and no one cares as long as someone makes considerably more moolah than is strictly necessary. So stand by for the inevitable arrival of this sort of inorganic intrusion in ITV’s regular programming next year: “It’s extraordinary that you should perceive that he did the murder, Miss Marple. Whatever is your secret?” “Lil-lets, of course”.

007 Omigod ...

Tuesday, September 08, 2009


There was a spider in the bath this morning. I am no Annie Hall, so I did not summon assistance. It’s curious that people are so “afraid” of spiders. Like all such fears, there is no basis for it in rationality. Poisonous spiders are not apt to turn up in England. Arachnids have no designs on humans; indeed, like all creatures on the planet, they have far more reason to fear man than vice versa. I suppose it is that spiders scuttle that makes them unsettling. You can’t guess where they will get to next and, relative to their size, they make cheetahs look torpid. I used to be bothered by moths which, I guess, had to do with the combination of their fluttering (the airborne equivalent of scuttling) and their unpredictability. But I got over it.

Before I run the bath, I wipe it round with an old sponge topped with a splodge of Cif. Cif used to be called Jif, a much more apposite name. Now I can only think of cleaning the bath as The Revenge of the Cif. After I have splooshed water around, I also slosh some into the jacuzzi jets. I’m not swanking, just describing what sort of bath we inherited when we bought the house. Spiders that have found themselves marooned in the bath sometimes hide in the jets. I only found this out one morning soon after we moved in when I was enjoying a soak and a very large and very dead spider floated past my head.

Today’s spider was also a casualty. Despite The Revenge of the Cif, I was just lowering my foot into the water when a house spider, much the same size as its late predecessor, appeared on the water’s surface. I was dismayed. I fished it out on a sponge and lowered it onto the sloping roof below the bathroom window but there seemed no hope that it was alive. However, when I looked again after the bath there was no sign of the bedraggled creature. Had it recovered and staggered away or had a passing bird snapped it up? I shall never know.

I don’t take a Buddhist view of the sanctity of animal life, nor subscribe to the Blakean notion that “everything that lives is holy”. But I do not think that living creatures should lose that life merely for my convenience. I am not a vegetarian so of course animals, birds and fish do perish on a daily basis for my consumption. I think this is a necessary process and – I have argued elsewhere in this blog – a practical one. All the creatures that we humans would have eaten next week will not be free to relish long and productive lives if, tomorrow, the eating of flesh is declared unlawful.

Spiders, though, perform a function useful to humans. They kill and part-consume flies and other insects that do not benefit us. I have no quarrel with any spider and, if I find one in a situation that endangers it, I will endeavour to catch it alive and convey it to a safer place. We do the same all summer for bees, butterflies, moths and hornets that become trapped in our conservatory and soon succumb to dehydration. If a daddy-longlegs (that is, a harvestman or crane fly) put in an appearance, I would save that too but these benign, spindly oddities are becoming rare. I am not in the slightest aggravated by wasps, knowing full well that to demonstrate aggravation to a wasp is likely in turn to aggravate it. Those people who get stung are usually those who wave their arms about ineffectually when a wasp is present.

The other day, I found a wasp struggling in the kitchen sink. Its wings, having got wet, seemed to prevent it from righting itself. For fully ten minutes, I attempted to prize it onto a kitchen cloth but every time it seemed within a whisker of safety, it wriggled away. In the end, I gave it up and washed it down the plughole. Instantly I regretted it. What right did I have to seal its fate, even though, at this time of year, wasps are anyway doomed and dopey? I know that, in the objective order of things, a wasp is nowhere near as “important” as a human. And yet I cannot say that its life is any less dear to it than mine is to me. Indeed, wild creatures perform a daily drama of staying alive, surrounded as they are by predators or threatened with starvation. They must have a more vivid sense of danger than we humans ever have, unless we live in a war zone.

I have told this tale before but some years ago I came across an earwig in the house. I had a formative experience of these rather alarming-looking little blighters when, playing in a friend’s garden, I stuck the end of a bamboo cane in my mouth and then found myself spitting out a nest of earwigs. Not nice. In the grown-up experience, it was winter and so we had a log fire going. I gathered the intruder onto a sheet of paper and dropped it onto the fire, expecting it to be instantly consumed. Instead, it bounced on a log and secured a foothold, then ran about seeking means of escape. There was none. Nor could I help it. Now I felt bad. As I watched, it clearly became increasingly desperate and then hopelessly pressed itself into a crevice in the wood where no doubt it soon braised to death. I know that, while my memory lasts, I shall not forget that earwig whose drawn-out death I needlessly caused.

Why are we fearful of and cruel to insects? It is true that the creature that has killed more humans than any other is not the snake, crocodile, rhinoceros, lion, tiger or water buffalo but a tiny insect, the mosquito. I have no compunction whatever about squishing mosquitoes whenever I encounter one – and, as we have an ancient pond quite near the house, I do so rather often on summer nights.

Some years ago, in Kerala in southern India, I was just closing my book before bedding down in a circular hotel room when I spotted an unfamiliar insect on the wall six or eight feet from me behind a piece of furniture. It was a rather noticeable insect, highly coloured and on the large side – somewhere between the size of a dinner plate and a small family car. I regarded this beast quite evenly. I thought of my options: 1) run screaming from the room; 2) hit it with a chair; 3) smother it in an item of clothing and bundle it out of the door; 4) switch off the bedside light and go to sleep. It wasn’t very difficult to decide on option 4 and I drifted off in seconds. In the morning, the insect had gone without taking any of my limbs with it. I couldn’t guess how such a huge insect could have escaped the room. Had I swallowed it in the night? I think I would know if I had. Probably it was clinging to the underside of the bed. I didn’t bother to look.

Generally, I pursue a policy of live and let live with any living thing. Under the jetty that juts out over our ancient pond, a rat took up residence last summer, unperturbed by the scent of dogs. Our little dog, before he lost his sight, loved to chase him. But there has been no sign of him this year so he has perhaps moved on. I rather miss him. And I am not in the slightest alarmed by his recent proximity. The conventional wisdom has it that there is a rat within fifty feet of everyone on the planet (much closer in London). We are routinely warned about the danger of diseases carried by rats but did you ever hear of anyone being made ill by the proximity of a rat? I think people who drive too fast are a much greater danger.

But that, finally, is the important point about creatures. None is remotely such a danger to us, to their fellow creatures or to the very survival of life on earth as humanity. It is man who is the creepy-crawly, the bug, the vermin, the pest.