As we were about to leave Nairobi, I learned that Kenyan journalist Hilary Ng’weno had started JOE Magazine. Eager to support this bravery, I sent him an essay that I felt sure would be rejected by the Monitor’s Home Forum. Ng’weno printed it after I had already departed – possibly a good thing – but my Monitor replacement sent me a copy. Here is “The English and Their Pets”::
The English love their pets more than their children.
In a set-to between a child and a dog the English run in to protect the dog.
One can offer evidence to support these assertions. But, in fact, they are exaggerations. The English do not love their pets more than their children. They love them only just as much.
Certainly pets rather than children dominate English dinner party conversation. Sometimes they even dominate the dinner party itself.
The English let their pets come to the table. They consider it amusing when Mirabel claws your ankle making you gag upon your soup. They find it endearing when Bismarck lays his snout affectionately in your lap causing you to shoot your peas across the tablecloth.
People who would not countenance such behavior in their children indulge it in their pets. “Is that Mirabel?” the hostess asks with feigned crossness as you blush and right the toppled water glass, rubbing the wounded ankle against the other one.
Or astonished she demands, “Is Bismarck under the table?”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter,” you say as you wipe gravy off your tie meanwhile aiming sharp, hopefully unnoticed kicks in his direction.
“All dogs outside!” the hostess chirps. “Come Bismarck!” Eventually the dog obeys, whopping his great German shepherd tail against assembled knees. “Outside you go!” commands his mistress, stirring only to slip the beloved bowwow a morsel from her plate.
If you have not previously greeted the other pets, you do this after dinner. These include the rabbits outside, then the gerbils and the parrot and the budgerigars. All are solemnly introduced and even more solemnly lauded. You find yourself thirsting for after dinner coffee as you never have before.
At last you return to the drawing room. The pets that enlivened your dinner accompany you there. But these are not the only ones present. There are also the pets of the past (“We had the sweetest white mouse once”) and those of a yearned-for future (“Oh, I’d so love to have a mongoose”).
The present pets settle into their established routine. The dogs (there always seem to be more than one) stretch out before the sofa and lie upon your feet. They twitch in their dreams, wake and bark at figments, perfume the room with a fragrance their owners no longer smell.
The cats behave toward you in one of two ways: either they regard you with inscrutable hostility, stepping gracefully away from the hand extended to prove to the hostess that you do not dislike animals, or they overpower you with fidgety affection, curling and recurling into your lap, shedding and drooling onto your coat, snatching away from you your after dinner chocolate.
The English use their pets for conversational purposes. If, for instance, a lull descends between animal stories, the host or hostess reaches down, scratches beloved Hamlet (who is, of course, a Great Dane), inquires about his health and starts a conversation with him. This attention invariably causes Hamlet to do a rhumba on his back. This inspires oohs and ahhs of delight and new animal tales flow afresh.
Guests are also addressed through pets. For example, hostess lifts the drowsy Bangkok (who is, of course, a Siamese), places her nose against its nose and instructs, “You go tell that big man to be careful of the chair he’s sitting in. It’s an antique which my great-grandfather made with his own hands. You go tell him now!” Hostess kisses kitty while you move to a less cherished chair.
Stories about animals are the conversational mainstay of the English dinner party. Here in East Africa there are more species to discuss than merely dogs, rabbits and rodents, cats and canaries. These often hold considerable interest. One encounters here people who have tamed cheetahs and elephants, who have petted pangolins, played aunty to anteaters and have dik-diks and porcupines, monkeys and baboons living in their gardens, who sleep in the same room (often in the same bed) with hyraxes and tortoises, bush babies, geckos and infant jackals.
One never stays too late at English dinner parties. When the pets have to be put out, the guests are let out, too. In fact, it is an ideal time to leave. When the animals charge off into the darkness, you have time enough to hurry to the car. If you linger, the pets will return. They will maul you with affectionate goodbyes just as they jumped at you and nipped your heels in lovable greeting.
You thank your hosts. You compliment the dinner, commend the ambiance and most ingratiatingly of all you praise the pets. The hostess smiles maternally, her head cocked listening for beloved barkings. “Yes,” she says, ”I’ve always maintained that some of my favorite guests are dogs.”
The English are said to be both the most civilized and eccentric of peoples. It is not always clear from which of these strains this affection for animals derives.
Certainly some of them pay their pets the ultimate compliment. To cite an example. Driving along Nairobi’s main thoroughfare one afternoon I followed a small British car. It was driven by a woman in a tweedy suit with hat to match. The passengers were three dogs: a Dalmatian and a poodle in back, a cocker spaniel in front.
I examined the quartet as I pulled alongside to pass. The Dalmatian sat alert and well-groomed, his eyes upon the road, his mouth open in a doggy smile, the tongue lolling out. The poodle sat more or less the same way, well-groomed, alert and grinning. So did the cocker spaniel.
The driver sat alertly, too. She was well-groomed, her eyes were on the road ahead, and yes, she too had her mouth open in a grin. What a charming scene! I could not help thinking what depth of affection must lie between them that they should all have grown to look alike.
UP NEXT: Penultimate post “Saying Goodbye”