BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS / Cats & Dogs: Smellies versus the lazy mob

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The Independent Culture
IN HIS essay 'On Bird-Mind', Julian Huxley quotes the French writer who summed up the Thing About Dogs: 'Ils n'ont pas de cerveau - ils n'ont que de l'ame.' No brains, just a soul. This seems pretty near the mark, and helps us to resolve the question of whether or not pets are more than sophisticated vermin: whether or not they ought to be treated like people.

The problem with animal-lovers is that their love carries a strong whiff of misanthropy. 'The more I see of men, the more I like dogs,' said Frederick the Great, and after 800 pages of puppy-love in The Literary Companion to Dogs (Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 25), 'sniffed out', as it says on the title-page, by Christopher Hawtree, I find that the more I see of dog-lovers, the less I like them. The mere ownership of an animal that has to be exercised every day indicates a certain worrying heartiness. (As for the doggy sense of humour in the introduction: 'I am grateful to my publisher . . . for calling me to heel, for, in chasing leads, there is a risk of going barking mad.') Even the jacket design is a masterpiece of elegant snobbery: Landseer's Eos, a faithful lurcher in Milord's hallway (from the Queen's collection, no less).

Throw the book at a dog-lover for Christmas and you won't see them for a couple of days. Hawtree has got more or less everything that has been written about dogs, pro- and anti- (though heavily weighted, naturally, to the former). Much as I admire Auberon Waugh's heroic candidature for the Dog Lover's Party ('Rinka is NOT forgotten. Rinka lives. Woof woof. Vote Waugh') my heart is with John Sparrow: 'What a nice dog - almost as nice as not having a dog at all.'

Cat lovers are, in their way, equally distressing. People who want to seek out animals which are loud, smelly and vicious should not be sneered at by people who like animals that are lazy, cowardly and selfish (I am, for the record, a cat person). But then it is part of the human condition to forgive all these faults, most of the time. Francis Wheen's Chatto Book of Cats (pounds 15.99) has a section on the various cruelties that man has inflicted on cats, just to let us know that we are not in pussy heaven, but for the rest there is everything you would have expected to go into such a book, and more. Not just, for instance, Christopher Smart's 'Jeoffrey' but also two pastiches of it, from Gavin Ewart and John Heath-Stubbs.

The Sophisticated Cat, edited by Joyce Carol Oates and Daniel Halpern (Macmillan pounds 14.99), is about the same length as Wheen's (half as big as Hawtree's; well, dogs are larger), but has bigger type and a kind of fancy paper which makes the book weigh twice as much, and no index. Half of the stuff in the one is in the other, although the Oates/Halpern has more poetry. It even dares to call a section 'Whimsical Cat Poems', with works by Lear, Ambrose Bierce and Don Marquis. On sheer value-for-money terms, I'd stick with the Wheen. But between these three books, you should be able to account for a good deal of your Christmas shopping.

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