Dead Pets, by Sam Leith

Some tasty stuffing for your four-legged friends
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The Independent Culture

Sam Leith is literary editor of The Daily Telegraph. Literary editors should not, in principle, write books. It causes difficulties. If it is a dog, the reviewer fears to say so in case his own next book is hammered in revenge. If it's outstanding, the reviewer knows that his praise will be pooh-poohed by the lizardy, knowing reader as pure flattery, larded on in the hope of getting a good review when the time comes.

But... trust me. Trust me. Dead Pets is bliss. The jacket cover shows, at first glance, a mawkish poppet cradling a dead dog. Oh, God. But look closer. The dog's tongue is hanging out, like a dead dog's tongue has to, and its eyes are cartoon crosses, while hovering about the scene like bestial putti are the shades of a cat and guinea-pig, each with its nimbus. Eat them + Stuff them + Love them announces the subtitle. We are in safe hands. We are also in interesting company. Here is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's recipe for puppy satay ("trim the puppy of any tough sinews"), space dog Belka throwing up in orbit, Barney the Blue Peter parrot who "died in short order of a rare lung disease".

Here is Byron's bear Bruin (because undergraduates weren't allowed to keep dogs), not to mention his dog Woolly, whose mother was a wolf and whom the 10-year-old Byron threatened to kill - "Woolly, you shall die!" - after the half-wolf nipped him. "The incident," writes Leith, "seems to have damaged Byron's relationship with Woolly."

Investigating the further limits of our relationship with dead pets seems occasionally to imperil Leith's sanity. Chapter 9 is headed "Stuff It Yourself", part one posing the question "Why Not Make Wax Fish?" The answer could easily occupy an entire book, but Leith dives in cheerfully.

Goldfish are boring. Everything kills them. "Wax fish, kept out of direct sunlight, are more durable than their real-life counterparts and about as interesting... What's more, once you've got your mould made, you can make a limitless number of them... As well as aiding the grieving process, casting fish in wax will be fun for the kids." Further comment is superfluous; instead, three pages of meticulous instructions follow ("Now, the fun bit") followed by "Making Flexible Tails The Easy Way".

This is not mere posturing. Perhaps inspired by Roy Rogers's wife, who planned to stuff him and put him atop Trigger (who had already been stuffed), Leith buys Taxidermy Guide: the Complete Illustrated Guide to Home Taxidermy by Russell Tinsley. Then he gets the stuffing bug and goes to a stuffing conference held, eerily, at the biology department of York University. (All part of higher education funding, you see.) There is a competition. The prizes seem to consist mostly of bottles of meths. What you need to look out for, it seems, is slippage. You don't want to know about slippage. Leith tells you about it, all the same.

You may want to turn to the more delicate Chapter 4 ("Daddy, Is Timmy In Heaven Now?") for relief, unless Alexander Pope's succession of guard dogs - all inexplicably called Bounce, and mostly given away - is more to your taste.

Or even, heaven help you, the account of www.petloss.com and its awful Candle Ceremony for your dear, dead "furbeing". Enough to make you want to stuff old Towser on the kitchen table, complete with Flexible Tail the Easy Way.

The love we attribute to our animals is a reflection of the love we lavish on them, scared, perhaps, to lay so much at the feet of another human being. Leith treads this tricky path with charm and wit. Buy it. Trust me.

Michael Bywater's 'Lost Worlds' is published by Granta

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