Christina Patterson: Why we should be nice to animals (and people too)

The Saturday Column
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The Independent Online

If you're a less than stunning middle-aged spinster, your options on YouTube are limited.

If, for example, you're a bit hefty, with bushy eyebrows and a lustreless mop of unkempt, greying hair and baggy clothes you may or may not have got from Asda, and an embarrassing dependence on your mother, and a big, big fear that you will one day be on your own in the world with nobody much to give a monkey's whether you live or die, and you can sing, you could enter a TV talent show, and then everyone could wet themselves at the hilarious sight of a fat frump belting out show songs, and put it on YouTube, and go mad.

If, on the other hand, you can't sing, and your job in a bank is, like the rest of your life, extremely boring, and your father is dying, and it's looking pretty likely that no other man will ever love you, and you can't quite believe that this is your life, and that it stinks, and in a moment when you think you just can't bear it any more, you do something stupid and unkind, and pick up a cat and pop it in a wheelie bin, for reasons you still can't explain, but which a politician caught having an affair might call a "moment of madness", which wouldn't be true, but in this case might, and a camera catches you doing it, because you can't do anything nowadays without a camera catching you doing it, and the footage is put on YouTube, then you are sunk.

You'd kill to be the singing, bearded lady (or as near as it gets to it) but instead, unfortunately, you find that you're Hitler. Thousands of people sign up to a website that calls people who sign death threats "friends", and makes a lovely social network of people who hate you, and they say that you are not only fat and ugly, which you knew, and which was, in any case, part of the problem, but that you should die. And now you will, for the rest of your life, be known as the "cat woman", a phrase which only underlines the myriad ways in which you don't look like Michelle Pfeiffer and could no more sport skin-tight leather than melt the heart of Simon Cowell. And now your father is dead and you've been signed off work with depression. You've been charged with causing "unnecessary suffering to an animal" and you've been fined. And whatever else you do in your life, you know that you will always, always, always be famous for being cruel to a cat.

I have never been cruel to a cat, though when I borrowed one from a neighbour last year in the hope that it might act as some kind of deterrent to the super-race of mice which was trying, à la Osborne, to force me out of my flat, it was clearly as scared of me as it was of the mice, and spent much of the week cowering behind the sofa. But I can't say I've been particularly kind to one either. My childhood experience of pets failed to foster the feelings that are clearly meant to burn in the British breast: that eyes fringed by fur are infinitely superior to those surrounded by naked skin, and hearts glimpsed in yelps and miaows superior to those glimpsed in words.

I blame Romeo and Juliet. It wasn't Tina's fault that she died the first time she went into hibernation, though she wasn't that responsive before, but maybe tortoises aren't. But Juliet's vicious attack on Romeo left us reeling. We didn't know that budgies could murder their husbands with such casual disregard for their owners' feelings. We waited a while before we got Smoky. A rabbit, said my mother, would be plump and happy and sweet. But Smoky wasn't happy and he wasn't sweet. Whatever I fed him, he got leaner and meaner until he soon looked like a greyhound. Somehow, he kept managing to escape from his hutch. When I caught him, he would twitch and flail in my arms.

Nowadays, I like my animals chargrilled with vegetables on a plate. When I visit friends with cats, they don't hide the wheelie bins, but they do apologise when their cats leap on my lap and crawl all over me, which (with the exception of my neighbour's scaredy cat) they do, perhaps because cats, like a certain kind of man, can sense indifference, and like nothing more than to be treated mean to keep 'em keen, though personally I prefer enthusiasm. I think if a cat is in front of you, or wriggling around in your lap, or walking across the pavement ahead of you after a hard day at the office (yours, that is, not the cat's), then you should be polite to it, just as you should with a human, and you probably shouldn't scoop it up and stick it in a wheelie bin, just as you probably shouldn't with a human.

But it would also be nice if you were nice to the animals that aren't in front of you, the animals, for example, who lay down their lives in order to make you a nice snack to grab on the way home, and who do that not after a lovely few years frolicking in fields, but after a whole life standing, up to their knees in excrement, unable to move and never glimpsing daylight, in the kind of conditions that would make a wheelie bin seem like a penthouse suite. You could be nice to those animals by not eating them, or to other ones by not wearing the shoes, or jackets, or handbags that they kindly, but not entirely painlessly, turn into, but if, like me, you choose to eat the meat, and wear the shoes and carry the handbags anyway, then you could leave a poor, sad, grieving, frightened woman alone.

Bill Clinton, nuclear weapons and me

For people incinerated in a nuclear attack, it may or may not be some comfort to know that the card on which the launch codes were written was called a "biscuit". It may, however, be an excellent thing all round that a former president of the United States, according to a new memoir, kept losing it. Nuclear war, apparently, isn't like a party you can muscle your way into just by pulling rank. It's more like a bank card. If you can't remember the PIN, you can't launch it. As nuclear deterrents go, it's a whole lot cheaper than Trident.

It's probably just as well that General Hugh Shelton, who wrote the memoir, and clearly disapproved of Bill Clinton's frequent memory lapses, isn't married to me. He might not have been that thrilled the other day in Tesco when I couldn't remember the pin number for my debit card, which I use about 10 times a day, or for my credit card, which I use so often that I may have accidentally caused the deficit, and had, in front of the huge and growing queue, to call First Direct and bellow out my mother's maiden name. He might not like it that I put a book in the fridge, or that I asked a man I'd been talking to at a party if we'd met before and was told that we'd known each other for 20 years. And I'm pretty sure that he wouldn't have laughed last week when I was dashing out of the door and moaning to my friend that I couldn't leave without my phone, which I couldn't find. And on which, of course, I was talking.

Iran should pray for an American president like me.

Questions to tax even a Tory peer

You can't, as Nick Clegg made clear a couple of years ago, expect the people who run a country, or aspire to run it, to know petty details like whether a pension is about the same as a meal for two at Pizza Hut or whether it's about the same as a meal for six, though it's now clear that the assumption that people could live for a week on the cost of a meal for two has been a guiding principle in the cuts on what used to be called welfare. But you might expect a man who has been the key funder for the current government to understand the basic rules of tax, even if he has largely chosen to avoid paying it.

On this matter, however, it seems that billionaire Lord Ashcroft is as a babe in arms. With the wide-eyed innocence of a child asking a parent if it's true that masturbation makes you blind, he asked, in a written question to the Treasury minister, whether the Government "expects citizens to organise their tax affairs to maximise tax payable". He was told what the rest of us have known since our first day at work: that the Government "expects citizens to pay tax due by law".