Terence Blacker: Get in touch with your feline mysticism

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Now and then, the advertising industry latches on to a subtly significant change in the way we live our lives. It discovers that a good way to sell to women is to make men look silly, or that buyers of lager actually like to be told that a brand is "reassuringly expensive".

Recently, advertisers have been thinking a lot about cats. Pet ownership now represents a vast potential source of revenue and it has been decided that the old, bog-standard approach to cats - "Eight of 10 cats prefer Whiskas" and so on - is out of step with new attitudes to animals.

Today's cat owners are likely to be single women who, as one report put it, "see a connection between their pet's independence and their own desire to be happy, to travel and be fashionable". These people are defined by the pet-food they buy. Whereas a Whiskas woman is busy and practical, Sheba woman is aspirational, something of a dreamer. A cat, Sheba woman has decided, is more reliable than a man. She identifies with its "free-spirited feline mysticism".

All this is heartbreakingly sad. Not only is the comparison with the human male misguided and insulting (frankly, beside most cats, Pete Doherty is a model of correct behaviour), but the idea that the animal curled up on a person's sofa has some kind of weird connection with her own happiness, fashion sense and travel plans is not only bonkers in itself but is doomed to end in disappointment.

It is difficult to disagree with Virginia Ironside, author of the pet bereavement guide Goodbye, Dear Friend: Coming to Terms with the Death of a Pet, when she expresses amazement at the emotion that a person can invest in what she calls "boring moggies". It may, on the other hand, have been unwise of her to add that "cat people are not known for their looks".

Cat-pampering will shortly reach a new level with Sheba's latest advertising campaign, a sophisticated three-part commercial to be directed by Martha Fiennes and based on Alice in Wonderland. Said to be the most expensive pet-food commercial ever made, it will doubtless play its part in deepening the confusion that people feel towards their pets. There are signs everywhere that animals are increasingly seen as not just a lifestyle accessory but an expression of their owners' inner spirits, like the magical daemons in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy.

The fashion for giving goats to bewildered and reluctant African villagers is part of the new sentimentality. While quite a few people take the goat option because they are simply too idle to send Christmas cards, others genuinely feel that they are sending goodwill to those who need it most. Somehow an animal, which is both a pet and (it is wrongly claimed) a useful economic unit provides a waft of Western good-heartedness more effectively than a mere gift of money.

A useful antidote to all this animal indulgence, particularly as Christmas approaches, is to think of the rabbit. Unlucky not to represent free spirit or independence (although it is difficult to see why not), it is ignored, tormented, tortured and starved in thousands of homes every day. Although, with 35,000 of them abandoned or starved very year, rabbits are more abused than other pets, similar fates attend hamsters, guinea-pigs, rats and gerbils. There is probably as much ill-treatment in many British homes as in a factory farm.

It seems that the more obsessed that we become with animals and the more human that we want them to be, the worse we behave towards them.

Respect? Come off it, Widdy

When it comes to good sense, Ann Widdecombe is a reliable counter-indicator, and she has not let her fans down with a plonkingly unhelpful contribution to the debate surrounding Marks & Spencer's pole-dancing toy. The store, we are told, has been inundated by complaints about an eight-inch high doll in a bikini who dances around a pole to the sound of "Girls, Girls, Girls".

It sounds rather an amusing present for the bored office-worker. and the fact that Ann finds it "disrespectful to women" oddly makes it even funnier.

No doll is respectful - I find the presentation of men as soldiers or bus-drivers rather annoying. Paradoxically, it is those who objected to the little pole-dancer who have ended up looking infantile.

* There is nothing very novel about the recent misfortune of the Bishop of Southwark - drinks party, lost on way home, fell into a stranger's car and went to sleep, we've all been there. It was startlingly similar to an incident which occurred almost 50 years ago.

The famous radical cleric Mervyn Stockwood, then chaplain at Great St Mary's, Cambridge, had enjoyed himself rather too much at a party in the rooms of an undergraduate called William Donaldson, and stumbled out of Magdalene College into a waiting black car. He took some persuading that the vehicle was in fact a hearse.

For those of the Richard Dawkins school of thought who refuse see a divine hand at work in the affairs of men, one significant detail should be added. Stockwood went on to an ecclesiastical career of great distinction - as the Bishop of Southwark.