Tom Hodgkinson: 'Our gerbil had some kind of death wish'

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The problem with pets is that they die. Many years ago in The Idler magazine, we ran a column called "Pet Deaths". We invited our readers to send in stories of childhood trauma related to their fluffy animals. The letters poured in and never failed to be funny and touching, somehow expressing a truth about the mingled joy, passion and sadness of childhood.

I remember vividly the grisly ends that met our pets when I was a child. The worst was perhaps the unfortunate demise of our rather pretentiously named tortoise, Shelley. It was hibernation time, and we dutifully followed the instructions in our tortoise book to pack Shelley and our other tortoise, Keats, in a tea chest, give them some slices of banana, put them in the attic, and let them be. About two months later, I crawled up into the attic to get something, and was overpowered by the most appalling stench. I inspected the tea chests. Keats seemed to be dozing contentedly, but all that was left of Shelley was indeed a shell, out of which a brackish goo oozed. Her name had been a prophecy.

Then there was our hamster Toby, who developed wart-like growths over his body before expiring, and young Claude the gerbil, who lived behind the kitchen units and was killed unwittingly by my father, who trod on him. My father claimed that fate had been at work, and attributed psychic powers to the gerbil: Claude, he said, had had some kind of death wish, somehow knowing that we were about to go on holiday. I do remember my dad shedding a tear at the time, and I've heard it said that even the most stoic fathers will weep when the family dog, for example, dies.

Now I'm the dad and I've had to cope with a stream of dead animals. The first real tragedy was Rosie Blossom Brownpatch, our bunny. The rabbit was living in the yard, and my wife ran over her in the car. Her leg was broken (the rabbit's, not the wife's). The vet said he might be able to save the leg, but the surgery was complicated and would cost £800. Since the rabbit's purchase price was a mere £20, this course of action did not appeal to the thrifty householder in me. Was there a cheaper option? Well, they could do a bodge job that would cost £400. Or just have the rabbit put down, which would set us back a mere £150. I'm afraid we opted for option three.

To this day, five years on, our daughter has not forgiven her mother for running over the rabbit. If she is arguing with her, she will sometimes bring out the irrelevant but killer blow: "You killed Rosie Blossom Brownpatch."

More recently, I sent my eldest son to go and feed our new rabbit, Timothy. We'd had Timothy for a few months and he seemed a happy bunny. He'd sometimes join us for tea, and recline on the kitchen table, nibbling a piece of pear while we ate our pasta. Well, the rest of us were sitting round the kitchen table when my son Arthur came back in. His face was covered with tears as he wailed: "Timothy's dead!" At once a hysterical wailing went up from the other two children. I went out and found a dead bunny on the floor of the hutch. One of his eyes was missing, and I concluded that the poor thing had been killed by rats. I shed a tear and the following day buried him in the vegetable patch.

As well as these deaths, we've lost many chickens to foxes over the years. This is always a horrible feeling, as it is often due to one's own carelessness: perhaps you forgot to lock them in at night. Then there was the dead puppy, Slinky, who was buried with great ceremony in the front garden. Our favourite ferret, Twister, escaped, and was found asleep in a bucket on a farm two miles away. But then he escaped again for good. Last winter we lost two beehives full of bees to disease. And there are the countless little robins, bluetits and shrews which are brought into the house by the cats.

Death is all around us. Bereavement is a fact of life. In fact, for this among other reasons, I think that the whole of idea of "happiness" is flawed. There are countless books on happiness and countless courses, conferences and improving CDs which peddle the goal of being happy. For one thing, happiness is a kind of bribe for slavery. In 1936 Aldous Huxley said "the problem of happiness" is the same as the "problem of making people love their servitude". And for another, constant happiness is just not possible, because just when things are going well, you run over the dog.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'

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