Cats not pictured

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Lily, Phoenix, Pixie, Layla, Missy, Tilly, Harry, Mittens, Percy, Fish “Bean” Bandito, Spike, Tank, Charlie, Genie, Nala, Felix, Lunar and Sadie Ellenore – these were the stars of the show, but none of them were actually at the Savoy in London to bask in their own glory, as they are all cats. The National Cat Awards 2017 took place yesterday lunchtime – my second time as a judge, this time part of the panel judging the overall Cat of the Year from the five individual category winners – and it was another glorious occasion. It’s quite something to be in a ballroom of 200-plus people who you can guarantee are all cat lovers. John Challis, aka Boycie, announced from the stage that he had not previously been one, but was now “a cat person”. He received a massive cheer, as if perhaps this was a religious meeting and he had converted!

Cats Protection, celebrating its 90th year in 2017, is my favourite charity that I am not a patron of. (This is my favourite charity I am a patron of.) I am, however, a tireless supporter of their good works in rescuing, re-homing, neutering and raising awareness about the welfare of cats. Cats Protection helps around 190,000 cats and kittens per year through a national network of 250 volunteer-run branches and 34 adoption centres. These amazing volunteers rehome around 46,000 cats a year, more than 100 cats per day. (They even offer emotional support to owners going through the loss of a pet.)

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I support them by helping to raise money and by promoting them. I helped launch this year’s awards in March by speaking to every radio station in the UK with genial chief exec Peter Hepburn.

Last year, I was thrilled to be a part of the judging process for the first time, which involves watching the individual films made by the charity of the shortlisted owners and their cats, whose stories are generally heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time, usually involving debilitating illness on the part of the humans, and sometimes the cats, too. You can watch all the films and meet the nominees here, but be prepared to get something in your eye. There is something counterintuitive about a huge gathering of cat people and no cats, but cat people know that cats don’t much like crowds, or being unecessarily coerced into cat carriers, or smelling other cats they don’t know. It would be counterintuitive to a cat welfare charity to puts cats into a stressful situation. I think it speaks of the general positive attitude and bottomless optimism that Cats Protection sends a film crew to the houses of cats and expects the cats to perform for the camera! What they mostly do is sit and look imperious, or hide. You cannot herd cats.

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You can, however, herd cat owners. Here we are, four of the judges with the impossible task of choosing top cat (and by extension top cat owner), flanking winner 11-year-old Evie and her mum Tina. Evie is coping with bone cancer, and doing so thanks to Genie, pictured on the screen behind us. From left to right: ever-reliable master of ceremonies Alan Dedicoat – the National Lottery’s “voice of the balls” and longtime sideman of the late Terry Wogan – me, Evie, Tina, Anita Dobson, who needs no introduction, TV psychologist Jo Hemmings and fine actor Paul Copley, with whom I used to share an agent, and who is ubiquitous in top TV drama (Downton, Last Tango, Broken). Other celebs this year included the impressive Steven Dixon – co-host of Sunrise on Sky News, which I rarely miss – committed animal activist Peter Egan (Egan the Vegan!), Tim Vincent, Ali Bastion, Deborah Meaden (who, in a cruel twist of fate, couldn’t be there because her cat was poorly) and Anthony Head (another who couldn’t make it).

Here’s a fun pic of the judging lineup from last year, which, as you’ll see, contains a rock icon, and yes, he is a bit taller than me, although I am making myself smaller to match the height of Saffron from Republica.

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This is me trying to say something witty yesterday when we presented the final award. (We designated Anita as the one who would announce the winner and hand over the trophy as she is the most famous.)

A splendid time was had by all. The volunteers of Deeside Cats Protection were on my table, and when they won the Star Team Award for their selfless work rescuing 25 cats after Storm Frank hit the village of Ballater, their coordinator, Liz Robinson, was in bits. I couldn’t tell if she was embarrassed at seeing herself on the big screen, or just emotional because of the general mood of heightened empathy and cat-love in the ballroom and the tension every Oscar nominee must also experience before the envelope is opened. Anyway, she held up well once on the stage, as did all the winners.

I’ll be back next year, if they’ll have me. Here’s a cat.

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All awards photos: Charlotte Fielding Photography

 

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Happy holidays

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Today is the shortest day of the year. It was the darkest when you woke up, and it will be the darkest when you go to bed. Dark thoughts propagate in the darkness. I give you Alan the black cat, who was behind Door #18 of the Cats Protection advent calendar. No matter what ailed Alan before he was photographed by the charity – malnutrition, abandonment, cruelty – he’s better now. That’s empirical. Hold that thought.

I entered a shop that sells records at the weekend and purchased a CD, Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the band’s sixteenth. It was always intended to be a stripped-back album about death, but the death of Cave’s 15-year-old son, Arthur, during its recording has clearly influenced some of the more improvised lyrics. When I bought it, the woman working behind the counter told me that the staff had put it on the shop’s PA when it was released in September and their manager begged them to take it off, as it was driving customers out of the shop. I can’t stop playing it.

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I had it on my headphones as I walked across Hungerford Bridge at around 7.30am this morning, on the shortest day, when London was a long way into the process of waking up, the sky fading from black to blue. It comforted me, oddly. This has been another year in which the prospect of spending much time in Central London, or indeed in any major city in Europe, has filled me with dread. The likelihood of being gunned down, or blown up, or deliberately run over, seems to be much higher than it has ever seemed before – and I’ve lived in London for 32 years, I ought to be immune to it by now! But … you go about your business – and most of my trips into Central London are for business – and beat those who seek to harm by not thinking about them. Think instead of Alan, and the profound way his life has been changed by kindness.

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Last night was one of the few guaranteed to bring warmth in my “more selective” social calendar: the annual Word Magazine (2003-2012) reunion, valiantly organised by Nige Tassell, who has much further to travel than most, and is someone I might not have met without Word. Numbers have dwindled since the first such gathering in a pub in Islington, but certain troopers tend to form a quorum: David Hepworth, Fraser Lewry, Andrew Harrison, Mark Hodkinson, John Naughton, Caroline Grimshaw, Steve Yates. It was an oasis of something more meaningful that the ubiquitous modern fallback “banter”: stories told, memories shared, a year of professional and personal updates, craft beer, pizza, winter coats, and all within the sound of the old Word offices. I have to venture that last night’s get-together had an almost imperceptible air of mortality about it – much talk of whether or not certain beloved musicians of the post-punk era had turned 60 yet; the sharing of employment anxieties; actual news of ailments. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, of course.

Nobody is about to get out the violins for a bunch of media operatives, mostly self-employed, in their forties and fifties, bemoaning the paucity of opportunities in a business that once thrived on human interaction and having a desk, but is now run from home, and via email, if at all. (John still works for GQ and confirms that there are no shortage of people gainfully employed in the fashion magazine sector, and Radio Times, too, lines a lot of journalists, editors, designers and sub-editors up with lockable drawers and phone extensions in the cause of producing a content-heavy listings magazine, but a lot of the old certainties are falling away elsewhere.) It’s not just manual work that’s being taken over by machines. The machines have been decimating “old media” for years, and with it, the living human beings who once suckled at its colourful teat.

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I’ve spent a lot of the last two weeks using social media to promote an online auction for Cats Protection, wherein celebrities (and I use that category with caution, as one of them was me) donated customised “paw print” artwork and bids were bid via eBay. The scheme raised a cumulative £1,215 for injured, abandoned, mistreated and poorly cats and kittens: the Alans. (Black cats are a special case, as they are statistically less likely to be rehomed than more colourful cats because it’s harder to read their faces.) I was proud to play my part. The whole thing framed social media in a celestial light. But Twitter and Facebook are increasingly becoming distorted by hate. If 2016 can be said to be characterised by anything, it’s online bile.

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Lena Dunham, a provocative figure with a large audience for someone on HBO, said something inflammatory on her own podcast Women of the Hour on December 15 and the media seem to have discovered it. A fervent supporter of Planned Parenthood (under threat from Trump’s rabid misogynists working under the banner of family values, the sort that meant something under Eisenhower), Dunham said that she had never had an abortion but “wished she had.” Taken in a spirit of understanding and empathy, you can sort of see what she means. But it’s a bit like me saying I wish I’d worked down a Welsh coalmine so that I could more meaningfully offer my solidarity with miners. It sounds silly. And unnecessary. But what she said was that appearing at pro-choice events had implied to some that she, too, had experience of abortion, when in fact she didn’t. She wanted to make this case plain. But in saying she “wished” she’d had an abortion, they courted trouble. And she’s smart enough to know that it would be reported, and likely out of context.

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Glancing through social media this morning to track the story, and to track the outrage, most of it from women, much of it from anti-abortionists, I was dismayed, as ever, by the crudity of the dialogue. People made abortion jokes against her. They joked that she should have been aborted. They called her sitcom an abortion. They attacked her “clothing choices” (this came from a woman, naturally). They called her a “limousine liberal,” which seems to be the US equivalent of “champagne socialist”, and yes, I can see why. But what is just today’s passing storm of outrage reflects horribly on the state of discourse in the social media age. While some are raising money or awareness, others are calling people they’ve never met and will never meet insulting names. And then running away. (I used to observe this – that it’s like knocking on somebody’s front door and running away – but they don’t always run away any more, emboldened as they are by electoral affirmation.)

There is a lot to be concerned about in the world as it is today, rent asunder by military misadventure, religious extremism and the relentless grinding of humanity’s bones by capitalism. I can barely bring myself to read the newspapers or watch the news. But let’s go back to those cats and kittens. Thanks to Joey Essex and Danny Mac and Elaine Paige, money has been directly raised this Christmas for Cats Protection, an organisation reliant on volunteers and donations, and one among hundreds of equally deserving causes. It’s been another year whose atrocities are the names of the cities in which they were perpetrated: Aleppo, Berlin, Ankara, Brussels, Lahore, Istanbul, each briefly prefixed with the hashtag #PrayFor (tough luck expressing keystroke empathy if you don’t have a God to pray to). A presenter on the nightly Press Preview on Sky News struggles to establish what she keeps calling “the narrative” after the latest carve-up of human life. The “narrative” doesn’t change much from one execution to the next: pissed-off young man seeks to find meaning in a meaningless world using blunt instrument.

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’Tis the season to be jolly, but it’s harder than ever this year to block the “other stuff” out. Which is why I return to Alan the cat. He may have no teeth and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, but someone saw him, read his expression amid all that black fur, and took him in. Gather your loved ones around you, whether two-legged, four-legged, three-legged, one-legged or no-legged, and concentrate on what you can do. Unless you work for counter-terrorism, or are harbouring a disaffected young man on a hair trigger, you can’t stop the next terrorist attack, or indeed the next appointment of a women-hating, climate change-denying, Roe Vs. Wade-repealing nutcase to Trump’s cabinet, or the next Daily Express headline howling in the wind about Brexit. But you can be nice to those around you. And those you pass in the street. After all, if Nick Cave can process the unfathomably tragic loss of a 15-year-old son in an accident and turn that tragedy into beautiful music, as he has done, we must cling to the possibility that good can come of bad.

And there are the animals. Be nice to the animals.

 

The king is dead

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Here are the facts. While his parents weren’t looking, a small boy accidentally fell into the moat of a gorilla enclosure at a zoo. The gorilla showed great interest in the boy, who was conscious. He made as if to protect and guard the boy. Keepers and a member of an ambulance crew entered the enclosure and removed the boy. The gorilla kept its distance. No animals were harmed in the making of this new story.

It happened in 1986, at Jersey Zoo on the Channel Island of the same name, these days rebranded Durrell Wildlife Park after its famous founder, conservationist Gerald Durrell (whose early life was recently dramatised on ITV in The Durrells). I happened to be in Jersey that summer, working on a bursary art project and capturing the holiday island in drawings, photographs and collages. I wasn’t at the zoo on that day – although had been in the course of my research – but it was big news, nationally and internationally. To me it all felt very local, and I painted a picture of the 25-year-old male gorilla Jambo protecting the five-year-old male human, Levan Merritt, which I wish I had access to. With YouTube, social media, citizen journalism and mobile phones still years into the next century, it’s amazing that this potentially dangerous event was captured at all, but it was, thanks to an American with a camcorder from the future. (An American news report has been loaded to YouTube here. It’s quite distressing to watch, as the spectators are powerless to help and the poor boy is clearly in pain and distress from the fall, but Jambo behaves impeccably. A simian babysitter.

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I don’t  know if it’s just health-and-safety culture, or American fear of litigation or bad publicity in the iPhone age, but things played out very differently at Cincinnati Zoo on Saturday when the exact same thing happened. This time, it was a four-year-old, who also slipped into the moat while his parents weren’t looking and was immediately attended to by Harambe, a 17-year-old silverback gorilla. It’s interesting to compare the Cincinnati phone footage to the Jersey film. In both cases, the ape reacts the same way, with curiosity and an apparent protectiveness. In Cincinnati, onlookers squeal and overreact, as if they’re on America’s Got Talent. In Jersey, in the mid-80s, they remain stoic and calm, and it’s only when the boy starts to cry that his mother becomes hysterical in her helplessness – ironically, the boy’s cries send the gorillas away, leaving the paramedic and keepers to step in. In Cincinnati, of course, the endangered silverback was shot dead.

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I was captivated by animals as a boy. As such, I was captivated by zoos, where I could see those animals face to face. I was taken to Whipsnade, Woburn Abbey and London Zoo. I loved seeing big cats, elephants and other large African and Indian mammals, especially rhinos and hippos. Their size sent shivers down the spine. I respected the animals, and was in awe of them, and my tiny brain was not sophisticated enough to spot the irony of my awe: I was seeing these beautiful creatures hundreds of miles away from where they lived. They had been caught, kidnapped, incarcerated, imprisoned, enslaved. David Attenborough recently bookended some unearthed colour footage from three 1950s episodes of Zoo Quest, in which he travelled the wild tracking tasty-looking exotica to take back to London Zoo; he described what he was doing as “kidnapping” and felt some shame. I feel the same way about my willing participation as a visitor to zoos.

I understand that zoos now operate fully under the banner of “conservation” and have put their exploitative Victorian pasts behind them, working with charities and other selfless organisations to improve their image. Zoos no longer seem to want to be called zoos; they’re “parks” and “gardens” and “experiences” that “conserve” endangered species. But in doing so, however noble a cause that may seem, they must also put them on display for public pleasure and as gift-shop bait. They breed wild animals in captivity because it keeps the numbers up in a less hospitable natural world. But you’ll never convince me that animals bred away from their natural habitat is a good thing. I was thrilled to see a hippo, close up, in a stinky looking pond at Whipsnade Zoo as a schoolboy. But a hippo shouldn’t have been in Dunstable.

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I suspect that everyone who works in a zoo loves animals. You’d have to. I cast no aspersions on the people who work with animals, or even the administrators of zoos. And I make a moral exception for sanctuaries for rescued, orphaned or injured creatures that are sited in the home country of the animals themselves. I just think we ought to move on from zoos as animal theatre. No more dolphin displays, please. No more feeding time. Cincinnati Zoo’s YouTube channel is currently hyping a future attraction, which is a massive enclosure for two hippos. Hippos shouldn’t be in Ohio either. I saw a massive polar bear in the tiny zoo in New York’s Central Park. I could barely believe what I was seeing. “Wrong” doesn’t describe it. Leave them be.

The silverback is an endangered species. As are the eastern gorilla, the mountain gorilla and the western gorilla, threatened by human destruction of their natural habitat, and human commerce around bushmeat. (The Ebola virus also kills gorillas in central Africa.) They face extinction from many quarters. Some might argue that giving them a safe home in a zoo is better than leaving them to the poachers. I say go the source. We’re endangering them. Let’s stop doing that.

Because shooting a blameless gorilla dead in a zoo designed to conserve it may be the saddest irony I have ever heard.

Bear good

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I pity any film up against The Revenant at this year’s big awards. Not because I personally think it is an unassailable piece of filmmaking – although, incidentally, I do think that – but because it has that prevailing wind behind it already, the one that saw films as diversely deserving and undeserving as Shakespeare In Love, Gravity, Terms Of Endearment, The Artist, Amadeus, Kramer Vs Kramer, Gandhi, On The Waterfront, From Here To Eternity, West Side Story and Ben-Hur win big, and across the board, leaving all comers in their jet-propelled wake. As I always state for the record at awards season time: I prefer to be surprised on Oscar night (and Bafta night, and Golden Globes night), but a consensus can sometimes build, whether it’s within the Hollywood Foreign Press Association or the British or American Academies. If The Revenant does what I expect it to (and what it has already done at the Globes, with the big three in the Drama category all nabbed: Picture, Director, Actor), then its nearest rivals may find themselves heading for the exit, pursued by a bear.

I don’t often do this, but I have seen The Revenant twice. I saw it twice in the space of four days. I was so enraptured by its broad canvas, its artistic vision, its sodden tactility, its elemental power, and its on-the-hoof, let’s-eat-the-snow-right-here acting, I had to return to see how it felt when I knew what was coming. I have to tell you, foreknowledge is no witherer of its strange, ugly-beautiful magic. The only hope for the other big nominees is in the female categories, as the women in The Revenant do not get very much to do, it has to be said.

Put away the Bechdel test. It meets the first criterion: it must have at least two women in it. But not the second two: the women must talk to each other, about something besides a man. The film’s principal cast list contains two women: Grace Dove, who plays Leonardo Di Caprio’s deceased Pawnee wife, and Melaw Nakehnk’o, who plays Powaqa, the kidnapped daughter of an Arikara (“Ree”) tribal chief. The first is seen only in wordless flashback, where she is shot dead by a British soldier; the second is glimpsed being dragged off to be raped by a French trapper, then rescued by Leo, but empowered to exact her own poetic revenge on her abuser. You might applaud that outcome, but it takes Powaqa being enslaved and sexually assaulted for it to happen.

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I make no claims for the feminism of either the fictional or fictionalised 19th century menfolk in this western. Will Poulter and to an extent Domnhall Gleason play male characters with a moral compass, but by and large the American and English protagonists are a bunch of cavemen in furs with muskets and Bowie knives. Tom Hardy essays another venal baddie to add to Alfie in Peaky Blinders and both Krays in Legend; he is Leo’s nemesis, and very much a loner, out for himself, with no crumpled photograph of a sweetheart in his man bag. This is a rough, tough world of hunting, shooting, fishing, whoring and breaking things (in which sense: how very like our own Conservative cabinet). There is a fine tradition of independent and able women in westerns, but they tend to be subjugated in what is a deeply patriarchal world.

The Revenant makes no retrofitted liberal concessions to modern thinking, and in a way, why should it? These are violent men, raping the land and natural resources of indigenous people for profit. From this testosterone-stinking malaise, Leo’s Hugh Glass is as close as a Guardian reader as you could hope for: a principled man who married a Pawnee and had a “half-breed” son with her, risking disenfranchisement and worse for sleeping with the enemy. But his Pawnee empathy gives him a spirituality – and a drive to survive – that his peers perhaps do not possess. Their mistreatment of him forces him to live for revenge. The world of The Revenant brutalises even the most open-hearted. It’s like a war movie that’s really an anti-war movie; it can only be such by showing that war is hell.

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Aware of all of this, I was surprised at the vehemently negative response of trustworthy Observer writer Carole Cadwalladr. In a piece at the weekend, she unleashed these sentiments (having seen The Revenant before Christmas). Kicking off with objectively fair images of what’s in the film (“Ritualised brutality. Vengeful blood lust. Vicious savagery justified by medieval notions of retribution”), she then moves to undermine what is a serious film by calling it “the hottest blockbuster of the season … and yours for around £10-£15 this weekend at your local multiplex”. I assume she knows that not all films at your local multiplex are romantic comedies or Pixar animations. She quotes male critics (alright, too many national newspaper critics are male), who have praised the film’s “revenge, retribution and primal violence” and “unthinking, aggressive masculinity.” However, I don’t see this as a binary issue of male versus female, violent versus non-violent, blockbuster versus arthouse.

She does: “I’ll summarise the plot for you: man seeks revenge, man gets revenge. That’s it, basically, for two and a half hours, though there is a brief reprieve when you get to see Leonardo DiCaprio being mauled by a grizzly bear.” She counts the women onscreen, as I have done, but she misses out the silent squaw in a ruined encampment whom Will Poulter’s character feeds and leave alone, daring not to alert his aggressive “partner” Hardy to her presence. (She does not speak either, but the Native Americans we see seem to be men of few words and many thoughts.)

“The woman is not actually raped, of course,” Cadwalladr faux-complains. “She’s faux raped. Because this is what we call acting. And because The Revenant is what we call entertainment.” Who is calling The Revenant “entertainment”? It’s a fair question. It’s not the first noun I’d reach for. It’s an experience, maybe even an endurance, but was I “entertained”? By the spectacle, the scope and the thrill of the escape, certainly. But it’s tough going, this film. It’s not like a fairground ride, with sanitised ups and downs, it’s a slog. A wet, dirty, infected, sore, painful, blood-stained and spit-flecked assault course for the senses. It’s not boring, but it’s not a showbiz spectacular and there are few jokes or dance routines. To call it “entertainment” – as I rather suspect people in marketing aren’t even calling it – is to make a spurious point.

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I like Carole Cadwalladr’s writing, but she freeforms after this, saying that we “choose to pay to watch women being pretend raped rather than watching women being actually raped for free.” I’m not sure that’s a conscious choice for me. “Even the ending is ambiguous, and leaves many questions unanswered and issues unresolved. Nobody rides off into the sunset,” she correctly observes (in the Observer), thus undercutting her own sneer that The Revenant is “entertainment.” Oh dear. She speaks, disapprovingly, of a “well-oiled publicity machine of the type that fuels an Academy Awards clean sweep”, as if The Revenant isn’t entitled to pitch for recognition by its industry peers. Some Academy members may be disengaged enough to be “bought” by studio enticements, but most of these old, white men will only vote for a film because they liked it, now matter how old, white and male they statistically are. Many of them will still have freewill.

She mocks how “gruelling” the shoot is known to have been, and how “authentically” the actors “suffered”, belittling even that aspect with the aside, “They got a bit cold, apparently.” (Hey, either they suffered or they didn’t. If they didn’t, then the acting is even better.) The cinematography is “gorgeous,” she concedes, but, in conclusion, “the whole thing is meaningless. A vacuous revenge tale that is simply pain as spectacle. The Revenant is pain porn.”

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Putting a word before “porn” is a cheap trick. I should know, I’ve done it on numerous occasions. Certainly there is power in seeing pain acted if it’s done well, and it is done well. But is it pornographic? Leo’s mauled by a grizzly and bears the weeping scars, but this is clever makeup, aided by clever acting. (“Porn,” in the true sense, is sort of not acting, isn’t it? Otherwise customers would demand their money back.)  By the time she compares the artificial, acted violence with real violence, as seen in Isis videos, I was as lost as Glass. That Isis “lift” the techniques of Hollywood to make their nihilistic, barbaric point is not the fault of Hollywood. More people get killed in Gone With The Wind than in The Revenant. When she concludes that Isis “has seen what we want, what we thrill to, and given it to us,” she seems to want to make viewers of fiction feel in some way culpable for Islamic State. “The Revenant isn’t responsible for this,” she then points out, going back into the ring one more time to call a film she didn’t like “tedious” and “emotionally vacant.”

I found it to be otherwise. I would not argue that it’s a violent, masculine, macho film with little space for the input of women. But it is possible to watch it, with its sexual assault and brutal feuding, and not “enjoy” it in the way Carole Cadwalladr implies that we all do. (Unless she just means all men. It’s still inaccurate, if so.)

“Don’t pay £10-£15,” is her entreaty. Do, if you want to see an amazing piece of high-impact, naturally-lit, visually poetic cinema, is mine. And then you will have your own opinion.

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The king is dead

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Cecil was, we are told, “famous.” A protected resident of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, the 13-year-old male lion wore a GPS tracking collar and was, we are told, an “attraction” for visitors to the game reserve, the largest in the country, identifiable by his black mane. That black mane now sits on a head that was severed from his dead body, presumably awaiting a taxidermist in Minnesota to stuff it and mount it for the wall of a dentist’s surgery. Around 40 hours before his head was removed, the still living Cecil was tempted outside the national park’s boundaries using bait and shot with a crossbow.

The dentist who shot him is Walter Palmer, the grinning fucking bastard in the shot that was shared all around the world, who now claims. “I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favourite … and part of a study until the end of the hunt.” So no remorse for shooting a lion with a crossbow and causing it untold pain for 40 hours before it was eventually put out of its misery with a bullet, but some remorse for doing so to a “local favourite.” He says he “relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt.” It’s legal to shoot lions, just not this one. It’s interesting that even when speaking in his own defence, Palmer uses the verb “took” when he admits to killing the lion (“I had no idea that the lion I took was …”). He can’t even say the word for what he did.

I don’t care whether Cecil was “famous” or not. I don’t care whether he was tagged or not. I don’t care whether he was or wasn’t within an arbitrary “protected” area or not. What are sentient human beings doing “legally” shooting lions in Zimbabwe, other than feeding the local economy and giving themselves a hard-on? That the possibly impotent Palmer is an American rather feeds into an existing archetype of trigger-happy Yanks whose rifles will have to be prised out of their cold dead hands before surrendering them. But I don’t care what nationality he was, or what job he does (or did, when he’s been run out of Minnesota by an angry mob – or would be, if that angry mob ever left their houses); I only care that he seemed to be pretty pleased with himself for mortally wounding a large wild animal.

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What century is this? In the ugly days of Empire, colonialists thought nothing of entering a foreign land and shooting anything unusual they found there, including the native humans. (And if that didn’t finish them off, they gave them diseases they’d brought overseas with them.) But we live in more enlightened times, now. We appreciate that the earth’s resources – animal, vegetable and mineral – are finite. The African lion is not an officially endangered species (the Asian lion is), but it is categorised as Vulnerable (“faces a high risk of extinction in the near future) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. And anyway, it’s being hunted in Zimbabwe and elsewhere for sport. A special sport whereby the opposing team have no equipment and you do. Palmer was not intending to eat Cecil for survival or wear his skin for warmth, as far as I know.

The only good to potentially come of Cecil’s brutal and sadistic death by a serial killer is that the image speaks louder than words, and who knows, maybe it will seriously raise international consciousness about conservation not just of wildlife, but of the wild they live their lives in. He was not called Cecil. Other lions did not know him as Cecil. Humans who at least wished only to study him and trace his movements and conserve him named him “Cecil” to make it easier to log him. They meant no harm.

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Lesson one: let us not tar all dentists as inhuman murderers. Lesson two: let us not use the death of #CecilTheLion to get all high and mighty about who cares the most about what and whom. I’ve seen a lot of largely American traffic on Twitter calling for people sharing the Cecil hashtag and their outrage to “REEVALUATE” (often typed in caps) and spare a thought for Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old African-American woman who died in a Texas jail on July 13 after being arrested for a minor traffic violation. I have spared many thoughts for her since learning about her death and seeing the dashcam footage of state trooper Brian Encinia threatening her (“I will light you up”). It is possible to care about a lion and a woman. I suspect I am not alone in this regard. I wish it wasn’t always men who wreak this violence.

Postscript: I trod on a snail on Monday, by accident, after the rain brought them out. I killed it. I am able to use the word for what I did. But I didn’t pay anybody for the pleasure, and in fact experienced only sorrow and regret. Nor did I get a selfie with its corpse.

 

Whatever | January 2009

Whatever | Animal racism
Is the gun-toting “management” of the grey squirrel class war?

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This year I have mostly become obsessed by the Mitford sisters, those intrepid darlings of the decadent Vile Bodies era who dallied at both poles of political extremism, Unity befriending Hitler, Jessica running away to fight Franco, while Pamela, a lesbian, became an expert in rearing chickens. Their collected correspondence, Letters Between Six Sisters, spans virtually the entire 20th century, touching on everything from appeasement to the Kennedy assassination.

I should by rights be nauseated by the privileged, ball-going, cousin-marrying exploits of these tweedy scions of the gentry. Instead, they have captivated me. I like to think they represent the last of a doomed uberclass, their extinction predicted by Orwell in The Lion and The Unicorn and memorialised in 1954 by linguist Professor Alan Ross: “A member of the upper class is no longer necessarily better educated, cleaner, or richer than someone not of this class.”

But don’t be hoodwinked by John Prescott’s claim that we are all middle class now. I recently opened the Observer magazine and staring back at me was the objectionable 6th Baron Redesdale, a congenitally balding 41-year-old in checked shirt and hacking jacket, standing in one of his several hundred rural Northumberland acres and toothily guffawing for the camera as he held out a dead grey squirrel by its lifeless tail.

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Redesdale, a Liberal peer, really hates grey squirrels. He and his all-weather army of volunteers have killed 19,500 of them in 18 months, ethnically cleansing England’s northernmost county. They are the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership, whose patriotic, conservationist aim is to restore the native red to rightful prominence by trapping and shooting greys “just behind the ear – if you hit them in the middle of the skull you can miss the brain”. Britain’s greys carry a strain of parapoxvirus that kills their shy, russet cousin, outnumbering them by around two million to 140,000. Thus, the population must be “managed.”

Now, I’m a townie. I’m typically squeamish about talk of genocidal culls. Worse, I’m one of those animal lovers who actually thinks the world would be a better place if it was run by cats. (Well, we’d certainly get more holiday.) I’m also a Darwinist, and if one breed of squirrel does better than another, who am I to arrogantly step in and redress the balance? Sorry to namedrop, but as the vegetarian Paul McCartney once said to me, “A fox’ll kill a sheep. It’s nature. I understand that a hawk kills something. It’s his gig.”

Equally, it’s the grey squirrel’s gig to be hardy and predator-free. Don’t start waving the blunderbuss around like you own the place – even if, due to some hereditary accident, the paperwork says you do. It’s like those simpletons who coo at a nice robin on their fencepost at Christmas but say they hate pigeons. The pigeon’s most heinous crime is to thrive. Why? Because we stuff muffins and croissants into our mouths while we walk along the street and strew crumbs everywhere. To favour one bird or squirrel species over another, particularly on the basis of fur colour, is surely a form of racism.

Listen to the braying Lord Redesdale: “Dipton woods: we took 2,000 out. If you clear a woodland you suck all the surrounding population to it. Then you hit ’em again. Suck ’em in, hit ’em.” Sorry, is he reading from Beatrix Potter or Andy McNab? “In the winter there’s no cover. They all get together in the cold. You can get eight or nine with a couple of shots. All huddled together. We annihilated them.”

WhateverShootingJan2009

At a decisive House of Lords debate in March 2006, one Lord Chorley warned of the grey menace, even now scurrying across Europe: “There are three colonies in Italy, at least one in the process of crossing the Alps. If they get to Germany there will be a complete invasion.” It’s an unsavoury mixture of incipient island paranoia (“They come over here, they take our dreys”), nostalgia for a lost, Baden-Powell era (It was the Scouts founder’s inaugural camp in 1907 on Dorset’s red squirrel stronghold Brownsea Island, which helped popularise Nutkin as a symbol of English heritage) and a macho trigger-happy bloodlust redolent of tiger shooting in the Raj. It could make class warriors of us all, even in a post-Obama utopia.

The killing joke is, it was the colonial toffs who brought grey squirrels over from America in the first place, as pets. And a pair escaped. Oh, and Baron Redesdale’s name is Rupert Mitford: he’s the great nephew of my six favourite aristocrats. Well, Unity’s pal would have been proud of him.

Published in Word magazine, January 2009

Three lions; two tigers

TA159grabThis week’s unrepresentative Telly Addict is avowedly World Cup-free. Mainly because nobody seemed to care about my coverage last week of the sporting event that is currently ruling my life and dominating my hours spent in front of the telly. (Not a single comment on it was left BTL.) I’ve cast around for something else worth reviewing and, apart from BBC2’s Tigers About The House, which was full of good-hearted people with admirable intentions making two captive tiger cubs live in a man’s house rather than with their actual tiger mother, it was comedy that came to my rescue: Friday Night Dinner, back for series three of top farce on C4; Alan Davies As Yet Untitled, an affable chat show on Dave; and People Just Do Nothing, a superb, nuanced mockumentary about a mock pirate radio station from people you’ve never heard of that came from YouTube and whose first four episodes are now being piloted on the iPlayer exclusively (before going to old-fashioned, steam-powered BBC3 next month). The link to PJDN is here (it’s up for another two weeks). There’s also a montage from Celebrity Masterchef, which I’ve stopped watching due to format fatigue.

Now, in real life, it’s back to the World Cup …