Jeremy Lewis is unsentimental about animals but feels gulls have a bad press.
Although I’ve been devoted to a long succession of cats, giving them every known human attribute, I don’t think I’m particularly sentimental about animals in general. I’m all in favour of giving badgers a bollocking if they must infect our cows with TB, and although I’ve never had the slightest desire to ride a horse, I am – as the grandson of a hard-riding Gloucestershire farmer and a devotee of Surtees and Trollope – all in favour of hunting as part of the rich pageantry of country life. But, like William Blake, I can’t stand the sight of a bird in a cage – apart, perhaps, from the gnarled old parrot who spends his days gnawing the bars when not being let out to waddle round the room. Years ago canaries and budgerigars were popular items in working-class homes and companions for elderly widows, but I had hoped that they were a thing of the past until, the other day, I saw a young mother and her children taking a small bird in a cage into the local vet. I don’t imagine the exotic-looking little birds one sees in pet shops would last five minutes if released from their cages, but I wish they’d never been put there in the first place.
I spent 24 hours in hospital last week. As always, I was wonderfully well looked after and rather enjoyed my flying visit, but I was appalled by the paperwork in evidence – still more so since it was recently revealed that this particular hospital, which is first-rate in medical terms and attracts patients from far beyond its catchment area, is some £40 million in debt. In A&E I was initially booked in by a nurse, who painstakingly took down the details of my ailment in longhand and clipped the results to a letter from my GP. I was then passed to a young doctor, who took down identical details on another form, and added her findings to the pile. An hour or so later I went through an identical routine with a third young doctor. I was then put in a wheelchair – quite unnecessary, but walking is frowned upon in modern hospitals and a great deal of time is wasted waiting for orange-clad ‘porters’ to appear – and trundled into the sanctum where I was to be interviewed by a urologist. A very pleasant young man eventually appeared clutching what was, by now, a wodge of papers – all presumably saying exactly the same thing – and proceeded to cover the ground in greater detail, propping the pile of papers on his knee as he wrote. He was followed by a more senior colleague, who interviewed me again – this time without taking notes – before arranging for me to be pushed to my ward in another wheelchair. By the time I left the following day my file of papers was almost as thick as this copy of The Oldie.
I returned to a ward in which I spent a good deal of time two years ago. It contains a machine dispensing hot drinks, but whereas in the past one was free to make tea or coffee whenever one liked, the machine now carries a notice saying that it is to be used only if a nurse is in attendance. Since the poor nurses are already run off their feet, it’s not surprising that the machine is seldom used. ‘Health and Safety,’ one of them told my wife, rolling her eyes heavenwards as she spoke.
Back in the summer there was a silly-season scare about cold-eyed seagulls not only plucking chips and burgers from the fingers of terrified holiday-makers, but savaging small dogs and dive-bombing bald pates. Their activities were likened to those described in Hitchcock’s The Birds, with intimations that the gull community was conspiring to wage warfare on those visiting seaside resorts.
I love the sound of seagulls, and feeding them with scraps of stale bread is an ancient and honourable activity. Their recent poor behaviour must be the result of two of the most unattractive aspects of modern life: our infatuation with take-away food, the containers and contents of which are scattered about the country; and our litter-producing habit, inflamed by the 1978 Winter of Discontent, of putting our rubbish in black plastic bags, which are then torn open by urban foxes, hungry seagulls and other predatory folk. If we mended our ways, the gulls would almost certainly behave better.
‘Are you passionate about service?’ runs an ad for Moto in the Pease Pottage service station on the M23. No doubt unemployed young people in that part of West Sussex would be relieved to get a job serving seagull-tempting burgers to hungry motorists, but it’s a bit much to expect them to be ‘passionate’ about it. ‘Looking for a job?’ – or even ‘Desperate for a job?’ – would be more truthful, and probably more effective.