Fiendish: a hamster. Photo: FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

I always let my children have hamsters because they didn’t live very long. But we never recovered from Spike

"He ran around, biting like the bastard he was."

Pets exist to teach children about love and death. Hence the succession of hamsters that have been part of my life. I’m not a natural animal person, as I am of the opinion that animals should live outside. As a child, I kept moth caterpillars and flies in jars of sugar as pets. When I was put in charge of the class newt it somehow escaped and was found all dried up.

But inevitably when my own children yearned for small furry things in cages I gave in. The best thing about most rodents is that they don’t live that long. I gave them good lives – and, what’s more, superb funerals.

I would wrap their little hamster bodies in clingfilm and arrange dried roses around them in a shoebox. We would talk of the great wheel of life and, though an atheist, I made an exception and created a kind of Hamster Heaven where all hamsters could nest for ever. The kids got so used to my extended eulogies for the souls of these sub-rats that they would soon be crying, “But when can we get another one?”

All except for Spike. Spike, whom they wanted to name Spunk, which I vetoed, was a vicious little bastard. Within two weeks of having him, he had bitten both my daughters and all their friends. The stream of little girls sobbing and bleeding meant the vampire rodent had to go.

I was moaning about this in the playground when an oversensitive couple who always seemed disapproving of my parental skills stepped in. Their child wanted a pet. A special one.

“You can have him, the cage, the food – the lot,” I said. “But he’s a total animal.”

“Perhaps he just needs some love and affection.”

“I’ll be round with all the gear later.”

“Do you think we should have some sort of ritual? You know, for the children to make this transition? It’s an emotional time . . .”

I live in Stoke Newington. I’m only surprised they didn’t suggest we all go to Relate.

A week later, they called to say that Spike had mutilated several more children and they were having doubts.

In their noddy therapist way, they decided that what Spike needed was “more space”.

I’d not given him enough love or freedom.

Two weeks later I saw them both, ashen and whispering, outside the school. They’d indeed given Spike more freedom and he ran around like the bastard he was, biting things until he bit through the TV cable, which started sparking. The telly had blown up and all the electrics in the street had gone down.

“Christ,” I said. “So I guess that’s the end of Spike.”

Now they would see how caring I was, with my rodent funerals. I wondered if his electrocuted body was charred.

“No, he was fine. We could hear him rustling in the dark,” they said mournfully. He was a special pet after all. 

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

Getty
Show Hide image

Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.