This week's kitchen-table tip: how to induce paranoid schizophrenia in a baby monkey

This week there's going to be no airy-fairy analysis of recondite technical matters. Instead, as William Hague recommended, I'm going to deal with the "kitchen-table issues" that concern ordinary people. In fact, I'm actually going to discuss two subjects that literally involve kitchen tables, or their close environs.

The first derives from a remarkable memoir of Stanley Kubrick that the novelist Candia McWilliam contributed to last Saturday's Guardian. It is an almost startling achievement to have spent a lot of time with the famously inaccessible Kubrick (she wrote a rejected draft of Eyes Wide Shut) and produce an uninteresting article. She told you everything you didn't want to know about Kubrick (in other words, McWilliam's own rhapsodies on the nature of his genius) while telling you nothing that you did (namely, the sort of telling details that novelists are supposed to notice).

But there was one richly comic sentence in which she described one of their script meetings: "We sat in the big kitchen with his big yellow English dogs and agreed that life was hell and people wicked, and returned again to the twists of the film, which deals with the blackest compulsions of human intimacy." If only Max Beerbohm were still alive to portray the scene. The bearded director seated in his "big" kitchen at the centre of his 178-acre estate in Hertfordshire, discoursing on the hellishness of life and humanity with the willowy blonde novelist.

On the other hand, some kitchen tables are better for observing evil and violence than others. Which brings me to the second kitchen table of this week's column, namely my own. One of our children had a birthday last week, and we gave her a hamster. The child is obsessed with animals; she watches Pet Rescue every day and subscribes to Animals and You, a periodical devoted to little girls and small, fluffy animals. This was her first pet; she named it Whisky and played with it solidly, except for sleeping and eating, for the whole of her birthday and most of the next day. She was letting it frisk around on the kitchen table when one of our cats leaped up on the table, briskly killed it and then returned to lie on the warm bit of the floor.

To have your beloved pet killed in front of your eyes by the cat you've grown up with: it was like a psychological experiment designed by a Nazi psychiatrist in order to induce mental breakdown in young girls. In fact it reminds me of an experiment that was really carried out about 20 years ago on baby monkeys. They found that when a baby monkey was put in a cage on its own it would instinctively cuddle up to a stuffed sock, because it was evidently programmed to seek something soft.

Then they substituted the stuffed sock with another stuffed sock, but this one had steel spikes sticking out of it. Thus the baby monkey would constantly be tortured while seeking emotional solace from its supposed mother. This, it was theorised, would induce the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia in the monkeys. As far as I can remember, it just made them very, very miserable. And me as well.

Nature is like that. I remember Les Blank's documentary about the making of Herzog's Fitzcarraldo (which is far better than the film itself) in which, at one point, Herzog is seen standing in the South American jungle, describing the setting (the following quote is most effective if you read it to yourself in a German accent): "Many people see beauty in the jungle but I just see death and fornication." With our cats there isn't any fornication, for medical reasons, but there is plenty of death. Our cat wasn't content with killing a hamster that day. He also came in with half a duckling. Do you know how many animals are killed by domestic cats in England and Wales each year? A hundred million. It's true. I read it in a book.

The scene on our kitchen table reminded me of a slasher film. Most readers, I'm sure, have never seen such a thing, so maybe I should explain that they generally begin with some terrible event happening to a small child. You then cut forward 20 years and the inhabitants of a female high school dorm are slaughtered one by one while in the shower or having sex or involved in other activities that involve being unclothed. By that small child, it turns out. If, in 20 years or so, there are reports of mass murders being committed by an assailant wearing a hamster mask, then I may be able to help police with their inquiries.

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