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From the NS archive: Death of a goldfish

7 February 1975: Marigold never knew the meaning of companionship, laughter and the love of friends – or, indeed, the pleasures of sex.

By Auberon Waugh

The death of the family goldfish has the journalist Auberon Waugh meditating on life’s pleasures. Waugh admits the peculiarity of a fish occupying so much valuable space in his mind and pages in this magazine. Marigold lived a conventional life for a goldfish won at a fairground, he writes, eating mosquito larvae alone in her regulated and well-ventilated cold-water tank, but Waugh’s grief makes him wonder what Marigold’s life could have been.

Last week my pet goldfish was found floating upright in her tank. Marigold had shown no sign of illness the night before and ate her chopped mosquito larvae without complaint. No noise escaped from the kitchen where she slept and no ripple was left on the surface of the water to mark any death struggle. She was a blameless fish and died as she had lived, giving a minimum of trouble.

America, I have been told by a friend, is stuffed with books called How to Cope with your Grief Reactions and titles in a similar vein. The stages of grief are carefully listed, with hints about how to progress through them in an approved and healthy way: first, bereavement is met by a refusal to accept it; then by a bitter wish that it had not happened; then extravagant sorrow and self-pity, possibly touched with guilt. Finally, there comes a settled acceptance, when the bereaved person is ready to return to society free of the emotional instability which might, uncorrected, lead him to antisocial attitudes and behaviour.

I find myself stuck in the guilt stage. We discussed raising a monument over Marigold’s grave, but this seemed an unworthy way of coping with our grief reactions. Can storied urn or animated bust back to its mansion call the fleeting breath? Instead we buried her with minimum fuss – no useless coffin enclosed her breast – but this, too, seemed somehow rat-like and furtive. She lay like a warrior taking her rest with her golden scales around her, but her dignity rebuked us. There was no explicit reproach in her eye as we steadfastly gazed on the face that was dead and we bitterly thought of the morrow. The guilt was in our own hearts.

For more than six years that goldfish had lived with us and shared our fortunes, ever since my wife had won her by throwing hoops at the Mop Fair in Marlborough, Wiltshire. In all that time I never introduced Marigold to another goldfish. Probably, in the course of the six and a half years she spent swimming backwards and forwards in her tank, she lost any memory that other fishes existed. It is true that she always had plenty to eat and was kept cold and wet in well-ventilated conditions. Her water was changed and her tank decorated with semi-precious stones – amethystine, quartz, fool’s gold, agate and chalcedony. But she never knew the meaning of companionship, laughter and the love of friends – or, indeed, the pleasures of sex.

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Sex. Beyond one cursory glance at where I imagined her private parts would be if she had any (she did not appear to) I never made any serious attempt to discover whether Marigold was a male or a female goldfish. I never spared a thought about how she coped with her libido, if she had any. Quite possibly, she never learned about such things, never associated any strange bodily urges which may have visited her with anything but indigestion. Do female goldfish have monthly troubles? Do lonely male goldfish experience nocturnal emissions and if so, how do they distinguish wet dreams from any other type of dreams in the encircling wetness?

[See also: From the NS archive: A magistrate’s figures]

Stricken by remorse after her death, I have taken to reading all I can find in the house on the subject of goldfish. It would have been quite easy, I learn, to decide whether she was male or female. Spawning occurs in spring and as the season approaches the female’s colours grow brighter while the male may develop pin-head-sized tubercles (or shag-spots) on his gills. This only makes me feel guiltier. The thought of Marigold blushing brightly in her prettiest colours every spring (or growing fine, manly tubercles on his gills, as the case might be) strikes me as unbearably poignant in light of the fact that nobody ever noticed:

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

I know, I know. It is all very beautiful and poetic. But I do feel we might have looked.

It may be possible to live a full and satisfactory life without any experience of sex. Many monks and nuns achieve it and quite a few secular priests, I dare say, but they at least have the consolation that they are storing up riches in Heaven. A hairy young monk at the establishment where I received my education (it did not prepare me to look after goldfishes properly) used to invite his Religious Instruction class to think of Heaven as a perpetual experience of sexual intercourse. Being a callow 15-year-old I took him at his word. Then I thought I understood why that pungent monk was so unswerving in his fidelity to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. It is only as I get older that I am less tempted by the thought of perpetual intercourse, more by Sydney Smith’s notion of eating pâté de foie gras to the sound of trumpets. Perhaps this preference is something to do with the air at Combe Florey, where Sydney Smith lived 135 years before me.

But even if Combe Florey water has the same properties, there is no reason to suppose that goldfish like pâté de foie gras and every reason to think they detest the sound of trumpets. A thoughtless guest once put Marigold on an organ in my house and then played Faith of Our Fathers simultaneously on the dulcet, diapason, subbass and vox humana. Her resulting agitation marked only the second dramatic event in her life, the first being when the cat decided to try his luck at gaff-hook fishing about a year before. On that occasion – how the guilty memories torment me now – I tended to take the cat’s side. What cat’s averse to fish, I argued, and what pleasures could possibly await Marigold in the years ahead which would compare with the cat’s pleasure in eating her?

Next I begin to reflect that Marigold was almost certainly so stupid that she never even noticed when she died, like certain chickens I have seen senselessly trying to fly after their heads have been cut off. If an animal is too stupid even to notice whether it is alive or dead there can be no sense in shedding intelligent human tears for it. Why, for that matter, should one goldfish occupy so much valuable space in a serious weekly magazine when hundreds of thousands of goldfish die every week unwept, unhonoured and unsung?

But then I think of the tender sight of her little corpse. It would have been an act of unspeakable callousness to recycle that innocent thing into cat-protein. Like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the case of Bernard Levin’s mother’s gas stove, there must always be privileged exceptions from which everyone else can draw comfort and inspiration. Now I feel I have passed through all the stages of my grief reaction and am ready to return to normal society.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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