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Writing Animals: A Place to Dump Guinea Pigs

Tuesday 13th September, Liar’s League in London, actor Greg Page reads my latest animal story “A Place to Dump Guinea Pigs”:

Enjoy that? Hope so. If you’d rather read the actual words than sit here for 15 minutes listening to them, here’s the story online.

It’s really quite surreal hearing someone else read out the words I’ve written, but I thrilled in every moment of Greg’s exquisite delivery, and his little asides to the audience. He really brought my vision of a Yorkshire Charon to life, giving the old ferryman a real likable warmth and cheery simplicity. Huge thanks to Greg for his reading and to Liar’s League for accepting the tale.

This particular story had been floating around in my head for quite a while and is closely linked to my time a few years ago as a trustee of the Manchester and Salford RSPCA. My wife and I still volunteer with the branch although we are no longer trustees, so we still have an additional level of exposure to the other side of animal welfare which most people don’t often see or know about. This story arises from that place.

The vast majority of animals who end up in the care of the RSPCA come from neglect, cruelty or abandonment, and it is this latter that I find most curious and, in an interesting way, most disturbing. In the cases of neglect or cruelty, I can find myself supposing that there is a deeper, darker underlying reason for the crimes which has something to do with social instability or mental health-related instability. The nastiest abusers are often very sick people who need support and help rather than vilifying outright. The neglecters will usually be overwhelmed by life, neglecting everything from cleanliness to children to their own frailties, not just the animal. The most common linking theme in cases of neglect and cruelty is an utter sadness, followed by deep, social frustration.

But abandonment feels a bit different. Abandonment feels like fly-tipping; an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality of ‘not my problem’ – something for someone else to deal with. Mixed up in abandonment there’s certainly elements of desperation, but there’s also a heck of a lot of tangible shame. Most cases of abandonment don’t follow any kind of logic; animals don’t routinely get dumped outside vets or animal shelters, which would make sense, but in bins and skips, or at the sides of roads, or in the furthest corners of parks. Or worse; in canals, or tied helplessly to trees.

There’s an element there too of passive punishment. Ultimately the animals themselves have been obliquely blamed for misbehaving, getting pregnant, or becoming too expensive (or all of the above in my tale). So there’s a sense of ‘see how you like it’ to animals who are abandoned to this 50/50 chance of either discovery and rescue, or death from a fox or a car or a sharp winter night. In a sense it becomes nature’s decision; left to her infinite and mysterious chaos.

The more I heard of these sorts of disquieting abandonments, the more I began to think of it in terms of narrative – both backwards and forwards. What build-up of life events causes a person to a) acquire an animal they will b) end up fly-tipping. But also forwards, to the extremities of my weird story brain: what’s the furthest logical place I can imagine to take this to? Or, to put it another way; if abandonment is indeed built upon a foundation of shame and bitterness, what is the most distant extreme a person could go to in order to find a place to enact this deed? It’s when you think along these lines that myth pops its head around the door like a jester, bells jangling, cheeky grin on its face. The wise fool has always got your back.

I’ve long loved Greek Mythology since childhood when I had a brilliant picture-book of some of the most famous tales; Theseus and the Minotaur, Perseus and the Gorgon, Icarus and Daedalus and so on. They were infinitely more fascinating, sexier, thrilling, and dangerous than the tame Bible stories peddled in church every Sunday. Who cares about a boring guy on a mound saying old words when you could have men wrestling bulls in labyrinths and soldiers hiding in horse statues? There’s a kind of perfect balance of brilliance and brutality in the Greek tales of gods, heroes and monsters which remains quite unparalleled. Or, at the very least, the essence of them has survived repeated attempts of pacification or replacement. I always loved how the gods made mistakes, the monsters could be heroes, and the actual heroes would eventually be scuppered by their own tragedies; like Theseus flying the black sail and sending his father to suicide, or Achilles and his ridiculous heel.

Once I reached the point of Drama A-Level and started to learn about the tragedians, and about figures such as Oedipus, Antigone, Medea, Iphigenia and all that lot, the myths became more than fabulous tales and something closer to actual magic. A shared collective unconscious of drama, a sharper illumination of the actual world we’ve built for ourselves; full of mistakes, foolish pride, desperation, world-views which hopelessly collide. And then University filled in the final gaps when I discovered Freud and Jung and all that maddening bunch, and I put the final decisive nail in the coffin of Jesus Christ and got on with giving praise to the one true god: Story.

Lurking beneath it all there was one persistent thing which joined up all the characters and all the theories and all the chaos: death. Flipping loads of it. Down below, waiting for us all, the prototype grim reaper loitered; Charon the Ferryman. The one character of the whole mythos who could never really be properly categorised (Mortal? Immortal? God? Monster? Hero? Alive or dead?) and, therefore, seems to have persisted through the ages more so than most.

It didn’t take me long when thinking about dark, distant places to land upon the shore of the Styx. I hunted for Charon there and thought about what he would be doing today. Still here? On his boat, in the Styx just sitting and waiting? Wondering where we’ve all gone? Wondering why he’s still needed? Feeling somewhat…abandoned?

Thank you Myth Jester, you brilliant idiot.

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