1. You mention in the Monumental Tales that you stumbled (in both senses!) across Dick Whittington’s cat statue in London, could you expand on why this inspired you to write the book?
I think because it was rather unexpected to come across this big cat with a wide, cheeky grin looking over his shoulder at me and it made me wonder if there were many other cat and dog statues around. I was on my way to Highgate Cemetery at the time and as soon as I entered the East cemetery, there on a gravestone was a lovely dog statue! I remember thinking I should find out more about these unusual monuments. (And also that I’d like a dog statue on my own grave!)
2. I am so pleased you are using your platform to highlight the importance of animal memorials, why do you think pets have such an impact on public memory?
Pets play really important roles in many of our lives, and not just in a practical sense – such as police and rescue work – but on an emotional level too. They often form part of the family and so, just as we mark the passing of our relatives and friends, I feel we often have a need to commemorate our pets and other important animals. The people I speak to on the Blue Cross Pet Bereavement Support line often find it helpful to create a tangible tribute to the pets they have lost. Sometimes this is planting a tree, sometimes posting a story online and in one case it was even having their pet’s ashes incorporated into a tattoo.
3. What is the story behind involving Chris Packham on this project? Was a celebrity foreword always something you wanted to include?
Chris was a childhood friend. We both grew up in Southampton, were both quite punky (!) and both went on to study Zoology. I wasn’t the most academic of kids but Chris helped me a great deal with my studies and with believing I could go to University (at a time when not that many kids did). He was completely driven and passionate about nature and loved his black Poodle, Max. I’m not at all surprised he has become so successful and was delighted when he readily agreed to write the foreword.
4. It is certainly a thought provoking book, one question that came to mind while reading; what do you think happens when we place animals as the protagonists of our history?
Interesting question! Animals certainly have played a massive role in human history, from fighting in our ancient battles to helping us conquer space. And of course they have always been there as a constant, unchanging and dependable companion when the world around us seems never to stop changing! As a committed pet lover it felt right to celebrate the many ways they have helped humanity over the centuries.
5. Although the book adopts a fun and intriguing approach of pet history I really like how it also touches on the wider philosophical debates of pet ownership. How much do you think our human emotions influence how we tell or represent our pets’ stories?
Well, there’s no doubt that many of us (myself included) probably anthropomorphise our pets, a little, and some of the statues, such as that of Bosco, the Town Mayor who just happened to be a Labrador, reflect our love of seeing animals as human-like. With the famous story of Greyfriars Bobby too, I think people wanted to believe that Bobby was there pining away at his master’s grave all those years. Over the centuries we have attributed various characteristics to our pets such as loyalty, obedience and sociability and so when a story confirms these (or appears to) we are understandable gratified and want to celebrate those wonderful traits, perhaps through a monument.
6. With Downing Street’s Larry the cat now having Twitter do you think the politicisation of pets has changed over time or just our modes of communication?
With so many of us owning pets, PR wise I think it’s got to be a good thing to put your pet-loving credentials on show. And, in fact, politicians have known this for decades. President Nixon, for example, managed to get the electorate back onside after being accused of financial improprieties, partly by talking about his pet dog, Checkers. There seems to be a thought, “Oh he likes cats and dogs, he must be all right!”
Now, of course, with social media there are lots more pet-loving PR opportunities. Funnily enough, I noticed a tweet on International Cat Day, showing our PM, Boris Johnson, sat grinning next to Larry, who seemed to be rubbing around some ornament or other on the PM’s desk. And despite not being a major Boris fan, I couldn’t help but smile.
7. Something that struck me reading the book is the universality associated with pet remembrance, one that transcends cultural differences. Was this your intention with Monumental Tales?
Certainly it was revealing to me just how many statues can be found throughout the world. From Russia to India, from Turkey to Japan, every continent seems to have a share of animal monuments. I guess this just goes to show how our love of animals is universal.
8. What was your greatest challenge in creating this book?
I would have liked to take more of the photographs myself but of course many were overseas and so although I’d love to visit places like Russia, Australia and India, the costs are a bit prohibitive! A lovely part of writing the book, however, was seeing the generosity of people on Flickr (and elsewhere) who were, almost without exception, willing to let me use their photos. It reminds me how eager to help and get involved many people are if you just ask them.
9. I was interested to find out that in our current technological age Tomboli the famous internet cat meme was converted (with significant public pressure) from an online virtual platform into traditional visual culture, why do you think this was?
Tomboli is such an endearing cat, largely due to the amusingly laid-back pose she often seemed to adopt, which I think resonated with a lot of people. We see Tombili and think: “Look at that cool, chilled-out cat, she knew how to take life in her stride. Maybe we should be more like that, more like Tombili.”
I suspect that we may find more and more famous internet pets immortalised as statues in the coming years. I hope so!
10. What is next for you; do you have a new writing project lined up?
Having learnt about and met some pretty special Police Dogs over the last year, I’d like to find out more about their history and maybe put together a collection of Police Dog tales celebrating the different types of work they do. As a police dog handler I know recently told me – “It’s not all about the teeth.” Which actually sounds like a good subtitle.