No need to get ratty

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(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 1st June, & the Gazette & Herald on 30th May 2018).

I was driving home late one night along one of our quiet country lanes when a great big rat dashed out of the verge and scurried across the road in front of me, its long pink rubbery tail illuminated by my headlights. This is not the first time it has happened, and I always experience an involuntary shudder every time it does.

It makes me wonder why I am so squeamish around rats. I don’t have the same feeling about mice – I recently caught one outside my back door that I found investigating my recycling boxes. I managed to trap it in a plastic tub, and it was so tiny and cute that there was no way I could possibly destroy it, so I released it into some nearby fields (I can hear the seasoned agricultural contingent among you groaning!).

But rats have always suffered from a ‘bad boy’ image, and are regularly depicted as the villains in children’s fiction. Famously they are the worst fear of George Orwell’s unfortunate hero from ‘1984’, Winston, who has to face them through a cage secured to his head in the dreaded Room 101.

It’s possible that this common fear stems from the belief that rats were to blame for the devastation caused by the Black Death. In the mid-fourteenth century, it killed 25 million people across Europe, and even more during later resurgences. The speed of the spread, so it was believed, was due to infected fleas that lived on rats.

But now we know they may well have been unfairly vilified, as a study published in January in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS.org) showed that it is more likely that it was down to human fleas and body lice. Poor old rats having to shoulder the burden of that reputation for so long!

In my dad’s column from 3rd June 1978, he talks of the old custom of ‘rhyming rats to death’. I have to confess that I have never come across that phrase, but according to Dad, it was an Irish belief that rats in the fields and on rural farms could be rendered unconscious if you talked to them in rhyme. No particular poem is mentioned as having these soporific qualities, but Ben Jonson, the English poet and dramatist, wrote: “Rhime them to death, as they do Irish rats,” and Shakespeare also referred to the belief when Rosalind, in As You Like It, says: “I was never so be-rhymed since Pythagoras’ time, that I was an Irish rat.”

Dad also quotes this fascinating little ditty:

“The rat, the cat and Lovel our dog,
Rule all England under a hog.”

This seemingly innocuous verse was in fact a searing criticism of those in power at the time it was written in 1484, and was found pinned to the door of St Paul’s Cathedral and other prominent places all over London. The rat was King Richard III’s confidante, Sir Richard Ratcliffe, the cat was Speaker of the Commons William Catesby, and Lovel was Viscount Lovel, who had a reputation for being the king’s ‘lap dog’ or ‘yes man’. King Richard’s emblem was a white boar, hence the reference to a hog.

The poet was ultimately unmasked and found to be wealthy landowner William Collingbourne, a fierce opponent of the king, and he paid a heavy price for writing those few words as he was put to death for treason.

Despite the general dislike among the population towards rats, they are actually supposed to make very good pets. When I was at school, one of my classmates used to bring his white rat into class, and he was a most well-behaved and tame thing, who would sleep in master’s blazer pockets during lessons, so the teacher never knew he was there.

Domesticated rats are known as ‘fancy rats’, coming from the term ‘animal fancier’, and there are numerous professional breeders and a whole community of rat fanciers, with an estimate of about 100,000 pet rats in the UK. They have a reputation for being cleverer than a dog, and more hygienic than a cat. They are sociable, affectionate, trainable, and easy to keep, and if the National Fancy Rat Society (nfrs.org) is to be believed, they are the best of the rodent population to keep as a pet.

So I have one remaining question then – can you take them for a walk?

Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

 

The goat was Cooked

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Captain James Cook, who was born in Whitby
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A replica of The Endeavor near the Whitby coast. Captain Cook’s original vessel was built in the town
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A painting depicting the death of Captain Cook

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 27th April, & the Gazette & Herald on 25th April 2018).

Following my column in January about mascot goats, I was intrigued to find out from Dad’s column from 29th April 1978 that one of North Yorkshire’s most famous sons had his own companion goat.

Captain James Cook took a goat on one of his famous voyages, and she was so important, that we have a record of her 1772 death, the anniversary of which falls this week on 28th April.

Dad says he didn’t know its name, but “such was the fame of this goat that it was admitted to Greenwich Hospital as a pensioner. My information is somewhat scant on this subject, for I do not know the gender of the animal, nor its age.”

Well of course, that was a challenge to me to fill in some of the blanks about this famous creature, and those of you paying attention might have spotted that I’ve already revealed one fact – the goat was a she.

There was a very practical reason why Cook would take a female goat – she was a constant source of fresh milk. In his time, illnesses were rife among sailors who spent months away at sea with poor hygiene and little access to fresh food or water. Life-threatening illnesses such as dysentery, typhus and scurvy thrived due to malnutrition and dirty, cramped living quarters. Dr Samuel Johnson described the life of a sailor as like ‘being in jail with the chance of being drowned.’

Often, crews would return from long voyages with barely a third of their number alive. Author Jonathan Lamb has written about scurvy several times, and says: “In 1499, Vasco da Gama lost 116 of his crew of 170, in 1520 Magellan lost 208 out of 230, and in 1742, George Anson lost more than 1,300 of his compliment of almost 2,000 – all mainly to scurvy.” (It makes me wonder just how many bodies still lie at the bottom of our oceans?)

Captain Cook’s first global expedition in 1768 was in the Whitby-built HMS Endeavour, aiming to reach Tahiti for the Transit of Venus (where the earth, sun and Venus all aligned), which would help them measure longitude at sea, an opportunity that only came around about once every 125 years. He took with him an elite team of scientists, including an astronomer, two naturalists and eminent botanist Sir Joseph Banks.

It was Banks to whom the goat belonged, and it had already circumnavigated the globe with him, so had well-honed sea legs. In Robert Chamber’s 1864 Book of Days, a compendium of interesting facts, he mentions this famous goat and calls it simply ‘The Well-Travelled Goat’, so it’s not surprising my dad couldn’t find out its name.

Cook was determined to change the bad habits of his sea-faring predecessors by implementing a strict regime of discipline and hygiene, and carried the best nutrition possible. It was already known that citrus fruit could prevent scurvy, but they had no way of preserving the fruit on board. Instead, Cook ensured his men were very well fed, taking along vast quantities of sauerkraut, and whenever they landed in port, they stocked up on as much fresh fruit and green vegetables as possible.

Previously, sailors were used to using excrement-filled slop buckets in their filthy living quarters to relieve themselves, but Cook set aside a specific area on the ship for a toilet. Severe punishments were meted out to those caught going to the loo anywhere else and there was a regimented cleaning rota to ensure the ship was kept as clean and bug-free as possible.

It has been reported that Cook lost none of his men to scurvy on any of his three epic sea voyages, and although that fact has been disputed, it is clear that the health and wellbeing of his men were top priorities. Undoubtedly he had a far better survival rate than most and set the standard for successors to follow.

As for the goat, she was rewarded for her loyal service by being allowed to graze out her days among the green pastures of Kent. Her high status was reflected in an engraved silver collar which the grateful Sir Joseph Banks bestowed upon her. Dr Samuel Johnson himself wrote the latin inscription which, once translated, read:

“In fame scare second to the nurse of Jove,
This goat, who twice the world has traversed round,
Deserving both her master’s care and love,
Ease and perpetual pasture now has found.”

(Sources: captaincook.org.uk, mediographia.com, wellcomelibrary.org (Nicola Cook), bbc.co.uk)