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?
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