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War on the Home Front: the animal-human relationship

2013 September 4
WRAF Bridlington

 My late aunt Lily Mankelow and comrades in the WRAF : conventional images of women on the Home Front

I’ve just sent off my chapter for the book, The British Home Front: Images, Myths and Memories, edited by Maggie Andrews, Jane Gledhill and Janis  Lomas that arises from the conference organised by the Midland Women’s History Network last year at the National Memorial Arboretum. Realising the paucity of research dealing with popular myths of the Second World War the book aims to bring together topics that have been neglected in popular representations of the Home Front .

Developing the paper I gave at the conference last year,  my chapter is called ‘The Home Front as a ‘moment’ for animals (and humans): the animal-human relationship in contemporary diaries and personal accounts’. I draw attention to the way in which material that discussed domestic animals in routinely ignored. For example, the Mass Observation diary of Nella Last, a ‘housewife’ living in Barrow-in-Furness has received much critical attention since its publication in 1981 and has even been adapted as a television film by Victoria Wood. But Nella’s relationship with Mr Murphy her cat and Sol her dog that is there throughout even in the published editions have been resolutely ignored in analysis. This was also over-looked in the film. Nella, not only discusses Mr Murphy and Sol extensively, but also comments on the treatment of animals by neighbours and relatives.  She even pleads – successfully – to save the life of Tiger Tim, the ‘entire’ canteen tom cat who other women want to kill because he smelt:  ‘Will one more smell make any difference to the general odour of mice, mouldy bread, a room with practically no ventilation, gas stoves, dirty sinks and lavatory?’

For Nella Last the value of Sol, the dog, lies in providing empathetic support: “To me he is more than an animal: he has kindness, understanding and intelligence and not only knows all that is said but often reads my mind to an uncanny degree. He knows when I am sad and dim and lies with his head on my foot, or follows me closely as if to say, “I cannot help you, but please understand I love you and will stand by”.’

Instead of dismissing this as simply a product of an imaginative anthropomorphic mind we might consider the position of animal ethologist Marc Bekoff. He has argued that if animals did not show their feelings then it would be unlikely people would bond with them, ‘We form close relationships with our pets not only because of our own emotional needs but also because of our recognition of theirs’. This characterisation of the relationship between humans and ‘pets’ is also found in the work of anthrozoologist John Bradshaw who has suggested that both cats and dogs have a relationship with a human keeper that is ‘fundamentally affectionate’.

I have spent much of the last few weeks reading his engaging new book, Cat Sense. The Feline Enigma Revealed ,while watching the cats who choose to live with me. They have, in turn, almost changed from companions to objects of the critical gaze whose behaviour I now observe almost anthropologically with primer in hand… (and yes, I am sure that they are gazing at me too…)

cats at night

Felines as object of the photographic gaze (and yes the one on the right really is asleep)


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