The Times, 9 June 2007


When I was a child, I’m ashamed to say that we mocked the children with hay fever as the runts of the litter. There was something uniquely, intrinsically ridiculous in the notion that they could be laid low by the power of a single tree. And not even a full-size, bellicose Tolkienian Ent, but just the tiny, dusty pollen. Like the War Of The Worlds tripods, with only slightly fewer legs, they were thwarted by something too little even to see.

So it was entirely deserved when, three years ago, I found myself in the Casualty Department of Moorfields Eye Hospital, surrounded by student doctors who peered with astonishment at the extraordinary state of my inner eyelids, which had become lumpy and pitted, and so were scratching my corneas every time I blinked. As a general rule of thumb, it’s never good to be sitting with your head in a clamp and your eyelids turned inside out, and to realise that’s the most comfortable you’ve felt all day. It turned out that this Tartarean extravaganza could be contained by a mere three types of daily eye medication, and was caused by nothing other than pollen.

I recently moved from living in a damp basement (mmm, mould spores. And the certain knowledge that if things got really bad, I couldn’t even throw myself out of the window) to a fourth floor flat, which overlooks a big communal garden. It didn’t look too green in February, when we arrived, but I have now spent several weeks sneezing with such vigour that my boyfriend occasionally leaps from the shower to check I’m not being murdered by pirates. And yet at no point have I demanded that my neighbours chop down their offending trees, pulverise them into a papery grave and, by the way, pour Agent Orange over the grass, just to make sure. This is probably because I don’t live in Paignton, where such behaviour would be right at home.

Paignton Zoo, lest you have been distracted by other, more trivial news-stories, has just had to kill seven peacocks, because nearby residents had complained about the noise they made. I would name and shame these residents, but I’m worried they might come round and smother my cats for moulting. The zoo tried to re-house the peacocks, but recent bird flu scares have made a sniffly peacock (and, really, who wouldn’t be crying, in their circumstances?) an unpopular gift item.

And Paignton Zoo holds a special place in my heart. It was home, in 2003, to an experiment designed to discover if an infinite number of monkeys, armed with an infinite number of typewriters, really would produce the works of Shakespeare. Sadly the zoo didn’t have an infinite number of monkeys: it had six. Who shared just the one typewriter, and failed to produce a single word of Shakespeare. They did manage to produce several early drafts of The Da Vinci Code, though.

This peacock story leaves me mystified – who gets so annoyed by noisy birds that they call the council and get them killed? How is that a proportionate response to a few nights of broken sleep? If that were the rule we all lived by, I would have spent my life culling (in no particular order) builders, toddlers, thunderstorms, and several ex-boyfriends who snore when drunk.

The Zoo opened in 1923, so you’d think it would have the unanswerable defence of having been there first. There is something beyond stupid about someone who would move next door to a zoo, and then complain about the animals making a racket. It’s like people who live near Heathrow complaining about aircraft noise. There are only two ways that you could find yourself living next door to an airport: either a) you moved there before the airport was built, in which case your house cost 11p, and is now worth £3 million, and I would sympathise, but I’m a little busy paying rent and waiting for everyone I’ve ever loved to die and leave me money before I can afford to buy a one-bedroom flat. Or b) you moved there since the airport was built, in which case, even the least sharp knife in the proverbial drawer might have realised there was a risk of planes taking off and landing, what with it being an airport and all.

Just as local councils plan to charge higher taxes from those who throw out more rubbish, they should be allowed to double tax on people sufficiently self-absorbed to believe that the entire world has been designed for their individual benefit, who complain that the sky is the wrong shade of blue, or that birds don’t know to play quietly in the early hours of the morning. Personally, I find that I only really sleep well when lying on the still-warm fur of a recently-skinned panda, but I’ve just had to suffer. Zoos can be so selfish.