A recent item in a newspaper about the number of wild animals being privately kept – 8 leopards, 7 cheetahs and 13 tigers lurk in British homes – reminded me about my own unfulfilled desire to have a puma as a pet. The whole obsession took birth at a time when I had an office in Wellington Court, Knightsbridge, overlooking Hyde Park.
It seemed to me that my having a puma as a pet would give Wellington Court a certain cachet and would also provide me with a loyal companion. Yorkshire Television had just completed The Arab Experience, and I discussed the question with one of the makers of the programme, my friend Michael Deakin.
The idea did not come as a surprise to him for he had always thought I was a bit crazy, and on my behalf he managed to locate a young puma at a private zoo somewhere in the north of England. When my secretaries at Wellington Court got wind of the proposal, there was general uproar. They were concerned for their personal safety with a puma roaming freely about the office. It only increased their consternation when I told them they would have to take it in turns to exercise it in Hyde Park. At this point they made representations to my wife Maria pointing out that our son Ramsay, then about ten years old, could be in equal danger. Maria took the whole idea with a pinch of salt. She assured the girls it was very doubtful that Westminster Council would allow anyone to walk a puma in the park, since it would constitute a danger to the public. Her advice was simply to ignore this sudden whim which would probably come to nothing.
I had a chauffeur named Nigel who lived with a wife much older than himself who he claimed was very domineering. According to him, she regularly intimidated him. As a peace-loving man he bore it with graceful resignation.
Nigel drove a long-base Rolls-Royce to ferry me about town and was never far from my elbow. He was like his master’s shadow and hardly ever complained. By now I had had the idea of converting the front passenger seat of the Rolls-Royce to accommodate the puma and asked Nigel for his suggestions. Perhaps we could purchase a suitable rug for the purpose? The normally sanguine Nigel became distraught. How, he demanded, could he be expected to drive the car with a wild animal seated beside him? I appealed to his masculinity, putting the view that no real man would ever allow an animal to put him off his stroke. The puma would warm to him in no time, I reassured him; they would soon become inseparable. Nigel was a simple fellow who lacked sophistication and liked his job. He wasn’t going to lose it over the small matter of a puma. By the time our conversation ended, he seemed to have simmered down and promised he would think about it seriously over the weekend.
On Monday he arrived for work a different man. He was jubilant and full of confidence, entering the office with a slight swagger. By all means, he said, he would be happy to have the puma riding beside him in the car, but he had one request to make. Would it be possible for him to take the puma home one weekend? I was so taken aback by this complete turnaround that for a moment I was speechless. When I had recovered my equilibrium, I casually asked him the reason behind such a request. He laughed as if it should have been obvious to anyone. If he took the puma home, he explained, then his bossy wife was sure to start pushing the animal around and with any luck would get herself eaten by the beast. This macabre sense of humour was something Nigel had kept under wraps until then; or was it that I had underestimated him? At last he had shown how he could rise to the occasion when challenged.
Sadly Maria was right. The City of Westminster would not countenance the idea of having a puma as a resident of the borough, let alone allow it to be promenaded in Hyde Park. My whole entourage were delighted with the outcome. Nigel was disappointed, and I felt a deep chagrin for having my dream shattered.
As for the authenticity of this drama, my old staff at Wellington Court would certainly bear witness.