Spectator – Carla Carlisle

Last week, I had one of those telephone calls that you dream about. Prime-time television, hour-long special. ‘We want you!’ Visions of myself as an agricultural David Attenborough, walking through sugar-beet fields and pontificating on the crisis in farming. Me to camera: ‘Thanks to drought, hurricanes and the EU overhaul of the sugar tariff, there is now a worldwide sugar shortage’. Or perhaps a feminine Simon Schama, talking about the war, beginning with a quote from Winston Churchill who called Iraq ‘an ungrateful volcano’. Then I asked the name of the programme. ‘It’s Me or the Dog. It’s a special on fat dogs,’ came the earnest reply.

I guess it could have been worse. Kind-hearted friends long to nominate me for What Not to Wear, friends who think that country life has pushed my wardrobe into the hedgerow of comfort and camouflage. I suspect that Trinny and Susannah would relish using my Danish clogs as kindling for a bonfire of my vanities: a stable of black, taupe, grey, ‘greige’, mouse and moss – a colour palate as temperamentally unobtrusive as Joan Didion.

More painful still would be an invitation to Ten Years Younger. True, I saved Lucia van der Post’s New Year column (bullet points: it’s never too late to lose weight, get a new haircut, update your makeup, hone your taste and start taking care), and on days when I’ve morphed into Shirley Williams – dishevelled bordering on bag lady – I hope the words of the soign Miss van der Post will save me.

But the producer isn’t interested in me. She wants to know the Body Mass Index of my dog, Fanny, proposed by Rachel of Meadow Farm Hydrotherapy for Dogs. Ah, Fanny: blonde, flirtatious, lazy, big boned, and single-minded. Rain, sleet or snow, she sits outside the restaurant kitchen waiting for a scone, a grilled mackerel. On sunny days when customers eat outside, she changes position. With a Labrador’s instinct for the tender-hearted, she stares into their eyes as they guiltily tuck into their steak sandwiches. Signs implore customers not to share, around her ample neck the boldly printed collar says ‘DO NOT FEED ME’, but food is her mission.

I tell the producer that Fanny’s namesake was a cockney mongrel who comforted the great architect Sir John Soane in his old age. When I first visited the splendid museum Soane left to the nation, I was moved by the gravestone which read ‘Alas, Poor Fanny’. ‘But how much does she weigh?’ she asks.

I agree to watch an episode in which a calm and pretty Victoria Stilwell transforms a snappy, spoilt dachshund into a socially acceptable pet. But I couldn’t take my eyes off the family: their sofa, their dining-room table, their teeth, their kitchen, their clothes, their hair. This is the new spectator sport: camera and instant expert intrude into the lives of ordinary people who are told that they are fat, their houses are filthy, their taste in clothes is dreadful. The deeper the insults, the higher the ratings.

The writer Anna Quindlen wrote recently that ‘truth is a rock; if you chip away at it enough, you wind up with gravel, then sand’. I’d put it like this. Privacy is a rock. Let the fly-by-night experts chip away at your wrinkles/midriff/bank account/junk drawer/fridge/fat dog, and what you are left with is a version of yourself, humiliated, creepy, unreal. You will not be born again, the Botox will not last, the new wardobe will soon look like it belongs to someone else. And your friends will be whispering softly: ‘Alas Poor Fanny…’

  • This column was first published in Country Life magazine (February 9, 2006)