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Diary: Italians now prefer pets to children

Charles Moore’s third volume on the life of Margaret Thatcher is published next month, and the Iron Lady’s fans are in a frenzy. This gigantic biography has captured her every quality (and those ultimately fatal flaws) so truthfully. I wouldn’t have expected any less of Charles, who is a superb prose stylist. He is also a real gent, as I discovered when I was editor of this magazine in the early 1990s.

Charles, then editor of the Daily Telegraph, had invited me to lunch at the Savoy Grill. I was nervous, as everyone told me this was a job interview served up as a lunch invitation. We got off to an excellent start: Charles had just converted to Catholicism, and spoke with a convert’s zeal about our Church and its steadfastness in a time of chaos. He was also gratifyingly supportive of the Catholic Herald.

Suddenly the doors opened and in came Sean Connery. The former James Bond joined the actor Richard Harris at the table behind Charles, with Connery facing me. I tried – really tried – to pay attention to what my potential new boss was saying. But all I was conscious of was 007 – or at least, the only 007 who ever really mattered.

In vain, Charles tried to catch my attention; I – goodness, how could I? – waved him aside, instructing him, “Please, could you just move your head slightly so I can get a good view?”

Incredibly, Charles, instead of being put out, just laughed. He forgave me – though it did take him another 12 months before he offered me a job as TV critic at the Telegraph.

***

Lake Como. At a café, I overhear two elegantly dressed women in their 30s. “I am so worried, he hasn’t touched his food. It’s more than 24 hours now.”

“Whenever my Cleo goes off her food I cook her a bowl of rice. It seems to settle her tummy. You should give it a try with Nico.”

Typical, I think to myself: Italian mammas swapping recipes and concerns about the bambini. Some things never change…

Except that as their conversation carries on, I realise that Cleo and Nico are dogs, not children.

A growing number of Italians are now opting for pets rather than children. Back in 2014, Pope Francis was already sufficiently worried about this new trend, and warned Italians to keep their devotion for their children rather than pets. It looks like no one was listening. The passeggiata, the traditional evening walk which used to be a chance to show off babies in prams and toddlers on their new tricycles, is now given over to strutting dog owners, and pooches nestling like a baby in a kangaroo pouch.

The land that was once synonymous with a large brood now has one of the lowest birthrates in the world (1.35), but boasts a one-to-one ratio of pets per person – more than any other European country. Italians spent more than €2 billion (£1.8 billion, $2.2 billion) on pet food in 2017, and more than €72 million (£65 million, $80 million) on “accessories” in the same year. When I say “accessories”, I mean rhinestone-studded collars and sheepskin-lined miniature four-poster beds.

***

By the time we are heading home to London, I am feeling slightly dispirited: what does it say about the cradle of civilisation that its citizens should prefer having a puppy to a baby? Thank goodness, I think, that I’m going back to a country with the right priorities.

Then on the plane I read in the newspaper that the Dogs Trust is having to issue guidelines for couples who insist on having their canine best friend attend their wedding: no wooden dance floor lest Fido slip, keep their water bowl to hand, and make sure they are used to noisy throngs. If these boxes can’t be ticked, says Jenna Kiddie, a Trust spokeswoman, why not content yourself with putting your pet’s photo as table centrepiece?

***

I am attending the memorial service for the Catholic Herald’s great theatre critic, Claus von Bülow, later this week. It is being held in the London Oratory and I hope the assembled throng will send Claus off with an occasion balancing elegance and entertainment – as befits his life.

Claus was always dapper and witty, a silk kerchief in his breast pocket, eyes twinkling with mischief. I still remember being introduced to him at a party. I was agog at meeting him as I had just seen Reversal of Fortune, starring Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close. The Hollywood movie was based on his sensational trial, televised across America, when Claus (played by Irons in the movie) stood accused of murdering his heiress wife. (Claus was eventually acquitted.)

I must have gawped a bit too obviously, for Claus flashed me a grin and drawled: “I know, dear girl, Jeremy Irons didn’t have my looks, did he?”

Cristina Odone chairs the Parenting Circle charity