It will come as no surprise to people who work in marketing that you are never less than 30ft from a rat.
Most lay people, however, will be horrified, which must give satisfaction to Stephen Battersby, author of a report calculated to strike fear into the hearts of the masses. As head of rat studies at the Robens Centre for Public and Environmental Health at the University of Surrey, he is absolved of the requirement to couch his findings in the dry anodyne prose of academia. It is a freedom of which he avails himself with gusto.
Rats, he declares, now outnumber the British human population and are leaving the sewers for a life above ground. In the past three years, the number of homes and businesses reporting infestations has soared from 250,000 to 290,000.
Perhaps suspecting that an increase of 16 per cent, though significant, does not quite qualify for the adjective “soaring”, the report says that, since local authorities are only informed of 40 per cent of cases (a statistic we must take on trust), a more accurate figure is 750,000.
But even that is not quite as blood curdling as it ought to be. If the rat population is, as the report alleges, 60 million, and the invasion from ancient drains – taking the adjusted figure – amounts to 750,000, only 1.25 per cent of all rodents find life among us humans sufficiently appealing to warrant the journey to the surface. Still more disturbing for the alarmists is the fact that 40 per cent of people who suffer infestation (which, translated, means spot a rat) are so undisturbed by the experience that they fail to report it.
Mr Battersby, however, is no faintheart, and certainly no quitter. OK, he concedes that “at the moment the rat problem is chronic rather than acute” – a dispassionate observer would settle for “mildly disturbing” – but argues that we need to be doing something to prevent it from becoming acute. “If we do nothing, it will become more and more common to see rats in our houses or in our gardens, or walking down the streets.” Which, one has to admit, is a nice touch. Rats in the garden are a pest. Rats in the house are most unwelcome. But rats walking down the street is plain insolence. You would not mind if they had the decency to scurry or scuttle, but to saunter!
Battersby is not finished yet: “If water companies and local authorities do not act, infestations could lead to water contamination, viruses and fevers. There will be cases of rats running across children’s cots.”
As a last desperate throw, that is pretty good stuff. A rat in the rhododendrons, or under the floor boards, or even prancing down the street, spring-heeled like Fred Astaire, is one thing, but a rat running across children’s cots is another. In his excitement, however, Battersby missed a trick. He ought to have said “babies’ cots” or, better still, “kiddies’ cots”.
But alarmism is an art and has to be learnt like any other. Almost to the finishing line, Battersby only scored about four out of ten. But the rats on the cots and tots was a neat move, bringing him a total of seven out of ten. He could do better, and if he works on the kiddies’ angle he might yet make a good alarmist.
Battersby would do well to take lessons from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which reports that our own dear Queen is being subjected to aerial bombardment with excrement. On no fewer than six occasions in July, when Her Majesty and Prince Philip were in residence at Windsor Castle, “numerous brown, foul-smelling, pellets fell into the area”.
On July 26, many celebrities gathered together in Windsor Great Park for the Cartier International Polo when, once again, ordure, possibly of human origin, rained down from the sky.
The CAA is investigating the possibility that an aircraft may be suffering from a rogue sewerage system. “We will be trying to establish precise times so that we can see if a pattern emerges,” said a spokesman.
For many years, doctors have been urging us to establish regularity in our bowel movements. Should the bombing of Windsor Great Park prove to be on an orderly, well-managed basis consistent with a daily diet of roughage and fruit, there ought to be no cause for complaint.
The Palace has already adopted an admirably insouciant posture. “I think we would have spotted any aerial bombardment of the castle,” says a spokesman cleverly answering a question different to the one put to him.
What obviously concerns the public is that the Head of State should be in danger of injury through airborne dung. And that the Queen Mother, a doughty survivor of Hitler’s bombardment, and now in her 99th year, should be struck by a flying fragment of friendly faeces is too awful to contemplate.
Nor is it any consolation that none of the objects troubled the showbusiness contingent at the polo. For just as marketing folk are no strangers to rats, the celebrity classes are at one with excrement. If you live it, talk it, and make entire television programmes out of it, what does it matter if it falls on you from the sky?