BBC sounds, music, radio, podcasts. Hello, I'm Lauren Laverne, and this is the Desert Island Discs podcast. Every week I ask my guests to choose the eight tracks book and luxury they'd want to take with them if they were cast away to a desert island. And for right reasons, the music is shorter than the original broadcast. I hope you enjoy listening. My castaway this week is Claire Horton, former chief executive of Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.
She spent most of her working life in the charity sector at the NSPCC, the Cat Protection League, the Variety Club of Great Britain. And as we speak, she's just taken up a new role as director general of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. But it was her transformation of Battersea that made headlines and won awards. She took over running the beloved but struggling Animal Rescue charity in 2010, its 158 year, and set about dragging it, if not kicking and screaming, then certainly woofing and meowing into the 21st century.
Under her tenure, income and volunteer numbers quadrupled, new facilities were developed, and the charity successfully campaigned for changes in animal welfare legislation. She was awarded a CBE last year for her work in this area. But caring for cats and dogs wasn't her original career plan. She left school at 16, and two years later she joined the West Midlands Police Force, where she patrolled the streets of Dudly. She says it sounds twee, but I've always been drawn to trying to make a difference to the lives of others.
Claire Horton, welcome to Desert Island Discs.
Thank you very much, Lauren. Really lovely to be here. So, Claire, you're just weeks into your new job at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which cares for the graves of the men and women who died in the first and second world wars. But beyond the professional, I think you have a personal connection with that work, too, don't you?
Well, I do, but actually, I didn't know that I did until I started looking into it in some detail. I come from a very small village in Lancashire where many of the young men that lived in the village and the surrounding villages at the time obviously went to war all the wars and died. And it was only when I looked on the war graves for nominal casualty database, which I didn't even know existed, that I found that there were two members of my family who very sadly died.
My mother's on my mother's side, her grandfather and a cousin, and they've got war graves in the local village cemetery. So they, in fact, one of the 160000 war graves that are scattered around twelve and a half thousand locations across Great Britain.
Let's turn to your work with animals now. Klebb, one of the byproducts of the pandemic has, of course, been a surge in pet ownership. Is this something that you welcomed at Battersea?
We are always delighted in the rescue sector when people take on animals. Our challenge is always making sure that those animals are healthy and well and that people's circumstances suit a particular animal. But no, that's been the real positive. Certainly lockdown has seen a huge surge in people wanting to take dogs and cats. And of course, what we see also is that animals just give people a real sense of calmness, of comfort, of companionship. We found through the pandemic they've been the reason that some people have actually got up and got themselves out for the daily exercise because they've had to take their dog for a walk.
How have your pets helped you over this past year?
They are just a joy for me. They're actually a big release for me in terms of getting out of the house. So my my walks with the dogs are very much welcomed, even in the muddy, the muddy weather that we tend to go out in these days. And I'm very lucky to have them. I have three Battersea dogs and a cat. Now, before we dive into your desks, I did think that I should get the most controversial question that I will ask you today.
Out of the way. OK, so here goes dogs or cats. Oh, now the answer should be, oh, well, I love them both equally, but dogs.
Dogs for me every time. OK, a dog person. Interesting. Alright, with that out of the way, let's get into your desks. This is your first choice today. Why are you taking it to the island with you?
Well, this is all about Battersea. This is a song that we used for a new advert that we made about eight months ago now. And it was designed to just change people's attitudes to rescue pets. It's all about making people realise that rescue pets are not all damaged and broken. Yes, they've had a tough time. And yes, many of them have had horrific experiences in the past. But when they come out of a rescue, they're happy, they're trusting.
And so they come out with a what I call a bit of a swagger. So this is the song we chose. It's Howling for You, aptly named, and it's by the Black Keys.
All right. Yeah, well, I must admit it. I can't explain. It sounds. The baby.
All right, you know, the Black Keys and Howlyn for you, so Claire Horton, how did the increased demand for pets at the beginning of lockdown affect you at Battersea? Were you prepared for it?
We were getting 1500 calls almost every day and an applications on to our online re homing portal. And we just didn't have those animals. I mean, you know, there were no rescue animals in rescues at that time for a number of reasons. One was because we had to get them all out as quickly as we could across the country, from rescues into foster homes and into new homes as well as lockdown was coming around for the first time because nobody actually knew what that was going to mean.
Where are we going to be able to operate? Where we actually going to be able to get in and look after these animals?
And then actually, because there was this massive surge of people wanting animals online, we then saw fewer animals coming in, which was which was great in one respect, because, you know, that people are either hanging onto them because they now find that, you know, they can look after them and that life is perhaps easier with them than it would have been. And and also that people were getting lots and lots of dogs and cats and dogs specifically, particularly dogs off the Internet.
And that in itself brings lots of problems because, you know, what we saw was a surge in imported animals coming into the country from abroad, poppy farmers churning out puppies left and right and often in such poor condition, taken away from their mothers too early, often very badly and under socialized and and often very sick and and more often than not dying. And that's that is an industry in profit. That is an industry in misery.
About 10 percent of dogs that you reach home from Battersea are returned within six months. Why is that?
Why do people bring them back? Usually it will be a very genuine change in circumstances. So it could be an illness. Someone might die, it might be a relationship breakdown. And people get divorced and and we see that a lot. And really, very sadly, and this is something that we are potentially expecting going forward in the coming years, is as a result of recession and economic downturn, people will lose their jobs, then they lose their homes with vet fees and insurance very high.
People can't afford their animals anymore. So very, very tragically, they will bring them into rescue in an organisation like Batarseh. And we will obviously take them and bring home them. Then we'll get people who will bring them back because they hadn't thought it was going to be on the carpet or to their to their bottom of their door. We've even had a dog come back once because it didn't match the sofa. What?
I know. I know. I what can you say?
But what did you say? Well, we took the animal back very kindly because we never judged they will never get an animal from us again. And and we renamed it to somebody who really cared about the animal because, I mean, that's that's the point of the whole Battersea premise around rescue is our favourite breed. It's not about what breed it is, what colour it is. It's about just being a rescue, just being an animal that you've given a chance to that needs a wonderful life and is begging for a fantastic home.
And all it wants is love. And what you'll get back from that is unconditional loyalty and love forever.
It's time for desk number two. Claire, what are we going to hear and why you've chosen it?
My late father, who I lost about eight years ago, was not very musical and we had very few records in the house, but we had this song and it makes me always think of him when I hear it. But it also makes me dance.
When I was probably sort of 12, 12 or 13, I would dance and dance and run around the house, leaping on sofas, off sofas, round corners, swinging around doorpost, just dancing to this song by my, you know, side by side by side.
Right, as time went on, I think.
Three years, all those bright eyes will shine, little Mario Lanza and drink, drink, drink, clairaudient, that track remains you then of your father, Michael, who I think was a very hard worker.
Is that right? He certainly was. And I think, well, both he and my mom actually both gave me my work ethic. You know, he is wonderful. Just incredible man. He he's Irish, came over to the U.K. in sort of the mid 40s, and he he trained and became a civil engineer. And for many years, certainly all through my childhood, he was working up in Scotland to sort of run the project around the kill the dam, the back then reservoir.
And he would come home at the weekend, having driven often several hours to come down. And then he'd start sitting at the dining table and doing huge, great manual calculations on the massive bridges or the construction, you know, sort of his thinking about what he was thinking about work.
You know, I adore my father. I was just I I guess I missed seeing him as much and I became more friends with him than I perhaps had ever done before in older life.
Okay. What was that like? Did you discover a new side to him? Well, he still didn't talk very much, but we actually did. We shared the more grown up things. I think we actually had conversations about things that we we probably didn't do in a well when I was younger.
So you sound like you must be a very dynamic family because your mother, Mildred, too, and I was still around. She she joined the police force as a young woman and was a bit of a trailblazer.
I think she was she was she was one of the first women officers in what was then the Preston Borough. And her duties were very different to women police officers of today. You know, she was given the jobs of working with, you know, the sort of sex workers of the day, making sure that they were safe on the streets. She was very caring. She still is a very caring person and built some great relationships with people. So, you know, she she did a good job.
So perhaps then it was your mother that instilled in you the idea of public service and doing good.
I think she probably was, because I she later went to to train in occupational therapy and worked in the health service for 23 years. And I volunteered in the hospital with her, you know, sort of doing social events and singing and that she played the piano beautifully and we had some wonderful fun. And I think it's her example always that and that of my grandparents who were both very church minded, very community minded, really sort of just built that into who we are as a family.
It's time for your next piece of music. Tell us about number three, if you would.
When I was around about 16, somebody lent me a skirt that had this incredible down to my ankles, very heavy, but very full skirt.
And when you whirled round, it sort of came out like a bit like an umbrella, really.
And I danced and I danced and I ran round the fields near where we lived in the middle of the night.
I would sneak out of the house, take my shoes off, jump around in the moonlight and actually just dance to sing this song when I did.
Shoes off for that one, Claire Horton, Wuthering Heights, Kate Bush presumably throwing them in a lake afterwards, at some point the opportunity presents itself.
So, Claire, you started volunteering when you were in your early teens. What sorts of projects were you drawn to?
I worked for Mencap actually as a volunteer for many years in a day center for people with learning disabilities. And I loved that. And we spent a lot of time just having great fun. I worked there for probably about seven or eight years. And I also worked with my mother, who worked at a hospital with what were called long term geriatric patients. I worked at the local riding stables. I have a huge passion for horses and also worked with horses.
And so people, animals, anything that I think I can enjoy because I think volunteering has got to be enjoyable and make a difference in.
At the same time, when you were in your late teens, you set your sights on a career in the police force. What was the attraction of that?
I always like that serving people public benefit, feel from work.
And I guess I must have felt the same thing then. And I left school at 16 wanting to join the cadets, the police cadets, and very sadly didn't get through. And I didn't get through because it turned out when I did the medical that I needed glasses for distance. And the West Midlands Police at that time were very clear that they didn't want anybody who either wasn't a certain height or didn't or needed glasses.
And so I didn't get in and they said, come back when you're 18 and try for the regulars.
So when you were 18, you joined as a special constable in Dudley, where your family moved to when you were a child. How did you find life on the beat?
Life on the beat was just very busy. Lots of people issues, lots of criminal damage, lots of burglaries, all the things that you get in a very busy metropolis that's got a very large population of people but loved it, absolutely loved the camaraderie, loved the band, found it very emotional. You know, this is you're helping people often at their most vulnerable. We dealt with murders. We dealt with very serious injuries. We dealt with child deaths.
Those sorts of things, I think are the most testing. But you have to be strong. You have to get through it because people need you.
How did you process what was happening? I mean, it must have been a lot to take on a young age yourself.
You do bounce off each other a lot. You do support each other. And there is you know, there are those times you just go away and you sit very quietly to yourself and you reflect and you think and then you get up and you carry on, you do the next job. And then there are times when you'll talk to colleagues and you'll you'll laugh and you'll joke and you'll you'll you'll make note, not a joke about the individuals you've dealt with, but you make a joke about having to carry on and do the rest of it.
So you get by and you get by.
Well, actually, because you have to it's time for some music. Tell us about your next disc today. So this is back to my days, really, I think, in the police force. You know, I lived and worked in the black country and of course, black country gets its name from the the the richness of the industries that were prevalent around at that time, said Brickworks and Iron Foundries and Glassworks. But also it was a time of a thriving town center.
And then I started to see a change and I watched what was a hugely vibrant and wonderful, busy, exciting high street in Dudley turn into the most derelict, depressing and soulless place you could imagine.
So this song is really about the deindustrialization of the country and its ghost town by the specials.
This is kind of those kind of clubs being closed down. This place is called. By The Specials and Ghost Town, so Claire Horton, your husband, Paul, was also a police officer at the time you were.
How did you meet on the beat?
It was on the beat, actually, and usually on special bank holiday event day. So Dudley has the Black Country Museum. It has Dudley Zoo. And huge, huge numbers of cars would come into the town on those sorts of days and we would often be on traffic duty together, sort of directing traffic. And I remember was standing in the middle of the road looking up at this really tall, very handsome police officer with his with his helmet sort of pulled down quite low over his eyes and thinking, oh, gosh, he's gorgeous.
But of course, he'll never like me. And and it was a night of a general election. And when Margaret Thatcher got back in and we were both on separate polling stations guarding the polling stations, and you have to you know, polls close at 10 o'clock and you take the box to the local town hall. And when that's done, all the police officers would be on duty all day, all end up, you know, going off for a drink together.
And we all ended up having a drink together. Then we went on to a nightclub trying to disguise our uniforms underneath sort of scarves and goodness knows what else. And and had a few drinks at the nightclub.
And then we ended up at someone's house where we all stayed, just chatting with music playing and sort of drinking coffees into the early hours of the morning. And as I walked through the door to take some coffees off him that he just made, he sort of stopped in the doorway and just leaned forward and and gave me a kiss. And that was it. That was it. We were we were smitten forever then, and that was it.
Unfortunately, there were there were tough times ahead as well. Not too long after that, I think Paul had an accident at work and that had serious implications for him. What happened?
We'd been married actually about a year. And our son, Tim, was six weeks old and Paul sustained a really serious injury to both feet. And ultimately, despite multiple surgical interventions over the years, I mean, he's had 17 operations over that sort of 20 year period and they couldn't fix it. And he was pensioned off sick pension and he lost the job he loved. He lost his mobility. He was a great goalkeeper, actually used to play for the police team in football and cricket.
We used to walk, cliff walk. We'd love Cliff walking. And we used to we used to walk everywhere. Really. We have a lot of fun out and about and all that got taken away.
I guess what I saw was some warm knock, the stuffing, you know, out of him really made. It took all his opportunities and chances away. His career aspirations were gone. But nonetheless, the upside and there is an upside and we do see it as a positive, is that he brought up baby. And I went back to work. And I have had the career I've had over the last 30 years because of him. And I wouldn't be here in these roles had he not supported me.
So you left the police force in the late 80s. Why did you decide to go?
I certainly after Paul's situation changed, I couldn't work.
I don't think in anything that felt had to high risk around it.
So I found an advert in a newspaper for the NSPCC and I didn't know that charities actually employed people 30 years ago.
I don't know. Like many people at the time, I said I thought charities were all run and volunteer.
So I applied for this job as a fundraiser. Got it. And absolutely loved it.
Let's take a second to some more music. Claire, this is your fifth disc today. Tell us why you've chosen it. Well, this is absolutely my go to place. I spend all of my days talking, I mean, meetings all the time, and I never really get any downtime. So when I do, this is the song that I disappear into.
Agnes De, composed by Samuel Barber and performed by the Choir of New College, Oxford, conducted by Edward Higginbotham.
So Clara no, particularly Batarseh, that you must have come across some appalling examples of animal cruelty.
How much of a shock was it for you to discover what people are capable of and how do you keep your emotions in check in situations when when you see that?
I remember being at Battersea the day that a lady came in carrying a Staffordshire bull terrier that had an 11 inch stab wound right down its shoulder and into its side. And she herself was covered in blood from the dog, but also covered in blood from her own injuries from where her husband had beaten her up and threatened to kill the animal as well as her. I ought to be harder than this, really, hadn't I, having spent so long, you know, working in the police service.
But I just it breaks my heart. I'm not that tough, really. It's time for your next desk.
What is it? And why have you chosen it?
I think today probably more than ever before. We spend a lot of time looking for validation. And I and I fear very much for young people who who are always seeking some sort of validation of whatever it is that they're doing, what they're wearing, what their makeup is, how they look. And this song is really it's for my son, who is a wonderful, wonderful individual.
But when we moved to Worcester back in the late 90s, we moved his school and he was very nervous about, will I fit in, what will they think of me? And a song was playing on the radio and it sort of became our song. And it's sort of a mantra that we've really had for life. Now it's got some great lines in it. Every line begins with an affirmation, I believe. And so the song itself is Affirmation by Savage Garden.
Savage Garden and Affirmation, Claire Horton, when you became chief executive at Battersea, described your brief as waking the sleeping giant. What exactly did the job involve and was it daunting?
I think it was exciting. It involved taking it out to the nation. You know, everybody knows Battersea Dogs home. It's that sort of part of the British language, isn't it? You know, I watched the film with Imelda Staunton on the other the other night, and she she even she referred about checking into Battersea Dogs home. So, you know, it does form sort of part of the is part of the national psyche. But what it didn't do was it didn't raise very much money.
And actually, I don't think people really understood anything about what the charity did from day to day. So taking it and giving it back to the people and bringing them on board with us in a way that that brought in support was the most important thing. So I thought that was a really exciting opportunity. And once we started talking about that, to see everybody wanted to know what we were doing. And of course, we then we very early on, we secured the Paul O'Grady for the Love of Dogs television program.
This is a primetime TV show bringing Battersea into people's living rooms. And it really is.
And, you know, that's now been running for nearly 10 years. And certainly he's transformed Battersea.
So it's really let people see behind those iconic Battersea gates and behind the scenes.
Of course, you were hard at work to lobbying politicians about some of the worst animal welfare problems.
There was an awful lot of of work with politicians, with ministers looking at what new legislation needed to shape into in order to really tackle some of the worst animal welfare problems. You know, we've worked on compulsory microchip for dogs. We are looking at how to make sure that the poppy farming and the dealers working in poppy sales are banned and that breeders are made accountable. And most important, that we absolutely need to get through and onto the statute books really soon because it's been going on ridiculously long with Brexit and covid delaying things is the animal cruelty sentencing bill.
And that's actually lifting up the penalties for cruelty to animals in this country from six months to five years, which government has committed to do. But we just need to get it through. We just can't wait any longer.
All right. It's time for your next desk. Clare, what are we going to hear and why are you taking this with you today?
This is just such an uplifting song and it comes from the London 2012 Olympics. And the torch itself took a detour on its journey to the Olympic Stadium and was Pastor Michael Erwin, who's a great friend of Battersea, who ran from the back gate to the front gate of the Battersea site, which is about a half a mile with the Olympic torch and through a guard of honour of Battersea Dogs and people, it was the most exciting time. It brings us all together.
It's about celebration. It's about celebrating our heroes. And blimey, we need to be celebrating our heroes right now, don't we? Heroes by David Bowie Cleghorn, you've spoken so warmly today about your time at Battersea, so it must have been incredibly difficult for you to say goodbye after 11 years and so many successful changes.
It's probably the hardest career decision I've ever had to make. I adore, but the fun we have, you know, it's a very hard sector to working with all the emotion and the distress that you see. But my goodness me, we know how to have fun and we know how to make our animals enjoy life as well. So I'm really I'm really proud with what we've all been able to achieve together.
Now I'm about to cast you away. How will you cope on the island, do you think? What will you miss the most? Well, I think obviously I miss my family, but they will know I will be happy because I will be happy on the island. I do like time on my own. I am very comfortable being on my own. And I don't get to be on my own very often. So I will enjoy the wonder of the island.
I really hope it's got a lovely beach.
Please don't have a beach full of crabs because that might be scary and and cliffs that need to be scaled. I shall have a go, but I would like a nice beach to wander on.
Fingers crossed it won't be across the beach, even if it's all about being rich. All right. One more disc before we drop you off there and you find out, Clare, what's it going to be?
So this is actually really very much in keeping with the role I am now in at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. And it's not deliberate. It is actually one of my absolute favorite pieces of music. It's a mass for peace. And this was a piece that was written for the millennium and it was commissioned by the Royal Armouries Museum in remembrance of the victims of the Kosovo crisis.
Benedictus, composed by Carl Jenkins and performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, Claire Horton, it's time then to cast you away.
I'm going to give you the Bible, the complete works of Shakespeare, and you can take another book of your choice with you. What would you like?
Well, I do like crime fiction. Probably one of my oldest favorites is Dick Francis. So I'm just going to go with anything by Dick Francis, please. You can also have a luxury item. Where will you go for?
Well, I would like, if I could, a piano. My grandfather and my grandmother were very musical people and my mother plays the piano and we had a piano in our house and I never really played it very well. So I think I quite like to learn to play the piano. But if I have a piano, please going to have a book that teaches me to play it.
And the music or what we can do for you is a piano and sheet music as a luxury item.
Oh, I think sheet music is fine. That would help me. I'll work my way through it. I've got a lot of time to kill.
And finally, which of these eight tracks would you rush to save if you had to grab just one?
That can only be one choice to me, because I'm going to be free. I'm going to be running. I'm going to be jumping and dancing. And even though I might not have that full skirt anymore, I certainly want to have this song. It is going to be Wuthering Heights with Kate Bush.
Claire Horton, thank you so much for sharing your Desert Island Discs with us. Thank you very much.
I absolutely loved it, Lauren. I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Claire will leave her sunning herself on a pristine and hopefully Crabtree Beach. Over the years we've cast many charity workers away, including Sir John Wilson, Sue Ryder, Helen Bamber, Marjorie Wallace and Julie Bentley. And dog lover Paul O'Grady was cast away by Sue Lawley back in 2004. You can hear all of those programs on the Desert Island Discs website and on BBC Sense. Next time, my guest will be the actor Mark Strong.
I do hope you'll join us. He. Hello, I'm Matthew Side, and just before you go, I wanted to tell you about my new podcast is called Sideways. Each week, I'll be telling you stories that I hope will make you see the world differently. We've got a story about a rebellious pilot who changed the way we fight wars.
We'll hear how a misunderstanding about probability led to a group of mothers being wrongfully convicted of killing their children.
We'll meet a tribe described as the most selfish people on the planet. I'll be revealing the true story of Stockholm syndrome. And we'll also hear how a change in our sexual behavior 2000 years ago revolutionized the way we innovate. So if you want to hear about the big ideas that are shaping our lives, please come and join me by listening to Sideways on BBC Sounds.