A Tale of Two Cats

We got our new cat Barney on the day the lockdown started in the UK on the 23rd of March. In the five and a half weeks since (has it really only been that long – it feels like at least two months!), we have just about managed to get them accustomed to each other (or should that be resigned?), but I’m not sure they will ever be friends. Part of that is their age of course (Zoe is eight and has been our only cat for six years, while Barney is fifteen), part of it their personalities, but I can’t help thinking that their very different life experience may have also had an effect.

Hear me out and indulge my fancy.

Zoe was born somewhere on the Franco-Swiss border and left by the side of the road in a bin bag with her other siblings. She has an aversion to bin bags to this day and suckles up to me constantly, a sign she was probably taken too soon from her mother. She was found by a homeless man and became his companion for a couple of years, until he found a place in a shelter or housing project and she ended up in a refuge. This means she learnt to bond with one person – and one person only. She gradually became Mummy’s girl, even though it took her nearly a year and a broken marriage to finally come on my lap, but she was initially not very accepting of anyone else. She has now included the boys in her ‘loved people bubble’ but is still frightened of other humans. As for other cats – forget it! She is deeply, deeply suspicious of them – perhaps a sign that she was bullied on the streets. Since we moved back to the UK, she has refused to befriend any of the cats in our close, despite some friendly advances on their part initially.

Look how safe Barney feels when he is fast asleep…

For Barney we have a precise date of birth. He was adopted (possibly together with a sibling) as a kitten and has been cherished and looked after all his life. He lived with another cat in the house, so he is predisposed to make friends with the other cats in the close. He is calm, laid back, friendly with everyone but not too clingy. He had a momentary glitch in his good fortune when his owner went into a care home and he was left to fend for himself. But after a few weeks in a foster home, he found himself yet more willing slaves – three of them now, instead of just one. And he has never attacked Zoe or even hissed at her, only occasionally creeping under the sofa when he thinks she might be on the rampage.

Zoe sleeps coiled up like a spring, and is often on the alert.

On the face of it, Barney is easier to love and get along with, but how much of that is thanks to his privileged background? How many of Zoe’s instances of aloofness and acts of aggression are really about a traumatised little girl not quite daring to believe her current good fortune is permanent (even though it’s been three quarters of her life by now)? I don’t know if the homeless man mistreated her, but she certainly backs down very quickly and guiltily if you raise your voice even just a little. She has never damaged anything in the house or climbed where she wasn’t supposed to go. Meanwhile, easygoing Barney nonchalantly pees in other people’s litter trays or jumps up on the kitchen counter and try to gnaw his way into the breadbasket.

Claudia Rankine’s defence of Serena Williams in her wonderful ‘poetry’ volume Citizen opened my eyes to the cumulative effects of countless micro-aggressions. All these might lead to a chip on the shoulder, to a belligerent personality that some people consider strident, to a question in parliament or a business meeting that may be waved away with a smile and a ‘Calm down, dear’. Meanwhile, charming and venerable older gentleman Barney has wrapped us all around his white paws, and wreaks havoc.

Well, I hope not, I hope this is where the extended analogy ends. But, now and always, I am the side of those who lack privileges and the easy life. This is not a conflict, but if it were, I am Team Zoe.


5 Things to Laugh About 5th August

Here’s my occasional self-booster post, to remind me that life can be fun as well as educational.

  1. Catching up on box sets. I never have the time or patience to watch a full series, but I did the impossible these past couple of weeks and watched a few. Chernobyl with the boys: we were all fascinated, if somewhat shaken. Great attention to detail to give you the flavour of living in Soviet Russia in the mid 1980s, but no, people did not address each other as comrade the whole time, except in very official circumstances or in political meetings. The Patrick Melrose series (by myself, I hasten to add), which made me reconsider reading the novels (I’d read the third one but without the context of the others, I was not enthralled), although there’s only so much I can take of a destructive personality. Just started watching Fosse/Verdon as well on BBC2, which promises to be rather heartbreaking though glamorous.
LOS ANGELES – JUNE 5: The Garry Moore Show, a CBS television comedy variety show. Pictured are guests, Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. Episode originally broadcast June 5, 1962. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

Ok, so my choice of subject matter is not the most cheerful, but it’s just nice to be able to follow a story arc from end to end without interruptions.

2. Going to the theatre, of course. My other great passion, beside reading, is seeing words come to live on the stage, as in the production of Europe at the Donmar Warehouse. This is a really moving play about displacement, refugees and the rise of intolerance and Fortress Europe by David Greig. Written in 1994 and clearly inspired by the war in former Yugoslavia, it is once more extremely topical. Two moments in particular had me in tears: 1) when the refugee father says his daughter blames him for not leaving earlier, but ‘you can’t just leave the country to the wolves’; 2) the feeling of suffocation in this small town without any jobs, without any trains, without a future, and the desperate desire to feel part of Europe. I’ve experienced both of those feelings, and still occasionally feel a traitor for leaving my country when it needed me most… until I remember that it decided it didn’t need me. Despite the tears, it was a riveting performance and I’m really glad I saw it. A powerful start for the new artistic director at the Donmar.

Production picture, photo credit Marc Brenner.

On a more cheery note, I also attended an off-stage performance, in an industrial estate beside woodland, with the really fun immersive experience of The Tempest.

3. Hosting a writing retreat at my house

The founder of our writing group severely said to me, as she entered the house and I was showing everyone where the coffee, tea, food was: ‘I hope you are not going to use your duties as a host to excuse your lack of writing.’ Touché! But I didn’t, and managed to edit all of the poems that I’d received feedback on, as well as select (and slightly edit) a new batch to send. Also, it was lovely catching up with what other people were working on. Last but not least, I was most impressed with one of our members, who had rescued and fostered a kitten this weekend. Someone had dumped the sweet little thing out of a car near his workplace, he caught her, looked after her and managed to find an adopted mother for her all within less than 72 hours. Bravo!

4. Older son. While he is on holiday in Greece, we’ve been chatting nearly every day. He’s taken a ton of books with him, has even done some homework (in preparation for the start of his Maths A Level course). I’ve tried to talk to the younger son too, you mustn’t think I neglect him, but he is usually playing computer games and doesn’t want to be disturbed. But what made me really proud of the older son is that he called me last night indignantly and told me that his brother hadn’t brushed his teeth in four days. Normally, I don’t like tattle-tales, but the next bit of his rant amused and reassured me (at least about him, not about his brother): ‘When you’re young, you do things because your parents tell you to, but at this age, it’s high time you realised yourself how important it is for you to be doing certain things. That it’s for your own good, not to shut up Mama’s nagging, that you do it.’

5. Japanese neighbour. A former neighbour, whom I had befriended back in 2009-2011 during my interlude in the UK between our two stays in France, rang my doorbell unexpectedly yesterday. She had returned to Japan with her family while I was away in France but was over for a short visit, revisiting some of her favourite English places, and wanted to see what had happened to her neighbours. It was so nice to see her again and to tell her about our plans to visit Japan in two year’s time! I hate losing touch with people and am always grateful when I can meet up with them again.

Friday Fun: Iconic Writers and Their Cats

Literary Hub recently had a feature on Four Iconic Writers and the Felines Who Loved Them. Needless to say, all four were male writers and Alessandra Asteriti responded to my RT of that article: ‘Is the assumption that all women love cats because you know ‘women’, or are there no iconic female writers, or what?’ So I decided to redress the balance with a few pictures of iconic women writers and their cats.

Colette favoured Chartreux cats and helped to revive interest in the decimated species after WW2, from thegreatcat.org

Barbara Pym, from The Awl.

Patricia Highsmith had cats throughout her life and her many house moves. Not just Siamese, if I understood correctly. From wwnorton on tumblr.

Ursula Le Guin with her friend, from Pinterest.

Tove Jansson favoured black cats and even took them on the island in summer, from mtv.fi

Muriel Spark, copyright Alan Riding for New York Times.

Incidentally, Muriel Spark has written one of the funniest and most accurate descriptions of the love between writers and cats in A Far Cry from Kensington. Thank you to Alessandra for reminding me of it:

…if you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work, I explained, the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk-lamp… The cat will settle down and be serene with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquillity of the cat will come to affect you… so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost…

Three years later the Brigadier sent me a copy of his war memoirs… On the jacket cover was a picture of himself at his desk with a large alley-cat sitting inscrutably beside the lamp. He had inscribed it ‘To Mrs Hawkins, without whose friendly advice these memoirs would never have been written – and thanks for introducing me to Grumpy.’ The book itself was exceedingly dull. But I had advised him only that a cat helps concentration, not that the cat writes the book for you.’

Francoise Sagan never seemed to mind if her cat took a lively interest in her writing, from Le Narrateur.

Doris Lessing, from The Guardian.

PD James, yet another fan of black cats. From The Guardian.

Last but not least, although I failed to find a picture of her cats: Shirley Jackson always had six or more cats all of the same color—usually black, sometimes gray—and she happily allowed people to believe the cats were her familiars to enhance her witch-like reputation. The truth was at once funnier and sadder than that: her cats looked all the same so that her husband, who was short-sighted and not at all fond of cats, would not be able to tell exactly how many cats she had.

Absurdist Poetry for a Summer Day

How to cheer yourself up on a day when you are listless, fluey and bed-ridden? Especially when it is lovely and sunny outside and you can’t take advantage of it? Why, with a cat picture and some absurdist poetry, of course…

What My Cat Thinks


Birds of a feather flock on the lawn for my benefit.

The early bird catches my eye but it takes two to tango.

I personally always look before I leap,

But I don’t look them in the mouth.

Given the choice, I prefer chicken before the eggs, even if they’re all in one basket.

Count the chicks? Not likely – any number will do.