It's now only three weeks until the publication of my book, Under The Paw: Confessions Of A Cat Man. Here's a guide to its stars:
It might be thought that "porcine" and "teddy bear-like" are two contradictory qualities, but not after you have met The Bear. Also known as The Snufflepig, my oldest cat is a black, saggy cloud on mincing legs. If there is negative energy in the house, it is ninety nine percent certain he will be around to suck it up and, if you are very lucky, give you a small, affectionate nip on the inside of your wrist in the process. Most of the rest of the time, he will be found in a mixture of half-open underwear drawers and esoteric nooks and crannies, the existence of most of which the owners of his house probably remain unaware. His love runs deep, although less so when his owners get anthropomorphic, and choose to patronise him by communicating his supposed thoughts in the voice of a slightly overweight octogenarian luvvie. The Bear's lack of blood-lust – I once thought he was going to savage a mouse, but instead he just purred at it – can blind you to his plotting skills and complex life agenda. Once escaped out of a window approximately an eighth of the width of his body. Reappeared exactly a month later smelling of death and cabbage.
Named, like his late brother, after one half of the seventies folk duo Brewer And Shipley. It was presumed by many that after his sibling and creative partner was killed in a James Dean-style road accident, "the Ship" would fade into the background in my household. On the contrary. Once the runt of his litter and disparagingly referred to as "the ugly one who looks a bit like Yoda" by the crueller members of his owner's social circle, Shipley has become a musclebound and frequently obnoxious figure. If our house was an office and the cats were the employees, he would be the resident joker who had begun to let the sound of laughter go to his head. Born attention-seeker who chews paper and tries his best to form human sentences in meowtalk. Can occasionally combine these talents with astounding results – such as the time he ripped the word "pants" out of the Daily Mirror and dropped it at my feet.
My nemesis. "It's almost like she doesn't have a personality, when you compare her with the others," Dee and I said, when Bootsy arrived from the Kentford, Suffolk, branch of the RSPCA in April 2005, not knowing that we would live to regret such a statement. What this little grey despot of a feline lacks in size she makes up for in character. It is less that I own six cats, more that, in Bootsy, I own one cat who has five cats of her own. Except, of course, for the fact that I – nor anyone else - will never really own Bootsy. Innocent onlookers may view that piercing "screeeoowww!" noise she makes when I'm on journalistic deadline and her ceaseless scratching of my favourite chair as merely the endorphin rush of a classic feline Mad Half Hour. More careful observers will see a four-legged leader of men in training and wonder where the tyranny will stop. Downing Street? Harvey Weinstein's beachfront condo? The Pentagon? If my relationship with Bootsy was turned into a film, it would be a cat version of Every Which Way But Loose.
The way Dee tells it, it all started with a knock on the door one winter's night in 1997. "Our dad's died missus and we need someone to take our cat," said the one of the two East End urchins standing on the step, gesturing to the ball of terrified black fur being held upside down by her brother. Concluding that a) some crucial part of the animal in question might fall off if she did not quickly take hold of it and b) if she didn't hurry, she wouldn't get back to the TV in time to find out if Ross and Rachel finally get to kiss in Friends, my future wife decided to accept the challenge. Since then, Janet's existence has been one of identity-searching ubiquity and outrageous acts of idiocy. Saddled with a girl's name ("how was I to know? It's very fluffy down there," protests Dee), he is our feline nowhere man, synonymous with phrases like "underrated" and "cruelly overlooked". Sometimes we call him the dark horse, not just because of his character, but because he's dark, and looks like a horse. The notable difference, perhaps, is that horses are vaguely intelligent, and Janet is not. This fact was exemplified in 2001, when he saw a pigeon flying past the window of our third storey flat and decided he would transcend his earthly limits and spontaneously learn how to fly. Has seemed a little brain-damaged ever since. Nonetheless, he remains an enigmatic figure, and one senses there is something deeper lurking under the surface. Possibly an ear mite.
Until 2005, I had thought cat depression was a figment of overinvolved animal lovers' imagination. Ralph's "black dog" period of the summer before last changed all that. It is always heartbreaking to see your most majestic, manly pet hiding in a bush and crying like a little girl. When that bush also happens to be in the garden of your nextdoor neighbour, the heartbreak is even more acute. Fortunately, after a series of hormone injections, tasty beef-flavoured snacks and thorough goings-over with the JML pet mitt, my tabby is back to something approaching his old self. Nonetheless, he will always be a sensitive, artistic sort, susceptible to mood swings. It is all part of the package deal: yes, you get unaccountable wailing fits in the middle of the night, rampant vanity and celebrity tantrums relating to the closing of the boiler room door, but, to compensate, you get some of the deepest, most committed padding outside of a Mercedes interior, a natural love of the camera lense, and the rare visual treat of feline sideburns. "How can a beast covered from head to tail with fur have sideburns?" you may ask. If you continue to read this blog, you will learn the answer. Also to come in Ralph's much-hyped memoirs: "What exactly is a mousetache, and, if you have one, does it make you more or less likely to be gay?"
As Jonathan Richman once sang, "Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole". The feral Pablo Cox never has been, either – largely because he doesn't have a wicked bone in his body. He has, however, been referred to as a "mong", "that moron who forgets to put his tongue back into his mouth" and been batted, twonked, clonked and put in a headlock by several of his brothers. Amazingly, he never lets any of this abuse, whether it be physical or verbal, detract from his unremittingly sunny view of the universe. Though he might sometimes weather Shipley's attacks by turning himself into a small ginger pufferfish, it will only be minutes before he is back in the kitchen, grinning cheerfully in the eternal hope that the food drawer is just about to be opened. I always used to think "feral" meant being a cat warrior and nicking the food of more spoilt moggies, and maybe it does, for ferals in the wild. What it means for the newly domesticated Pablo, however, is a propensity to roll around and show his tummy in a grateful manner and approach every meal like a starving orphan. As the food bowl is raised, he watches it in the manner of a striker following a crossed ball. Will he head it through the would-be goalposts of the kitchen door and the banister? No. He will eat every last bit of it, fart loudly, then pass out on the bed with his tongue stuck out. "Once you go feral, you never go back," said the woman at the Cat Rescue centre when we got Pablo. That emaciated, patchy-coated ginger wretch whom she cradled that day is hard to imagine now. I suspect that even Pablo himself can't remember him, although that might be less to do with the irrevocability of his image change, and more to do with the fact that he has a brain the size of a thumb tack.