Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Seven Art Installations My Cats Have Been Working On Recently

1. 'Mouse-En-Scene'
One toy rodent placed in perfect symmetry with a real rodent, at the bottom of my stairs.
Pablo: “I suppose my initial inspiration from this came from the famous scene in Goodfellas, when Joe Pesci shows off his mum’s painting of two dogs to Ray Liotta and Robert De Niro: ‘One dog goes one way, one dog goes the other way’. My twist on this classic motif is that I didn’t use dogs, I used mice, and both are facing in the same direction. In the end, the fact that one mouse was freshly killed by yours truly the previous morning and the other was bought from a pet shop in Swaffham in June 2002 is immaterial. Both animals yearn for the same thing - the top of the stairs, and whatever lies beyond – but are ultimately doomed to find that what is there is not the promised mouseian Utopia, but more cats and the restrictive barrier of a ceiling. These rodents face a realisation that has haunted every idealist from Francis Bacon to Britney Spears: that there is only so much “up” in any life. More receptive, intellectually inquiring students of the piece will notice an extra theme: that of The Permanence Of The Transitory, expressed in the juxtaposition of the “real” mouse – soon to be placed in a plastic bag and put in the wheelie bin to quickly rot – and the “fake”, “ephemeral" mouse, still going strong and, amazingly, still squeaking, despite its mass-produced origins and early Noughties vintage.

2. 'The Venerable Bead'
Somewhere between five and seven thousand tiny polystyrene beads from a recently split bean bag, with a fluffy black cat lolloping about in the middle of them.
Janet: “Surely my most ambitious and dramatic composition to date. One of the questions I've most been asked about 'The Venerable Bead' is, 'Why put yourself in it?'. I suppose the most concise answer is that, despite its universality, I always saw it as an ultimately autobiographical work. I would also say that, in the five minutes between the bean bag's contents pouring out onto the floor and my owner returning with a bin bag and a vacuum cleaner, I played around with various other arrangements and none quite felt as true to me; they just didn't have the same sense of journey. A room full of beads: well, that's just, y'know, a room full of beads. But with my startled face in the midst of the chaos, beads stuck all over it, you get the duality of all maelstrom: the sweet release from convention ('Yay! Little white things to twat around the floor!') and the humiliating hangover that inevitably follows ('Bugger! What's this weird stuff stuck to my chin and nose?!").

3. 'Scum Shadow'
A cushion festooned the various miniscule debris of a hard cat's night, but leaving a perfect sleeping cat-shape within its centre.
Shipley: "See my scabby detritus, my sticky buds, my stray, dried eye bogeys, my scurf and dead cells, feel the negative space they create. See me, then see my outline. Who is the real one? Who is the clean one? Ask yourself: what are we all, but outlines, waiting to be filled in?"

A single Pets At Home Pet Mitt, placed on the other side of a window to a gardening glove
"Sometimes - and I say this not just because of my own personal sleeping habits - the best art is about doing nothing. It was not me who placed my favourite pet mitt on the window ledge, any more than it was me who dropped the lone, crusty gardening glove on the garden path on the other side of the glass, yet by being there to witness their strange symbiosis, I feel I can claim a kind of ownership. Turn your fingers into a letter box and look through it: the framed scene is perfect.. preordained, one might say. The contrast is fecund and evident. On one side of the glass: the pet mitt, better than any brush, perfectly dimpled for his or her pleasure. On the other side: the gardening glove, provider of a more invigorating stroke than a bare human hand, maybe, but ultimately always the pretender, always feted to be on the outside, looking in."

5. 'Protection'
Two ancient crisp packets, once respectively housing near-forgotten lamb and mint- and spare rib-flavoured snacks, rescued out of the lake at the bottom of my garden, standing half upright against one another.
Janet: "Who says the commercial and throwaway has no place in art? Not Andy Warhol, and not me. What is most interesting to me here is not the outdated nature of the products on offer, but the way they appear to lean on one another for support. They are, if you like, their own teepee, built against the inexorable forward press of potato-based snacks. Designed to withstand an eternity spent submerged in water, to stay crinkly and robust against whatever the UK's landfills have to throw at them, they nonetheless have their own fragility, their own worries about an uncaring, harsher future. They must hide and regroup, and for this regrouping, they choose a spot to the left of the outside drain, beneath the buddleia, before the crazy paving begins: cool, tranquil, reflective."

An aging, stuffed toy otter, abandoned on the floor alongside a favourite armchair.
Bootsy: "I think of this as not just the dispatching of the unreal (i.e. that bloomin' otter that my human slaves always put on top of that expensively covered chair so I don't ruin it) by the kicking, vibrant legs of the real (i.e. me), or even as a statement against the futility of materialism, though it could be argued to be both. I also think of it as my own little joke on those of my peers who choose to cruelly speculate on my lack of bowel movements, simply because I spend an abnormal amount of time indoors. It is a metaphorical silencing of the doubters. It is proof that, despite what my impeccable, Queenly deportment would suggest, I do, just like everyone else - like even the Queen herself - sometimes squeeze out an otter."

7. 'Once-White towel, Now Black With Fur'
A once-white towel, now black with fur.
The Bear: “Genius does not need to justify itself.”

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Guest Blogger: Tim Relf

The latest littlecatdiaries post is a very generously donated guest blog from Tim Relf, cat-lover and author of the novels Home and Stag. I've also included a picture of Tim's ineffably cute (now fully grown) kittens Nutmeg and Parsley below. If you'd like to know more about Tim, visit

"My work colleagues have introduced a ‘cat tin’.

So bored are they of me talking about my two that they’ve put said item next to my desk. The deal is simple: if I mention Nutmeg or Parsley, I have to put a quid in for charity. Let’s just say the local hospital got a nice donation last Christmas.

I talk about them a lot, I know that. Friends have started using the word ‘obsessive’. It’s not normal, they whisper, for a man to talk about his cats so much (“banging on about them”, is an expression I’ve heard used).

In hushed tones, they say it’s gone beyond a joke. That it’s not quite right for a supposedly professional man – a man with a mortgage and a Ford Focus, for goodness sake – to stand on a shed under the light of the moon shaking a box of Go-Cat.

A cat on a shed, people tell me, is not interesting as a topic of conversation. It’s merely, well, a cat on a shed. Somehow, however, when it’s your cat, it can be.

Trouble is, I find them fascinating. Fascinating, funny and relaxing. Spells of illness and expensive vets’ bills (distressing as they’ve been, both to the cats and to my credit card) have only made me more fond of them.

Plus, this past 18 months since we got them has been a series of milestones, so there’s been plenty to talk about. Their first day out. Their first foray beyond the garden. Their first ascent of the shed/ extension/next door’s garage. Their first kill (a slug under the patio table – hardly reminiscent, admittedly, of their noble cousins on the Serengeti, but one they were proud of nonetheless). Their dietary habits (Nutmeg goes wild at the smell of curry), their markings, their interaction with each other and neighbours’ cats. Anything, pretty much, given the chance.

I should explain. I’d always wanted cats, having grown up with them – but living in a succession of upstairs flats, shared houses and places near busy roads had prevented it happening.

So, when we moved to a quiet street last spring, I wasted no time. I opened negotiations with my other half, Isabel, asking for three. As a confirmed dog person, she had only reluctantly agreed in fairly vague terms to discuss the prospect of ‘a cat’. She was adamant we should limit it to one. In the end, we settled on two (the killer blow came when a friend of mine who works at a vet’s said it could be cruel to get one as it might get lonely.)

Since then, my ‘interest’ has snowballed. Friends email me daily links to cat websites. Post me stories cut from newspapers. I didn’t get a single card for my birthday this year that didn’t have a cat on it. Christmas presents – mugs, calendars, ornaments, paper knives – are without exception cat-related.

I’m on first name terms (mates, almost) with the vet and the lady who runs the cattery. I still swap the occasional email with the lady we got them from.

I’ve found myself sharing in great detail, often before I’ve realised I’m doing it, their little triumphs and tribulations with anyone in the vicinity. One colleague has taken to calling me ‘The Cat Man’.

Yesterday, it occurred to me – and even I had a flash of panic that maybe it was getting out of hand when it did – that perhaps I could have Parsley’s miaow as my phone’s ring-tone.

So, I breathed a big sigh of relief when I read Tom’s book. I mean, it wasn’t just me. There were other people out there who were the same. This was normal (well, relatively normal.)

I saw a woman on TV recently who had 30 cats. I thought immediately of the phenomena Tom mentions: Mad Cat Woman.

‘You’re exactly like her,’ Isabel said. ‘Only you’ve got fewer.’

‘I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that,’ I replied. I’d been waiting to catch her at a weak moment to float the prospect of a third. Or possibly another two. That’s the thing about cats: they’re addictive.

‘No chance,’ she said, having heard my suggestion.

Clearly, there’s still some negotiating to be done (so any advice on persuasive arguments I could employ would be much appreciated!)

Two more cats. Can you imagine. I suppose at least the local hospital would be guaranteed another good donation next year."

A Different Kind Of Muppaphone

My father-in-law claims this really existed, but then this is the same man who once claimed to his daughter that he was "famous in Germany" as a result of writing a book about cigarette packets....

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Pussies Galore (Channel 4, last Friday)

I only caught the last fifteen or twenty minutes of Channel 4's Pussies Galore documentary, which followed three women whose lives are dominated by their cats, but what I did see was fairly troubling. Perhaps most grotesque of all was the moment when, not content with having endlessly rewashed her fluffy white chinchilla (not an ACTUAL chinchilla, a chinchilla cat) Mr Darcy, his owner, Julie, proceeded to rub what appeared to be talcum powder on his bottom. I probably would have been more shocked, had this not been the same week that I witnessed a man at my gym blow-dry his pubic hair, but I was still alarmed - as, it seems, were the numerous members of Facebook's Under The Paw group who wrote to Janet to express their outrage.

I'm not sure that the documentary ultimately proved anything, other than that Channel 4's researchers' are increasingly adept at hunting out human extremes for their reality shows. Almost as disturbing as Julie was Kelly, who thought nothing of taking her Mr Bigglesworth-style pedigrees out into the neighbourhood in a pushchair. If you had any prejudices about cat-lovers, this programme was not going to disarm you, although the case of the final member of the ailurophile trio, Anne, was actually rather sweet. I wouldn't like her cleaning bills, but her 20 acre Welsh farm, which houses 83 cats, came across as something of a Utopia. There appeared to be a sadness at the heart of Anne's cat love, but in sharp contrast to that of the documentary's other subjects, it was obviously not a selfish sadness. What was also impressive was how well the cats all seemed to get on with one another. It reminded me a bit of the video below, which proves that, while Feliway and Valerian have their uses, there really is nothing better for encouraging feline mellowness than repeatedly playing them the beatific sound Talking Heads' 'This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)'....

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Bob and Mitchell RIP

They say you should never meet your heroes and I'd agree with that, unless your hero happens to be a) a cat-lover, or/and b) a keyboard-playing man of the people, who once sneakily ate a whole curry live on stage and cheerfully turns up at in your local town every December to turn on the Christmas lights. With this credo in mind, I recently played golf with the prog-rock raconteur Rick Wakeman. I'd always thought of Rick as a Dog Bloke, but it turns out that he and his wife have three rescue cats, all of which wake Rick up at quarter to six every morning by crawling all over his still-impressive seventies rock mane. Rick kept me entertained with lots of rock'n'golf anecdotes*, not all of which were about cats, but nearly all of which left me laughing so much that I spent much of the round in serious danger of falling into the course's numerous greenside bunkers. He also told me one very sad story, which concerned Bob, the club cat at Diss Golf Club, the Suffolk course local to the two of us where Rick is now a member and which I used as a practice facility whilst conducting my year as the UK's most inappropriate golf professional for my book Bring Me The Head Of Sergio Garcia.

Bob was not a conventional golf club cat, in that the club didn't own him in any official sense (not, of course, that you can own any cat in an official sense). He simply wandered over from a house in the nearby village one day, liked what he saw, and decided to stick around. There was always at least one bowl of milk, wet cat food or biscuits waiting for him outside the pro shop, and during 2006 I spent many an afternoon sitting on the practice ground tickling his neck: time I should really have been devoting to a different kind of grooming - that of my own swing in preparation for trying to qualify for The Open. Had it not been for the fact that the editor of Bring Me The Head Of Sergio was a card-carrying mogophobe (and, very sensibly, saw little correlation between overfed tabbies and the rigours of PGA life), I imagine Bob might have played a fairly prominent part in its early chapters.

I've previously written about how the not particularly animal-friendly nature of my favourite sport can frequently put me off it, but I was far from the only golfer at Diss who was regularly cheered up by Bob's bright-eyed presence. Further proof of this is the fact that, when he was facing an operation a year ago, the club had a whip round, and came up with a total sum £1200 greater than the one required.

When I stopped playing at Diss, last year, I knew I'd miss its signature hole, the vertiginous dogleg par four 13th, not to mention its par three predecessor, where I'd had my first hole in one, but I also knew I'd miss Bob more. Heartbreakingly, though, a few months ago Bob was hit by a car on the road that bisects the course. According to Rick, by the time a kindly member had rushed him to the vets, there was nothing to be done to save him. But as the news of his demise funneled its way down the fairways, each and every golfer there - a sizable club tournament had been in progress at the time - abandoned his or her round and made their way back to the clubhouse in tribute. Nobody wants to be reduced to a wibbling, pathetic globule of fruit preserve in front of a titan of mystical man rock, less than an hour after making his acquaintance, but as Rick conveyed this information, it took all my steeliest inner resolve not to break down right there, over my tricky eight foot par putt on the fourteenth green - even more so when Rick added that he had recently inaugurated a competition called The Bob Cup in memoriam. I asked if I might be permitted to play in it. "I'll see what I can do," he said, "but it's heavily oversubscribed."

More sad news: my condolences go out to littlecatdiaries reader Jane, whose beautifully dunderheaded Mitchell (see below) was killed by a car recently. Those who followed littlecatdiaries' recent Most Witless-Looking Cat competition will remember Mitchell as one of the three charismatic winners. I never met him in person, but felt like I knew him, so wonderfully, effervescently bonkers did he appear in Jane's photos. Anyone who, like me, read Jane's Facebook status updates with a lump in their throat in the days following his disappearance would have been left in no doubt whatsoever that here was a cat who was, in his unjustly curtailed life, truly loved and cherished.

*If Rick is reaching his anecdotage, rest assured it is a vastly more entertaining, discerning kind than that experienced by the rest of his musical generation.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Vicky Halls

Vicky Halls, the UK's foremost cat behaviour counsellor, came over to my house the other week. We had a very pleasant and enlightening afternoon together, and I wrote a piece about it for the Daily Telegraph, which ran today, and you can read HERE. I had been a bit worried, since beforehand Vicky had read Under The Paw, which is not exactly a "how to" manual of feline ownership, so it was a relief to find that she didn't think I was the feline-loving world's answer to Fagin. Vicky sort of reminds me of the mystical golf coach who moved my right hand half an inch on my club and had me hitting the best shots of my life within seconds: her technique is all about lots of observation (she can watch a cat's actions in great detail whilst looking almost 90 degrees in the opposite direction), and a few small but crucial adjustments. The Bear must have sensed he was about to be commercially exploited again, since he disappeared as soon as she arrived, but my other five cats all took turns attempting to get inside Vicky's magical (and self-confessedly grungy) bag of unknowable cat treasures. I can honestly say I've never seen them as mellow as they were for the week following her departure.

Vicky's new book, The Complete Cat, has just been published. Her others are Cat Counsellor, Cat Detective and the classic, bestselling Cat Confidential.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Bean Bag Mayhem Almost Scuppers Radio 4 Interview

A fairly eventful catty week, this one. On Thursday, I found myself in the BBC's very 1970s* Manchester studios being interviewed about Under The Paw for Radio 4's Woman's Hour, which was holding a discussion regarding "a pet's place in the family" in the wake of a recent survey that had found that around a fifth of all mothers loved their pets as much, if not more than, their children (!). Before that, however, I had a bit of a domestic disaster: my bean bag exploded.

I don't mean this euphemistically: one of my bean bags actually did explode. I'd taken the cordouroy cover off to wash some particularly adhesive cat vomit off it, and it turned out that one of the bags inside holding the beans had come undone. I'm not sure if this has ever happened to you, but the carnage is quite mindboggling. Who knew there were that many beans in there, that they could be so hard to get out of the bristles on a vacuum cleaner head, or that they could move twenty feet across a room of their own volition, jump into the air, and secrete themselves in a plate of quiche? Janet - whose love of budget, alternative playthings has already been documented here - was very impressed, and celebrated by jumping into the middle of the vast, seemingly ever-expanding puddle of tiny beads on my dining room floor. Sadly, I couldn't find the camera in time to capture him leaping joyfully through this "indoor snow" - a particular disappointment, in the case of the moment when he looked up at me with his tongue sticking out and three beads stuck to his chin, nose and forehead in a perfect line. The experience made me realise how Woody Allen must have felt in Sleeper when he had to tackle that giant instant pudding. Of course, Woody had sort of an advantage, in that he didn't have three small dumb animals attempting to variously bat, skate on and eat the pudding: had The Bear, Bootsy and Ralph not been asleep downstairs at the time, the mayhem that ensued could have been enough to put an end to this blog, my love of mogs and, well, me. It took me almost two hours to clear up, and I made it to my Manchester-bound train with only about 30 seconds to spare. I didn't find the last bead until I ran my hand through my hair somewhere in the region of Macclesfield.

I've done quite a lot of radio in the last couple of years and always look forward to it - in a way I can't ever imagine myself doing with TV - but I was oddly nervous in the run-up to entering the WH studio. Perhaps it was because Woman's Hour was the first programme I'd been on that I could actually imagine members of my family and friends listening to. I forgot to say most of what I wanted to say, simultaneously probably said a bit too much about the way I talk to and about my cats, but still had a very nice chat with Jenni Murray, who's got a lovely soothing, familiar voice. Apparently Jenni is allergic to cat hair, but not, weirdly, the hair of black cats. Has anyone else heard of this condition? I'd never encountered it before, but it seems to be more proof of the magical nature of the darker feline. Jenni admits she does refer to herself as the "mummy" of her dog and cats. However, I didn't get chance to ask her whether she sings to the latter animals, and, when she does, she sings the same song that littlecatdiaries reader Natalija admitted to singing to hers this week.**

* I didn't think there was anywhere in Britain that still had that Life On Mars lighting in its corridors - bar the Life On Mars set - but I was wrong. When I went to the toilet, I half-expected to find one of Joy Division in there, smoking a cigarette and looking shifty.
** James Brown's 'Say It Loud (I'm Black And I'm Proud)'.