Sunday 25 November 2007

A Cat Dictionary: Some Random Selections, Part II

E.S. Pee
The telepathic process which leads a cat to only get properly settled on its owner’s stomach in the moments when that owner is most desperate for the toilet.

Fool’s Bogies
Crunchy yet slightly moist snacks that are passed off as a “treat” because they cost more and come in smaller, very slightly more lavish packaging, but essentially taste just like other more ostenstibly run-of-the-mill crunchy yet slightly moist snacks.

Furmat’s Last Theorem
The inarguable mathematical law that states that a cat’s affection will rise and fall in direct proportion to the dirt on its body at the time.

To offer crucial moral support with while one’s owner is hard at work. More popular examples include “Painting” (brushing one’s tail against some fresh paintwork and leaving a hairy residue), “Carrying” (darting in between one’s owner’s feet when they are transporting a heavy tray of food between rooms) and “Testing For Bacteria” (licking some freshly buttered bread while one’s owner's back is turned).

The state of bliss created by the perfect friction of an owner’s fingers on a fully-extended chin.

Quantum Physics
The mysterious force allowing a contented cat to fold its limbs, head and torso into an area a quarter of the size of its usual body mass.

Rain Paper
Tissues (preferably Sainsbury’s Rose-Scented).

Those meditative I-should-really-have-a-newspaper-here moments on the litter tray or the freshly hoed soil when one’s hard-set veneer of dignity is momentarily dropped, a certain faraway dreaminess comes over the eyes, and, just for twenty or thirty seconds, all in the world is right.

The mystic force that, without the need for discussion or consensus, will cause numerous cats in the same room all to clean their most hard-to-get regions at exactly the same time.

Sleeping With The Fishes
The particularly contented, lengthy state of REM that occurs after one has clandestinely intercepted one’s owners shopping bags in the wake of their last trip to the seafood counter.

The wobbly-lipped noise made by a cat when it looks out of a window and sees a wood pigeon “acting up”.

Wednesday 24 October 2007

How To PROPERLY Photograph A Cat

A few weeks ago, a man came round to my house to photograph my cats for the jacket of my new book. "What I want is a simple shot," he explained. "Just you on the ground, with the cats crawling all over you. Or maybe you could stand up and hold a couple and have a couple of others on your shoulders. Shouldn't take more than twenty minutes or so." I told him that this sounded fine, not because I thought any of it was remotely realistic, but because I'd realised from the moment he'd used the word "simple" that, experienced as he was, that experience clearly did not extend to cats. I knew that no warning I could give him would be any kind of substitute for the learning process provided by the real experience of trying to get six of the most duplicitious animals imaginable sitting in an aesthetically pleasing posture at the same time.

The photographer did get one very nice shot in the end, though it only featured Shipley, whom it captured looking radiantly obnoxious. The downside was that afterwards every surface in my kitchen was spotted with globules of catmeat, Delawney and The Bear had both exited the house on what had all the hallmarks of a permanent basis, and my jumper looked less like I'd been posing with Pablo and more like I'd been shearing him. One of my worries about writing a book about my cats is that there is more of this in store in the future - after which I may not have any cats living under my roof to write about.

It is not that my cats don't like being photographed, in the right circumstances. I only have to look through my collection of shots of a beaming Ralph to know that he loves the camera. Either these beatific shots all just happen to have been taken at times when he'd just broken wind in a really satisfying manner, or that glint in his eye is the glint of a creature who knows that he's being worshipped and that, as the descendant of Egyptian Gods, such worship is his right. But my cats know when they are being exploited. I'm sure even if I took a commercially-intended shot of them myself, I'd been given a "talk to the tail" gesture in no time. When I look at the best pictures that Dee and I have of our cats, each one of them, whether in resting or hunting or playful mode, seems perfectly aware that the shot is being purely taken for the purpose of glorying in their sheer existence. These pictures go a long way towards illustrating the essential dynamics of my relationship with my cats: they know that they are magnificent, I know that they are magnificent, and I am here to remind them that they are magnificent. Anything else is pretty much a deal-breaker, unless there are royalties involved and those royalties arrive in a shiny packet with "Purina One" or "Taste The Difference Honey Glazed Ham" on the front.

I'm sure that, in early 80s New York, when the photographer Tony Mendoza began to take photographs of his new flatmate's cat, Ernie, Mendoza could not have already planned the book that would come out of it. Being a cat, and therefore a master bullshit detector, Ernie would have known, and Mendoza would not have come up with such an incredible, expressive, uninhibited portfolio. There aren't many collections of photographs that I can look at hundreds of times, always discovering something new, but this is one of them. In fact, it's possible that no cat story and no anthology of cat writing, no matter how extensive or inquiring, has ever encapsulated the self-revelling nature of catness quite like Ernie: A Photographer's Memoir. Maybe it's because I've got a particular soft spot for grey and white cats, but when I look at Mendoza's shots of Ernie stalking a bird on the rooftops or curled up in a frontless desk drawer or bristling at a dog's back leg, I see everything I've ever loved about cats: their ability to be truly themselves, the eternal comedy of their touchiness, their innate sense of shame. The cat wants what the cat wants and, much as that might sometimes make living with him the equivalent to being Pete Burns' PA, witnessing that wanting can be an awesome thing. I'm sure Ernie is long gone now (why do I persist in getting so melancholy thinking about animals in old photos and films? Is this normal?*) but there seems to be no doubt that his was a life lived to the full, without inhibitions, concessions to The Man, or debilitating moments of introspection.

* Should I really have had a tear in my eye the other night, watching Preston Sturges' 1942 screwball comedy The Palm Beach Story, just because I'd realised that the spaniels in the scene on the train had probably all been dead since about 1956? Not exactly a tragedy to rank alongside Third World famine, is it?

Friday 12 October 2007

The Ones That Got Away: A List Of Some Cats That I Wouldn’t Have Minded Owning But, Owing To Insurmountable Obstacles, Couldn’t

Grundy (1994-98)
Colour: Ginger and White
Home: Gedling, Nottingham
Owners: Absentee couple at rear of girlfriend’s house.
Defining Features And Characteristics: Nicotine-stained Rod Stewart meow. Take-me-home eyes.
Catchphrase: “I am a cat of constant sorrow.”
Why It Could Never Work Between Us: Constant low rasping noises v beguiling, but potentially grating on a day-to-day basis, not to mention cause of possible hitch in any kidnap plot.

Scampi (1988-93)
Colour: Tortoiseshell
Home: Cripsley Edge Golf Club, Nottingham
Owner: Club Steward, Cripsley Edge Golf Club
Defining Features And Characteristics: Roly-poly yet stand off-ish manner, unpredictable hiss valve, tendency to walk onto 18th green at inappropriate moments.
Catchphrase: “It’s not me, it’s you.”
Why it could never work between us: Growing antipathy toward golf (mine), growing antipathy towards being overstroked by Ladies Bridge Team leading to lasting grumpiness and “I’m not just a plaything” hissy-fits (Scampi’s).

Archie (1995)
Colour: Deep tabby
Home: York
Owner: Unknown
Defining Features And Characteristics: Waddling run, enormous belly, suspicious need to get into broom closets.
Catchphrase: “Yeah, so I’ve got a boy’s name – big deal. It never stopped Jamie Lee Curtis. What did you think I’m carrying in here – bananas?”
Why It Could Never Work Between Us: Curtailed stay in locality due to dropping out of University after three months. Possible offspring rehoming problems.

Hercules (1996)
Colour: Rich tea tabby
Home: Newcastle Upon-Tyne
Owners: Science Faculty Of The University Of Newcastle Upon-Tyne (unconfirmed).
Defining Features And Characteristics: Formidable bulk perfectly meshed with winning softness. Penchant for wrestling with undergraduates.
Catchphrase: “Love the one you’re with!”
Why It Could Never Work Between Us: Limited visiting privileges. Insecurity deriving from unacademic status. Danger of squashage. Potential “How can I know you truly love me, when you love everyone else too?” disagreements.

Nameless Strangely Silent Cat From Italian Campsite Where Wild Dogs Kept Me Awake At Night (1998)
Colour: Black
Home: Donoratico, Tuscany
Owners: Unknown
Defining Features And Characteristics: Unaccountable fondness for getting under wheel arches, laconism bordering on the disturbing.
Catchphrase: “…”
Why It Could Never Work Between Us: Language barrier. Geographical obstacles which could only be conquered by Mediterranean move on my part and, even then, would probably lead to constant state of worry about attack from slobbering Tuscan fanghounds.

Bagpuss (1975-79)
Colour: New rave pink and white
Home: Emily’s shop (what kind of seven year-old owns a shop?)
Owner: Emily
Defining Features And Characteristics: Can’t-be-arsed manner, all-round sagginess, propensity for hoarding junk and dreaming up improbable stories involving mermaids.
Catchphrase: “Yeoooaaawnnnn!”
Why It Could Never Work Between Us: Possessiveness of Emily could mutate into homicidal rage, upon finding favourite cloth possession gone. Limited need for old rags, bottles, shoes and assorted other old tat in my house. Transition between three dimensional reality and two-dimensional fictional universe not yet possible (A-Ha’s Take On Me video still numerous years in the future).

Sunday 30 September 2007

A Cat Dictionary: Some Random Selections

The noise that accompanies the eradication – or attempted eradication - of an ear mite.

The ancient and mysterious social law that governs the cat universe and allows cold-blooded killing machines to live in relative harmony, frequently under the same roof. When is it considered good form to steal an older moggy’s favourite spot on a favourite chair? What exactly makes it ok to virtually insert your nose into a fellow cat’s rear end one day, and it a passing sniff an outright offence less than twenty four hours’ later? In a hungry gaggle of six of Norfolk’s most duplicitous, randomly thrown-together pusses, who decides who gets priority at the dinner table, and how? If you’ve sprayed a microscopic bit of piss on a curtain, why does that make you “well hard” in the environs of that room, but only “a bit of a big girl” as soon as you step over the carpet divider? How does a cat implicitly understand what a “garden” is, and where it begins and ends? Humans remain in the dark about all this, but Catiquette provides the answers.

The peculiar, tickly sensation experienced whilst swallowing a particularly meaty and recalcitrant bluebottle.

The bits of jellified catmeat that escape from the bowl and weld themselves to hardwood floors and kickboards – sometimes even if you don’t have kickboards.

A perfectly-placed mouse, held between the teeth in a perfectly horizontal manner (preferably with a slight downward droop at each end), so as to make the creature’s captor look particularly dashing. Out-of-vogue variations include “The Zapata Mousetache”, “Sidebirds”, and the rare-but-always-impressive “Handlebat”.

Feeling a bit low? Looking back wistfully to that time all those years ago, when you still had testicles, and you could actually remember who your parents were? Why not stretch your claws, find some mummyfur, and get stuck in? Pretty much any soft, non-shiny, recently laundered surface will do, but slightly damp towels and sheepskin are considered the ultimate delicacies of the mummyfur genre.

The act of pushing one’s cold wet nose into one’s owner’s hand or knuckle. Largely thought of as a gesture of affection, but sometimes given a bad press, owing to its alternative nickname, “Losing The Snot”.

Essentially a larger version of the nuggin, involving the full upper-head area. Usually employed at times when jellied meat is in the immediate vicinity (see Little Cat Diaries, 16.08.07).

A particularly furious, zen kind of padding session, often, but not always, involving a far-off, determined look in the eye and immense wear and tear on soft human body parts. Also known as: “Marching” or “Cooking The Dough”.

The mystic force that, without the need for discussion or consensus, will cause numerous cats in the same room all to clean their most hard-to-get regions at exactly the same time.

Also known as a “half-whisker” – frequently displayed by feral cats who have been caught in traps by unfeeling farmers and cat rescue officers or in the clutches of bigger, scarier ferals (“I was just a twhisker away from twatting that big-tailed ginger plonker”). Sometimes, Twiskers grow back, Sometimes they don’t. Professors of Catology remain in the dark as to exactly why this is. Often mistakenly thought of as a sign of masculinity or “streetness”, the Twisker ultimately signifies little aside from bad balance and potential undermog status.

Sunday 16 September 2007

Cat Stereotypes: The Nobleman (with a nod to my childhood cat, Monty)

Picture the scenario: You have never much cared for cats (far-fetched, I know, but stay with me). You view them as terminally selfish creatures, always ripping the furniture with their claws and making those horrible, foraging noises while they industro-clean their rear ends. Maybe you prefer a less willful sort of family pet - a pre-trained red setter, perhaps, or a porcelain horse. As a rule, anything feline barely comes under the category of wallpaper in your universe, but one day, you're at a party, or a barbecue, and a flash of fur surprises you, capturing your imagination and respect. It's such an alarming sensation, this sudden feeling of seeing whiskers and not wanting to reach for a squirt gun, and you can't quite put your finger on what has inspired it. Perhaps it's a certain quiet, watchful dignity, a new kind of independence that you hadn't suspected a cat could possess... a more self-assured posture. Chances are, you've just been hit right between the eyes by the irresistible aura of The Nobleman.

The Nobleman is the cat that cat haters happily co-exist alongside. Wild animals smaller than an average pheasant fear him, other cats desperately want to be him, divorced book group members with hennaed hair desperately want to be with him. A wearer of spiritual breeches, he is an expert hunter, without quite being a serial killer, a steadfast companion, without being a kiss-ass. When he raises his imperial wet nose to nudge your hand, you know you've earned it. Frequently, but not exclusively, lightly-coloured, he tends to be big and lean, with skin that vets come to dread on vaccine days. When you return from a family holiday - no cattery for the Nobleman, who, given a nearby pond and a biscuit dispenser, can take care of himself - he's there waiting faithfully in the window, gazing beatifically out at you, but if it were remotely convenient or appropriate to his kind, he'd be there on the holiday itself, playing lifeguard and cheerfully permitting those closest to him to bury him in sand by day, reading War And Peace next to the woodburner by night. Be that as it may, it's doubtful that, even in the highest of holiday spirits, he'd let you cuddle him, because, as every Nobleman knows, cuddles are just for pussies.

Some have made the mistake of writing off The Nobleman as "snotty" or "aloof", but the chances are these are people whom, due to long-standing personal issues, require a needier cat. Either that, or they're just needy cats with long-standing personal issues themselves. The Nobleman has no truck with grasping, neurotic hands or nervous, skittering claws, but do not let it be said that he does not know how to have a good time. One only has to check out his legendary "mouse keepie-uppies" to see he has a sense of humour. Sometimes, he can overstep the mark, with inappropriate padding sessions and uncontrollable protuberances, but those around him view these lapses in the most positive light. How could you see him as seedy? He's The Nobleman! When the creatively-inclined see him lazily licking a paw, their fingers itch for a nearby brush or pencil. If these aren't around, they'll sometimes grab a bit of coal and get busy with a post-it note. The Nobleman is in Control and we are here to serve him, whether it's as his artists in residence, cooks, photographers or cleaners. We look into his eyes, and we see something just and strong and enduring - something wild yet controlled. If he had a song, it would be "You've Got A Friend' by Carole King or 'Theme From Shaft' by Isaac Hayes. Not that he would really, in the words of Hayes, be "the cat who would risk his neck for his brother cat". After all, even The Nobleman can't transcend the self-absorbed limits of his species. But if he could, he would, and it would be a spectacular, dignified thing to behold.

Thursday 6 September 2007


A NOD AND A WINK TO A SLINK: a rare excursion into verse in tribute to my old cat Daisy, AKA The Slink

Goodbye The Slink
My Friend
I Never Felt I Really Got To Know You
But I've been places you've been
A couple of Nottinghamshire's more picturesque villages, for example
One of which where car burning
Seemed to be a local sport
And that coal shed at my mum and dad's house where you used to hide from Monty
When he was feeling particularly feisty
You sort of perked up in your later years
Particularly when you went deaf
And could no longer hear my dad's heavy feet
Or his shouts of things like
That must have been nice for you
And it proves that, like Tom Petty says
Even The Losers Get Lucky Sometimes
Not that you knew who Tom Petty was
And even if you had
You probably would have been scared of the beard
That he has sported in more recent years
Almost as scared as you were when I took you and Monty for a walk
It was a sunny day
In the time before I'd really noticed that you looked a little like Hitler
And before the website
Which proved that, in the grand scheme of things, you didn't look that much like him after all
You'd been carrying that feather duster around in your mouth
The one that you must have thought was the world's most docile cockatiel
You seemed in a good mood
And I thought it couldn't hurt
A stroll along the lane
Through DH Lawrence country
With two furry pals
All was going well
For about two hundred yards
Until you saw that Norfolk terrier
And decided for some Slinklike reason
To run straight at it
The little fella didn't know what had hit it
But then not many of us ever did

Under The Paw: Confessions Of A Cat Man.

Talk To The Tail: Adventures In Cat Ownership And Beyond.

Thursday 16 August 2007

How To Feed Six Sodding Cats: Instructions For Housesitters

1. Take five porcelain bowls and Free Sideless Entirely Pointless Curvy Purina One Plastic Dish and arrange them on plastic trays on kitchen worktop.

2. Bat Overexcitable Retarded Ginger Cat off worktop with elbow, whilst using phrase involving the word “cretin”.

3. Whistle loudly, using special Tomwhistle.

4. Open kitchen drawer and reach for two sachets of Felix Meat Selection In Jelly. DO NOT use Felix ‘As Good As It Looks’ sachets mouldering in rear of drawer.

5. Bat Overexcitable Retarded Ginger Cat out of drawer with forearm. Show Overexcitable Retarded Ginger Cat tiny space between thumb and forefinger, explaining to him that he has “that much talent”.

6. Simultaneously Remove Obnoxious Noisy Black Cat from Overexcitable Retarded Ginger Cat’s face and Grey Dwarf Cat from Overexcitable Retarded Ginger Cat’s bottom.

7. Gently greet Prettyboy Tabby Cat in unthreatening girly voice, in an attempt not to hurt Prettyboy Tabby Cat’s increasingly delicate self-esteem.

8. Open sachets of Felix Meat Selection In Jelly and distribute evenly between five porcelain bowls and Free Sideless Entirely Pointless Curvy Purina One Plastic Dish.

9. Bat Overexcitable Retarded Ginger Cat off worktop with elbow, whilst mocking Overexcitable Retarded Ginger Cat’s habit of leaving his tongue out and needling him about childhood traumas.

10. Empty and refill Strangely Named Plastic Water Dispenser, removing soggy biscuits from plughole.
11. Forcefully remove Obnoxious Yappy Black Cat from kitchen work surface.

12. Whistle loudly, using special Tomwhistle.

13. Remove Fluffy Dumb Black Cat’s claw from leg.

14. Call name of Troubled Sensitive Artistic Warlord Black Cat out window, being careful to direct voice in way that will not irritate neighbours, or make passers-by think that the phrase “The Bear!” could mean that there is actual bear roaming South Norfolk streets.

15. Begin to place five porcelain bowls and Free Sideless Entirely Pointless Curvy Purina One Plastic Dish at evenly spaced intervals across kitchen floor, being careful not to squish too close to kickboards for fear of “fast-dried gribbly bits syndrome”.

16. Chase down stairs after Prettyboy Tabby Cat, attempting to convince Prettyboy Tabby Cat that just because Grey Dwarf Cat has hissed at Prettyboy Tabby Cat, it is no reason not to eat.

17. Return Overexcitable Retarded Ginger Cat to original dish, clearing space for Prettyboy Tabby Cat.
18. Return Grey Dwarf Cat to original dish, clearing space for Fluffy Dumb Black Cat.

19. Form human shield between Obnoxious Yappy Black Cat, Overexcitable Retarded Ginger Cat and Grey Dwarf Cat and Free Sideless Entirely Pointless Curvy Purina One Plastic Dish.

20. Place Troubled Sensitive Artistic Warlord Black Cat in front of Free Sideless Entirely Pointless Curvy Purina One Plastic Dish.

21. Watch as Troubled Sensitive Warlord Black Cat looks up, deep into eyes, with a “What? You want me to eat this shit?” face.

22. Place Free Sideless Entirely Pointless Curvy Purina One Plastic Dish and Troubled Sensitive Artistic Warlord Black Cat on kitchen work surface together, gently ushering Troubled Sensitive Artistic Warlord Black Cat towards meaty jellied chunks until Troubled Sensitive Artistic Warlord Black Cat begins to take tentative licks at meaty jellied chunks.

23. Re-fill Strangely Named Plastic Water Dispenser, after removing Fluffy Dumb Black Cat puke from Strangely Named Plastic Water Dispenser’s central reservoir.

24. Return meaty jellied chunks from kitchen work surface to Free Sideless Entirely Pointless Curvy Purina One Plastic Dish whilst making gentle encouraging noises at Troubled Sensitive Artistic Warlord Black Cat.

25. Bat Overexcitable Retarded Ginger Cat off worktop with elbow, vocally noting Overexcitable Retarded Ginger Cat’s Resemblance to a recently lobotomised feline Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

26. Chase down stairs after Prettyboy Tabby Cat, attempting to convince Prettyboy Tabby Cat that just because Grey Dwarf Cat has hissed at Prettyboy Tabby Cat, it is no reason not to eat.

27. Quickly place kitchen roll under Fluffy Dumb Black Cat’s mouth, as Fluffy Dumb Black Cat begins to re-enact the video to ‘Street Dance’. Use other hand to move retreating Troubled Sensitive Artistic Warlord Black Cat out of line of fire.

28. Use Overexcitable Retarded Ginger Cat’s in-built waste-disposal mechanism on Free Sideless Entirely Pointless Curvy Purina One Plastic Dish and surrounding environs, whilst retracting all previous references involving the phrases “cretin” and “Bennie from Crossroads”.

29. Use Overexcitable Retarded Ginger Cat’s in-built waste-disposal mechanism on other bowls to prevent “fast-dried gribbly bit syndrome”.

30. Open drawer for teabag and mug.

31. Gentle remove Overexcitable Retarded Ginger Cat from drawer.

32. Wipe stray jellified chunk from tea mug.

33. Wipe stray jellified chunk from underarm, but not before using to gain spurious cupboard love from Grey Dwarf Cat.

34. Hold teabag in front of Overexcitable Retarded Ginger Cat’s face, asking, in increasingly frantic tones, “You want this? You want this? Huh?”.

35. Repeat every ten-twelve hours.

Extracted from Under The Paw: Confessions Of A Cat Man.

Read the sequel Talk To The Tail: Adventures In Cat Ownership And Beyond.

Wednesday 8 August 2007

The Colonel In Crisis

Ralph is the most highly-strung of my cats. He most resembles one of that special breed of rock stars who somehow manage the feat of being simultaneously majestic and slightly fetid. I hope that one day he will be the kind of self-assured cat who demands a nickname like "The Colonel". In the highly unlikely event that I ever show off one of of my common-or-garden moggies in a cat show, he'd be the one I'd want to enter, though I'd probably earn his lifelong scorn in the process. I may already have his lifelong scorn. At the time of writing, there's a fair amount of doubt about the issue. He's always been easily upset, but normally Dee and I deal with his mood swings with a delicately-balanced combination of head-scratches, extensive sessions with the JML pet mitt and buttery treats. It's a fine line between "Dribbling Paddy Ralph" and "Celebrity Tantrum Ralph". We usually manage to just about walk it until July comes around and the great depression arrives and Ralph goes next door and hides in a bush where, for the next four or five weeks, until the weather cools, he will make distressed howling noises suggestive of a minor nervous breakdown.

I've never heard of a summer version of Seasonal Affective Disorder but, if it exists, Ralph almost certainly has it. I thought we'd been lucky this year: July arrived, and he was still his usual intermittently affectionate, intermittently panicked, narcissistic self - half Jim Morrison, half Beaker from The Muppets. Then, when the hot weather arrived a week or so ago, I heard a "heeooouurrrw" noise and, although for a moment I mistook it for the sound of one of the kids nextdoor-but-one falling off their new trampoline, I very quickly realised that Summer Ralph had once again arrived.

I know the only thing to do is wait this out. Three years ago, when the problem began, we took him to the vets, where he was diagnosed with feline depression and prescribed a course of female hormones. I'm not convinced these had any effect - although Dee claims she could detect that his howling had gone up an octave - and I don't really want to add to the gender identity issues of a cat who, for his first three months with us, was largely referred to as either "Prudence" and "our only girl". Nonetheless, I worry about him. It does not help that the few times he has ventured towards the house he has quickly been set upon by the pygmy Bootsy. Watching these episodes of Napoleonic tyranny, with their accompanying mewling sounds, is can only be described as a truly awesome and comic experience and gives me a new insight into the origination of the word "sourpuss". How can one so small and brittle-boned cause so much fear in the heart of one so chunky and beefcakelike? It's impossible to say, but I'm not completely convinced that it's Bootsy's reign of terror that's responsible for the shrubbery-based strops. After all, Bootsy slaps Ralph about in the winter too, and he doesn't run off in the manner of a spoilt seven year-old girl - or at least not nearly as often. Perhaps it's a hair issue: Ralph has a wonderful, lionish coat, and is the only cat I've ever had who can be described as having sideburns and you can see the heat getting to him, but Janet is much fluffier, and you don't see him throwing a hissy fit about it.

Maybe Ralph is pining for his long lost sister: the other tabby who came from his litter, who we decided to not take home with us after seeing her curl up and go to sleep in her crud tray. Who knows? Perhaps he's not howling at all, but singing to an imaginary pride: a cat version of the kind of girls who didn't let the smell of Jim Morrison's leather trousers deter them from seeing him as athe ultimate tousled pin-up. There is no doubt, from the way Ralph beams at me in his calmer moments, that he is happy being him - in fact, he couldn't seem happier unless he had a thought bubble above him saying "I am Ralph! I please myself immensely!" - but his self-love is a precarious commodity. It needs to be fed and that feeding is not always just about the leftovers from my Taste The Difference waffles. It is about a slow, steady massaging of the animalistic ego. I'm sure Kate Hudson and Pamela Des Barres have had similar experiences with their menfolk. I'm also sure that one autumn day, not far in the future, the old Ralph will walk back confidently into the house and begin padding my or Dee's stomach in a frighteningly vigorous manner. We'll know that he's shaken off his demon - and probably a few fleas at the same time - but we'll also know that, with another summer gone by, our hopes of ever getting our robust, level-headed Colonel are just that bit more unrealistic.

Friday 22 June 2007

7 Ways In Which I Have Tried And Failed To Hurt My Cats' Feelings

1. Using air quotes and a sarcastic inflection whilst saying one of their names (e.g "Yeah, like you've got anything remotely intelligent to say on the subject, 'Delawney'.")

2. Going into "Sensitive Middle Class dad mode" and attempting to show them that by pissing on the side of my new brand new desk/leaving a vole's nose on the step outside the bathroom/breaking an expensive vase with their tail/getting overexuberant while I am cutting up chicken, they have seriously, and possibly irreparably, hurt my feelings (e.g. "Shipley, that is unacceptable. Quite frankly, I'm upset now, and so is D. In fact, we may not even eat dinner at all now, thanks to you. You may think it's okay to claw daddy's leg and yap like a spoilt, preternaturally effeminate terrier now, but what happens one day when you get out into the wide world? Do you think you want to be known as the kind of cat who climbs up people's legs any time he sees some raw meat he fancies? Do you think grown-up people will still like you, after you get a reputation for doing things like that? Hmm? Hmm? What have you got to say for yourself?").

3. Freaking them out by repeatedly rewinding the Sky Plus and replaying noises from nature programmes made by bigger, tougher cats (actually, this almost works).

4. Attempting to defuse an incident of living room megalomania by referring to painful memories from the out-of-control culprit's childhood ("Fine, The Bear, snub this expensive new luxury cat igloo and wee on the curtain if you want... It's not as if I expected anything else from someone who comes from a family rife with incest and grew up in a place like Plaistow.")

5. Threatening to video their noisiest bottom-cleaning sessions and post them on Youtube.

6. Using the phase "You think you're tough, but you wouldn't last five sodding minutes in the Serengeti, matey" after one of them has stormed off in the aftermath of a flea treatment.

7. Getting home and being swamped by all six of the little gits (all of whom ignored me earlier but have now got hungry, and mysteriously changed their tune) but blanking them and waving to a more interesting, good-looking cat that I have pretended to spot on the other side of the kitchen.

Monday 11 June 2007

Turtle Soup (and other culinary issues)

I saved a turtle’s life the other day.

Even as a regular rescuer of random wild animals, this is not the kind of statement that I find myself making on a regular basis. It reminds me of the enormous wall diary in my FE college, where I and the other students were supposed to record our activities for the campus radio station, but quickly started defacing the surface with surreal statements regarding tasks involving animals. “Save a turtle’s life!”, while not quite of the quality of "Made a crow burst into tears!, might have been worthy of inclusion alongside “Scared some pigs!” and "Messed with an otter's mind!".

But I really did save a turtle’s life in this instance. I first spotted it last summer, basking on the rotting jetty at the bottom of my garden. I even managed to take a couple of quick photos of it before it took a lazy dive back into Norfolk’s most famous town mere. I guess it was an unwanted pet, and it made me feel melancholy. Sure, it might have got to eat the mouldy bread that the town’s notoriously fussy ducks left behind, sup on the dregs from the mere’s ample supply of beer cans, but what was its sex life like? What did it do for conversation? After entertaining a few thoughts about rescuing it, or at least finding it a mate, I didn’t think about it again until the other morning, when I saw a strange shape next to the jetty.

From a distance, and I assumed the shape was the heron that sometimes visits the same area: there was a torso-like blob above the water and then, above it, something thinner. This was a busy deadline day and it was only at about 4pm that I took a closer look. What I saw, as I neared the end of the garden, was an upside down turtle, its head in the water, its shell above and above that, one leg, trapped in the wire mesh on the jetty.

My initial thought was that it was dead, but as I got onto the jetty, it twitched its leg slightly. By this point I'd gone into panic mode, and was thinking all sorts of irrational things, like, "What if it’s shell falls off and I turn it into the world's biggest snail?”. After an aborted, truly pathetic attempt to flick at the leg using some kitchen roll, I used some scissors to cut the wire mesh and it sprang free. A moment later, I saw the turtle swimming happily into the middle of the mere. Maybe I was a bit of a chicken not to have actually got hold of its leg, but somewhere in the back of my brain I could remember the phrase “snapping turtles”. Also, it had got a lot bigger since last year: its shell is now about the circumference of a an old vinyl album.

Which is more than I can say for Pablo.

Actually, Pablo doesn’t have a shell, but I feel sure that, if he did, he’d be crawling under it right at this moment. Two hours ago, Delawney jumped from behind a chair onto his head, and he hasn't been seen since. He’s generally become very distant recently, fearful of his brothers: not just of his long-time tormentor, Shipley, but also of the Bear, who has never laid a finger on him, but happens to be, like Shipley, black (does this make Pablo a racist?). He is also significantly skinnier than he was back in February and March. This is a phenomenon known as “Summer Pablo”, in which, whilst still having the diet of a medium-size rhinoceros, my most primitive-minded cat begins to shed his winter weight. After two years of this, we know not to be too alarmed, but it’s sort of difficult, when you’ve seen ginger pom-pom fluffiness turn to a redheaded streak of sinew in what feels like a matter of days. This has never happened to any of my more mimsy, domesticated moggies, so I wonder if it’s a feral thing?

Thursday 3 May 2007

In Memoriam...

Things are quiet here at the moment. Well, actually, that's horsecrap - they aren't very quiet at all. Pablo is fast learning to speak (albeit in the voice of a panicked budgie), Bootsy has been giving the Bear some rather vocal bollockings for the very fact of his existence, and that weird white cat from across the road who likes to tart its tail in Janet's face keeps waking me up in the middle of the night with its Eartha Kitt purrmeow and its heavy-footed landings on top of the conservatory roof. But listen closely and there is a difference between the sound of this spring and the sound of other springs before it. What is missing is a panicked, high-pitched sound: a sound much more panicked and high-pitched, even, that the one Pablo makes when he hears the food drawer opening. What is missing, quite simply, is the sound of slaughter.

I have no idea what has caused my little serial killers to lay off the homicide this year. Have they heard something on the grapevine about that Bernard Matthews factory down the road and decided to play it cautiously with their feathered friends for a while? Is there something a bit "off" about this year's crop of rodents? Or have they just become too fat and lazy? Whatever the case, there have only been two mouse arses on the carpet in the last two weeks, and just one small bit of blood and bird bone on the parquet upstairs. It is impossible to emphasise just how different this is from 2006, 2005, and 2004, when I started to wonder if it had, after all, been a good idea to move to a house next to a haven for birdlife, and became so used to clearing up mouse intestine that the process very nearly became as unemotional as wiping some unusually adhesive curry off the kitchen work surface. Not to mention the three baby moorhens that, by this point last year, I had chased around the living room in a re-enactment of the Wacky Races.

What does it say about a pet owner when, upon noting that their pets have become less bloodthirsty, their sigh of relief is drowned out the question "But what's WRONG?" I'm sure that, even by bringing this up, I am jinxing this sedate, shrew nose-free period, and that tomorrow I will come down to my study and be greeted by two fresh coot claws and a pheasant wing, but, before the inevitable happens, I thought this might be a good time to commemorate my natural born killers' most memorable and plucky victims. God bless the poor little critters, but, as some - well, Delawney, probably - would say, "Those fuckers had it coming..."

1. Fat Rat (May, 2002)
The too-remote, too-dark starter cottage is on the market. D and I have been watching House Doctor religiously for what feels like the last seventeen years, without stopping. Colour schemes have become neutral. Surfaces have been Flash-wiped to within an inch of their lives. Coffee has been brewed. And that large, suspiciously brown leaf has been picked off Janet's big fluffy posterior at the last minute. Mr Newman has arrived. "It's like the Tardis in here," he says. "Nice garden, too." But, oh, what's that? It's the world's biggest rat, leaping out out of the antique po cabinet, and running across the room squeaking comically! That smooth operator from Selling Houses never had this trouble.

2. Dumbo Pheasant (June, 2002)
My most bloodthirsty ever cat, Brewer, might have had the mewling voice of a pathetic, incontinent human child, but by the time he was six months old, his diet was beginning to look like a dress rehearsal for the Serengeti. Vole was followed by mouse which was followed by rat which was followed by rabbit which was followed by weasel. The next step on the ladder was inevitable. Norfolk pheasants are notorious for their stupidity, but this one really walked into the lion's jaws. The ensuing scene was strangely reminiscent of an overweight striker being brought down by a small, yet unusually vicious defender in a Sunday League football match. It also provided an early indication of Delawney and Shipley's extensive goading talents. It was one of the saddest moments of my life when, three months later, Brewer was run over and killed. The peacocks at the nearby rest home, who were clearly starting to get worried by this point, may have viewed the matter more phlegmatically.

3. Melancholy Wood Pigeon (June, 2004)
"I think we have to put it out of its misery," says D, as we survey the light grey catastrophe at the top of the stairs. I agree, but I have never put anything out of its misery in my life, with the possible exception of a chicken casserole I made in Home Economics when I was 13. Plus, it would be a lot easier if Woody - and, even if this characterful creature is not called something as obvious as Woody, it is clear he deserves some kind of name - stopped staring at me in that way that seems to tell me he will be right as rain just as soon as he can get that broken wing working again. Putting him in a cardboard box, and pulling my best "What you gotta do, you gotta do" face, I place him amidst some shrubbery, in the hope that, soon, he will drift off peacefully into a never-ending sleep. Over the next five hours, I make four return visits, each of which end with me moving Woody slightly further into the shrubbery, as he looks at me more and more imploringly. I am a bad person. The next morning, I check to see if he is there. He is not. Delawney has a pleased-with-himself glow. But Delawney often has a pleased-with-himself glow. "Who's to say that Woody did not learn First Aid in the night, repair the damage, and fly home to his family?" I tell myself, until I see Shipley trying to spit a feather out of his mouth.

4. Twangy Stoat (April, 2005)
The length of a human intestine is approximately 22 feet. The length of a stoat's intestine, meanwhile, is not notably shorter. I know this. Why? Because I have seen one stretched out to its full length across my lawn.

5. Forlorn Blobby Mass (March, 2005)
Just because your identity was nebulous, do not think that you do not merit the term "plucky". You did not go to the wheelie bin without a fight, little man/woman/thing/viscous gloop - you were an absolute bugger to get off the entrance hall floor, and you will be remembered.

Thursday 19 April 2007

It's not unusual for cats to have fussy drinking habits. A couple of years ago, I stayed the night in a Paris bookstore overrun with strays whose ritual it was to drink exclusively from a fountain beside the Seine. Then, at the other end of the spectrum, there was my old cat Monty, who used to like nothing better than getting his head down deep in some toilet water . About a year ago, my smallest and youngest cat, Bootsy, started getting up on the work surface with a kind of "Well?" look in her eyes and I, like the mug that I am, began turning on the tap for her. Obviously, this is lovely to watch, but it has now become a twice-daily ritual. In fact, I don't think I have ever seen her drink from anything else. I mean, I'm sure she could survive, if the worse came to the worst, but I now find myself worrying, when faced with a couple of days away from home, "What if she dies of dehydration?". This is an absolutely ridiculous thought, coming from someone who has a five acre mere at the bottom of his garden, but it is no more ridiculous or neurotic than most of the others that go with a life of being Your Cat's Bitch.

One of the most intriguing bits of advice I remember my late grandma giving me - along with the bit about getting rid of your teeth at the earliest possible opportunity, and lying flat on your back when there was lightning in the air - was "Never touch a dog when it's eating". I have no idea why she needed to point this out, since nobody in my family had a dog at the time, and I wasn't in the habit of inviting stray beagles in to chow down on that night's chicken balti. Nonetheless, the advice stuck in my head. Upon visiting friends' houses and seeing their canines in front of the food bowl, I would have an urge to tap them on the shoulder or stick something on their back, just to find out what kind of nameless, fangy terror my grandma was hinting at. I never did so, in the end, but I have frequently run similar experiments with my cats during mealtime, and the results have been uniformly unfrightening. Upon being distracted from his Purina One by his owner sticking a post-it to the top of his head, Delawney merely turned around and gave me a withering look of the kind that seemed to demand the caption "That's hilarious, but not as hilarious as the suspicious chunk of brown substance I left next to your pillow earlier". Janet, meanwhile, looked positively delighted to be distracted from Felix's As Good As It Looks (an accurate piece of marketing, possibly, in that it looks bloody ghastly) by my incessant tapping of his tail. My cats are greedy, certainly, but I never sense that there will be any greater repercussions by me distracted them from their culinary mission.

Drinking, however, is a different matter. None of them like to be looked at while they do it, and most of them choose to do it in secret. I know the level of the water dispenser in my kitchen goes down regularly, and I know it's not just evaporation, but I very rarely see anyone in front of it. Why is that? Is the consumption of large amounts of H20 in the cat world regarded like alcoholism in the human one: as something slightly shameful, to be done in dark places? Or is it an affront to the meat-eating masculinity of my five male cats? I'm not sure. I do know, though, that the cretinous Pablo has recently started following Bootsy up onto the work surface and looking at the tap with interest. But when I trickle it, he just stares and sticks his tongue out, as if contemplating some unfathomable chrome god. He might master it yet. More likely, though, he will just join Delawney in lapping regularly at the shore of the mere. It might be a beautiful natural expanse of water, but I imagine the countless bit of duck excrement, three quarter-drunk cans of Stella Artois that go into it every week give its contents the kind of kick that even the best water-purifiers are going to struggle to match.

Saturday 31 March 2007

Puss, Mog Or Kittycat?

I've noticed recently that, when using cat slang, I only seem to refer to some of my six cats as a "puss". Others are always a "mog". I'm wondering if this is just me looking too deeply at my cats' personalities, or has anyone else noticed this: that cats are not just defined by their catness, they are also defined by their pussness or mogosity, and while a cat can be either a puss or a mog, being both would be against all the laws of nature, like supporting Liverpool AND Everton? To clarify: my cat Shipley (lean, muscley, quick-moving and obnoxious) could only be a puss, while to refer to his brother Delawney (sun-loving, tabby, narcissistic, very slightly overweight) as anything other than a mog would be like calling a badger a kangaroo. On the whole, mogs (e.g. Bagpuss, Garfield) have had much greater success in the public eye than pusses. I wonder why this is. Is it because Pusses are essentially flakey and skittish? Or it is something to do with the Mog's intrinsic sense of entitlement?

Because I think about these things far too much for my own sanity, I have come up with the following easy-to-use guide which I think defines the essential characteristics that separate Pusses from their Mog nemeses:

Possibly in need of a diet
Expensive tastes
Purr reminiscent of heavy machinery
Won't get out of bed for less than £3,000
Sits in windows a lot
Longish hair (not essential, but prevalent)

"Office joker" personality
Girly voice
Whiskers that look like they could get you out of a tight spot
Short hair (not essential, but prevalent)
Enjoys mouse tennis
Tree climber

Since my pygmy cat, Bootsy, doesn't fit into either of these categories, I'm wondering if I need to invent one more: that of the Kittycat. I am not sure if this exists, so it's entirely possible that the character traits listed below might only apply to one undersized, tyrannical grey cat from Norfolk, rather than an entire cat genre....

Bottomless pit for stomach
Spazzy legs
Disapproving manner
Likes chewing radio aerials
Looks a bit like Marissa from American teen drama The OC

Saturday 24 February 2007

Eight and a Half Lives

There are spikes along the fence at the front of my house. At a glance, you probably wouldn’t notice them, but I imagine observant passers-by frequently wonder about their purpose. Roughly an inch long and made out of hard plastic, they’re not exactly lethal, but, if you put your hand on one and got your weight on top of it, you would almost certainly draw blood. I don’t live in a neighbourhood particularly notorious for its crime rate, but the local gypsy children have been known to climb into a couple of my neighbours’ gardens and steal their boats. However, I’ve seen these kids, with their gnarly, grubby hands, and, from what I know about them, the spikes probably wouldn’t provide much of a deterrent. Most people probably assume I’ve just got a very big, unruly dog.

When friends are visiting my place for the first time, I usually describe it as “the one that looks like a confused bungalow”. It was built into a hill overlooking a lake – or, to use the traditional East Anglian term, “mere” – in 1961, which means that it’s an odd-looking bit of architecture whose merits do not present themselves at first sight. If it were a human head, it would be one with a very big chin and its eyes on the action. The facade with the lake view is three-storeyed and big-windowed and looks down on a steep garden of about sixty yards, but you wouldn’t know it from the other side, which is boxy and blank-looking, and a few feet away from the second busiest road in my Norfolk market town. The previous owners called it the Upside Down House, and the name has stuck.

I told myself I wouldn’t live in another house next to a main road, after my most adventurous cat, Brewer, was killed on the street outside my last-but-one home, but I felt I could make an exception with The Upside Down House. A four-legged predator could have all sorts of fun and find any number of tasty treats in the gardens and wasteland by that lake, I postulated, and he would have little reason to venture in the other direction, since all he would find there would be a housing estate and a branch of Kwik-Fit. To even get to the road would require a climb of forty feet up a steep wall or a spiral staircase and a jump over a four-foot fence, or a circuitous walk of four hundred yards that would take him dangerously close to the guffawing men of the local Conservative Club, a pub with a habit of hosting bad David Bowie tribute bands, and a gaggle of geese who have gained a reputation for not suffering fools gladly. I remember how stunned I was the first time I saw The Bear and Janet scuttling across the street, and how, for a moment, I thought they were two other, less well-behaved black cats that just happened to look a lot like mine. But then I saw that familiar “You can try and stop me, but I am a wiry force of nature” look in The Bear’s eyes and I knew that this was war.

And there is no doubt that, since then, D and I have tried. First there was the new fence: five hundred pounds worth of carpentry that might as well have been an herbaceous border for all the obstructive good it did. “Have you thought of trying carpet gripper?” asked the burly man whom we’d employed to put it in place, when he’d passed the house a couple of weeks later. It was an interesting suggestion, but I wanted to stop my cats getting killed or maimed, and reducing them to limping invalids in the process would somewhat defeat the object. The plastic spikes – found by D after an exhaustive Google search – seemed to be a more sensible option: they would provide a nasty, preventative shock, but it would be unlikely that any subsequent amputation would be necessary. I had forgotten only one vital thing in my calculations, which is that the pads on The Bear’s paws are made out of a substance slightly more resilient than reinforced leather.

I have never seen The Bear scale the fence with the spikes on it, but I know from the frequent cat-sized landing sounds on my conservatory roof and his mysterious, sheepish appearances beside my wheelie bins that he does so, regularly. He’s an arthritic codger of thirteen now, who struggles with the leap from the floor to our kitchen island, and I fail to see how he can claw his way onto a jagged precipice three times its height. The details of his exact method will probably forever remain unknown, and can only be filed alongside such other Bear-related mysteries as The Mystery Of The Place That Is Very Warm And Comfortable For Long Sleeps And Clearly Somewhere In The Vicinity Of The Airing Cupboard But Where Human Eyes Cannot See and The Mystery Of The Place That Smells Of Cabbage And Death Where You Can Stay For Over A Month While Your Owners Panic Over You And Write You Off As Dead. I have learned, over the years, that if my oldest cat sets his mind on something, he will find a way to overcome his physical shortcomings and achieve it.

I have arrived at an acceptance about The Bear’s wilfulness now, but there was a time when I would let it trouble me, when I even went so far as to take it personally. D claims I was being overdramatic, but I think I had my reasons. When your girlfriend introduces you to her cat and tells you that he and her ex-boyfriend were “unusually close”, it’s hard not to approach such an animal with caution, no matter how moggy-crazed you are. When, three months later, you move in together with the same girlfriend, and said animal begins to defecate on your bedding with unerring accuracy and bad timing, you can surely be forgiven for reading a little too much into his actions. And, yes, in retrospect maybe I did go a little over the top by writing a piece for Time Out Magazine speculating about whether he was my soon-to-be wife’s former beau in feline disguise, but your mind can play odd tricks on you when your senses have been fogged by urine and you’re experiencing sleep-deprivation because your normal sleeping arrangements have been soiled.

In my further defence, I never properly had chance to get to know The Bear back in the early days of my relationship with D. At many points, I did not know whether he was destined to even be my cat. One week, it was decided that he would stay with the ex. The next, he was coming to live with us, after all. This to-ing and fro-ing went on for almost a year. It was not surprising that the poor animal’s much-discussed “painfully sensitive side” came to the fore – a side that normally manifested itself in an odd, low meeuooping noise: a sound that, before I got properly familiar with it, would send me rushing to the smoke alarm to replace its battery.

I’d always wanted to go out with a girl who loved cats. In terms of romantic pickiness, this is probably the male equivalent of a woman saying, “I’d always wanted to go out with a bloke who liked football and farting.” Nonetheless, my previous girlfriends had either been indifferent or allergic to my favourite animals. That D owned two cats was an unexpected bonus on top of all the other, more important things that drew us together, but it was a bonus I could spend considerable time fantasising about. As our relationship quickly flourished, I liked to picture my future self idly polishing a hardwood floor with a nearby Persian, as my friend Leo did with his aging, docile tabby, Tab Tab, or starting an important phone call with the excuse, “Sorry I cut you off – my cat just stepped on the receiver.”

“The problem is, one of my cats hates me,” said D. I was sure she was exaggerating, but, about four weeks after we met, I began to change my mind. It’s always a bit of a shock when, thirty seconds after setting foot into your new partner’s flat for the first time, you’re confronted with excrement, but any squeamish feelings I had about confronting my first Bear turd were drowned out by my fascination at quite how he’d squeezed it into D’s dressing gown pocket. “He must have… squatted sideways,” I said.

“Oh, that’s nothing. What did I tell you?” she said. “He’s an evil genius, and he’s on a mission to destroy me.”

Over the next few weeks, the nature of this mission was cleverly, gradually modified. Having cottoned on to the fact that, unlike D, I a) worked from home, and, b) slept in a fashion that did not resemble corpsedom, The Bear realised that the best way to get to his target was via the one to whom she was closest. Nights of uninterrupted rest became things of the past, as, via a series of ailing smoke alarm noises and furry face taps, Janet and The Bear trained me to respond to their every nocturnal need. It was undoubtedly nice to have furry scruffs around to massage when I was experiencing at a sticky, stressful point in a piece of writing, but I could not afford to get too relaxed. The next suspicious pool of liquid or brown stain was always only just around the corner. You know you’ve got a problem with a devious pet when you start pouring yourself a cup of tea and asking yourself, “Is it me, or does this water from the kettle taste slightly… oaky?”

I had to admit it: The Bear’s rage scared me. It rocked my smug sense of cat veteran’s wisdom. If only I’d felt he plain didn’t like me, it would have been so much simpler. But his acts of disobDnce and his tightly wound rebukes were spotted with acts of affection more intense than anything my previous cat experiences had prepared me for. These acts scared me more than the rage itself (and wasn’t that the way with master criminals, that it was when they were being nice that they were most intimidating?). They reminded me, if not of an overclingy girlfriend, then certainly of a needy male friend who you suspect, with a bit of encouragement, could start carving your name into his forearm. I had owned animals that had dribbled before, I had owned animals that had purred before, and I had owned animals that looked into my eyes before; I had just never owned one who did all three so deeply.

This affection reached its peak the day the Bear returned from his longest ever vacation: a month where he escaped to who knows where after contorting his small sinewy body through a three-inch open sash window. Early on the day of his escape, he had been purring on my lap, watching my computer screen, as I wrote the Time Out article about him, and his return coincided with the day of the article’s publication . At first, I’d mistaken the creature scuttling across the garden below our flat for some kind of weasel or stoat. I am pretty sure that both would have given off a more appealing odour than the one the Bear did, when, a few seconds later, I arrived at the front door to let him in. For the next three hours, he did not let me out of his sight or, to a large extent, his clawsy grasp - which seems to proof a long-held theory of mine that the amount of love a cat offers stands in direct proportion to how dirty it is at that particular time.

I often wonder where The Bear went for those four or five weeks. It’s possible, of course, that he just got stuck in a shed or garage, or a troubled old person smelling of catnip and damsons tried to kidnap him, but, when I think of that period, I like to think of a montage of images, soundtracked by The Byrds’ ‘Wasn’t Born To Follow’: The Bear setting off into the early dawn, stopping at the all-night garage for a packet of Benson And Hedges, getting the tube to central London, sightseeing in Trafalgar Square, busking outside St Paul’s, moving into a flatshare with some hippies in Camden, falling in with the wrong crowd, getting embroiled in a bungled heist at an aviary, then, finally, being forced to sell his body in order to raise the funds to get the Docklands Light Railway back to Blackheath.

If the saying that cats have nine lives is true, I am certain the Bear must have used up at least three of these on his great adventure. On top of these, I can think of at least four other occasions that D and I know about where there was potential for a life to have been lost. These include:

1. The time at D’s old flat when he, along with D, got carbon monoxide poisoning.

1 And A Half. The time that he contracted asthma as a
result of said carbon monoxide poisoning.

2. The time when we lived abutting a thirty-feet wide river, in a house that did not have a bridge within a mile of it, and I woke up one morning, looked out the window, and saw him on the opposite bank, cleaning his paws nonchalantly.

3. The time when Shipley trapped him in a cardboard box and tried to suffocate him by sitting on it and – quite unnecessarily - banging on top of it like a hyperactive child.

4. The time when he was a tiny kitten and his original owner left him in a plastic bag with several brothers and sisters on the hard shoulder of a motorway.

5. The time when a giant terrormog ripped a hole in his throat.

Even at a conservative estimate, that puts the Bear on eight and a half lives. And then there are all the other incidents of which D and I have no knowledge. People say Liz Taylor is a “survivor”, and they’re probably right, to an extent. Like The Bear when he got allergic to fleas - and then, once again, when he got allergic to the treatment we gave him for the fleas - Liz has to cope with having all her hair fall out. And, yes, she’s had several failed marriages. But has she ever been caught in a wrangle with an irate muscovy duck, or had to be poked out of a hole in her own ceiling using a five-iron, or waddled camply past her peer group after being chased by a Chihuaha? I think not. What The Bear has taught me is the true nature of endurance – not soppy human endurance, with its grief and broken hearts and bank statements and psychological “hardship”, but the kind of endurance that involves hiding in a cupboard for three days, and walking around with a miniature life form sucking on your neck, without anyone knowing your pain. Each time he is knocked back, I am amazed at how quickly he is able to regenerate himself. And while I am sure that he feels those spikes and that fence keenly, just like every other hurt that blocks his oversensitive path, I am also sure that, when you have lived the life he has, they can be easily written off as a mere tickle on the face of existence.

The Simple Life

As I get older, I find that I am less and less of a holiday person. This is partly because, as an insomniac workaholic aviophobe, I view my leisure time as too valuable to waste on white-knuckled plane journeys and dubious sleeping conditions. When it’s time to go away, I don’t just pack my suitcase, I pack the mental baggage of past aborted inter-railing holidays, farcical encounters with bullying gendarmes, lightning strikes on planes, food poisoning and broken-down trains.

My anti-vacation stance dates back long before I lived in a house overrun with cats, but I find that pet ownership has only solidified my position. Each time D and I take our somewhat parochial annual break, we leave with high hopes. For almost two days, we’ll swim, hang around in museums, and marvel at being able to walk on grit-free carpets, without so much as a mention of Pablo, The Bear, Shipley, Janet, Delawney or Baby Bear. But on the second night, one of us – usually me – will ask, “Do you think the pusses are ok?”. For the next twenty four hours, our worries – “What if one of them has been locked in a shed?” “What if one was in a fight and needed to get to the vets to have an absess removed?” – will feed off one another, until, typically, before the third day is complete, we will decide to head home, assuring ourselves that we are not just doing this because we are terminal wimps, and that “Being at home without working is just like a holiday anyway.”

The way I see it, three days is the perfect amount of time for a holiday to work its refreshing magic without getting tiresome, and the exact amount of time I can humanly hold out without checking my email. It is also the amount of time one of our more moronic cats can reasonably be trusted to go before getting into a scrape or messing life up for its siblings. This was exemplified in 2001, when D and I returned from our honeymoon to find that, while we were away, someone had managed to flip the plastic catch that locked the cat flap from the inside. We hadn’t insured ourselves with an emergency litter tray, so the living room floor needed some serious detergent action after that, but all credit goes to The Bear, who we found sitting in the bath whimpering, obviously in the last stages of a drawn-out exercise in mind-over-bowel meditation.

When people tell me “cats are independent animals that can look after themselves!”, I can’t help but immediately wonder if they have actually ever owned any. Although I usually give mine wet food out of sachets once every day or two, most of their sustenance is in dry, biscuit form, and comes out of a plastic dispenser called - rather arrogantly, I think - the “Zenith”. (Zenith of what, exactly? Cheap tupperware pet food dispensers? Even more confusingly, its water-dispensing counterpart, made by the same company, is called “The Nadir”. Do the manufacturers know something we don’t? That dry food and water represent the respective high and low points of feline existence, for example? Or did they just like the sound of the words, and not bother finding out what they meant.) In theory, this will stay full for at least a week, but there’s always the likelihood that Janet will puke in the “trough” bit of it. This will inevitably result in The Bear, Baby Bear, Pablo and Delawney going on hunger strike, and Shipley staging a protest by tearing up every tissue box in the vicinity.

I am well-schooled in the early warning signs of Janet’s vomiting fits now. If I’m in another area of the house and hear a sound like a blocked waste disposal, it will usually be too late to avert disaster, but if I’m in the same room and I see him looking like he’s getting ready to re-enact the video to Break Machine’s ‘Street Dance’, I can frequently slip a bit of cardboard beneath his chin just in time. All my cats have been known to heave, but mostly only in isolated bursts, and with obvious causes. In Shipley’s case, an overambitious munch through a denser-than-expected paperback will sometimes result in digestion problems. Delawney might occasionally have a bit of trouble after gnawing on a past-its-eat-by-date mouse. The two Bears and Pablo, on the other hand, are largely dry-heavers whose regurgitation tends to be limited to spittle-flecked grass and plant leaves.

But, for Janet, vomiting seems to be just another fundamental part of day-to-day feline life, like eating, sleeping, or bringing twigs into the house via your bottom. He might be bulimic, but, given that he probably weighs more than most full-grown spaniels, I think it’s unlikely.
It’s not as if I can experiment with his diet, and get to the root of the problem that way, either. Where my other cats have their culinary quirks – Shipley is never happier than with his whiskers deep in a bowl of Heinz tomato soup – Janet’s tastes are strictly no-nonsense. I sometimes wonder if it’s because he was raised in a rough part of the East End. But The Bear hails from the same region and, while largely a plebeian eater, he did once have a heady, anarchic day where he ate a whole pop tart followed immediately by some broccoli. Janet, on the other hand, has never experimented in such cavalier fashion, and has only two favourite foods: wet cat food, and dry cat food.

Strangely, considering that he is the cat most liable to cause damage around the house while we’re away (his short yet surprisingly expressive tail has caused the demise of half a dozen items of crockery over the years), Janet is, most of the time, the one member of my animal family that I feel most confident about leaving to his own devices. Unlike Delawney, he has never had a noticeable “low” period. Unlike Shipley and The Bear, he has never lost a portion of his ear in a fight or reacted negatively to the introduction of a younger, feistier room-mate. Unlike Pablo and Baby Bear, he has never had anything unsightly growing on his skin. Both times I’ve taken him to the vet for non-jab-related reasons, he has miraculously recovered from his ailments by the time he has been coaxed out onto the examination table. Even his puking has a certain exuberance to it. His general okayness means he is often seen as a floater in the cat hierarchy, and I take his presence, and continuing general okayness, for granted. He, above all my other cats, is the one I can never imagine getting old or frail or needy.

But, sometimes, because of this very okayness, I worry deeply about Janet. Occasionally I catch him sitting on the balcony outside our kitchen and staring off wistfully towards the Somerfield supermarket on the opposite side of the lake beyond our garden. I wonder what he is thinking. The answer is probably, “Me see big water, may contain many swimming food, overflown by big flying food, me eat, if could swim and fly and put in yummy jelly, but big bright corporate logo in distance scare me”. On the other hand, he could be thinking about something surprisingly profound, like how long it would take to walk to the Norwich branch of Pets At Home, or why it is he has a nagging memory of once having testicles. Or maybe he is thinking about nothing. It is the latter possibility that plays on my mind.

I have no logical reason to suspect that Janet is brain-damaged, other than that he once leaped out of a third storey window in my old flat in Blackheath, London, in pursuit of a wood pigeon, and might have hurt his skull. Having seen the leap from an adjacent room but not reached the window in time to see Janet’s impact, I am not even sure if he landed on his head, and whether he landed on the concrete path below the window, or the flower bed next to it. He seemed a little woozy afterwards, but was pronounced ok after D and I rushed him to the local surgery. The lack of inherent common sense highlighted by the leap itself also renders any “before and after” analysis of his mental faculties somewhat moot.

But I still can’t help puzzling over whether something changed for Janet that day. When puke has been gushing out of your cat’s throat on a constant basis for the last five years, you tend to fall into the trap of viewing those five years as forever, but I sometimes ask myself whether he used to throw up as frequently before his fall, and every so often I conclude that maybe he didn’t. And wasn’t it a bit odd, when, a few days after his accident, I began to catch him in the communal garden of our flat, lying down companionably with a decrepit neighbourhood fox? “Is this the behaviour of a cat with all his faculties?” I ask myself, in one of my more doubtful moods. “And what about his obsession with head scratching? What exactly is it in there that he want me to get at?”

It could be that my less sanguine cats humour Janet as a human might humour a good-natured lunkhead, but how am I to know that they aren’t really seeing his antisocial dining habits and constant goofing around as the actions of the feline equivalent of a village idiot? The Bear, who has known him the longest, has, at best, had the kind of relationship with him that George had with Lenny in Of Mice And Men – the main difference being that Lenny did not surprise George by leaping off bookcases and landing on his back. For a while, the nascent Shipley looked up to Janet, but now, older and grouchier, he gets a tired look in his eyes when the older cat attempts to revive the play-fighting traditions of earlier years. Delawney has never really stood for Janet’s particular brand of low-brow humour, and keeps his distance, probably seeing his fluffy black mane as a rival to his own, and Baby Bear, while largely comfortable in her dumbo step-brother’s presence, often finds his neck bites get a little overenthusiastic. That just leaves Pablo, my one feral cat.

For the first year of Pablo’s residence in my house, I hadn’t been aware of any kind of relationship between him and Janet. Both cats were like the members of the Big Brother house that nobody notices in the first few weeks, but that always end up being in the final three contestants. They did their work in the margins. In Pablo’s case, this was possibly unintentional. After his initial burst of sidling affection to every cat in the house and the ensuing knock-backs, most of his waking days were spent making sure that Shipley wasn’t around to pounce on him. In the times Janet would jump suddenly onto the bed where Pablo slept, I could see Pablo quickly doing the maths in his hyper-aware semi-wild way (“black fur plus cat equals DANGER”).

Since then, though, a subtle closeness has grown between the two of them. Often, I’ll find them sleeping a foot apart in one of the lesser-used rooms of the house. An hour later, I’ll re-enter the room and notice that Pablo has moved a few inches closer to his big fluffy companion. More recently, they’ve started to nap in formation, splayed legs in perfect symmetry, fur touching fur, and while Pablo will wake up from these sleeps and act like he’s quite embarrassed by the whole situation, it’s obvious he loves it. Janet, meanwhile, seems finally to have found a friend who, if not quite as simple as him on the inside, certainly looks it on the outside. Either that, or he is so retarded that he thinks that, because Pablo is ginger, he must be that fox that he used to pal about with in Blackheath . Do either of these cats know what they are getting themselves into? Possibly not. Can cats, despite their colour blindness, see through to the characters of their colours? I think so. But maybe neither of these things are the issue. This is a love that transcends race, class, and quite possibly, sense.