I had an amazing time catsitting in London early last month. I was doing it for family members, so I’d met the cats a couple of times over the last few years (two of them, rescue cats that are thought to be mother and son). They’re house cats, so there was no fretting (from me) about whether they’d be safe in traffic, but at first I saw them very little, they didn’t have much to do with people in their early years, so they’ve been terrified of even the most well-meaning humans.
However – that was old news, they’d grown less timid in the last year or so, observed closely by my lovely rellies, and I was told (correctly, happily!) that they’d come into the bedroom to be with me if I let them. You can guarantee that I let them! And by the end of the first week, that’s what was happening – though one of them was still under the bed rather than on it with me.
At the end of the second week, the transformation was almost complete: both of them would lie on the (nice big) bed with me, and when I sat down in an armchair, or on the sofa, the brave one would leap up onto my lap, especially if I had a thin cushion there to make it easier to loll about. Even better, sometimes he’d leap straight onto my lap, but if I was in an armchair, he’d circle about me, like Simon’s Cat: jump onto an armrest, up onto the back, across the back, down to the other armrest, and then onto my lap, having claimed me completely as his own property.
I did get out and about a bit – I used to live in London, so I went up to Central London to meet a friend, and saw that the lions on the Houses of Parliament are actually being very rude to passers-by:
And when I popped up to Euston (to take pictures of the Carreras Factory, for a later post on here) I saw a logo for a transportation firm that was just adorable:
Back at the catsitting gig, the timid one never sat on my lap, sadly. And she never stopped hissing in fear when I happened to walk by her plate of food as she was feeding, though she did stop running away, that was something. I absolutely loved the catsitting, though, and hanging out in a new-to-me area of London, especially with such gorgeous cats to get to know better.
But I had the greatest compliment a cat sitter can have the next week, once my relatives were home: I was told that when the brave one jumped up on their laps, he looked at them like he expected someone else to be there! Me, I think! Life is good!
At the beginning of this week, there was an article in The Guardian about a bequest to the Guildhall Library in London, from an American lady who’d lived in England since the 1950s, Ellery Yale Wood. She died three years ago, and it sounds like her executor is still in awe of her. Only a part of her bequest is about Dick Whittington and his famous cat – the rest is an eclectic mix of Harry Potter, children’s books, cameras, Manchester United … the list goes on.
And the library, of course, was the one founded by Dick Whittington himself, in 1425, so her bequest makes absolute sense. Some of her material will be included in the 900th anniversary celebrations to be held in 2025, and in the meantime, I hope we’ll be able to see some of it very soon.
I was at the Guildhall Library a few years ago, and part of their lovely statue of Dick Whittington and His Cat is my header! Here it is in full:
The wonderful mog is all over London, hospitals and pubs and everything in between is named after him. There are intimate little touches too: on the stairwells over the busy roads that lead to the Museum of London, Dick and his cat are ever present:
There are a few I haven’t photographed yet: the one in Archway, and the inside of the window at St Michael’s (I’ve got a photo of the outside, where you can see the cat, but it looks like it’s in shades of grey: not a very interesting photo!). There are some great pantomime adverts too, it’s one of the favourite panto titles in the UK.
Honouring the two of them isn’t a modern fashion by any means. The Bodleian in Oxford holds an eighteenth century board game, and there’s a seventeenth century woodcut held in Boston that shows them as well. That’s easier to see than the others, so here it is, with Dick carrying the cat in case the dog goes for it:
What was the real story? Our Dick was Lord Mayor four times, did some good works including rebuilding Newgate Prison, and didn’t have a cat. That’s it!
As an assessment of the myth and it’s magic, I can’t better Nick Green’s analysis in his guest post at the utterly amazing steelthistles blog. But the myth itself is that his childhood was poverty stricken, and he went to London because he’d heard the streets were paved with gold. He lodged in the attic of a wealthy merchant named Fitzwarren, and bought a cat for a penny (earned by shining shoes) because there were so many mice and rats.
Then Dick consigned the cat for sale on a voyage to the Barbary Coast (that is, he gave it away to be sold abroad, for profit). But he was disenchanted with London and started to return home to his poor village. And thats when he hears the voice, “turn again, Whittington”.
All ends well for Dick: he goes back to London, the cat has been sold on the Barbary coast and earned Dick a fortune, whereupon he marries the daughter of the family he works for.
Nobody talks about the cat! She’s been sold abroad (to the Barbary Coast, i.e. Africa, where cats actually come from), and that’s where she seems to have lived for the rest of her days. She’s better off there than with Dick Whittington, if you ask me.
All of this was very, very unexpected to me, and I’m almost relieved to go with the magic of the myth.
After reading the steelthistles blog, by the way, I was so impressed, I’ve just bought the fantasy novel Cat Kin, by Nick Green, so I’m really looking forward to that. Youngsters in London, cats are involved … it’s kinda sorta Dick Whittington! I’ll write a review on here later, but here’s a link for now.
When you love cats, you find them everywhere. So there I was, out for the day at the Amberley Chalk Pits Museum, indulging one of my other hobbies – industrial and agricultural history, which I find fascinating. They run courses on countryside skills too – pole lathe turning, for instance.
There I was, wandering over the rails of the little railway that runs throughout the site, when I saw this little scene. I had to look further, as you do, and found a touching story of the cats that lived and died here from the 1980s onwards. They were brought to the site by Ian Dean, the museum’s first director. Chalk (the gorgeous white one) wandered away to live with a family nearby, as cats do, but returned when his brother became ill. His brother, Pepper, was only five when he died, but after that Chalk stayed at the Museum for all of his long life, 21 years in total.
They were followed by Nelson, who had an even shorter life than Pepper, but was obviously just as loved.
Another cat is commemorated here, Miss Agatha – she has no Victorian Celtic grave marker, as the others do, but a little plinth, set with her picture – she too was loved.
They’re all buried together, in a quiet spot at the edge of the museum proper, on a slight slope, with a good view of the rats and mice they loved to catch. It’s a sweet, serene little place, and I was so happy to have found it.
Imagine the scene … high summer last year … too high, in fact, to do much serious sightseeing, and there’s always serious sightseeing to do in London. But me and my companion gave it up, for an hour or so, and instead we went to pay homage to Hodge The Cat.
What cat blog has not discussed Hodge the Cat? Not many, so now it’s my turn. First off, what a great location: it’s immediately north of Fleet Street, between Fetter Lane and Shoe Lane, but it’s so quiet, you’d never think it was in the middle of one of the most densely populated cities in the western hemisphere. And here’s a view of charming little Gough Square itself, you can see how beautifully Hodge is catered to, even now, hundreds of years after his death. Those wooden chairs that gather around him are really comfortable, too.
His oysters are still there for him to claw at (oysters were cheap back then). And he’s still sitting on Dr Johnson’s book … it’s only when you walk all the way round that you can see his plinth is definitely a book, from this angle it’s very clear.
He still gets his milk delivered, too – lots of it (okay, so this was sitting on the doorstep of some nearby offices, but it could have been for Hodge).
Hodge was the cat of Dr Samuel Johnson, the famous man of letters (which sums it up, really, today he’d be a web pundit, without a doubt) of the eighteenth century. Even if you don’t know of him directly, you’ve probably heard of one of his best-known sayings: “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”. He didn’t write directly about Hodge himself, we only know of the beautiful mog because of Boswell (the Watson to Johnson’s Sherlock, really) who said: ” I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature. I am, unluckily, one of those who have an antipathy to a cat, so that I am uneasy when in the room with one; and I own, I frequently suffered a good deal from the presence of this same Hodge. I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr. Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, “Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;” and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, “but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.”
The statue itself was only unveiled in 1997, and apparently the sculptor Jon Bickley made it the right height for adults to hug. He knew! He really did. I do wonder why Hodge was chosen, since Johnson says he liked other cats of his better – but I wonder if he was teasing? Or embarrassed to be showing such affection?
Whatever the truth, Hodge is A Very Fine Cat indeed, just as the plaque tells us, and in the city which provides all that life can offer, the companionship of cats is an essential part of it all.
Cats are threaded through the whole of Harry Potter, it’s a wonderful thing to see – maybe that’s one of the reason I feel so at home in that universe? Although, in researching for this article, I discovered the not-so-secret secret that JK Rowling is allergic to cats, and doesn’t like to be in the same room with them for too long. She isn’t particularly fond of them, either.
However, she’s very fair: the first book tells us nearly everything about cats that JK Rowling wants us to know, and that is that cats are almost exactly the same as people. Some are good, some are bad, according to their own nature. The only difference between cats and people is that there’s no cat as evil as Voldemort, not that I can see, anyway, and that’s kind of JKR when she’s not fond of cats herself. Cats are integral to the wizarding world, just like they are to the muggle world.
The very first cat we see is Professor McGonagall, when she’s already Transfigured – Mr Dursley, on his way to work on the morning of that fateful day, sees a tabby cat reading a map. And she’s sitting on his garden wall when he comes home in the evening, but she waits for Professor Dumbledore, who doesn’t arrive till nearly midnight, and that’s Minerva McGonagall to a T – always active, and always supporting Dumbledore.
We only hear about the next cats, we don’t see them. These are the ones belonging to Arabella Figg, who used to babysit Harry during Dudley’s birthday trips out. But on those days, “Mrs Figg made him look at photographs of all the cats she’d ever owned … Tibbles, Snowy, Mr Paws and Tufty”. We soon find out that she’s gone off her cats a bit because she broke her leg tripping over one of the cats. Mrs Figg has her own secrets, of course, but we don’t even know that they exist until much later in the series.
Cats are one of the three sorts of animals allowed for first-years at Hogwarts: toads and owls are also on the list. So when Harry gets to platform nine-and-three-quarters for the first time and sees the wonderful engine building up steam for the journey to Hogwarts and the chattering crowd on the platform, “cats of every colour wound here and there between their legs”.
And that’s the point, really: they’re there, all the time in the background. Occasionally, one steps forward into the foreground and in this book, that’s really Mrs Norris, the cat of Mr Filch the caretaker. She has “bulging, lamp-like eyes just like Filch’s”, and quite like this Cat Pottery cat in a recent post of mine:
“She patrolled the corridors alone. Break a rule in front of her, put just one toe out of line, and she’d whisk off for Filch … it was the dearest ambition of many [students] to give Mrs Norris a good kick.”
Mrs Norris patrolled on her own! Wizarding cats are more than our cats – more than our cats let us see, anyway … but Mrs Norris definitely isn’t likeable. Even Hagrid, when Harry and Ron go to tea with him for the first time, says “An’ as fer that cat, Mrs Norris, I’d like ter introduce her to Fang some time. D’yeh know, every time I go up ter the school, she follows me everywhere? Can’t get rid of her – Filch puts her up to it”.
No matter what – in the first film, Mrs Norris is a beautiful, beautiful slim long-haired Maine Coon – actually, three Maine Coons, according to the website Showcatsonline, which even shows behind the scenes training moments. I’ve not seen that anywhere else, and I really, really like Harry Potter.
Interestingly, there’s an interview on with Gary Gero on Scholastic, the wide-ranging learning website. Gary is the animal trainer who provides many of the animals on the Harry Potter sets, and he has this to say about Mrs Norris (well, Tibbles): “we have to very carefully select cats. That’s one of the keys—you get a cat who enjoys work and enjoys the environment and enjoys new people and new situations. And then, it’s all about dinnertime with cats, isn’t it? We take their dinner and we divide it up into training sessions, and they’re pretty much working for their dinner. Then, they get a bowl of food at night as well. But they’re food is all regulated, and they’re fairly intelligent. Their training method is a little less direct than, let’s say, a dog. You make smaller steps. And again, once you understand exactly how a cat learns and what progress it makes, it’s not difficult. They try—you just have to be careful that you don’t expect too much of a single training session.”
Mrs Norris pops briefly into the story again when Harry and Ron visit the Mirror of Erised together at Christmas. They’re wearing the Cloak of Invisibility, but they can’t tell whether or not it works on cats. And JK Rowling doesn’t tell us at this stage!
She also pops in at the very start of the evening when Harry has his first confrontation with Voldemort, but it’s more a case of remembering that she’s there, and adding colour to the journey. It’s important to remember, though, that Mrs Norris looks at our heroic trio, even though they’re under the Invisibility Cloak. She doesn’t betray them, either.
And that’s it! For the first book, anyway. Though I should say, Gryffindor House has a lion as it’s symbol. Cats rule Hogwarts, just like they rule the Internet.
I was lucky enough to go to the church of St Bartholomew the Great, to see the Smithfield Cat, on a day when there was a 30 minute gap between two weddings – it’s a really popular church for that, being so old and so photogenic.
Most of all, it’s atmospheric, mysterious. The original nave of the church was lost when Henry VIII dissolved the priories along with the monasteries, so what is now the church is amalgamated from pieces of the original priory. Lots of nooks and crannies and tiny archways in thick walls. It’s absolutely beautiful.
The history of the immediate area is mixed: back in the twelfth century, it was a huge, open plain used for knights on horseback to joust. One hundred years after that, it was the place of execution for William Wallace, who fought so hard for Scottish independence, and later in the fourteenth century Wat Tyler of the Peasants’ Revolt was executed there too. Then, for five hundred years or so, it’s been both the site of the legendary Bartholomew Fair, and of the Smithfield Meat Market (which is still there! Very odd, since nowadays it’s right on the doorstep of the City of London financial community).
Sitting there all this time, since 1123 in fact, is the priory church of St Bartholomew the Great, founded just before the Meat Market, a great engraving of which has been put online by Victorian Web **
I do wonder if the Smithfield cat was a local moggy! Maybe a cat that was adopted by the priors, or even by the builders of the priory? It wouldn’t have been in the nave of the church originally, the first nave is now the raised churchyard, according to the church guide.
And it’s still mysterious.
Technically the Cat is a corbel, a load bearing stone jutting out from a wall. When you see the Smithfield Cat described online, it’s often claimed that carved corbels are later than the St Bart’s interior, but just having a quick look at architectural history tells me that isn’t true. Lincoln Cathedral, for instance, was built at the same time as St Bart’s, and has a few very famous corbels (the images are copyright, so I can’t show them, sorry).
The Smithfield Cat looks a bit like the grinning Cheshire Cat … and it’s very, very high up. A bit of a photo commentary below, as I really loved the place.
The entrance from West Smithfield.
The entrance to the church itself.
The cat is on the left of the pillar, high up.
A close-up of the cat.
Atmospheric or what.
I only found the Cat because I asked a friendly verger – and although the whole place was bustling, she was very friendly, and led me directly to the right pillar. You know, the whole complex of buildings was built in the twelfth century; a medieval working man carved this Cat one winter, ready to be hoisted far into the air during the next spring, to be set in its place for getting on for eight hundred years now. The Cat is just a minor part of the priory, not even mentioned on their website, but weirdly I think he’s on Google. The interior of the church is available on streetview! I’ve no idea why, but it is, and if you go there, turn away from the altar and look up on high magnification, you have a sort of side view of the Cat. It’s badly lit (it’s a church!) but it’s there. Really, really something.
As I mentioned, I’m posting now to show you my own Winstanley Pottery cats, which I bought because they were so like my own beautiful mother-and-daughter moggies. The photo above is my pottery cats, of course, and just below this paragraph are my own beautiful cats: Jessie, the stubby-legged daughter, and Willow, the aristocratic-looking grey one. She was just as much a moggy as her daughter, her littermates were all sorts of colours, but she came up trumps (well, I think so) in the genetic lottery. The two of them were very close, and they lived together all their lives.
The photo below was taken in the middle of a house move, and once they saw the empty cupboard, it was irresistible. Willow, of course, claimed the top spot, she always did!
And the house move photo shows exactly why I bought the particular statuettes I did, the big grey one looking directly at me, and the anxious little black and white deferring:
The colours were off the shelf, the direction of the eye movements were individual, and they expressed very clearly what my own lovely cats looked like. They’re made of ceramic, with glass eyes, and the glass is described as cathedral glass. I don’t know if that means they’re made from glass with the same chemical breakdown as cathedrals in this country, or whether some collapsing cathedral somewhere has sold off their windows to finance a renovation, but the result is gorgeous, the eyes definitely feel alive.
Close up, the eyes might look a bit spooky, like the photo below, but in truth this is exactly what Willow looked like first thing in the morning as she peered over the top of my duvet, demanding that I get up and provide her with breakfast, in the manner to which I made her accustomed.
I’ve got to hand it to Winstanley Pottery, they’ve done a marvellous job of showing the different characters cats can have. Thank you, Winstanley.
Four times in as many months, I’ve met somebody new-to-me and got on really well with them. Then, at the end of our chat, they handed me their contact card – a little Vistaprint type card, or sometimes a postcard. Since my aim is for me to get out and about much more, I decided to get a card done myself … and they arrived earlier in the week. I’m very excited! Or I was – a free metal cardholder was offered, to keep the cards fresh, and it didn’t come – and then I was excited again as there was a freephone number to ring if there were any problems. Nowadays, if people provide a freephone number, you just know they’re serious about customer service. And so it proved – I’ve just had an email confirming the little card holder is on its way.
The back of my card shows a quote from a man named Martin Delany:
“If we treated everyone we meet with the same affection we bestow upon our favorite cat, they, too, would purr.”
What an amazing way of putting things! Succint. Humane. Thoughtful. Empathic. He was quite a man, Martin Delany. He was an African-American abolitionist, journalist and writer, born as early as 1812 in West Virginia, and born a slave: his father purchased the family’s freedom in 1823, when Martin was 11, then moved to Pennsylvania in search of a better life.
He had an amazing life: he published his own anti-slavery newspaper in the 1840s; he went to Harvard Medical School (but pressure on the faculty meant he was asked to leave after only a few months); stiill, he worked as a physician during cholera epidemics in Pittsburgh, when some qualified doctors had fled; he lived in Canada but returned from there to become an army officer for the North in the American Civil War, helping to recruit black soldiers, and afterwards worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau, helping freed slaves. Thank goodness he lived to see the end of slavery: he died in Ohio in 1885.
And in spite of the hard life he led, born in slavery and constantly on the move, one of his most famous quotes is about treating everyone with respect and even love – the same love we give when we’re stroking a cat. He was an astonishing man; he deserves to be up there with the great campaigners of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Having a quote from a man like him on my card, is just a reminder that we can often see what people are really like by the way they treat animals.
This post was originally published two years ago. Still true, though.
Of course, Doris Lessing was a person extraordinaire, as well as a cat person extraordinaire. But she loved cats too, she wrote a book called “Particularly Cats”, after all, about her cat experiences.
She died in 2013, but this is a photo of her taken in 2006, a year before she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. She was a one-off, in the best sense – insightful, courageous, far-thinking and willing to take risks.
She could be challenging to be around for any length of time, it seems. Her cat book is a case in point: there’s no comfiness – she doesn’t put her cats to sleep when the time comes, they don’t pass on, and they most certainly don’t go to the Rainbow Bridge (which is where my cats are). No, Doris’s cats are “killed”, if its necessary.
I’m sure this has something to do with her childhood circumstances: in the inter-war period, the 1920s and 30s in what was then Rhodesia, out on a farm. It was idyllic, in her memory, but of course it wasn’t a life that would coddle a little girl.
I met her once, very briefly; she came to the Brighton Festival to give a talk on another writer, though when the talk was finished, nearly all the Q&A was about her own work. She was perfectly willing to do a signing afterwards, and she stopped in her tracks, for a moment or two. I’d brought a hard copy edition of one of her science fiction books, The Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire. Its a great book, very witty, very funny, and reads a bit more like Monty Python than anything else; she was really pleased someone had brought it along. It was brilliant to bring a spontaneous flash of pleasure to those eyes!
I saw a documentary on TV about her last year, hosted by Alan Yentob, entitled The Reluctant Heroine, in which she’s described as “alarming, radical and strange” by Hermione Lee. People’s wariness around her is summed up in the film by a little exchange in her kitchen a few days prior to this, as a cat arrives at the interview wanting to be let out into the garden, and Alan Yentob picks it up:
Doris: “That cat could easily bite. She’s not a sweet little pussy.”
Alan: “No, I didn’t think she would be.”