Table of Contents

TITLE PAGE

COPYRIGHT

PREFACE

CHAPTER 1: THE SOUL OF A HOME

CHAPTER 2: MAKING FRIENDS

CHAPTER 3: EARLY LEARNING

CHAPTER 4: CATS AND PEOPLE

CHAPTER 5: THE DESERT YEARS

CHAPTER 6: SARA

CHAPTER 7: AFTER SARA

CHAPTER 8: BEFORE THE NEWCOMERS

CHAPTER 9: SKYE AND ARRAN

CHAPTER 10: CAT WATCHING

CHAPTER 11: QUESTIONS

THE FINAL WORD: THE PARABLE OF THE CAT

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

BIBLIOGRAPHY

JOURNEY THROUGH BRITAIN LANDSCAPE, PEOPLE AND BOOKS

FRONT COVER FLAP

BACK COVER FLAP

BACK COVER MATERIAL

To the memory of Sara
What greater gift than the love of a cat?
CHARLES DICKENS

PREFACE

‘But there are so many cat books already; can you possibly find something to say?’

A typical comment from non-cat lovers who heard I was writing this. They have a point, for there are more copies of books about cats than cats themselves in most English-speaking countries.

The reaction of cat lovers among my friends was predictably enthusiastic. When was the book going to be ready? Would I make sure to tell them when it was published? And, ‘I can’t wait.’ One cat lover placed an order for six copies even before the title was decided.

Populations can be divided in many ways: golfers and those who haven’t got the bug, for example, or those addicted to surfing the Internet and those who can’t stand computers. Nothing, however, is more decisive than the difference between cat lovers and the rest.

These words are unashamedly addressed to those who love cats, who may already have all the cat books they ‘need’ on their shelves, but hopefully will enjoy a different angle and being introduced to my personal range of cat personalities. The answer to why I have written it is that I have something to say. I hope you enjoy

David St John Thomas

Chapter 1

THE SOUL OF A HOME


The door was answered by a harassed woman who asked me to step inside quickly as she was on the phone. Pushed into her drawing room, to my delight I was followed by two Siamese chocolate-point cats still in the flush of youth. I spoke to them, made a high-pitched sound and licked my lips. By the time the woman, a well-known literary agent, had finished her complicated argument with another publisher, they had competed for the best place on my lap. The loser had flung its front paws up on my chest and was looking longingly into my eyes.

‘How did you manage that?’ asked the agent accusingly. ‘They don’t like people. They’re a mistake. Apart from screaming for food, they ignore me, and the more visitors try to make a fuss of them, the less they want to know. They’re weird—and you must be, too, attracting them like that. But then I’ve never understood you or your kind of books.’

I was a successful international book publisher, the ‘David’ of David & Charles in Devon, England, and over the years, my love of books and cats had become connected. The business side of the conversation has long been forgotten but, not surprisingly, my company never published a book from that agent. The cats were, however, a bright interlude in a busy day spent dashing around London over a quarter of a century ago, and ever since I’ve wondered what became of them and whether they ended up with the better owner they deserved. They will have died years ago. Maybe I am the only person who remembers them fondly.

The literary agent had probably acquired them to enhance the décor of her cream-and-pale-chocolate drawing room, and a pretty addition they made. Her understanding of them was zilch; that they so rapidly appreciated my love showed how desperately they needed it. How pleasurable it would have been to take them—their loud, steady purrs and penetrating blue eyes—home with me ... except that my own chocolate-point Siamese, Sara, who would purr for me when I reached home in Devon late that evening, would surely have seen me as a traitor destroying her world. Sara was my cat ... and I belonged to her.

The only thing that could be said for the literary agent was that, although she was unable to give cats the appreciation they deserved, at least her pair were company for each other. She certainly would not have understood that, desperate for human company though they might have been, like most cats they had to be in control and make the first move. As with any self-respecting feline, they would naturally have walked away from those who overpoweringly chased them and prematurely yanked them onto their lap.

‘If ever I have a cat book looking for a home, I’ll think of you,’ was the agent’s parting shot, probably the sole indication she ever gave of my being worthy to handle a publishable manuscript that came her way. I have no memory of why I went to see her, and even with the temptation of the two Siamese, I had no reason to call again. If she is still alive, it is a safe bet that she won’t be with replacement cats today. Unless someone else with a publishing background unfortunately recognises her and points these remarks out, they will not offend her since a cat book is highly unlikely to interest her.

It is not only those who are unworthy to own cats who may lack an understanding of their elementary psychology. Cats are wild creatures yet have great sophistication, the powerful Ferrari of small animals who, since they were treasured in ancient Egypt (even accidentally killing one carried the death penalty), have been tamed and bred to live with us. But we need to appreciate the constitution of their bodies and souls. All cats share a set of deep, basic instincts more universally than do dogs.

A cat is always a cat, a self-serving hedonist, excelling at simultaneously being independent and making humans serve its needs. Yet, as the only wild animals to choose to do so, many cats also excel at being an important member of the family, and love their favoured human so dearly that they go to great lengths to cherish him or her, showing real friendship—friendship way beyond looking after their own needs and certainly having nothing to do with food. That is a recurring topic in these pages.

P.G. Wodehouse said, ‘Cats, as a class, have never completely got over the snootiness caused by the fact that in Ancient Egypt they were worshipped as gods.’ Such is their independence that no cat is permanently on duty at the beck and call of its owner. But then how many humans are instantly available when their cat wants their attention? In the fascinating relationship between the different species, there are often periods of intense enjoyment alternating with those of going different ways, of plain ignoring each other even when only feet apart.

The better we accept that, the more matter of fact we can be in our understanding of it, the richer will be the enjoyment of our cats. ‘Time spent with a cat is never wasted,’ said Colette, to which Jean Cocteau added, ‘I love cats because I enjoy my home; and little by little they become its visible soul.’

Millions of people, including many authors, painters, musicians and politicians of the less dictatorial kind, have found that having a cat is a vital ingredient in turning a house into a home. In later pages we will see examples of how this works. Here let it suffice to say that it is from the army of cat haters that many cat lovers are recruited—often because a cat simply walks into their lives.

Writing this book has given me much pleasure, largely because it has helped me to increase my knowledge and further enhance my love of the species. I have been introduced to dozens of cats and told of many extraordinary happenings. One thing especially stands out: the large numbers of cats who walk into a new home. At least one in ten of the cat owners with whom I have spoken insisted they had no intention of acquiring a cat but that one had acquired them. Two I have recently been told about are Poppy and Nipper, who have moved into different homes miles apart.

Typically, Poppy ‘just arrived’, a malnutritioned kitten of about ten weeks. With cat logic, because her face was coloured like a winter pansy she was called Poppy. ‘Well you can’t shout Pansy outside your house, can you?’ said the owner. Pretty Poppy instantly settled in, toileting and so on without problem. This was where she belonged. A few days later she was taken for a check-up at the vet’s, in a cardboard box because there hadn’t been time to buy a cage. ‘There’s commotion and commotion,’ said the owner. ‘You never heard the like of it. She virtually ripped the box to pieces. She was absolutely frantic.’

She obviously feared she was going to be dumped for a second time for, when carried by the owner into the surgery, she calmed down and behaved with dignity; and on the way home, her owner comforting her with sweet nothings, she was content to know she was returning with the one she was going to love, to the place she had chosen to live. Being dumped, especially in a sack, must be a truly frightening experience.

Nipper’s tale is quite different. He also just turned up and was given what was intended to be a very temporary home since he matched the description of a cat that worryingly had been reported missing from a local animal shelter. Nipper instantly settled in—far too well for the liking of his temporary carers who had sworn they would never have a cat. So what happened next? The local paper arrived, prominently featuring the return of the real lost kitten to the animal shelter’s tender care. A victory not only for Nipper but for the species, for now the owners couldn’t possibly be without a cat.

All over the world cats are constantly converting people. I doubt any political or religious movement regularly makes so many converts. Naturally many former cat haters continue to rail at the species; it is just their individual pet they enthusiastically ‘tolerate’ because it is ‘quite different’. Of course, eventually there will happily be a ‘unique’ replacement.

Never have there been so many lovers of individuals of anything that they are so much against as a group. No wonder the advertisements of charities offering kittens and cats for re-homing write creative notices and advertisements describing very individual animals. All intended to persuade someone to do what they have always said they wouldn’t: have their home brought to life by a cat.

There’s no emptier place than a dwelling without animals; cats add life to our own lives in so many ways, says the UK’s main cat charity, Cats Protection. And the Australian Animal Protection Society says of Charcoal, its latest ‘Cat of the Week’:

People tend to walk right past Charcoal’s pen. They think she is too old and not worth meeting. It almost makes us cry to watch. People have no idea what they are missing. Charcoal is so gentle and has the most gorgeous placid nature. She is considered middle aged (she is eight years old) and is so very special to us because of her beautiful, settled aura. Charcoal is pure gold.

No doubt many people’s defences are weakened by tales of the conversions of others and by the cat-lobby’s spontaneous witness. Just before reaching this point I took forty winks, then opened the latest issue of the National Geographic magazine where, in the correspondence column, I found this short testimony by Laurie-Anne Gauvreau of St-Omer, Quebec, Canada:

Cats can help the mentally ill by providing unconditional love and giving them a sense of responsibility. Cats can be beneficial to our health, as simply stroking them can relieve stress and lessen the pain of a headache, and they provide companionship for the elderly. As we live longer, there is greater demand for that companionship.

The UK’s Cats Protection says that 15 per cent of the cats it re-homes go to those over 65; while in a survey half the cat owners aged over 50 said that having a cat made them feel younger. Later we will discuss how cats themselves are also living longer.

Another reason why people are converted to cats is the extraordinarily successful public relations cats somehow achieve. Many commercial public relations firms, charging millions, would surely be delighted by the positive news coverage and the column inches devoted to them. A variety of examples are cited later.

Included in this public relations coup are details of famous cat lovers, past and present. American Presidents, British Prime Ministers (Winston Churchill, hero of World War II, even had one sit in on cabinet meetings while another, Margate, slept with him after he turned up as a stray on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street), and other top people from all kinds of fields, especially authors, were or still are real enthusiasts. Again examples drift across the later pages as I tell my personal cat story, which hopefully will make its own new converts. Just one more comment here: in the darkest days of the war, when Britain’s prize Ark Royal was sunk off Gibraltar, morale didn’t quite take the expected plunge because, in addition to the rescue of all but one of the crew, people took comfort in the fact that the two ships’ cats, Oscar and Harry, were safe. As with much to do with cats, it might not be rational, but it is true.

So back to our starting point: there is a simple explanation behind the commonly expressed statement that cats pursue those who dislike them rather than those longing for their company. Exuberant but unsophisticated cat lovers approach them too rapidly, assuming rather than earning trust and interest. Those who prematurely plonk them on their lap find they jump off and are reluctant to return. The cat haters who remain aloof seem safer to approach. This feline quirk is not the cussedness it is taken for.

Which brings me to the first rule of cats: always let the cat make the first move. You can open a conversation with them, smile at them, and offer them your hand at a safe distance. Only attempt physical contact when they have initiated it, usually by sniffing your outstretched finger or rubbing against your leg. It is of course hard to teach this elementary rule to children, whose physical size might be less frightening than that of an over-bold adult, but who often destroy the possibility of confidence by shrieking or laughing and moving rapidly.

Rule number two is never to laugh at a cat or let it think you are ridiculing it. You can talk to a cat. Only if you build a close relationship, can you occasionally laugh with one. Never at.

In the following pages, among the many cats we meet will be those from my parents’ home and—much later—the cats that have very much belonged to me. The first of the latter was Sara, to whose memory this book is respectfully dedicated. That we were to have a Siamese was decided after much discussion and argument between myself, wife, daughter and son. I am not sure if Sir Compton Mackenzie’s warning deterred or egged us on: ‘People who belong to Siamese cats must make up their minds to do a good deal of waiting on them.’

One momentous day, we all went to fetch our kitten. We had a whole litter to choose from. The owner, in a private house, not a cattery, offered to hand us the one she thought would be most suitable. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Let’s see if one of them comes to me.’

I knelt down with outstretched hand and addressed the half dozen kittens and their mother. Several came for cursory inspection and returned to the family fold. Then one of the smaller ones with a piece of inferior string for a tail, which she somehow managed to keep erect, and who unsuccessfully attempted a meow, strode up and nudged my middle finger. She responded to my delighted reaction and danced around me. She purred and I recalled that someone had once quoted an ancient saying: ‘Never underestimate the power of a purr.’

It was the start of a 21-year love affair, which has inspired both this book and a continued affection for the species that has helped keep my health and spirits in trim. She was Sara: Sara the unforgettable.