Introduction

As I began writing this account of my researches I became aware of some difficulties. I had chosen a title with a complication, namely the word ‘psychology’. I was also no expert on cats in the professional sense. And I do not have much to say about cats, really. That is why I have freely interspersed the words and deeds of some of my friends, associates and others I have met by chance, sometimes surprisingly so, who have talked to me about cats. When I refer to these individuals I have done all that I can to preserve their character, reproducing as faithfully as possible their speech, movements and other habits: the substance of aesthetics.

Fig 1

But let me deal firstly with the matter of the title I have chosen. You see, I do not believe in psychology. Psychology is the reason why the majority of films, books and television programmes are appallingly rigid paeans to detestable control. Latterly I have even detected the nasty whiff of psychology, a subject I have always regarded as dark and sticky, almost a glue but intentionally edible, abroad in radio shows. However I have to admit that in spite of all that has happened to the BBC there remain, curiously, some intriguing corners of non-psychologised entertainment. I would point out, for example, how the strange blend of bombastic pomposity, bland overtures better suited to bad 1950s ‘romantic’ films and blissfully poetic statements capable of moving one to rapture which characterizes Radio 3 around the time I rise, 6.20 on most days, could not coexist in any categorizable mind.

fig 2

Psychology offers us ‘reasons why’. With cats, as with people, there may well be ‘reasons why’ (why, for example, my small white cat covers her nose in mud in the summer), but as anyone who has ever really bothered to try and understand people, cats, or anything else, will know: a ‘reason why’ is easily superseded by … another ‘reason why’. And although many people may agree, in general, about a ‘reason why’, I am not one for believing that common accord will lead us anywhere inspiring. We may believe that we cannot fly, and this leads to fewer accidents, but the more we believe we cannot fly unless strapped to a seat in an aeroplane, the less likely we are to let our imaginations soar like Leonardo’s.

Leonardo
Leonardo’s Helical Air Screw

Psychology will attempt to tell us precisely why someone did something and for some of us, those who shy away from life’s unpredictability and volatility that is attractive. But as my old friend Jean, a psychoanalyst, once told me: ‘Life is a funny process. It doesn’t have a happy ending, it doesn’t go smoothly and its course is marked by repression, repetition and the return of the repressed.’

He was a wise man, if somewhat sombre, and a man who knew something about cats. I remember strolling with him in his vineyard one September afternoon when we came upon a clearing, at the centre of which was a plinth supporting a great stone column rising perhaps thirty feet above us, well above the level of the surrounding vines. At the top of it there was a small platform upon which something seemed to rest, but I could not quite work out what. Most extraordinarily, the column was surrounded by a narrow, spiralling series of steps.

‘Jean,’ I asked him, ‘ what is this?’

‘Ah, Tomasz, my friend, this is for my cat.’

‘For your cat?’

‘But absolutely. Right now he is up there, sprawled in the sun, although there is also a little bit of shade from a plastic plant we have provided. And as I get older and more infirm, as the years take a hold of me, I can imagine my little Tati lying up there staring out across the Côte-d’Or, as far as his wonderful cat eyes can see, and he takes me on his mental perambulations, far beyond anything I can now attempt.’ He chuckled ruefully and called out: ‘Tati!’ A small furry face appeared above us for a moment, the animal’s eyes blinked, and then he was gone.

How are we to ever know the mind of a cat? All we can attempt is to know our own as best we can and, of the many people I have known, Jean was in that respect one of the most dedicated.

Do not, then, be lured into buying this book solely by my use of the word ‘psychology’. My book will tell you nothing about why a cat is a cat in the way a film producer might lecture a director about why the motivation of her hero needs to be clearer. Yes, a cat such as Jean’s Tati may be a hero in my or perhaps, if you had met him, even in your estimation (for he certainly was in Jean’s), but a cat is a hero like a silver screen, not of it. A cat is the face of the cinema, not merely one more of its tacky glyphs, an actor, sleepwalking from one pay-cheque to the next.

My approach, as you will see, is an aesthetic approach, a new aesthetic approach, and enough about psychology for now. Although perhaps I should say why I have mentioned the word ‘psychology’ at all. The truth is, I had to call this book something, and of course I have not described my approach as psychological. A careful reader will verify that I have introduced my ‘new aesthetic approach’ as a way of exploring what has hitherto been called the ‘psychology’ of cats. If I could be granted a single wish, it would be to see this text sound the death knell for that word, psychology. It is unlikely, but I live in hope.

You may recall, when I listed the difficulties that arose for me as I began writing this work, that I also mentioned what some might perceive as a lack of expertise. All I can do is offer you my credentials and let you make of them what you will.

As a child I knew a cat, Sue the Cat, who would pass across the end of my garden at daylight and dusk like a strange, blinking shadow. She was my first experience of a cat. I would on occasion find myself eye to eye with her, if she came upon me sitting beneath one of our large oak trees and she would stop briefly to survey me. Was I, I imagined, something she might eat? Or was I to be avoided? As a child I realised that very few things seemed to eat anything that was larger than them (a python, perhaps) so it seemed unlikely I was to be eaten. Or could she have been part puma? I remember the cold feeling in my spine as that thought crossed my mind. No, I was simply to be regarded, not even avoided. Once she walked across my outsretched legs as if they were merely the roots of the tree supporting me. Nothing more happened.

Through Sue the Cat I believe I found my place in the world rather better than I might have without her. The adults around me were generally feckless and malevolent, not at all to be trusted, but Sue was regularly unknowable, and her unknowability allowed me to fall back on myself. For that I will always be grateful: whether I were to imagine myself as a tree root and so know I was not exactly a tree; or whether I was to think she might be a puma, only never to be eaten and to work out all might not be as I imagine, however fearful I might sometimes be. I can always be wrong about things in life: and that is a blessed release.

I became aware of other cats after Sue.

There was Orlando. Orlando was colourful like Spangles, a sweet I ate a lot of at the time. Orlando the Marmalade Cat. While I was reading, or I should say staring at, Orlando (for whatever words Orlando’s author Kathleen Hale attributed to him I cannot remember) I noticed that, on our television set at the time, a Sony model, which reminded me of the sun, there were buttons marked ‘hue’, ‘saturation’, and ‘colour’. Discovering Orlando, a gift from a distant aunt, I learned the pleasures of turning these buttons as I watched a tennis match, the cricket or perhaps the Flashing Blade. Anything could be improved by more hue, saturation and colour, even if I eventually realised this was because I had started to lose my sight, and ended up in Moorfields Eye Hospital.

Orlando took me to hospital, in a sense. Without him it would have been very dull and frightening indeed: a horrible mixture of long brick corridors, deathly beds and having my eyes invaded by the fingers, lenses and other coarse utensils such as one that resembled a tooth pick. They dyed my eyes yellow, too.

After Moorfields? Of course there were more cats: unchronologically between then and now, a rather haphazard list, I can think of The Cat in the Hat, Bagpuss (although I was almost too old for that cat and, at any rate, there was always something horribly sentimental, sepia-ish about the cat Emily loved), Raymond Chandler’s Cat Taki, the Cat in the title sequence of Walk on The Wild Side, big cats in Tarzan’s Jungle, and the white cat that climbed the post office tower at the beginning of The Goodies.

I now run a clinic in the shadow of that tower.

Out of these many cats and others I developed a fascination for the animals. They seemed to exert a particular force on the human imagination: one, very different, for example, from dogs or ponies. I can, however, remember the very moment when something in my thinking crystalized about what a certain form of cat appreciation might tell us about people. I was by that time, and it was not so long ago, and adult and qualified as a psychotherapist.

It was in late October, approaching the turn of the millennium and I was standing on a street corner in Holland Park waiting for a friend to arrive, so we could head off to Paddington as we had an early train to catch. It was a misty morning, as many are in October and out of the mist, just as a distant bell chimed five, there emerged someone who has since become an unlikely confederate in my studies of humans and cats: a musician, Liam. He was out walking with a cat in Holland Park.

I say he was walking with a cat; actually he was walking rather like a cat, maybe a panther. About three feet to his left, strolling along the curb, was a medium-sized snowy white creature with all the assurance of an individual who had sang in front of 125,000 people at Knebworth Park. The cat seemed in step with him; so in step it was uncanny, but at the same time it felt as if they were both almost falling out of step, as if one of them were about to take the lead although it would be impossible to tell who. Together, like this, they kept tense and eerily silent time.

I remember looking at them both and wondering who was with who. Liam, and I am sure he will not mind me saying so, is rather animal in his being most of the time, but on this occasion he seemed more animal than usual; and the cat, in step with Liam, seemed less cat that it might have in either different company or, certainly, no company at all.

It was very early in the morning and Liam looked a little tired, as if he had been out late, but he strode well, every bit a panther.

They came towards me. What a sight. Unfortunately they looked so curious that I couldn’t take my eyes off them. A few yards away Liam and the cat stopped – at exactly the same moment – and stared at me. Their faces were very similar; their eyes equally keen.

‘What you starin’ at?’ asked Liam.

‘The two of you together,’ I replied. ‘It’s remarkable.’

‘The what?” he made a sour expression and hunched his shoulders. ‘Are you shittin’ me, or what mate? Cos if you are, like, maybe I’ll have to see you outside. Because there’s only ever been one of me, man, I’m a Fuckin’ rock and roll superstar.’

‘You and the cat; have you perhaps ever read Freud’s essay on The Uncanny?’

‘No mate, have you read your Fuckin’ arse because it sounds like you’ve got your head stuck right up it, d’you know what I mean? I mean, c’mon, do you actually think I’ve read any Freud?’[1]

‘Why not?’ That seemed to surprise him. ‘What about the cat?’ I countered. ‘Have you any idea what the two of you look like together?

‘What?’

I nodded at the white cat.

He looked at it. ‘What, that?’

‘Yes.

‘That cat? You’re saying I’m like a Fuckin’ cat?’

I took a step backwards and glanced at my watch. My friend was late.

‘You’re like a panther.’

‘What, you’re saying I’m like a Fuckin’ panda, mate? You think I’m a roly-poly panda, like I eat bamboo and go on the news? You think I’m Fuckin’ Blue Peter, like a gift from Chairman Fu Manchu or something? You think I’m a diplomatic incident, like I’m out of a crate off a plane from China to smooth troubled waters?

The cat hissed at me.

‘And you can fuckin’ shut up.’

The cat jumped at me, and I dodged it. It landed, claws splayed, skidding on the pavement, looking baffled.

Liam folded his arms. ‘Now that impresses me.’ He nodded. ‘That impresses me. You can read as many fuckin’ books as you like but it takes something special to get out the way of a fuckin’ mad cat. And that cat’s a bastard. It went after a spaniel back there.’

‘A spaniel?’

‘Yeah. Saw it off, no bother.’

And the spaniel’s owner?

‘No it was wild, man. Wild spaniel. Angry fuckin’ beast with a real look about it. But that little shit saw it off like it were, what, Smash Hits.’

‘What’s it’s name? Do you know?’

‘No idea mate. No idea. Cat like that doesn’t have a name.’

I nodded. The cat sat facing away from us.

Liam looked at his watch. ‘So d’you wanna come back to my place an’ discuss The Uncanny or wha’?’

How could I refuse?

Rather than lingering on what the rest of that day involved for Liam and me, I’d like to focus for a moment on what that encounter really meant to me. Reflecting on what happened when I met Liam and how that encounter was somehow mediated by the white cat, I realised that the situation presented me with a unique opportunity to understand something about myself – something about my sense of curiosity (Fig 3) and how that has lead me to have many different kinds of friends and associates, often who have very little in common apart from the fact they can be outspoken and stubborn.

fig 3

Each of the cats I have known has elicited a sense of me in the way Sue the Cat showed me. Thank you to all of them.

Finally, I must say again that I do not really have that much to say about cats. This is a short treatise written relatively quickly, perhaps as if by a cat – if cats wrote books.

[1] He had done, incidentally. In fact Freud was often at the centre of arguments between Liam and his brother, also a rock-and-roll star, who tends to think of himself as the more intellectual of the pair.