Recently I came across the idea, put forward by Samuel Butler, that the true test of a writer’s imagination comes in his ability to name a cat.
Nick Laird, in the London Review of Books (3 march 2011) unearthed poet Louis Macneice’s attempts to do this:
‘Re kittens, one must be called Old Foss after Mr Lear’s famous cat… other charming names that occur to me are Malinn, Fanfreluche, Cydalise, Poll Troy, Dobbin, Queen Anne, Pactolus, Parthenon, Laidronette, Midas, Oenone, Quangle Wangle (Mr Lear again), Amanda, Passionata and Perhaps. You may select from these but remember Old Foss.’
This called to mind the cats in my garden (I don’t own any and am not a cat person, I should point out). Over the years I have given them nicknames – in order to be able to tell my wife Sara what they are up to.
First came the Rum Tum Tugger, a name straight out of TS Eliot’s Book of Practical Cats. He is a big shapeless black heap of a cat, who gives me the first sign of spring when he takes to sleeping in the sun on the roof of our shed, a very exposed sloping position that makes his complete relaxation seem incredible.
Next there is Captain One-Eye, a female cat with a lowlife air, who sits without shame on the lid of our food-waste bin trying to fathom the eternal problem of how to get into it.
Also there is Prince (of Darkness) a sleek black cat with a smart red collar and bell who looks spoilt and sort of strides through our garden as if on his way to somewhere much better.
The newest cat is The Grey Storm, a frisky young pale grey, who pounces and leaps skittishly with the aim of killing moths in the grass (or whatever else she thinks she’s doing). Grey Storm disappears for long periods, but always (like the stormclouds from whence she gets her name) returns.
One lunchtime I was writing upstairs in the workroom (something I rarely do) and I was shocked to see a furtive figure hanging around the house. I looked out of the window and saw a neighbour –a Maltese man called Marcello, in smart white shirt (he worked in a computer shop), placing a plate of salmon on my doorstep.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“It’s for the nice little cat,’ he said very apologetically. He meant Captain One-Eye. “I want to feed her.”
I looked perplexed.
“She won’t come in my garden,” he said sadly, “She likes to sleep on your front step. So I must bring the fish here.”
I gave him a long look and put on a grown-up voice. “You,” I began with great authority, “are obviously a very kind man. But in future can you feed cats in your own garden please?”
Marcello withdrew humbly, nodding his ahead at this arrangement. Just before he left he gave me an earnest look. “No,” he said thoughtfully. “YOU are a very kind man.”
Later that week, Marcello told me that the Rum Tum Tugger would come and try and take the fish that was meant for Captain One-Eye. Marcello would always withdraw the offer of the fish towards this big, dark, unfavourite cat. With astonishment he told me that Rum Tum Tugger, sensing his own unpopularity, would advance slowly towards Marcello, then stop, and dangle one foot feebly in the air, in imitation of being lame, hoping to gain sympathy, Marcello acted this out very convincingly. “Incredible!” He said. “A cat acting that he is lame. I never see such a thing.”
Neither did I. Marcello is long gone now, back to Malta perhaps, feeding cats in other people’s gardens. The cats are all still in circulation though –
gets up to look out of window….