Cat Sense by John Bradshaw: An attempt to dispel the mystery surrounding an animal never fully domesticated

After reading Cat Sense, you will never look at your cat in the same way again. You might wish you still could.

Earlier this year, the BBC2 programme Horizon affixed “cat-cams” to 50 feline inhabitants of the Surrey village of Shamley Green to learn what the moggies got up to once they had exited the catflap and embraced their inner catness. To anyone who owns – or is owned by – a cat, the results were surprisingly unsurprising. The killer cats of Shamley Green roamed around a bit, carried out some light bin piracy, had remarkably little sex (it was a family show) and engaged in confrontations that were bigger on noise than paw-topaw violence. In general, they gave the lie to T S Eliot’s fantasy of a rich and rumbustious feline underworld. The answer to the question “What is my cat up to right now?” is almost always “sleeping”.
 
The animal behaviourist John Bradshaw took part in The Secret Life of the Cat and his book promises greater depth than Horizon’s mild night-vision entertainment. Cat Sense is an attempt to dispel the mystery surrounding an animal that has lived alongside us for nine thousand years yet retains much of its wildness. Bradshaw’s goal is that by understanding the cat more fully – and accepting that it is neither completely domesticated nor the finished article in evolutionary terms – we become able to provide it with a better and more fulfilling existence. The home life of many pet cats which Bradshaw describes is stressful, with mismatched or rival animals packed too tightly into the urban setting, or boring. What we consider normal cat behaviour is often the product of status anxiety and a kind of feline anomie. No wonder they bring home dead birds and poo in the shower.
 
Bradshaw’s desire for a comprehensive picture works against the book. To reach the juicy tinned meat of cat psychology and sociology, the reader must get over the hump of some numbingly dull opening chapters on feline evolution and domestication; if this is the cat bible, then there is an awful lot of begatting and begetting going on. Bradshaw also has a terrible weakness for digression: the section on the genetic provenance of striped v blotched tabby would try the patience of the most committed cat lover.
 
Get past all that, though, and more engaging details emerge. Dr Johnson used to feed his cat Hodge on oysters, not then a luxury food; the ancient Greek word for cat was ailouros, or “waving tail”; and Britain got the orange tabby from the Vikings a thousand years ago. On physiology, Bradshaw goes well beyond charming did-you-knows to provide insights that could transform the average cat owner’s understanding of their pet. Far from an indiscriminate bin-rummager, the domestic cat is a specialised “hypercarnivore” that can no longer obtain certain essential nutrients from anything but meat.
 
Its senses are even more attuned to balance and hunting than you might expect and much stranger, too. Because the cat processes visual images far faster than we do, it experiences fluorescent light or cathode-ray-tube TV as an incessant flicker (more misery for the housebound puss). It cannot focus its vision at close quarters and relies on its whiskers to sense prey at close proximity. This explains that strange thing a cat does when it moves its head backwards, not forwards, before pawing at an unfamiliar object. Cats can detect ultrasound up to the register of a bat’s call and can differentiate rodent species by squeak. Their olfactory receptors indicate that they can tell billions of odours apart – impressive, considering that there are only so many ways a mouse or bird can smell but, you know, Eskimo words for snow and all that.
 
What of less palatable feline behaviours? Cat mating is explored in all its horrible, noisy, barbed-penis perversity. So, too, is spraying, which is not as purely malicious as it seems to the human nose. The smellier a tomcat’s urine, the more protein there is in his diet. He is not ruining your carpet out of spite; he is demonstrating his prowess as a hunter and thus his worth as a mate, with a quick spritz of feline Drakkar Noir. As for cats’ notorious cruelty – batting a vole around apparently for fun and then not even having the decency to eat it – Bradshaw explains it as a product of a hunting instinct that is entirely separate from hunger. Even on a full stomach, a cat can’t see a small scuttling object without wanting to kill it, as many a leaf, raindrop, spider, clockwork Dalek and escaped frozen pea in our household has learned to its cost.
 
It is almost disappointing to learn that these most charismatic animals are not governed by some unknowable and amoral shared spirit as the Egyptians believed and the Vatican feared, but are subject to the same belittling system of rules, reward and reinforcement as the rest of us. Even the most committed rationalist might find it a little sad to have the four-legged mystery of their household explained as an evolved system, however magnificent. Do we want the feline enigma resolved? After reading Cat Sense, you will never look at your cat in the sameway again. You might wish you still could.
 
Andrew Harrison is a magazine editor and cultural critic
Portrait of a rescued domestic cat in Long Island, New York. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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