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12 March 2023

Of all my achievements, the greatest may be getting my mother’s cat to purr

Matching Hunter S Thompson and Christopher Hitchens drink for drink is nothing compared to my recent conquest.

By Nicholas Lezard

How long have I been in East Finchley? It feels like an eternity. The days stretch long and heavy, like a leaden blanket. That said, it could be worse. My mother has been moved from the Whittington Hospital to the Finchley Memorial Hospital, a couple of miles up the road, and thus I get to see North Finchley in all its glory. As I was driving back from visiting her with my son, he said: “Compared to North Finchley, East Finchley is like Rome.” A pause. “It’s beautiful,” he said with a mock sob.

But I have had enough of it. Not only do I have to deal with the sheer tedium of the place, but I am also surrounded by my past. Here is the caricature of me drawn by one of the (very good) cartoonists on the student magazine I edited in 1984, there are the familiar books from my childhood on the shelves. In the attic and the garage are boxes upon boxes of all the books and crap I had to take when I was ejected from the Hovel. Since that happened, five and a half years ago, I have managed to carry nothing with me from home to home that cannot fit into a medium-sized suitcase.

There are some of my old clothes here, and that’s been handy. In a drawer I find a lovely black cashmere jumper, a present from my mother. Why didn’t I take it with me? I put it on but before my head is through the neck I can see daylight: moths. Ah, that’s why. My brother comes round to help me move the spare bed into the living room so my mother doesn’t have to climb stairs. There is a nice old armchair in grey embroidered silk – a relic of my grandmother’s – and he discovers that that, too, is infested with moths. He slaps the seat cushion to kill one and dozens more escape. A pest inspector comes round and says they’re everywhere. Terrific.

[See also: It’s a strange sobering feeling, not having parents. You never get used to it]

There is, though, one other animal here, one whose company is most welcome: her cat. This cat has no name. At Battersea Dogs and Cats Home she was called Paris, but my mother has not bothered with that, and now she is simply “Pussy Cat”. My mother has never been good with naming cats, never having read TS Eliot’s irritating poem on the subject (Jellylorum? Give me a break). The last cat we had, a somewhat unpleasant and entirely unfriendly animal who only had time for my father, was called, with an irony lost on nobody, Sweety Pie.

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I was initially ambivalent about looking after the latest cat. Despite my rescuing her from Battersea as a kitten, she has always regarded me with fierce suspicion. Trying to pet her only earned me a hiss or a scratch. Whenever I visited, she would leave any room I was in, pointedly. She followed my mother around everywhere, though, and would sleep on her bed every night; but she never sat on her lap, and never purred.

This pained me, for I am fond of cats, and mostly they are fond of me. Still, cats must be fed and my brother, who lives only 15 minutes away, was on holiday, so the task devolved to me. And I am delighted to say that The Cat With No Name’s attitude to me has undergone a profound and radical reversal. She has come to understand that in the great scheme of things I have a purpose, and although that is, of course, mainly to feed her, she has come – dare I say it? – to look on me as a companion.

And her own behaviour overall has changed. As I said last week, she now follows me everywhere. At night she sleeps not at the foot of the bed, but jammed right up against me. One morning she even slept on top of me. She does that kneading thing on the blankets right next to my face and I have now heard her purr.

I am proud of many things, such as my ability to raise a single interrogative eyebrow, like Spock, or to have matched, on different occasions, both Hunter S Thompson and Christopher Hitchens drink for drink without ill effect; but getting this cat to purr may be my greatest achievement. Of course, she has worked out that I am now nuts about her. She is highly intelligent, and can retrieve pouches of Felix from the kitchen island and open them herself. There is strong circumstantial evidence to suggest she can open the fridge. To give you an idea of how crazy I am about cats, I have just called out – for, unusually, she is not with me this second – “Pussy Cat! I’m writing about you!”

Crazy or pathetic? I don’t care. I have been poorly over the past few days and her presence has been a great help. When I think of the effort I would have had to make if she were a dog, I shudder. Get me out of this place, but I’ll miss her.

[See also: Baby Tech preys on parents’ guilt]

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This article appears in the 15 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Iraq Catastrophe