I am sitting at the kitchen table of a 1930s ex-council terraced cottage in a tiny village in Oxfordshire. I have a view of a small but beautiful, jungly garden. The sun is shining and the garden is alive with birds flitting around the bird-feeders, all oblivious to the lurking, unseen presence of a cat called Tybalt.
Tybalt is why I am here. My friend A— has decided to go to Scotland for the Jubilee weekend as she reckons it’ll be largely bunting-free. She is perfectly happy for others to celebrate but her village has rather gone to town with it, so to speak, and indeed it is the kind of village that would look rather weird without bunting, like the one taken over by Nazis in Went the Day Well? I have proven abilities as a cat-sitter, and indeed as a Tybalt-sitter, having performed the same duty for a month four years ago. As this coincided with a year of homelessness, the chance to sleep in the same bed for 30 days straight was my idea of haut luxe and I have very happy memories of the place.
It’s only for a week this time, but I am very pleased with the prospect; later on I shall go for a walk in the sunshine and almost certainly go to the local pub for a pint or two. There used to be a very nice pub, the Star, in the next village along, Stanton St John. It served a very nice beer called Inspector Morse and had a supremely competent barmaid/manager from, I think, Latvia, with whom I fell a little bit in love. All gone now. It is heartbreaking. But it could have been worse: there were plans to turn the surrounding countryside into the Oxford-Cambridge highway, but thankfully it appears that plan has been shelved. I pray this is actually the case.
Funnily enough, for the past week or so I have been having dreams about cats every single night. Of all conceivable varieties, and all of them loving and affectionate. One of them was a were-cat, who turned into a beautiful woman when no one else was looking. I shall draw a veil over what happened with her (it wasn’t that rude).
The only problem is that Tybalt is not exactly a loving or affectionate cat to anyone except A—. Even my month with him might have been written in water for all he cared. He gave me a look that couldn’t have said, “God, not you again” more plainly even if he suddenly developed the power of speech. As I value feline life even more dearly than human life, I brought along some smoked salmon to establish my bona fides, but he glared at it and went out. “I would rather eat the voles in the fields than this garbage,” he said as he left. And he meant it to sting.
But he’ll come back. Well, I bloody hope so. Even the surliest cat will be able to hold a place in my heart, and the affection I have for this part of the world – it’s basically the Shire – means that the soul is being balmed every second I am here.
But yet, I am still alone. For the past few days I have been obliged to read Robinson Crusoe, and reading that when you’re on your own is an intense experience. Believe it or not, I have never read it before, which is quite the admission from someone with a degree in Eng Lit and a certain reputation as a book reviewer. But it’s one of those books people think they don’t need to read because, well, it’s about this guy who lives on a deserted island for years, then he meets this other guy and he calls him Friday. What else do we need to know?
What else we need to know is that it is even better than I dared hope. It’s like The Martian, but with less poo. It’s that good. I wonder if it was an influence. But reading a book for hours at a stretch is rather immersive, and even when reading it in Brighton I felt as though I was on a desolate shore with no prospect of rescue. I scan for ships from my high window with my perspective glass (Crusoe’s term), but none stop for me. I feel as though I have grown a beard and am dressed in goatskins. (Alexander Selkirk, the marooned sailor who was one of the inspirations for the novel, had, um, carnal knowledge of the goats of the island he lived on, but there’s no hanky-panky in Defoe’s work.) I loved the quote about the book from James Joyce that Wikipedia helpfully provides: “He is the true prototype of the British colonist… The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit in Crusoe: the manly independence, the unconscious cruelty, the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the calculating taciturnity.”
I suppose that’s me these days, apart from the cruelty; but I guess that which I have is unconscious. As for the sexual apathy, how Crusoe was meant to indulge himself in a sexual relationship with anyone apart from himself without goat-bothering I don’t know. Anyway, that kind of thing is all in the past for me now. The heart lies smashed upon the rocks, and there’s no point in going to it and scavenging for supplies, as Crusoe did with his ship. I am content to look into the garden, at the fluttering birds.
This article appears in the 08 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Marked Man