At Battersea Cats' Home, a kitten gets me thinking about family

It takes a kitten to set me musing on my father’s mildly bonkers habits and the quirks of heritability.

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Well, we finally did it: got my mother a kitten, that is. A nine-week-old domestic short hair, or moggy, called Paris, she is, as tends to be the way with kittens, adorable. One of my classically educated friends pointed out that Paris is a boy’s name, but I don’t make a big deal of this to my mother, who, as I said in an earlier column, is quite capable of calling a cat Buppins or Sweetie-Pie should the notion take her.

So Paris she is, French pronunciation optional. She bounces around the house and apparently does a great deal to lift Mum’s mood, one that had been lowered rather considerably, to put it mildly, by widowhood, and then driven further into the ground by the dismaying realisation that she now has to do the paperwork, hitherto done exclusively by my father.

During a recent visit – my visits have become rather more frequent since she got the kitten, funny that – she told me that she was in a panic about the latest bunch of stuff relating to probate, and asked if I could help. “You’re asking the wrong man,” I said.

It’s funny how sometimes it takes one years to learn something about oneself. I had always assumed that my inability ever to get to grips with this kind of thing was some kind of great internal failing, almost an insult to my father, whose ritual it was to sit down at the dining-room table every Sunday evening with his briefcase and chequebook open, various bills and letters and whatnot spread out around him, and methodically go through the lot.

He did more on each Sunday than I will yet do in my entire life, it suddenly strikes me. And if I now wonder whether perhaps he did not increase the amount of work in order to fill the time available, I also remember that every time he filled the car with petrol, he would write down the mileage, so as to calculate whether the engine was starting to run less efficiently or not. Is this eccentric, or is it the kind of thing car owners who were born in the early to mid-1930s were encouraged to do? There is a geeky streak in Lezards, which in me surfaces as a deep respect for maths and a love of cricket statistics, but the idea of keeping a special piece of paper in the glove compartment to write down the mileage every time you fill up strikes me as verging on the (mildly, benignly) bonkers.

So the thing I learned was this: my disinclination to do accounts (and by “disinclination” I mean “total shutdown”) etc has been inherited from my mother. I glimpsed a headline recently which said that apparently one inherits one’s intelligence from the mother, and I find this explains a lot, if not everything. She’d never had to fill up the car with petrol since she married in 1962. How could she have? It would have completely thrown my father’s system out of the window. She has, since, not exactly taken to the practice like a duck to water. Yet I have never had a problem with filling up the car. In fact, I like to think I do it with a certain flair, and I find not writing the mileage down on a piece of paper afterwards shaves valuable seconds off one’s journey time.

Then again, what’s in the cat will out in the kitten, and I say this not just to muse on heritability but to yank the subject back to Paris (the kitten), for this is where my thoughts often stray these days. I noted the kind of people who go to Battersea Cats’ Home: they are young couples, mainly. This I found poignant to the point of being unmanning. They appear to be in their mid-twenties; the women look beautiful beyond probability, the men fresh and kind and decent. Of course, there is something about looking at a cat or a kitten looking beseechingly at you, or playing in its own little world, that softens the features, and no one willing to schlepp out to Battersea to look at some orphaned pussy cats is going to be the kind of person who is going to do so with a scowl on their face.

But still, the very fact that they are looking for cats says so much about them, and the point they are at in their lives. You wouldn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to go up to them and say, “I deduce that you have been in a relationship for about a year, that you are moving in together after realising that you are, after all, the right people for each other, that you would like a child but not quite yet, and that you are both lovely.”

So you get a cat either at the beginning of your journey, or towards the end of it. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 03 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the liberal mind