After Bunty

This is another of my columns for the Swedish paper, Goteborgs-Posten.

Summer 2014

I’ve always thought of myself as an independent sort of woman. From around 1970 until the turn of the century, I had my own flats and mostly lived alone in them. Only twice did I share my space with a man, and then, in each case, not for more than a year or so before I decided I wasn’t much good at sharing. One was my ex-husband with whom I had my only child, and although living together proved unsatisfactory, he remained one of my best friends until his awful death in a drowning accident three years ago. The other was just a mistake. Mine.

At the turn of the century (I do enjoy writing that, as though my life spanned bustles and mini-skirts) all that changed. I met the Poet and within a year I had moved to Cambridge from my lifelong base in London, and then, shortly after that had a study built for myself in the attic of his house, and moved in. Some time after that, we even got married. None of that happened without considerable kicking and screaming on my part, although I think much of it was my surprise at myself. I wasn’t going to let my guard down without a battle. Now we’ve been together for fifteen years, which is longer than I lived with, or even knew, my mother. However, what I’m really wanting to write about, and find myself having to go through this preamble, is the fact that I don’t have a cat.

In truth, I haven’t lived alone most of my life, but only lived without a in-house lover. I almost always had a cat, and no one can say that living with a cat is living alone. I had my first cat when I was fifteen, Grey Cat. Since then, there have been a parade of them: Sniff, Mungo, Black Cat, Phoebe, Ruby, D’Arcy, Oscar, Bunty. All of them were long lived and died in old age, usually at the hand of the vet and in my arms, when to keep them alive would have been the more cruel act. Only Phobe had a brief time with me. She was the friendliest cat I’ve ever known, she had no reserve. Also, strangely, she always smelled of violets. She disappeared one day when she was about 18 months old, almost certainly taken home by someone who she nuzzled up to and who fell thievishly in love with her. At any rate, I hope that was what happened to her.

Bunty was my last cat. She stars in my book What I Don’t Know About Animals, and it was her picture at the back of the book where the author photo is supposed to be. She sits on my keyboard, glaring and daring me to try and get access to it. The relationship we built up over the fifteen years of knowing (about the same as knowing the Poet) each other was very one sided. I spoke but she never answered, and yet I always had the feeling that she was answering if I hadn’t been too stupid to understand. The conclusion I came to in the book, that we can’t possibly ever know how it is for an animal, only make anthropomorphic guesses which tell us more about us than about them, was partly my own thinking and partly the result of my one-sided conversations with Bunty on the subject. (When my daughter was very little, an adult friend was in her room and asked her about the poster on the wall of garden birds. Did she know their names? No, she said, my mummy knows their names. Then she paused. Actually, she said, my mummy doesn’t really know their names. Mungo knows their names, but he won’t tell us.’ The child had reached the conclusion of my book written thirty-four years later.)

Bunty was tiny and incredibly soft. She was the softest, tiniest cat I’ve ever known. We had an embattled sofa existence together. She spent hours on the sofa where I write. When I settled down at one end to do some work, she shuffled up to me and sat down, pushing hard against my arm, so that I had no more room than if I were sharing the sofa with three fat men. She took pleasure in inconveniencing me but no cat ever purred more loudly than Bunty. She was in some ways, quite a dependent cat. There were days when she followed me around the house as if she were a dog. Padding behind me, upstairs to the loo, then back downstairs to the kitchen, then up again to my study. But as soon as I was settled on the sofa, she’d go and stand by the door I closed behind me when I wanted to work, waiting to be let out. After I got up and let her out, she would sit on the threshold so I couldn’t shut the door. If I managed to, she’d want to come in. It was a game she liked to play for hours. I was up and down every five minutes opening and closing the door for her, and it wasn’t very conducive to getting work done. Sometimes I shut the door on her, and kept her outside my study, but she scratched up the carpet so badly and made such a outraged yowling noise that I couldn’t work anyway. Eventually I gave up and had a cat flap put in my study door, so that she could come and go as she please, and at least I didn’t have to get up every five minutes. Of course, she refused to use it.

She died about a few months before the book was published. She was very old and her kidneys had given out. I held her paw and stroked her, whispering to her what a wonderful cat she was, while the vet injected her. Even now, I can’t type that without tears coming to my eyes.

I didn’t get a new cat. It has been three years now since Bunty died. Somehow it seemed too much to begin again with a kitten. Life is really much easier without. No buying cat food, no cat hair on everything, no peeing on the door mat because it’s too wet to go outside, no mice half dead under the bed, no running to the vet with a screaming cat every year to get injections, and if I want to go away, I just close the door and leave, no making arrangements with neighbours, no guilt. Cats really are a burden. Like people, but more demanding because they don’t demand, they are simply exist as an obligation. Everyone likes to be relieved of obligations, don’t they? But the truth is that every time I go into my study, I mistake the cushion on the sofa for Bunty, lying curled up, waiting for me to sit down so that she can get me up to let her out. I really see her for a fraction of a second. Then I remember, and it surprises me that I have been living without a cat for so long. When the Poet is out, there is no other living breathing body in the house. It surprises me, too, to realise how much I depended on having a breathing, warm feline somewhere in the house, even if I didn’t know where. The Poet likes cats, but not in the way that I do. He really appreciates being cat-free and is especially pleased not to have his glorious garden turned into a cat’s lavatory. And after all, there he is, the Poet, loving and conversational. The love of my life. The companion of my life. I’m not lonely. And yet sometimes my lap feels empty and I miss distractedly scratching Bunty under her ear while I stare out of the window, as I would say, working. I could try it with the Poet, but I don’t think he’d appreciate it as much as Bunty did. He’s quite a restless person and couldn’t possibly sit still for hours while I stroke behind his ears. There are only practical reasons for not getting another cat. There are only emotional reasons for getting one. I’m always on the verge of demanding that we get another cat, and yet I don’t. I may be a little like Bunty, standing at the closed door waiting to be let out, only to wait on the other side to be let in again.

Autumn 2014

ps I did demand another cat after I was diagnosed with lung cancer, but it was vetoed by the medics on the grounds that I would be too vulnerable to infection while having treatment. This means that after treatment I might demand again. But now there are other considerations beyond the convenience factor.

Wasting Our Time

A post written a couple of months ago for my column in Sweden, in the Goteborgs-Posten.

In spite of The Poet and me being pretty old, we’re still young enough to remember from our childhood being told off for watching too much television and not, like the parents, making our own entertainment. That claim always makes me think of a small crowd gathered around an upright piano singing along and in harmony to the popular songs, provided on sheet music, of the day. It’s a very Edwardian image, more fitted to grandparents. Or at least The Poet’s grandparents, who is from proper middle-class English and Scottish stock. I imagine they amused themselves by playing bridge at parties, or playing classical music on the piano or cello. Not that jolly round the piano down the pub singsong of my imagination, which is not the heritage of either of us.

I have no idea how my grandparents entertained themselves in the stetl, or as itinerant sellers and providers of services. Plenty of songs, and Yiddish theatre but I imagine that would be for the wealthier Jews of Eastern Europe which my grandparents weren’t. Then, having taken the ship that had them arrive in London’s East End, rather than Liverpool or New York, where it seems to my brief memory of them, they  kept themselves going by recreating their old world as much as they could. Speaking in Yiddish, keeping up religious and social traditions. Actually, I doubt that they thought much about entertainment, but when they weren’t working overtime tailoring or running a cafe in Petticoat Lane market, they – at any rate my grandmother – Bubba – came round to our flat and cooked special Jewish/Eastern European treats from the old country. For me, that meant bubbelehs, a word that bubbled up in my mind as The Poet and I discussed childhood food. I didn’t even know if it was a real word or something my memory or my Bubba invented because it sounded like my name for her. The Poet, being a man of the word, went to check in Florence Greenberg, the Bubba of Jewish cookery, and then double-checked with Claudia Roden, the more sophisticated matriarch of Jewish cuisine. There they were. Bubbelehs, not just a private name for the delicious treat Bubba always cooked when she came to visit, but the pancakes of suddenly Proustian importance, made simply from matzo meal and egg, moulded into patties, fried and then dusted with cinnamon and sugar. Food treats weren’t much part of The Poet’s childhood. He is more likely to recall having to sit at the dining table in front of a plate of overcooked meat and vegetables, which back in the 1950s was the way of English cookery, until he had eaten every awful mouthful. Sometimes, being a stubborn soul, he would be sitting there from lunch until tea-time, when sheer persistence eventually won the day and he was sent to his room. I definitely had the better food experiences from my nostalgic post-immigrant family.

But his English-inflected childhood, the eldest of five siblings, living in a large rambling house by the sea near Liverpool was in other ways, to my mind, idyllic. Roaming through unused rooms, cellars and attic of the big house, rambling the day long on the seashore finding jellyfish and building Robinson Crusoe shelters, owning a small rowing boat and putting out to sea, investigating tide pools, keeping jars of pond and garden creatures, snails, tadpoles, water boatmen, in his bedroom. All this sounds like the books I borrowed from the library and read avidly, of alien children who were properly English as I knew I wasn’t really. Books about middle-class children whose explorations in vast houses and country landscapes led them to all kinds of adventures. Through cupboards to other lands, solving mysteries that defied the police, creating theatrical dramas performed in huge living rooms in front of great log fires. The were children without parents because they were busy elsewhere, or they had died in the war, often they were living with amiable absent-minded uncles, or complete strangers as evacuees from the war. There might be mention of homesickness or sadness, but it was always subsumed by their life of imaginative play and adventure. At any rate, they were free to range widely and wildly in the world. The Poet talks about his childhood and I can only imagine it as being between the covers of books.

My world was much more constrained. A tiny flat, just two small rooms in the heart of the city, a stone’s throw from the ‘schmutter district’ that so many Jewish immigrants and their children worked in. An urban childhood of pavements and narrow blank corridors, just as magical and exciting, actually, as the real space of the English childhood, but darker and more enclosed, with parents who were inescapable, bearing down on their single inescapable child, each of us always aware of the other. Me always watched or known about, playing secret games inside my head; The Poet out of sight for hours, making his own way about the real world. The Poet now craves large houses with high ceilings, I am much more comfortable in the house we actually have, a small, former railway-workers’ terraced house, two small rooms up and two down and a long narrow garden leading down to the sidings where the trains pass en route to Ely and also stop to be cleaned. I’m very happy with the containing smallness of the little house, with low ceilings and rooms no larger than 3.5 meters square. Partly it’s because I’m small and he’s large, so space is differently defined, but also there’s a principle born into each of us in childhood about how much space we need to have around us to feel comfortable. He feels claustrophobic, I feel protected, for all my envy of his storybook English childhood.

I don’t know why we were always being told off about watching too much television. As I write, it seems that we were always busy in our different environments, inventing clubs with only a single member in my case, with the full complement of siblings in The Poet’s case; exploring landscape in The Poet’s childhood, investigating shadows and what happened when the corridors turned the corner, in mine. Still we did watch television and can spend enjoyable hours recalling the kids’ programmes we watched, even more satisfying because we can confirm it with the dozens of internet sites devoted to the TV of the 1950s. Our children, all very adult now, don’t watch as much TV as we do – mocking the worst, being surprised by the good. So we haven’t had a chance to become our own parents and complain about them not making their own entertainment. Even the grandchildren, who do watch children’s television are easily distracted by their mountains of Lego or colouring books. And truth to tell, only the other day the daughter phoned while we were in the middle of a cop show and wondered why on earth we spend our time together watching crap on the television. We read and write books all day long, and there are no corridors or seashore to explore where we are in the world, and at our age. We are probably the only generation to be told off for wasting our spare time by both our forebears and our offspring. But we still have enough time to tell each other stories of our strangely contrasting childhoods.

The Present Breath

Another piece written for translation for my column in the Goteborgs-Posten.

It’s getting increasingly uncanny to see the way in which the present neoliberal plot to reduce the state purely to an enabler of private profit, clicks as neatly as a jigsaw piece into the attempts of the children of the new age of Aquarius in the late1960s to explore their own inner space. We could never have imagined it.
We baby-boomers – as we are better remembered – took the idea of our minds seriously, and, as well as getting stoned out of them, sought to learn more about them, to see what minds were capable of and how minds in other cultures had developed differently because of other social practices and assumptions. We took drugs and read the Bhagavad Gita and the Tibetan Book of the Dead; we fell hook line if not sinker for the Marharishi Marhesh Yoga and admired Alan Watts, we listened intently to sitar ragas as well as to the Doors. We investigated other cultures, as we thought, with humility, to discover what our discarded materialistic upbringing had forgotten about the human condition. What we didn’t notice was how much like our colonial forebears we were in our assumptions that we could just wander around the world, or leaf through the writings of other societies and take what we thought they were saying as our own. We weren’t humble, we were naïve and arrogant. We supposed we could just charge around the world, by foot or by book, and just understand what we read and saw. We imagined we could take on the habits of a society different from our own for thousands of years, just as we slipped into jellabahs and kaftans. Nevertheless, we were seekers. For that I still salute us. We looked for ways to expand the mind; and for all our arrogance, we guessed that there was more to mind than our western colonial heritage had led us to believe.
Now, almost every week, I open a paper, or click on an article onscreen, to be told by some government body or representative that it would benefit our society greatly if we were to meditate every day. Not long ago, I read that 95 members of parliament had completed mindfulness meditation courses. The day before an article headlined ‘Why we will come to see mindfulness as mandatory’, was written by Guardian writer, Madeleine Bunting, who is part of a university group supporting ‘an all-party parliamentary group on mindfulness.’ What interests them, she says, ‘ is the potential for public policy. What role could mindfulness play in schools, in the NHS or in the criminal justice system?’1
This is beyond the wildest dreams of the 1960s counter-culture. While we charged at other cultures like bulls in china shops, and tried to insert ourselves into religions and practices that we had no preparation for, this modern push to mindfulness has moved in a different direction and more or less stripped the oriental and transcendental out of the practice. It asks little more than that a person should sit for between fifteen minutes and an hour a day concentrating on the in-and-out of their breathing. Once the Buddhism and technical precepts have been disposed of, what emerges is the common sense of paying attention to the present moment and not worrying about and fearing the past and future. ‘Close your eyes, bring your attention into your body, to the sensation of your feet on the ground; the movements of your breath, the expansion of your rib cage. Stay with these tiny physical sensations.’ The obscure texts we struggled with have been replaced with extremely simple practical instruction. No difficult postures or sanskrit terms. None of the severe warnings that a lifetime of work would only put the aspiring meditator on the first step to the road of enlightenment. Just sit, pay attention, breath. Then go to work, or get back to the children. This is all it takes, academic studies have found, to achieve a 20% reduction in symptoms of stress and depression. It is good for us to meditate, and if it prevents people from taking time off from work and needing the services of doctors and medicines, it is good for the country. So good that even business and the military are providing courses in it. The message is that meditation is no longer to be considered quirky or foreign, it is to be thought of as keeping the mind well, just as jogging keeps the body in good condition. Never mind any other reasons why people practice meditation. Western capitalism has finally been convinced that ancient techniques can save them money, and what is more, the onus is on the individual, not the state, to ensure that they maintain a sound mind in a healthy body and get to work 20% more often than they are managing to do now.
I am not mocking, or at least, I’m not mocking the benefits of meditation. I know for a fact that there are immediate benefits. For some years I have been practicing the modern sort of mindfulness, to help me cope with chronic pain that strong drugs only partly help, after I discovered the CDs of Jon Kabat-Zinn who ran the prestigious Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts. His guided breathing meditations and explanations are compelling and I use them whenever the pain is too strong. I try to do it every day, but I don’t have the sort of personality that allows me to succeed very well at that. But by concentrating on my breathing, then focussing on the area of pain and breathing in and out of it, I’ve found it is possible to make it seem to disperse, almost as if it were a cloud breaking up into harmless droplets. By breathing into pain and thinking of it not as pain, but unemotively as sensation, I can tolerate and moderate it to some extent in my mind. It is a real help, even if, when I stop, the pain returns. I don’t need a guru, I just need silence and a certain amount of energy to get it going.
But although I do appreciate how much this pared down meditation can help pain and stress, there is something about it that troubles me, just as there was something about the more Buddhist version I tried to practice long ago. The key phrase in mindfulness is ‘the present moment’. The point is to exist in the here and now. In that immediate space where nothing was and nothing will be, there is relief from all manner of ills. The mind is relieved of its restlessness and the restlessness of the world. Yet living in the present moment, as Buddhism and now the British parliament is exhorting us to do, means that we are not to trouble ourselves with what has gone before or what is to come. It is precisely not how a writer can exist. And how convenient such a state of mind is for governments, businesses, the military, the financial sectors, to have a populace and workforce who, if distressed physically or mentally by state and corporate acts of greed, incompetence and ideology, can slip into meditating on the mild and uneventful eternal now. We have discovered with our modern scienctific measuring devices that such meditating actually changes our metabolism so that the wellbeing we feel as a result can be explained by actual chemical processes in our brain. Whenever Jon Kabat-Zinn intones ‘Bring your mind to the present breath, because that is all that exists’, I find myself fighting the rush of pleasurable endorphins in my brain to remind myself  as a member of society and as a writer, that the present is not all there is. It’s OK for an hour a day, but without the narrative of the past and present, cause and effect, we risk becoming contented sheep. You can see how attractive a population of meditators might be to those who get their wealth and power from manipulating the material world.