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.

A Cat Can Look At a Queen

I’ve just had the thought (let’s leave it at that for now) that the phrase ‘A cat can look at a queen’ might refer to the fact that female cats with kittens are called queens. So while a human looking at a queen might cause the cat to feel or behave threatened, a cat can look at a queen without that happening.

This is not only probably wrong, but also a completely pointless and uninteresting thought that I spent one and a half minutes of my life thinking about. When I come to the end of my life, and the list of things I haven’t thought about during my time as an entity scrolls before my eyes, I would not be in the slightest degree disturbed at finding this on the list.

So I am now thinking about the things that will remain on that list which has this morning shortened by one thought thought. I am rather panic-stricken.

The Roman Cat Sanctuary – From What I Don’t Know About Animals

This is the section on the Roman cat sanctuary in the square of Torre Argentina. It is at present under threat:


However, prior to the pathological or the uncanny, there’s a milder state of animal obsession that moves or amuses us. It’s a very fine balancing point, but with reassurance (railings, say, or official approval) the distress at too many living creatures, at seething cats, swarming felines, can be suppressed. On my first visit to Rome a few years ago, I stayed in a hotel near the square of sunken excavation at Torre Argentina. I wandered across the road from my hotel to look down into the ruins; taking an easy minimal tourist moment. It is one of the oldest temples in Rome, built around 400-300 BC, the place where Brutus stabbed Julius Caesar in 44 BC, and it’s a perfect, neatly contained image of Roman ruins: you look down from the pavement at fragments of walls, stone columns of varying heights, upright and toppled, pathways interrupted by broken, scattered slabs of stone, worn steps leading to an altar. Most ruins are empty places, filled only by passing, wandering tourists, coming and going along defined routes, but Torre Argentina, though walled off from the city above it, is an inhabited ruin. All the paths, columns and slabs and creeping foliage are furniture, walkways, resting places in shade or sun, dining facilities, and meeting areas for the hundreds of stray cats who live down there in their subterranean, antique feline city. After the excavation was completed in 1929, some feral and stray cats moved in to hang out in this safe, out of the way place, and soon the gattari (the Italian for Cat Ladies) arrived to take care of them — one of them the almost mythic actress Anna Magnani, who was working at the Teatro nearby.

I spent a contented hour or more every day while I was in Rome leaning on the railings, looking down at Cat Central. Safe and untroubled, they lead what appears to be purposeful, self-regulated lives among the ancient ruins. They loll in the sun, rest in the shade, sniff and scratch around in the greenery growing up and around the ancient stones; others idly stroll the paths or run swiftly along the tops of walls, leaping over gaps left by history to the next broken segment. They perch on fractured columns, watching those walking below them and sometimes pounce. They meet up sniffing each other briefly and pass by unconcerned, or arch their backs and challenge each other with deadly stares or unearthly yowls. There are groups which are perfectly comfortable together in their own particular area, others are individuals exploring and testing alien territory, who belong in different parts of the ruins, with their own comrades, while some of the cats look as if they only ever walk alone, as cats are supposed to do. But all of them choose to be there, as Bunty chooses to live in my house, and as Darcy eventually chose (or his cat-Alzheimer’s chose) not to. It is their home. And it looks, from their untroubled existence down there that they know it. As all cats do, they own it by being there. 

It is safer down in the ruins than up on the streets dodging forests of legs, cars and motor scooters, but they are also there because of the saucers that are dotted around the landscape. There has been a continuous stream of gattari since 1929. Some are Italian, but there have also been ex-patriot English and German women who have taken it on themselves to care for the cats. They have used their own money to feed them and set up Torre Argentina as a sanctuary. People now bring their unwanted cats, or cats they have found ailing, troubled or troubling in the streets, to the small office the gattari have made down the stairs under the pavement. Several thousand cats a year pass through, and they are inspected, nursed, fed and, if possible, sent on to a foster home. Two women, Silvia and Lia, have been in charge since 1994, having taken over from a solitary woman who was feeding and caring for the cats without any kind of assistance. ‘This woman’s generous efforts put her on the verge of economical and emotional collapse,’ writes Silvia on the Torre Argentina web site. Now, teams of volunteers help to keep the cats fed, clean and overseen. Vets offer their services as charity. Almost all of the cats living in the sanctuary have feline leukaemia, but they are given treatment and taken into the office, which doubles as a hospital, to be cared for when they need it. There are around 250 cats permanently at Torre Argentina, as well as the cats people bring along, all of which are spayed and neutered before they are released into the ruins. The ones that don’t find foster homes stay in Torre Argentina and some are ‘adopted at a distance’ as a means of providing income for the sanctuary. Nevertheless, Silvia and Lia are still squatters in their underground office, which remains unconnected to the city sewers. They display devotion and offer Rome a service (though one that is apparently unappreciated by the city council), and no one suggests that they suffer from the pathology of cat hoarding. The differences are structural – the cats they care for are outside rather than in their own homes; they have created an organisation that helps to fund and find volunteers and medics, who offer their services to deal humanely with the animals and their needs. There is no denial. It doesn’t seem to threaten to get out of hand, and, of course, for the onlooker, it is a sunken separated site with substantial containing walls and railings. This alleviates any anxiety of excess. Idiotic, of course, because the cats easily slip through the railings when they want, and the gattari and even the public can open the gate and descend into the ruins. But it remains a contained spectacle. There is no need to do more than stand, as many do, and as I did, looking down at the lives of animals, spectating, almost believing they are creatures in the wild, cats as we rarely see them, leading their own uninterrupted lives, as it seems, and to feel grateful to the women who are prepared to take responsibility for them. Nothing too frightening there. and much to be grateful for.