Dot writes: don’t worry. There are no bears in our garden, just cheeky rodents, shy woodlice and a solitary magpie being ill-omened for a tease. The Bear of my title is a celebrity cat – celebrated for melancholy, intellect and sensitivity, showing that the routes to celebrity are much more elevated for cats than for humans – and this post is a mix of a book review and an update on Pepper. Here is Pepper, characteristically posed with his paws up on the back of a chair as though hoping to be served a drink. And here is The Bear, pictured on the cover of the first of the three books in which he appears, Under the Paw (2008). The other two are Talk to the Tail (2011) and The Good, the Bad and the Furry (2013). I follow Tom Cox’s excellent Twitter account for The Bear, Why My Cat Is Sad. It’s an effective formula: you can make a lot of different kinds of jokes using pictures of a cat, or sometimes several cats, and a caption starting ‘My cat is sad because…’ I especially enjoy the ones with rock music references, because I enjoy rock music and like the in-group feeling. Anyway, the Twitter account constructs a personality for The Bear as a sensitive, poetic type with pretensions as a gloomy singer-songwriter and a deep engagement with social and political issues, though at the heart the joke always is that, well, he’s a cat.
When I turned to the three books, which I read in a dreadful guilty binge over the course of a couple of days, I was initially surprised to find a very different The Bear: he first appears in Under the Paw as a flea-bitten super-villain, tormented with various ailments and direly plotting against Tom, newly hooked up with Dee, who’s inherited him (the cat, not the man) from her ex. The books are, unsurprisingly, wider ranging than the Twitter account, and deal with various different elements of Tom Cox’s life and of the countryside and animals, as well as a large number of cats. The Bear is one member of the cast, though a very important one, and he changes in the course of the books.
You could say that the Twitter account uses cats to look at humans; but, while the books characterise the cats in richly human terms, there’s a very strong sense of cats being interesting in themselves. The characterisation is metaphor rather than anthropomorphism. Certainly you learn something of Tom Cox’s view of rock stars (he used to be the Guardian’s rock critic) from his description of his magnificent but needy tabby Ralph as ‘an oversensitive rock star'; in this kind of metaphor, the tenor and the vehicle are mutually illuminating. Yet one of the most appealing features of these books is the close, loving but unsentimental observation of several quite different cats, in their feline particularity.
Reading these books made me think I should look a bit harder at Pepper. I confess I didn’t bond with Pepper in quite the way I did with Tibby. Tibby came to us in the summer and I made an effort to be at home for him as much as possible as he settled in; I spent a lot of time with him and quickly grew to love his bold and playful personality. I loved the way he ran manically up trees and (somewhat conflictedly) his affectionate practice of walking on my chest at six in the morning. When he went missing I had dreams in which he’d come back to us, and I’d lose him all over again when I woke up. It was hard to commit emotionally to a new cat. You could say I’d been hurt in love before. Moreover, Pepper arrived during term time when I didn’t have the luxury of working at home; and in kittenhood his hunting play was of an over-enthusiastic variety that left us all extensively scratched – he loved to hunt toes under the bedclothes, but also hands on keyboards, unguarded arms, passing feet, hair, laptop cables, Frank’s nose etc etc. I got into the habit of decoying him out of the bedroom at night and firmly shutting the door; fortunately it was easy to do this because he was wholly unable to resist a dangled dressing gown cord. The cord would be found, thoroughly vanquished, on the landing in the morning.
Nonetheless, despite this rocky start, Pepper has become an essential part of our family. Frank in particular is awfully fond of him, which is rather dreadful for Pepper; and I feel happy and contented when this deliciously furry creature curls up on my lap, and even obscurely honoured when he comes into bed with me and sleeps on my head. My morning wouldn’t be complete without him winding around my feet in the kitchen, meowing persuasively for his second breakfast; my nights are now punctuated by the clunk of him landing on the cistern as he comes in through the loo window from one of his mysterious sorties.
What would Tom Cox say about him, if he were Tom Cox’s cat? Well, I’m not sure. The thing is, I can’t write like Tom Cox. I’ve read a number of chatty, humorous non-fiction books of this type, and it’s the kind of thing that looks easy to do and absolutely isn’t. Some of my blogging, especially when the kids were babies, attempted something in the same vein, and I think I was quite funny sometimes, but to keep it up – to find the right slant between humour and truth to make something engaging out of daily life; to see the right things; to avoid tedious exposition while getting the necessary information across – this is difficult. There’s an unobtrusive style to Cox’s prose that’s hard to reproduce. Here’s a slice of it, chosen almost wholly at random:
Once, early during my attempt to catch Winston the stray, I’d gone out to check the trap, and been elated to find him in there, disorientation all over his muzzle. A bigger surprise came when I realised that his enormous, ugly neck wound had completely healed. It had taken almost a full minute before I realised that I was actually looking at The Bear, and by mistaking him for Winston, I’d momentarily been able to see him through the eyes of an outsider and realise his true plump, lavish healthiness. The rejuvenating effect that five and a half years of being in the same place had had on him was plain and radiant to see. (Talk to the Tail, p. 186, eBook copy)
This is not a funny passage as such; it’s part of a section on deciding how to divide the cats up after Tom and Dee separate. It’s there to illustrate the point that The Bear has benefited from stability and shouldn’t have to move away along with Dee. The anecdote makes that point concrete, and the idea of the miraculously healed wound is an arrestingly surreal hook for the reader, but also an effective focus for the wider concern of the paragraph with transformation and perceptions shifting. The verb ‘realise’ occurs three times in these four sentences (twice as ‘realised’, once as ‘realise’), but it’s not obtrusive or clumsy, just a symptom of what the paragraph is about. Otherwise the vocabulary is varied without being fancy; there are a couple of more highly coloured touches, carefully placed, such as ‘muzzle’ for the cat’s face (balancing the humanising implications of ‘disorientation’). The control of rhythm and syntax is also admirable. A lot of narrative information is economically conveyed in the first sentence through a combination of an adverbial phrase and a pluperfect construction. The third sentence is both compound and complex, but it’s easy to navigate, and balanced in length against the shorter second sentence that contains the startling image of the healed wound and the final sentence that gives the conclusion. Note the vowel echo between ‘plain’ and ‘radiant’, and the placing of the most emotive term, ‘radiant’, almost right at the end of the paragraph. Nothing here is strained and there’s no showing off: it’s just really tight, effective writing.
Coda: I tweeted about this post, tagging @MYSADCAT, and Tom Cox then linked to it from the @MYSADCAT account and the Under The Paw Facebook page. Suddenly our blog stats look as though someone’s erected the Empire State Building in the middle of Hay-on-Wye. It’s lovely to get all these readers – thank you for reading! – but there was a comment on the Facebook page I’d like to respond to. Annie Mac wrote
it’s a nice review, but made me grateful I don’t know how to dissect Tom’s writing….just be in love with the whimsical whacky view of the world via the Sad Cat.
And so I wanted to add: I don’t analyse the prose like this when I’m reading. I enjoy these books for their humour, their observational sharpness, the way Tom Cox loves and notices his cats, and my sense of connection to his world and attitudes (and Tom Cox is very much my age, has interests I share – I’m not so into golf, I admit – and writes about Norfolk, where I grew up). But to convey all this and to create this world there has to be carefully crafted writing. Making it feel easy is part of the craft. So it was a fun exercise for me to dig into it a bit harder. I like having a sense of how things work.