Mariamne’s Urn – Chained to the wall by the disabled toilet.

by The Curious Scribbler

I chanced recently upon on Mariamne’s Urn at its latest location in the National Library of Wales.  It stands in a passage adjoining the door to the disabled toilet, secured by substantial metal chains through its amphora handles, but devoid of any labelling whatever to explain its signifiicance.

It is a large white marble funerary urn standing upon a square plinth.  Two hundred years ago it graced Mariamne Johnes’ private pensile garden on an outcrop above the Ystwyth at Hafod.  This garden was, according to Thomas Johnes’ correspondence,  created for Mariamne by his friend the Scottish agriculturalist Dr Robert Anderson in 1796, when his daughter would have been aged just twelve.  In  a letter of some hyperbole he then wrote to Sir James Edward Smith “The pensile gardens of Semiramis will be a farce to it, and it will equally surprise you as it has done me. I am very well satisfied with my Gardener, and trust everything will go on well.” 

The young Mariamne showed a precocious enthusiasm for botany and corresponded with leading botanist Sir James Edward Smith.  Her private garden became a showcase for shrubs and alpine plants, although there must have been periods during her adolescent illnesses when she could scarcely have visited it herself.   She died, aged 27 in 1811. The urn, a work by celebrated sculptor Thomas Banks, is generally believed to have been created in 1802.  Banks had made other sculptures for Thomas Johnes: Thetis dipping the infant Achilles into the Styx, busts of Jane and Mariamne, a fireplace for the mansion.  He was  at Hafod as Johnes’ guest  in September 1803, when Johnes recorded that he was now disabled in one arm by a paralytic stroke. On the face of the urn is a bas relief depicting a limp maiden mourning beside the body of an equally limp and rather more dishevelled small bird, dead on a small pedestal.

 

The RObin Urn by Thomas Banks, in a corridor in the National Library of Wales

The Robin Urn by Thomas Banks, in a corridor in the National Library of Wales

On the plinth is a three verse poem by Samuel Rogers, – I have transcribed the verses with original capitalisation, from the plinth itself.

An Epitaph on a Robin Redbreast

Tread lightly here, for here tis said
When piping Winds are hush’d around
A small Note wakes from Underground
Where now his tiny Bones are laid

No more in lone and leafless Groves
With ruffled Wing and faded Breast
His friendless homeless Spirit roves;
Gone to the World where birds are blest

Where never Cat glides o’er the Green
Nor Schoolboys giant Form is seen
But Love and Joy and smiling  Spring
Inspire their little Souls to sing.

It has been customary to imagine that this sentimental outpouring was dedicated to a particular pet robin, and Mariamne’s attachment to it.  This has been claimed in Elisabeth Inglis Jones’ book Peacocks in Paradise.  But on reflection, and in the light of a perusal of the other, now seldom-read works of this once well-known poet and arbiter of taste, I believe it to be  a more generic sentimental verse.  Samuel Rogers’ first long poem in two parts, The Pleasure of Memory published in 1792, shows a sentimental  preoccupation with the romantically remembered past,  the village green and a lonely robin. I quote few couplets:

Twighlight’s soft dews steal o’er the village green
With magic tints to harmonise the scene

Or strewed with crumbs yon root inwoven seat
To lure the redbreast from his lone retreat..

…Childhood’s lov’d group revisits every scene
The tangled wood walk and the tufted green.

Certainly there are few gardens less likely than Mariamne’s remote crag to be troubled by  either schoolboys or cats!

Is this Mariamne, mourning a robin?

Is this really Mariamne, mourning her pet  robin?

Rogers has not enjoyed lasting fame as a poet, but he was a major force in the literary social life of London in the early nineteenth century.  He published and republished his poems in many editions between 1792 and 1834, with engravings of pictures  by Thomas Stothard and by W.M.Turner.  He was clearly very proud of his early works, for both The Pleasure of Memory, and The  Epitaph on a Robin Redbreast appear in editions from 1810 to 1834.  In both these editions a footnote to the Epitaph states “Inscribed on an urn in the flower garden at Hafod”.   I suggest that Rogers did not visit Hafod, and was unaware of the distinction between Mrs Johnes’ publicly acclaimed flower garden, and Mariamne’s private garden.  However Elisabeth Inglis Jones, writing in 1950, evidently recollected the urn in Mariamne’s garden, where she described it as  “overgrown with moss and ivy, almost lost among encroaching trees and bushes, it was still standing where [Banks] placed it one morning that September of 1803, nearly a century and a half later”.

In the 20th century the fortunes of Hafod were in serious decline, culminating in the demolition of the house, with dynamite in 1958.  The urn was purchased at auction by a relative of Jane Johnes, Major Herbert Lloyd Johnes of Dolaucothi and given into the care of the National Library.   It was sited in 1948 as a garden ornament in the  beautifully maintained rockery garden on the slope adjoining the caretaker’s cottage, marking the point where the footpath down to Llanbadarn and Caergog Terrace leaves the library drive.   I am indebted to Dr Stephen Briggs for a copy of a photo of it in this location, in 1976.

The urn in the garden of the national Library of Wales, c. 1976. Courtesy of Dr Stephen Briggs

The urn in the garden of the National Library of Wales, c. 1976. Courtesy of Dr Stephen Briggs.

A valuable piece, fears were expressed about the risk of theft or vandalism, and in the 1980s the urn was moved indoors, to a prestigious location on the first floor outside the Council Chamber.  That is where I first saw it.   But times change, and about 15 years ago it was moved into an atrium area of the extended library book-stacks. Here it  was  accessible only to library staff and was lost to general view.   Perhaps its significance also became lost to common memory.   Now shackled in the very antithesis of romantic chains, the urn, and an equally unattributed but rather attractive tapering marble plinth  are tucked away, like fugitives, within recesses beyond a subterranean doorway.  Only disabled members of the public and those seeking baby-changing facilities are likely to encounter it on a visit, and  they will receive no clue as to its significance.

The urn in the National Library of Wales 2016

Mariamne’s  urn is now in a corridor leading to the disabled toilets  in the National Library of Wales (2016)

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Goodbye Bertha

by The Curious Scribbler

Bertha has appeared twice in my occasional blogs about the pets. ( 21 November 2012 and 15 December 2013  – The Joy of Cats 1 and 2). Boris and Bertha were sibling tabby kittens who entered the family in 2012. They joined a hall of tabby fame: Tomcat, Kevin, Sharon and Darren, Dolores who have cohabited with us over the years. They grew from kittenhood to maturity and remained friends with each other. Often they would curl up together for some quality sleep on my bed.

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Bertha ( left) and Boris ( right) often chose to sleep together

When they had to go to the Cottage Cattery at Llangwyryfon they would share a two-cat pen, a lavish pad with their own beds, scratching posts and every amenity. Boris would from time to time hold Bertha firmly down and groom her face and ears, but Bertha was no pushover, she would soon send him on his way if he was annoying her.

Three years old, they showed different personalities. Boris is in some ways cowardly ( he runs from the room if one sneezes loudly) but would initiate blithe chasing games with the dog, in which they would charge at full pelt around the house. He would always present his rear for dog inspection and rub up affectionately against him. Bertha was extraordinarily tolerant of babies, and would lie purring as small hands rummaged her fur like an old coat. Boris would swiftly depart at such treatment.

So it was a bolt from the blue to step out my back door last week to feed the chickens and find Bertha, dead and stiff just outside. She didn’t ever go far from the house, and her dead body showed no sign of trauma whatever. So astounded was I that I took her for a post-mortem, and the vet could find no cause of death either. We were left with some lame hypotheses – had she had a blow to the head causing brain injury? It is the time of year when Bramley apples crash suddenly from the tall trees. Or was there dire significance in the sudden attack of frantic whirling and biting herself which she had shown for a minute of total craziness the night before she died?

Bertha aged 3 years, unexpectedly deceased.

Bertha aged 3 years, unexpectedly deceased.

We shall never know, but I buried her under the fir and the horse chestnut where she joins Homer the previous Lhasa Apso, and Sharon, sister of Darren, who was cut down by a car in 1997.

Bertha's grave

Bertha’s grave

Boris and Otto have been unmoved by the death. Indeed Boris if anything is even more affectionate. He has brought in an enhanced supply of mice and voles, he still flirts with the dog, and is even more inclined to join us on the sofa of an evening.

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Abraham Cooper RA

by The Curious Scribbler

Regular readers of this blog will know that I like a nice tabby cat.  So it is no surprise that I am charmed by this picture (below) of a cat, painted in 1817 by a largely self taught artist Abraham Cooper.  It is a small painting, less than 7 inches square which is in the collections of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford.  The neatly in-turned paws, the sedate posture of watchful repose, the loving detail of the long guard hairs fringing the ears – this is a picture by someone who closely observes his cat.

A small oil painting by Abraham Cooper 1817 ( Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

Abraham Cooper was the subject of a recent lecture to the Aberystwyth Bibliographical Group by Mary Burdett Jones.  He was born in 1787 the son of a London tobacconist, received a limited education, and commenced his working life aged 13 working in the equestrian circus Astley’s Amphitheatre, a venue which features in Dicken’s Old Curiosity Shop, and in Hard Times. The equestrian theatre was dangerous work, and by 1810 he was instead working as  a groom for Henry Meux, proprietor of a successful Brewery, and later Sir Henry Meux, 1st Baronet. It was at around this time that Cooper obtained a manual on the subject and taught himself to paint.  An early canvas was his portrait of one of his employer’s horses, which so pleased Henry Meux  that he bought it and encouraged the young man’s new career.  As a result Cooper then received some training in the studio of sporting painter Benjamin Marshall, and began to produce pictures which were reproduced as engravings in The Sporting Magazine. In 1812 the first of many paintings by Cooper was exhibited at The Royal Academy.

Like the cat, other surviving early works by Cooper faithfully describe the scenes a groom would encounter:  race horses, working horses, an old pony and dogs.

‘Scrub’ a shooting pony aged 30, and two Clumber Spaniels by Abraham Cooper 1815. ( National Trust)

The Day Family and their horses. Abraham Cooper 1838 (The Tate)

But as Mary pointed out, the future lay in the burgeoning reproduction industry of the 19th century as magazines and books increasingly published fine engravings copied from artists’ works. Cooper became adept at the imaginative scenes required by the publishers, his horse and dog expertise and background in theatre making him the ideal illustrator.  In 1828 Sir Walter Scott wrote the ballad The Death of Keeldar to accompany this picture by Cooper. It was published in ‘The Gem’  an annual publication for 1829.

The Death of Keeldar, depicted in The Gem, 1829

This ballad is one of the many workings of the traditional lament by which, by accident, or through a misunderstanding, a man kills his favourite dog.  A famous Welsh example of this genre is the death of Gelert, slaughtered by his master Llewellyn the Great in the mistaken belief that the dog has killed his child.

Cooper also diversified from straightforward horse portraiture into fantasy and historic battle scenes, for which he must have had to research the costumes but could rely on his extensive knowledge of the horse for depicting the fighting melee.

Oliver Cromwell leading his cavalry into battle. Abraham Cooper 1860 ( The Chequers Trust)

While relatively few people owned an original work, engravings of his pictures penetrated the national consciousness through magazines, books and printed plates designed to be framed and hung in middle class homes.  Those pictures which were engraved on wood may have no original, because in the 1840s it was common to paint directly onto the woodblock and thus destroy the picture in the process of engraving it.

Cooper’s commercial art took him far from that contented tabby cat and he is much better known for the image of Tam O Shanter escaping the scantily clad witch ( the Cutty Sark) by riding his heroic mare, Maggie over water.  Robert Burns’ poem was first published in 1791, and this picture was exhibited in 1813.  It is an image which, combining horsemanship with a saucy wench has been copied, engraved and reproduced ever since!

Tam O Shanter by Abraham Cooper 1813  ( Private Collection)

And why did the speaker chose Abraham Cooper as her subject?  Because he is one of her sixteen great great great grandfathers, and we live at a time when pulling together the threads of the past has never been easier.

 

The Aberystwyth Bibliographical Group:

http://users.aber.ac.uk/das/texts/aberbibgr1.htm

 

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The Joy of Cats ( episode 2)

by The Curious Scribbler

In November 2012 I wrote about Boris and Bertha, our new tabby kittens, latest in a distinguished series of tabbies to dwell at this house.  Now they are adults, 18 months old.

Shortly after that post they underwent the indignity of being spayed – an obligation you have to sign up to in an explicit pledge if you get your kittens form the Cat’s Protection League.  It’s undoubtedly a good rule to limit the feral cat population, though I can’t help also remembering fondly the days when we had un-neutered toms, Tomcat and later Kevin, whose rich private lives were hinted at by their erratic disappearances and by the hunger and occasional scars with which they returned home, triumphant.  Kevin, in the 1990s contracted feline AIDS, and I remember the gloom which enveloped the household after his blood test revealed him to be FIV positive.  The vet remarked that, in view of the diagnosis he was surprisingly well at present, and so we took him home and promoted him from “Black Cat” brand cat food at 12p a tin to little pieces of fresh cod and other nutritious delicacies. To everyone’s surprise Kevin thrived, and lived life to the full for another decade.  His blood test had been promoted by the appearance of a sort of raw growth, a ‘Rodent Ulcer’ on his nose, an affliction comparable with Kaposi’s Sarcoma in people.  Surprisingly, on his improved diet this regressed and healed, but it left him with a lopsided and slightly quizzical sneer on his face.  When he wasn’t in pursuit of voles and rabbits he liked to go to church, where he would stroll up and down the aisle during the sermon.  We never went with him.  As one of the parishioners, the writer Kathleen Humphreys, informed me one day, “You may not be a churchgoer, my dear – but I would like to inform you that your cat is extremely devout.”  Kevin was a huge personality and formed a close bond with Kay.  So much so that she left him something in her will.  Unfortunately he predeceased her.

Anyway, Boris (who was in any case destined to live with his sister) was deprived of his testicles in late November a year ago, and appeared not to notice their loss.  For Bertha the experience was more trying and she excelled herself in her efforts to remove her stitches.  The vet provided a sort of post surgical baby-gro for her to wear but she soon extracted herself from it. Instead she had to wear a humiliating lampshade on her neck and kept colliding with doorways she expected to pass easily through.  Every day I would release her from her lampshade for while, so that she could eat in comfort, and play with her and take her mind off grooming her scar.  By the time the vet removed the scratchy black stitches ten days later her tabby pattern was growing back as a soft velvet pelt on her shaved patch.

Bertha did not much like wearing her lampshade collar.

Christmas provided scope for new exploration, and both cats entered into the excitement of tinsel and glittery baubles, and the comfort of relaxing with their family.

Boris gets to grips with a tinsel decoration

A  sofa full of pets and family.

Bertha (left) and Boris (right) assess a new toy. Bertha’s fur was regrowing on her shaved patch.

And so we learned that Boris has a very special characteristic – he chatters his teeth!  When his attention is caught by a bright ceiling light, or reflected sunlight tracking from a bauble across the wall, he gazes fixedly at it and his lower jaw judders to audibly rattle his teeth.  He will chatter his teeth in short bursts for minutes on end.  No previous cat of my acquaintance has performed this trick.  He catches mice and voles too, though he has not yet found out how to eat them and leave the gall bladder on the mat.  Bertha is particularly adept at catching flies.

The relationship between the cats and Otto the Lhasa Apso is everything I could have wished, the three are firm friends.  The cats often sleep together, and groom and play fight amongst themselves. Both cats also submit to having their ears groomed by affectionate dog licks, and present themselves for inspection when they re-enter the house.  Otto and Boris also have an understanding where wild cat chases are concerned.  These are invariably initiated by Boris and may involve several circuits within the house.  But my morning tea time is pet chill-out time, and all three animals adopt positions of ease around me on the bed.

The animals take their ease while I have my morning cup of tea

The animals take their ease while I have my morning cup of tea

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Lady Author Lost

 By the Curious Scribbler

I’ve been reading the work of a long-forgotten lady writer: Dorothea Jones of Gwynfryn.

I was led to her by the author Herbert M Vaughan  of Llangoedmor, who, in his round-up of eccentric Welsh Gentlemen ( The South Wales Squires, published 1926) included a throwaway remark in his chapter on Literary Squires.  “ At no great distance, on high ground that overlooks the great  marsh of Borth,  is Gwynfryn, the home and estate of Bishop Basil Jones of whose services to literature I have spoken elsewhere. The Bishop’s sister Miss Dora Jones was also a writer. There used to be a charming volume called Friends in Fur and Feather, which used to delight us in childhood with its accounts of the birds which haunted the swamps around Borth.  But I have never come across this book it later life —- Ils vont sous la neige d’antan”.

A postcard, pre 1910 showing Gwynfryn Hall, which stands above Borth bog and was built c. 1814

Today there is nothing easier than finding long-forgotten volumes lost in the snows of yesteryear.  In seconds, Google Books brought up the goods, an attractively bound volume in royal blue cloth ornamented with gold tooled  leaves and flowers and red squirrels on its cover.  I enjoy reading old books in the page view format, – except for the smell, everything of the material book can be enjoyed.

Published in 1869 it contains nine stories and a steel engraved illustration for each.  Taken together they blend a delight in nature, pets, and the Welsh countryside along with a fervent approval for fox hunting and cubbing ( even if the victim has been  a pet fox,  being torn apart by hounds is represented as  the most noble way to die).

We know that red squirrels were formerly widespread in Ceredigion and in the first story a baby red squirrel is reared as a pet, takes up residence on the cornice in the drawing room, and eventually returns to the wild.

An illustration from ‘Friends in Fur and Feather’. The pet red squirrel helps himself to rhubarb tablets

In another two horrid boys have stolen two buzzard chicks from their nest on Borth bog and are feeding them on mashed potato.  Our author rescues them and reared them on the abundant meat from fallen stock available to a gentry naturalist. “of suicidal mutton, drowned sheep, fished out of bog drains, they had plenty.”   A quite gentle story about a young blackbird explains its Welsh name pig-felyn.  Nothing to do with pigs, she tells her English readers, but the Welsh  name for yellow beak.  Unfortunately a cat gets the blackbird, much as last year a nestful of cute warbler chicks starring in Springwatch on the very same bog fell victim to a black cat.

What is fascinatingly dated about the stories is their strong flavour that all is right with the world.  In childhood her dog is bitten by an adder, becomes ill,  and is later euthanized by one of the servants:  “I was afraid to ask, for the sack and the bowstring had been familiar institutions amongst our pets of late”.  In another story a donkey is tormented by three young gentlemen on horseback wielding their riding whips and chasing it across country.  The fallen donkey’s injury is regretted, for it was a charming and reliable animal but somehow the young men, who do not provide their names, escape without undue censure.  A story on the newly opened home for lost and starving dogs in London (the early RSPCA) remarks cheerfully that unattractive stray dogs unlikely to be re-homed  will be happier to have their lives terminated  “ then they have to take prussic acid and their poor little troubles are over. ”

‘Homeless’    an illustration from ‘Friends in Fur and Feather’

Another dog story glorifies the military campaign of Bob, a middle sized mongrel, with Her Majesty’s Scots  Fusilier Guards in the Crimean war.  Having escaped all injury during the two year campaign he was knocked down in the London streets when marching with his regiment, and subsequently  stuffed and displayed in the United Services Museum at Whitehall.

‘Bob’ of Her Majesty’s Scots Fusilier Guards. ( a likeness taken after he was stuffed)
An illustration from ‘Friends in Fur and Feather’.

Friends in Fur and Feather was clearly a bracing if sentimental read for Victorian children like Herbert Vaughan and in 1883 a slimmer and un-illustrated edition of eight of the stories was published by George Bell and Son of London in the Bell’s Reading Book Series for schools.

The true identity of the author, ‘Gwynfryn’  is in danger of being lost to sight.

The copy I had read on Google Books was stamped ‘Bodleian libraries’, so I sought it through the Bodleian electronic catalogue.  My indignation was aroused to find that the book has been attributed to the output of an American nature writer, Olive Thorne Miller, (1831-1918)  who included amongst her output a book called ‘Little Folks in Feather and Fur and Others in Neither’ which was published in 1880. Miller, though, was an urban New Yorker, not a Welsh woman and could not have written these stories.

I am in correspondence with the Bodleian to reclaim Gwynfryn for Wales!

Dorothea Jones can, will a little effort still be traced.  She was born one of twin girls on 18 March 1828 at Gwynfryn to William Tilsley Jones and his wife Christiana.  Already in the household was an older brother, William Basil Tickell Jones who was later to become Bishop of St Davids.  He was the only child of an earlier marriage to Jane Tickell of Cheltenham.  In the following ten years six further children were born to Christiana but it must have been a harrowing time: between 1835 and 1838 five children died, including Dorothea’s twin Christiana, and her nearest sister Josephine.  Perhaps such a  childhood  fosters a robust attitude to death.

Dorothea Jones is one of the few women to have been awarded her own entry in the Dictionary of Eminent Welshmen by T.R. Roberts published in 1908.  In it there is a reference to another of her books, which is described due to a misprint as “The Other’s Story”.  It took a bit more searching to find this, but the result was gratifying, as I at last came across “The Otter’s story” by ‘The Author of ‘Friends in Fur and Feather’, ‘Sick and in Prison’ Etc., Etc.’.  It was published in 1880 in London, also with a pretty blue and gold tooled cover, and is dedicated in print  ‘Affectionately  and gratefully inscribed by the writer to her  brother William Basil, Bishop of St David’s’. This too is in the Bodleian and attributed to Olive Thorne Miller!

The cover of The Otter’s Story Etc, by the Author of ‘Friends in Fur and Feather’
Published in London in 1880

The National Library of Wales also has a number of copies of Friends in Fur and Feather, but  simply catalogues them under the pen name of Gwynfryn.

There are other traces of lost history to be gleaned from these old story books; the identity of their first owners.  A nice 1869 copy in the National Library of Wales is inscribed as a gift to Louisa Frances Best on December 7th 1869 and was given with Arvie’s Best Love.  A reading-book version from 1883 was the property of Florence Richards, while another 1869 copy in the New York Public Library was given to Jennie Ryder, Xmas Gift from the SS of the Chapel of St Christopher, Thomas Sill, New York, to mark the Feast of the Holy Innocents in 1870.

As family history enthusiasts search the past for their relatives on the web, it is not impossible that Louisa, Florence and Jennie may one day be spotted by their kin, led to this website by the re-publication of their names.

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What is a Lhasa Apso?

by The Curious Scribbler

Several people have commented on the joyful puppy on the banner of this blog, so the time has come to explain. The picture is of Otto, and Otto is a Lhasa Apso.  In that picture he was three months old.

Now he is over two years and has a full long coat which almost touches the ground.  If he were a show dog it would do so, but in order to be a show dog you need to spend less time getting tangled in undergrowth and wearing off the ends of your hair and nails.

Otto, freshly groomed

Otto, freshly groomed

He has a bath and a major detangle about five times a year, the last bath was for the wedding, at which he wore a little costume to match the groom and the ushers and was the comic turn of the day.

Otto in costume at the wedding

Otto, a Lhasa Apso, attends a wedding

However this picture would give a false impression of the Lhasa Apso.  Inside the flowing hair he is all dog, with an enthusiasm for other dogs, deep puddles, rivers, sticky mud, sand dunes and the beach.  Lhasas are proud independent little dogs who bustle along at a trot or a gallop and appreciate a couple of miles walk a day.

Otto in mud

Otto, A Lhasa Apso in mud

Otto, a Lhasa Apso, in the sea

Otto in the sea

Otto in the sea

 

 

Otto, a Lhasa Apso, in hay field

Otto, a Lhasa Apso, in hay field

In the home Lhasa Apsos like to audit the visitors but having been introduced and added them to their acquaintance list they generally treat them with dignity.  They seldom bark.  For the inner circle of family members a full greeting is performed, much whirling, wriggling and standing on his hind legs waving his paws.   Lhasas are said to have their origins as Tibetan monastery dogs, perhaps as the reincarnation of monks not quite making the grade for Nirvana.   They like to sleep in an elevated bed, or indeed along the back of the sofa cushions will do.

Otto is deeply in love with his cats, Boris and Bertha.  When they were tiny kittens they hissed ferociously at him, and most downcast he would retreat a few inches and lie watching them, his chin on his big fluffy paws.  Within a week they had relented, and were rewarded with much affectionate dog licking.  We felt we should intervene as Boris became quite spikey and wet with saliva.  But when we tied up the dog to give respite from this degree of love, the kitten just marched up and demanded more.  Over a few weeks the licking abated.  When Otto feels the urge he captures a kitten, presses it to the ground and snuffles it.  When the cats choose, they lure him into wild chasing games around the house.

When I was trained many years ago in Animal Behaviour we were discouraged from naming animals anthropomorphically and taught to see their behaviours as purely adaptive mechanisms which further their survival.  Emotions were not supposed to be an animal attribute. Anyone who lives with pets soon doubts this mantra.  The dog and the cat have long contributed to the domestication of man, and have a wide repertoire of endearing behaviours of little other value.  They gain much from this co-existence, for their appeal to humans has ensured their food and comfort for millennia.  Otto, Boris and Bertha have welded themselves into a little multi-species family, in which there is no friction and a great deal of warmth.  When we sit down at the end of the day they expand the group to embrace us too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Joy of Cats

by The Curious Scribbler

It is lovely having cats in the house again.   I make my morning cup of tea and take it back to bed.  Up the stairs with heavy tread come Boris and Bertha, six month old siblings.  Boris bags the prime position on my chest, purring vigorously, Bertha winds her tail around my face and settles down beside him.  It is difficult to guide my tea mug to my lips.

Boris and Bertha

Boris and Bertha, the kittens

You’ll be hearing more about Boris and Bertha, the latest in a line of distinguished tabby cats to live in our stone house in the hills.

The first was Tomcat.  Unimaginatively named by us he was a big tabby, proud possessor of his testicles, who marched into our house one day and stayed.  My young daughter was entranced.  My baby son, seated in his Maclaren buggy, took immediate offence –  holding his breath until he turned blue, and then emitting a square-mouthed wail of affront.  But it wasn’t long before Tomcat and he were snuggled amicably upon a beanbag, the latter grasping the former’s silky ear in his fat little fist.  Tomcat spent the days at home and the nights in feral pursuits.  Some mornings he’d return with a rabbit, his fur rimed with dew from the long grass and the edges of his ears laced in black with a new crop of rabbit fleas, reluctantly rehomed from his cooling prey.  I kept flea powder for these occasions.

Tomcat grew old and eventually left us, probably to die.  Before he went he brought home a successor, a skinny teenage tom of the same colouring.  For two days they ate together and slept together in the same bed.  Then Tomcat disappeared.  We called the newcomer Kevin.  He proved to be a superb addition to the family.

Then there were Sharon and Darren,  Kevin’s kittens by a feral farm cat he brought home.   They streaked around the house chasing, rolling and scaling curtains and sofa backs.  Darren was beautiful, a mackerel tabby with intricately striped body.  Sharon had the circular target on her flank.  We called her, affectionately, the little limited cat.  There hadn’t been quite enough material to make Sharon, and she had to go to the vet as a kitten to repair an abdominal hernia.  We thought she had been slightly short-changed in the brain department too, but we loved her.

Dolores was our next cat.  A feisty young tabby female from an eccentrically run private animal sanctuary.  She was not as soppy  as her predecessors – someone somewhere perhaps had closed a door on the tip of her tail and the end vertebra  was crooked and sensitive.  You couldn’t run your hand up to the tip of Dolores’ tail.

You may detect a strand of tabby racism in this narrative.  And the story reached yet farther back.  This house has always had a tabby cat.  One day a knock on my door revealed a lovely lady from Wisbech who had passed the war years with her mother as a blitz refugee in this house.  She came with photographs.  And there was her mother, seated with her hosts Mr and Mrs Daniels, against the pine end of the house.  Standing behind them is their schoolteacher daughter, Mary Ann Daniel, holding in her arms a big Cardiganshire tabby, the very image of the indomitable Kevin and very possibly a direct ancestor.

Mary Ann Daniels holds the family tabby in 1940.  Seated in front are her parents and their evacuee guest

Mary Ann Daniels holds the family tabby in 1940. Seated in front are her parents and their evacuee guest, the photographer’s mother.

So while feral cats of other shades and patterns pass through the neighbourhood, perhaps contributing to the squalling spats or eerie yowlings in the night, Tomcat, Kevin, Sharon, Darren and Dolores saw our children from babyhood to independence, and when Dolores died of a septic foxbite, the house was strangely bereft.   Boris and Bertha now continue the tradition.  They were born in May a few miles up the river where their mother was in the care of the Cats Protection League.  A couple of months ago they re-encountered her.  She was leaving the vet with her fresh operation scar, a microchip and a new name.  She looked with disinterest at her mewing kittens in my cat carrier, waiting for their immunizations.  She was going back to her new home.

 

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