The art of living with cats

My cats have been particularly crazy since I moved house. We are, finally, through the being-woken-up-multiple-times-a-night-by-psychotic-purring stage that gave me unwanted insight into the life of parents with a newborn. (Newborns purr psychotically, right? That’s what I heard, anyway.) I would never wear fur, of course, but there’s something about stumbling downstairs by the light of the screen on your phone, narrowly avoiding stepping on the remnants of the latest kill, and following a cat to a food bowl that already has food in it that makes one wish tippets were still in fashion. And Belle is very fluffy and stylishly black and white…

I’m still woken up mostly between 4am and 5am but I get up at 5.30am anyway so that seems completely reasonable. Or, at least, it does to my feline overlords. So, that minor inconvenience aside, here are other rules for living with cats.

  1. Understand that a cat can stretch to accommodate any size of seat. So, the same cat that will force itself into a shoebox can also fully occupy a two-seater sofa.
  2. Cats want attention when they want attention. This is most likely to be when you absolutely have to leave because you’re already running late; or when you’re just carrying something hot and heavy around the kitchen. Lazy Sunday morning, tea, papers? No cats to be seen. Uncap a pen to start on the crossword? Cats everywhere, particularly sitting on the newspaper. Bonus points for them if they have wet paws even though it’s not raining.
  3. The same cat that will sleep contentedly through the noise of the food processor will also jump off the sofa and race to the door if I turn over a page too abruptly.
  4. Cats are unpredictable gourmands. That same food they’ve been eating happily for months? No and no. They will still wake me up at 4.30am of course, but only so they can sniff disdainfully at their food bowls and go out.
  5. The best place for a cat to sit is exactly where it’s most inconvenient at the time. On my laptop while I’m working; on the exercise mat while I’m working out; in the middle of the floor in an unlit room at night. The worst place for a cat to sit is anywhere out of the way, unless you’d quite like them to keep you company just then.
  6. Cats like playing but it’s a mistake to think that you are playing with them. They are playing with you. This is why, in the middle of the fun game with the catnip mouse/ rolled up paper/piece of ribbon, they will suddenly lose all interest and stroll off as if you are the dumbest loser ever and they’re done pretending to be friends with you.
  7. Whatever is on the other side of any given barrier (door, window, curtain) is irresistible. Particularly if it’s nothing.
  8. Cats are paranoid and don’t trust furniture. The same shelf/bookcase/window sill that has been there all along will suddenly present itself to their attention as though its existence is a complete surprise and possible threat.
  9. The act of getting off a sofa without disturbing a sleeping cat requires as much flexibility as a yoga class and should be recognised as a form of exercise.
  10. Cats can choose to be stealthy or noisy. This is so they can float up the stairs in the middle of the night and then jump on you to provide maximum shock.

The 2017 TBR dare

In a moment of madness on Twitter, I seem to have agreed to the 2017 TBR dare. The things one is persuaded to do on the spur of the moment. Look on me, children, and behold my tale of social media downfall.

The rules are actually flexible but I’m going to try to stick to a pure form. So, from 1 January 2017 to 1 April 2017, I can only read books that are already on my TBR pile. I’m including anything that Blackwell’s send me as part of their curation of my TBR list as well.

Of course, this seemed fine at the tail end of last year, when I had the concentration span of an amoeba and the TBR pile looked correspondingly healthy. Now? Not so much. I’ve had to trawl the shelves, and come up with:

  1. Isaac Asimov, Foundation & Empire – there’s a bookmark partway through this, so clearly I wasn’t loving it.
  2. Isaac Asimov, Second Empire.
  3. Miklos Banffy, They Were Counted.
  4. Cees Nooteboom, Nomad’s Hotel.
  5. Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil.
  6. Elizabeth Taylor, Complete Short Stories.
  7. Samuel Richardson, Clarissa.
  8. Neal Stephenson, Quicksilver. I’ve got the rest of the Baroque trilogy sitting around unread as well, but I know I tried and failed with this one so I’m not optimistic enough to put all three on the list.

Unfortunately, Jan to March last year I read 24 books. Admittedly there are some hard hitters on this list that will definitely slow me down. It could take me a month to get through Clarissa, especially since it’s enormous and I’m not taking it out of the house. But the Asimov and the Nooteboom are the work of a couple of train journeys.

So. Either, by 1 April, I’ll have cracked the list above and have a pile of new, unread books to dive into from my moral high ground of reading smugness. I may also have a gleamingly clean house and new exercise habit if I run out of books and have to find something else to do with the rest of my time. Or, I’ll be fidgety, anxious and slightly feral,  occasionally snuffling and licking the covers of the new books I can’t yet read. Who knows?

Happy New Year, by the way!

2016 reading round up

I read 114 books this year, including audiobooks. I thought it would be fewer than that, because I don’t feel as though I’ve done enough reading at all. I did a fair bit of re-reading, but it’s been a tough year and I’m not at all surprised that I went for comfort reading.

Discoveries of the year

Jodi Taylor’s St Mary’s books, about historians who do their research by time travel and have many adventures along the way.  I raced through these, enjoying the history and sci-fi blend to start with, but then increasingly the character development. I found Max an engagingly flawed heroine and it made a real change to read a series in which the women are allowed to take as many risks and get just as beaten up as the men.

In a darker, more serious vein, there’s Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb series. Lamb heads up the Slough House division of MI5, which is where the losers and failures are sent until the pointless admin drives them out of the service altogether. Caught right in the middle of internecine battles between MI5 and MI6, Lamb’s ‘Slow Horses’ (a pun on Slough House) turn out not to be completely useless after all. These burn slowly, but they’re quietly gripping. I’m two books in and pleased to see there’s a fourth volume on its way in 2017. I don’t know how I’ve missed Herron up to now, as he also writes detective novels set in Oxford, but I’ll definitely be reading more.

I defy any woman to read the title essay in Men Explain Things to Me and Other Essays by Rebecca Solnit and not identify with it. Solnit originally wrote the essay in 2008 for the Los Angeles Times, and says it’s been the most reposted of all her works. It’s not hard to see why. In the essay, Solnit describes an incident in which a man tells her all about a very important book that’s been published that year on a subject she has mentioned, while repeatedly ignoring Solnit’s friend telling him ‘It’s her book’. He finally gets the point, but despite realising he’s talking to the author and despite the fact he’s only read a review of the book… he keeps talking. It’s a classic account and explanation of mansplaining, before the term was invented.

Rediscoveries of the year

Magician, Silverthorn and A Darkness at Sethanon by Raymond E. Feist. I first read these when I was in my mid-teens and I can’t remember when I last read them but it’s got to be about 15 years ago. Magician is certainly the strongest and I’d have stopped there but… you can’t stop in the middle of the story, can you?

Unless you’re re-reading Dune, of course. This stood the test of time but as even when I first read it I remember the series getting progressively weaker, I was content to stop it there.

Let’s just be thankful I wasn’t tempted back to The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, shall we?

Autobiography of the year

No, it’s the not the only biography I read, because I enjoyed Graham Greene’s A Sort of Life as well. But, I’m a partisan judge and Springsteen’s Born to Run is my winner. As a fan, it was fascinating to read about the early struggles and the background to the albums that have been the soundtrack to my life. It felt like a fairly open confessional, and a couple of interviews I’ve heard suggest that’s true. The only thing on my bucket list is a coast to coast drive of the US, with a Springsteen soundtrack.

Surprise read of the year

Holding, by Graham Norton. I’m ambivalent about Graham Norton himself, but generally sceptical about celebrity authors. Still, I heard him on R2’s bookclub and the book sounded interesting enough to get me over the scepticism hurdle. It’s a murder mystery, set in a nowhere town in Ireland. The local Garda officer usually doesn’t get to do anything more exciting than direct traffic outside the village fete. Then the discovery of a body up at a building site turns the town upside down. I enjoyed the unravelling of the mystery, but I was really sold on the characters. There were backstories aplenty, and that’s what brought it all to life.


Runs like clockwork

Except that, this is the time of year when the mechanism is breaking and maybe a bit over-wound. It runs slower, and it runs down more quickly. This year has been hard and long, and it’s not even as if heading into a new year will bring a clean slate. England is broken,  and those in authority are a big part of the problem. The US is facing a disaster that could well become international. No one is going to come along and fight the monsters.

It is tough to get out of bed in the mornings, and if it wasn’t for the cats demanding that I get up and feed them, I can’t be sure that I’d always bother facing the day. Once I’m up, I run like a good little automaton: shower, dress, drive to whichever the hell office it is. Tick those boxes.

Someone I was close to was killed in a car accident a few weeks ago. One of my best friends is hurting so much, it almost breaks me to see her.

I am so tired.

I don’t believe in any gods and I don’t believe in miracles, and all the feel-good Christmas ads make me furious at how gullible retailers think people are.

But what are the options? It’s basically stop or go, and I choose go because I always do. And  since the cats got me up anyway, I might as well go through the motions until they mean something more than a chore ticked off a list: order the tree, buy more decorations, plan the gifts.

And I don’t believe in gods, but I do believe in people, and so look. Look at the Blackwell’s Giving Tree, where I’ll go donate today. Look at the more than 50 shoeboxes for Shelter my colleagues put together. Look at the flowers my boyfriend bought me, and the guy at carwash telling me to it was ok to come back later with the cash. These are the small kindnesses that get us all through the days. With all this, maybe we are fighting the monsters.

In which I’m not gonna lie, guys

Things look pretty bad. This is seemingly the year in which the previously unthinkable, the events and decisions and actions and values that should still be firmly unthinkable, have edged out into the light and become commonplace.

Where to start? Pick a card, any card, so let’s go with… My Twitter feed is full of people campaigning to save the NHS.

Because of the enormity of the shit that is going down, it’s almost, unbelievably, easy to overlook this one.


The NHS.

That would be the health service that looks after everyone, beginning to end, 24/7, tirelessly and selflessly, no questions asked and certainly not ‘And which credit card will you be using?’, while its staff get paid salaries that I for one would say it’s not possible to live on, I’ve got cats to support you know.

So yeah, a bedrock system of our state needs saving and for all the people trying, really, really hard, and the doctors who’ve been pushed to strike because of the government’s overweening unreasonableness, it probably won’t be. Unthinkable, right?

I guess I can’t dodge the buffoon in the corner, so. The world got a new portmanteau word this week. Instead of needing to type out a whole list to say that someone is a racist, lying, bigoted, tax-dodging, misogynistic, sexually assaultive, narcissistic, psychopathic fascist fantasist about to go on trial for raping a 13 year old girl, we can all just type ‘Trump’. See how much neater that is? But you know what concept that portmanteau word cannot encompass? Presidency. Trump will inherit the title, the percentage of Americans that is basically terrified of everyone not them saw to that.  But he’ll never be President.

And one more, for good measure. There’s the good ole’ Daily Fail, going about its day to day business of fostering hate (towards anyone, that’s the only way in which the tabloid and its readership is broad minded). In this instance, the focus was on four judges who had the temerity to do their job and make a judgement according to the law about how Article 50 could be triggered. I’m 6 weeks into Law 101 and even I know that’s legit, so you can bet the Daily Fail’s corporate lawyers do too. But what does the truth matter when you can use a story to pander to the illiberal views of a vicious minority?

It’s Remembrance Sunday today. I don’t know how we, collectively, have the fucking nerve to say ‘We remember’ those who died and what they fought for. If we remember, we sure as hell don’t care.

In which I don’t understand things

The things I don’t understand are many and varied. Pretty much anything to do with numbers (yesterday, I had to think really hard to divide 330 by 2. Yup.) Pretty much anything to do with domestic technology. I now live with a television in the house and there seem to be four remote controls for it and its associated boxes. My only interaction with the remotes has been to take the AA batteries out of one of them, so that I could use them to test if the microchip reading cat-flap was still working.

Still, there are some specific things that I have been not understanding lately.

  1. Black sinks – the new house has a black sink and draining board. No idea what it’s made of, but it’s sort of shiny. It would be shinier, but this is Oxfordshire where the water comes with a generous helping of limescale. Black and limescale do not seem to me to be natural partners.
  2. ‘I’ll do it later’ – based on serious quantitative research (quick chat with a couple of friends at work), this is the guiding principle of man time. But when is this enviable stage of ‘later’ when there are not hundreds of other things to be done? How does one get there? I do stuff now, because later, there’ll be more to do. So if I leave it until later, then later there’ll be even more to do. Clearly, there is a fold in time and only men have access to it. Fucking patriarchy.
  3. Why Ed Balls is still on Strictly – on the one hand, it’s all a bit of a laugh, innit? On the other hand, it’s scary evidence of the way that people approach voting for everything and therefore single-handedly makes a strong case against democracy.
  4. Why people, and women in particular, are obsessed with recapturing youth. There was an article today about the food you can eat that will keep you young. It won’t, of course, because time is inexorable. Until sci-fi delivers for us, or Airbnb opens up in Shangri-La, we’re all going to continue to age. So, what the article means is that there are some ways in which you can maybe help yourself to look ‘younger’. Younger than what? You aren’t going to look younger than someone who is 25, but if you’re 45, you might look younger than someone who is 70. You might also ‘not look your age’, which is a totally meaningless phrase as it’s impossible to do other than look your age, so it’s in fact an expression referring to a media construction of what people at certain ages look like. Break it all down and it’s the media telling you that you can appear different to how the media tell you people appear, if you’ll just pay the nice snake oil lady over there. What. The. Actual. Fuck.

Vacation by the numbers

I was off on a sneaky, autumn break to the Lake District. I toyed with the idea of not taking even my phone, but there’s always the possibility of emergency need. As it turned out, the cottage had slowfi and no phone reception anyway, so it sort of worked out.

Books read: 5. On day one of the holiday, I didn’t get dressed until mid-afternoon and I didn’t go out at all. I just read, drank tea and ate chocolate biscuits, which had been the vision in my head about what I most wanted to do on holiday. It’s pretty hard to disappoint that level of expectations, especially when your starting novel is The Trespassers, by Tana French. The rest was a mix of books I’d bought as holiday planning, and a couple I picked up locally: The Outrun, Amy Liptrott; The Coffin Trail, Martin Edwards; The Grown up, Gillian Flynn; The Girl with all the Gifts, M.R.Carey.

Walks: 2. That’s a bit rubbish, actually, isn’t it? We did do lots of strolling around, but in terms of proper walks, only two. And they were pretty easy ones. Oh well. What that means is, I’ve got a great excuse to get back up there and do some real walking.

Horse rides: 1. I booked this a couple of weeks before we went, and I screwed up the date. So we turned up on time on Tuesday, and no one was at the stables. Because they’d been there on Monday. We rescheduled for Wednesday, which turned out to be the first rain-free day and so a much better choice for a gentle stroll on to the fells. One day, I’ll be able to keep both feet in the stirrups when it comes to the trotting part. This time round we were four strides in and I was clinging to my horse’s neck to stay on, while simultaneously trying to get her to stop and get my foot back in the stirrup. I know it’s not that difficult, but then again, I only ride for an hour every 12-18 months so…

Days of rain: 11/2. It’s probably obligatory to spend one day driving round but not really getting out of the car for fear you’ll be swept away. The rain cleared enough for us to grab lunch in Keswick and for a brief stop at Castlerigg stone circle. This might also have been Grasmere gingerbread day.

Vegetarian sausage sandwiches eaten: 3. One of them with a pint of tea, which is about my ideal of what lunch should be on a chilly day. You would assume that, given how easy an offering it is, the vegetarian sausage sandwich would be pretty common. You would be wrong. The vegetarian and gluten free options up in the Lakes were much, much better than I’m used to. I’m assuming this has something to do with the demand amongst the walking demographic (I bet there’s an overlap between ‘people who can afford Mammut’ and ‘people who eat quinoa on a regular basis’) but whatever the reason, when a pasty shop in Keswick can magic up a gluten free pasty, it makes you wonder what’s wrong with the rest of the country.

Lakes visited:  5. Windermere, Ullswater, Derwentwater, Buttermere, Coniston. Of which I give the palm to Buttermere, because there was not a view of it that wasn’t stunning. Poor old Coniston, which could more than hold its own in any other company, was frankly disappointing afterwards. It’s been more than 20 years since I was last in the Lake District, and I had no recollection at all of how beautiful it is. Also, how close it is, really – a couple of hundred miles makes it long weekend territory. I shall plan ahead for next year.

Boat rides: 1. Last day, Windermere, sun just setting and a chill settling. An appropriate elegy for the end of a holiday.

So there you have it. I’m still fending off the tidal wave of normalcy until work tomorrow. My ideal return would have been a dead of night swoop on the house, scooping up cats, laptop and a few more items of clothing before speeding back to the motorway and the glorious north. I’m thinking new life in a cafe-cum-bookshop by one of the smaller lakes…