Writing – and talking – about cats
I have recently returned from the ISAZ conference in Cambridge where I gave a work-in-progress paper on the changing human-feline relationship in Britain from c.1900 to 1950. To illustrate the difficulties in writing about non-human animals I started with the new book by London Big Issue seller A street cat named Bob which is an interesting read particularly if you have seen the cat outside the Angel tube station! It describes how a stray cat finds the author, James Bowen, a former drug addict. Through the cat’s intervention the man turns his life around: a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress for the twenty first century with the cat as a saviour. While I am sure that these events did happen, the narrative is clearly a human construct and it is difficult to disentangle the cat from a Protestant narrative of ‘coming through’. As Erica Fudge has argued, animals can almost disappear and become abandoned in favour of the ‘purely textual’. (I discuss this in my new article on animal-human history)
A rather different approach is that of Janet and Steven Alger whose wonderful account of cats living together in a cat shelter is an excellent analysis and description of the sociability of cats. Too often cats are seen either as solitary or only existing in relation to humans. I have come across several images of groups of stray cats or cats in homes waiting to be adopted in the early 1900s where their presence in a group is seen as transgressive. Some of these images seem to have been taken as they are not the ‘norm’ of a relationship of cats to humans. This cat to cat ‘relationship’ is antithetical to the way that cats were (and are) seen to perform a particular function in relation to humans. I am continuing to explore this relationship particularly with reference to the Second World War.
The conference organisers have now issued 50 short films of conference presentations on youtube. You can see me talking about this through this link .