Monday, November 30, 2009

Finding a friend in Clapham

Yes, I know . . . I'm sorry. This is Rupert, and you were expecting to hear from my Mum. But, if you don't mind, this is my story. There's no way that she could possibly understand the depth of my feelings.
So, just this once, you're hearing the dramatic details straight from me.
O.K . . . ?

It all happened a few days ago. I'd just finished my breakfast when Mum told me that we were going to Clapham to visit Jill and Abigail. This was good news. I love journeys in the car and
Jill has been a friend since I was a kitten. To be visiting Abigail was not quite such good news. I remembered her as the small human blob who sat on Jill's knee. A blob who had big eyes and squawked a lot.

Between you and me, I also thought my Mum paid her far too much attention. But there you
are, I'm a tolerant cat, and the small human blob never stayed for long.

When we arrived at Clapham I had a nasty shock.
The small human blob wasn't a blob any longer. She'd grown . . . my, how she'd grown! She'd become a small human person, and was running all over the place in a very alarming fashion. Large humans I can cope with, large humans I rather like. They look at me and say, "Beautiful!" - which is true, but always pleasing to hear. Small humans are a very different matter.

It seemed wise to find a comfortable bolt-hole and take stock of this tricky situation. At the far side of the room, I spotted a small, red tent . . . just the place for a cat in need of quiet reflection. As unobtrusively as I could, I hurried across the floor in search of this welcome sanctuary.

But the small human had spotted me (to give her her due, she seemed a highly intelligent small human).

"Meow . . . Meow!" she cried, waving her arms.

What was all that about?
I hadn't the faintest idea. Perhaps small humans speak a different language?

Reaching the small, red tent, I bolted inside.
But the small human had been watching me. Now down on the floor on all fours, she struggled to follow whilst Jill tried to stop her . . .

Crouching deep inside the tent, I gazed out through a chink in the drapery and grew increasingly worried.

Small humans, as I've discovered, can be very determined and, sure enough . . . this one finally made it.

There she was . . . looming up beside me in the tent . . . all waving arms and legs and big smiles!

Boy! Was I scared!

I must admit that she had a nice face. But you never know what small humans will do. They can pull your tail . . .
poke their small fingers in your eyes and ears . . . and, between you and me, I was thoroughly alarmed.

If it hadn't been for the cat's Golden Rule: "Behave Well When You Go Out Or You Won't Go Visiting Again", I don't know what I'd have done.

Then . . . all at once, the small human leaned forward and gave me a stroke.
It was such a soft stroke. A really gentle, loving kind of stroke.

"Meow . . . Meow!" she said.
Perhaps 'meow' means 'beautiful'?
Whatever it means, there was no doubt that this small human (now she's my friend, I'd better call her Abigail) meant no harm.

I began to relax.
Being trapped in a small tent with a total stranger wouldn't have been my idea of fun.
But . . . well, in the light of experience we can all change our views.

So . . . if Jill and Abigail invite us again . . . it might be quite enjoyable to return to Clapham!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

It looks like a bird . . . it sings like a bird . . .

What looks like a bird . . . sings like a bird . . . and has a battery in its stomach?
Yes, I know, it sounds like a riddle out of a Christmas cracker, but I'm willing to bet you don't know the answer.
Give up?
It's a Humidity Detector . . . and it was one of my most acceptable and entertaining birthday presents.

Not that everything was plain sailing at the start.
This very kind gift had come from my cousins who live at Kew. They had found it in the shop at Kew Gardens.

. . . Rupert thought it was a toy . . .

. . . at first glance, I thought it was an ornament . . .

. . . then I read the four pages of instructions.

I remained impressed, but baffled. The Humidity Detector was German in origin, and planned for the European market. All the instructions, all the explanations, were offered in five languages. The English version appeared to have been provided by a translator who had studied precise, nineteenth century English. His subsequent translation, whilst elegant in the extreme, was, at times, quite indecipherable!
Nevertheless, it needed no instructions to remove the small bird from its box.

Once safely out, I inspected it closely and noticed a piece of white tape sticking out of its stomach . . . I pulled.
Obedient to its programme, the bird burst into a sudden trill of song.
It was pleasing . . . if a little startling!
Would it repeat this exercise?
I poked it . . . and prodded it . . . and shook it . . . the bird remained silent. Clearly it was a one-song-a-day bird.
After carefully pushing its long, slim legs into a flower-pot, as instructed on the box, I waited to see whether it might announce the plant's need of water. The plant looked happy, the bird remained peaceful . . . I left them in each other's company and went to bed.

All that activity took place yesterday. When the sun came shining in through the window at nine this morning I was startled to hear birdsong emanating from the living room. The small bird was giving of its best. Clearly activated by the sun's rays, it was chirruping with all the determination of one set to sing until sundown!

Surely it was only supposed to sing when the plant needed water? The soil felt moist, but I added a little water, just in case . . . I then moved the flower-pot out of the sun and into the shade . . . but nothing I did succeeded in cooling the small bird's ardour. It was a song-bird and singing (so it wanted to tell me!) was what song-birds did!

I think I need your help! It's all very well in the winter, when the sun rises late and sets early, but what will it be like in mid-summer? Are Rupert and I to be awoken at five each morning by a strident dawn chorus? My friend, Lin, suggested that I cover the small bird with a blanket a night. But it isn't a parrot, and this seems a little unfriendly.

So . . . I really would appreciate your guidance.
Tell me, how, without wishing to appear unappreciative, do I discourage an enthusiastic, small song-bird from singing? And, even more important, how do I convince it that, such is the perversity of human nature, we really only value what is unpredictable and infrequent!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

One happy return!

I don't know about 'many happy returns', but this is an amazing case of 'one happy return'.

Where do I begin . . . it’s very difficult to tell a story when you're lost for words. When something has happened that is so unlikely . . . so totally unpredictable . . . so heart-warming that it robs you of speech . . . so strange that it sends shivers down your spine.

Do you know what I mean?
Stupid question . . . of course you don’t . . . I haven’t told you.
Let me try to pull myself together and explain.

As you know, today is my birthday. Cards have been arriving for several days, but this morning brought the biggest collection. Humbled and delighted by the wad of post, I settled down to read the greetings.
Amongst the envelopes was one from a cousin in Sussex. At first this seemed to be a total coincidence . . . it's years since this cousin and I have exchanged birthday cards. Christmas cards, yes, phone calls and visits, yes, but birthdays have been largely forgotten.
Nonetheless, this looked like a card, it was the shape of a card . . . I opened the envelope, and, sure enough, a card came out. But . . . and this was the surprise . . . it was not just one card. Inside the birthday card had been tucked an ageing post-card, and it was this post-card that caused those shivers that I mentioned earlier. The post-card bore my mother's hand-writing.

What was going on? I felt totally bemused, my mother has been dead for sixteen years.
In search of enlightenment, I returned to the birthday card and read the message . . . I then read the post-card . . . and, slowly, the story made sense . . . wonderful, incredible sense.

Forty years ago, almost to the day, my mother had clearly wondered whether my young cousins would remember their elder cousin's birthday. Knowing how much I would value their greeting, she had sent them a postcard. After telling them how much she was looking forward to seeing them, and enquiring after their hobbies and interests, she had diplomatically made mention of the fact that my birthday was approaching, and how much she knew I would love to hear from them.

It's far too long ago to remember, but I'm sure I received the card that my mother had cleverly organised.
What she could not have foreseen was that her postcard would have survived. That it would have been put in my cousin's scrapbook, to remain there, undisturbed and unread, for forty years.

A few weeks ago, clearing out a cupboard, my cousin had come across the ancient scrapbook . . . taken out the card . . . read it . . . and realised to her surprise that, once again, my birthday was fast approaching! So . . . just as she had done all those years ago, and once again at mother's prompting, she had sent me this pair of unexpected greetings!

Is it any wonder that I'm still lost in wonder and amazement? A card from my mother on my birthday . . . ?

How on earth (or from heaven!) did she manage that . . . but, there you are, I've always said that I had a very ingenious mother!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

'Vincent Van Go'!

Tell me, how can I relax into a sensible, sedate maturity when the young people in my life (I include Rupert in this) seem determined to shake up my preconceptions?

I'll give you an example, it took place early this morning.
After giving Rupert his breakfast, I glanced at my IN box and found an excited email from Shae.
Shae and Mausie, you'll remember, come from Melbourne. They are back-packing round the world and last week they arrived in London. This email brought the exciting news that they'd hired a camper van!

Now they could really take off . . . they could go to see friends in Brighton . . . visit Mausie's family in Scotland . . . the U.K was their oyster.
Could I be outside in an hour, Shae wanted to know? She would ring the doorbell when they arrived.

Grabbing the camera (together with a rug that I hoped would keep them warm on their explorations) I awaited the bell . . . then, in response to its summons, hurried down to the pavement.

With remarkable expertise, considering she had never driven a van before, Shae had parked neatly outside the door.
Their excitement had been fully justified, it was a most impressive vehicle. With the pride of the newly besotted, they showed me its amenities. Never before had I been inside a camper van. It was a new world.
I marvelled at the generous bed . . . the cupboards . . . the oven . . . the grill . . . the fridge (an unexpected luxury!) . . . the tow rope (just in case!) . . . and the ample room for storage. What was more, from their elevated position in the front cabin Shae and Mausie would obtain a commanding view of the passing countryside.

"It's magnificent . . . you must give it a name," I said.
They already had!
Shae took me to the rear of the van where, inscribed clearly on the paintwork, was the name of the van hire company: Vincent.
There was, they'd decided, only one possible name. From henceforth their van would be known as . . 'Vincent Van Go'!

And Vincent Van Go is going! They're off to Scotland next week.
As for today . . . ?
"Brighton or Bristol . . . " said Shae vaguely, "we're starting with Richmond."
I thought a little guidance might be helpful.
"Turn left at Richmond for Brighton," I told them, "or go straight ahead for Bristol."
They'll probably end up in Birmingham . . . but what does it matter?
Vincent Van Go will ensure that they enjoy themselves whatever their destination!

I must admit I'm tempted!
Were I to hire a camper van for Rupert as a Christmas present, would you give a little thought to joining us on a holiday . . . ?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Don't Ask!

There's something we've never discussed and I'd be most interested to know which side of the argument you take.

By disposition, most of us fall into one or other of opposing camps on a wide variety of issues. We are either liberal, or traditional. We are believers or atheists. We are meat eaters, or vegetarians. We support, or oppose, bloodsports. But there's yet another great divide.
Tell me, do you believe in asking, or in not asking?

This division in attitude was brought home to me last week when I took an American friend to visit Holland Park. Our beautiful park was looking at its autumnal best. After an enjoyable tour, I took her for a cappuccino at the park cafe.
With Rupert beside me, I settled down at one of the tables.
"No . . . no!" my friend cried out, pointing to a sign above my head, "It says 'No Dogs'."
I had no option but to pick Rupert up and move outside.
As the sun was shining, this was, in fact, a better place to be. Nonetheless, as I pointed out to my friend, 'No Dogs' didn't necessarily mean, 'No Cats'. At any such moment of doubt, I told her firmly, it was always better not to ask!

Not asking has been my policy throughout Rupert's life. Had I asked, would he have been welcomed in hospitals and nursing-homes . . . in classrooms and day centres? Above all, would he have had the opportunity to be such a wonderful ambassador for well-behaved cats?

When it comes to notices, I interpret 'No Dogs' as meaning precisely that. It says nothing about cats.

However, there is another aspect to not asking. By not asking, you are not putting anyone else in the invidious position of having to refuse your request. To illustrate my point, how about another story?

During the quiet hours of intimacy before she died, my mother and I discussed many things. High on the list was our mutual love of Kew Gardens. The final six years of her life had been spent with me in London, during which time we had regularly visited Kew. Our love of the Gardens was mutual, but our tastes differed. On entering the gate we would each go our separate ways - mother to spend time with her favourite flowers, me to wander happily in the woodland areas.
"See you back here in an hour!" we would say to each other, at the point where the path divided.
An hour later, we would reunite and go off to share our experiences over an excellent lunch at "The Maids of Honour". As she lay dying, mother expressed the hope that she might have a memorial seat placed in the Gardens. She was also in no doubt that this was the place where she wished me to scatter her ashes.

The purchase of the seat proved no problem. I was sent a map, from which I chose a site on a grassy knoll overlooking the flower-beds.
But what, I worried, could be done about the ashes? Had I sought permission, there was little doubt that the answer would have had to be 'no'. Were this to become an accepted practice, gardeners from all over the British Isles - and beyond - would want their ashes brought to Kew.
But my mother had loved Kew . . . I had loved my mother. How could I possibly ignore, or disregard her dying request?
After careful deliberation, I decided not to ask.

On the day in question, feeling and looking thoroughly guilty, I arrived at the entrance gate. To give an appearance of innocence, I had concealed the urn in a Marks & Spencer carrier bag. The woman at the ticket office knew me, and smiled. Although, to my eyes, the carrier bag was flashing warning lights, I did my best to return her smile with an equally innocent greeting.

Once inside the gate, I went in immediate search of mother's seat. This seemed the best place to start.

But where was it? There was no sign of a seat on the grassy knoll. Had they misunderstood my instructions?
Disappointed and puzzled, I made my way back towards the gate . . . to the point where the path divided and where we had so often said, "See you back here in an hour!"
Yes, you've guessed it . . . there, in precisely the spot where we had met so regularly, was a beautiful new seat. The inscription confirmed that it was, indeed, the seat that mother had wanted!

With a sense of happy reunion, I seated myself. It was a beautiful seat . . . a comfortable seat . . . mother would have been delighted . . . but it didn't solve the problem of the ashes. Looking around me I noticed that, within yards of mother's seat, were no less than three working gardeners. Never before could I recall seeing so many gardeners in such close proximity. Had they, I wondered (anxiety causing my imagination to run riot) been forewarned of an intruder with an urn?

Sitting on the seat, clutching the carrier bag, I waited in vain for the gardeners to complete their work and move away. Twenty minutes later, the situation unchanged, I realised that something needed to be done. Reluctantly removing the urn from the bag, I lifted the lid . . . it was time to fulfill my promise and start pouring.

With a final, apprehensive glance towards the gardeners, I carefully trickled a small amount of ash on the ground beneath the seat . . . not one of them reacted. Encouraged, I moved to the rose bushes, my mother's favourite flower, and trickled some more . . . as far as the gardeners were concerned, I could well have been invisible. Emboldened, I moved to the bedding plants . . . and the shrubs . . . and everywhere I went, a trickle of mother's ash was added to the roots of the plants that had given her so much pleasure.

The whole operation took an hour. An hour devoted to carefully choosing and nourishing the plants as mother would have wished. I began to relax and see the funny side of the situation. It was the sort of story that my mother, a woman with a keen sense of humour, would have loved.
Not once during this procedure did anyone approach me, not once did a gardener even lift his head to ask what I was doing. Did they, too, I wondered, believe in not asking?

Finally satisfied that mother would have been happy with my morning's work, I dropped the empty plastic urn into a waste basket . . . and returned home.

So, at the end of the story, tell me: which side do you take in this debate?
Just consider for a moment . . . do creatures ask if they can love . . . do roses question whether they should bloom . . . or birds enquire if it's permitted to wheel in formation against the evening sky . . . ?

Surely, if it adds one iota to the sum of universal happiness the answer is . . . don't ask!

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Caterpillar's Tale

I wonder, do you remember Walt Disney's enchanting film, 'Fantasia'? In particular, do you remember his brilliant animation of 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice'?
I loved that film. Who could forget the distraught Mickey Mouse with his rapidly multiplying brooms. The more he tried to control events, the more the brooms, and their overflowing pails of water, proliferated and dominated the situation!
That was rather how I felt after listening to the radio last night. Have you a moment for me to share my thoughts with you?
The programme was on the hot topic of population explosion. Not only has the human population of the world trebled in the past fifty years, but here, in the UK, it appears that the current population of sixty million may reach seventy million within two decades.

Two women had been invited to contribute to this radio debate. One was clearly anxious. The other was sanguine in the extreme. It was, insisted the sanguine lady, merely a question of careful planning of housing and facilities. She strongly contested the idea that this entire island would end up 'under concrete'. There would, she told the listeners, be plenty of room for parks and gardens.
"Seventy million . . . ?" she seemed to be saying, "Bring it on!"
Such was her sense of authority that not even the anxious woman dared to point out that this seventy million wasn't necessarily the stopping point . . . that the human population, like Disney's pails of water, would remorselessly increase, not only on account of the expanding birth-rate, but also by all of us living longer.

I was nearly lulled into a sense of false security until, all at once, it hit me. Something was missing . . . in all her careful reasoning, the woman had never mentioned food. As more people take up more space, I thought to myself, so these people need more roads and housing which, in their turn, need more space . . . and this space can only come from a finite source of open land. Following the same argument, more people need more food . . . more food needs more land to grow on . . . and the extra land needed for more food is then in direct competition with the more land needed for more people and more housing!
The only remaining certainty in this argument seems to be that, for all our hubris and ingenuity, we can't produce a larger planet!

It's not so long ago that we looked upon our planet as limitless. Somewhere out there were vast, unexplored tracts and territories. There would, we were convinced, always be vast, unexplored tracts and territories. With this comforting thought in mind, we dumped our rubbish in the soil and our toxic waste in the oceans, we hunted big game as though their numbers were limitless, and fished the seas with no thought of tomorrow.

And where do we find ourselves now? On an over-crowded planet, with man-made rubbish contaminating Mount Everest, with dying seas, and with pollution from our careless way of living extending to the Arctic and the Antarctic.

What is the answer?There would seem to be only one answer . . . to survive, man needs to evolve. We have been self-obsessed caterpillars, consuming all around us, for far too long. Now we need to metamorphose into butterflies.

How . . .?

I'm sorry, forgive me. Because I'm troubled I've been battering you with a succession of unanswerable questions.
But do you think that we've finally arrived at the only question that really matters . . . ?

I think we have.

Twenty Minutes Later

Oh, no . . . this is quite extraordinary . . . so extraordinary that I must return and share it with you!
Shivers of incredulity are running down my spine.

Minutes after finishing this letter, I heard the thump of the morning's post arriving in the letter-box. Sorting through the mail, I found a small package sent to me from from a friend in the United States.

Look what I found inside . . .

Do you think someone is trying to tell us something . . .