A happy ending

Yesterday was a little frustrating. Not a day when everything went wrong (it didn’t), but a day when most things did not go as planned. The urgent got done, at the expense of the important. We were a little late to a performance. The performance itself was good, but the story was harrowing, so we didn’t enjoy our night out as much as we hoped to. I remembered to silence my phone during it, and later found that I had voicemail from PetWatch.

Of course all three of our cats were present and accounted for, so if a cat chipped to me was found, it would be a feral or a stray that I trapped at some point. Because I’m a worrier and because Sabra gave us so much trouble while we had her, I feared that somehow her chip hadn’t transferred to her new people and that she had gone walkabout again. But no, it was a feral cat I trapped, neutered, and released some five years ago. For most of that time, he’s been cared for by a human (let’s call them Jamie), and I guess now the cat is tame enough that Jamie was able to get him to a vet and find the chip. Jamie wants to keep the cat. I don’t want the cat (no more cats in this household till Basement Cat is no longer with us; it’s just too hard on him, and he makes it hard on the others), but I am thrilled to know that he has found a good home with people who like him and whom he trusts.

TNR, people. It works. Feral cats can look after themselves, living mainly on rodents who would otherwise be pests. (I know bird people worry about cats catching birds, but cats can’t fly, and birds can. For four years I’ve watched (and discouraged) our neighbor’s outdoor cat stalking birds at our feeder; once he managed to get a sparrow. Once. In four years.) A cat who has been neutered is not begetting or bearing more kittens. A cat who has been neutered will be much less likely to get into fights, and will need a smaller territory, and so be less likely to get killed by cars or coyotes. Cats who have been treated kindly by humans, even briefly, are more likely to find themselves a steady gig living under the porch of someone who feeds them, and then will be even less likely to go after birds. Feral cats, as opposed to strays who are dependent on humans, are rarely sick or disease vectors: their mamas teach them to avoid eating things that can give them worms. If they get their shots when they’re trapped and neutered, they’ll be even more disease-resistant. And my experience shows that they do often wind up as someone’s pet: of five cats I trapped, one was a stray who went back home, two have found themselves homes (I guess I never blogged the first one, so see below), and two are unaccounted for. The survival of this one makes me hopeful that the other two have also got themselves looked after, just by people who haven’t had them scanned (or maybe the cats are still too shy to come in). Here are some links about TNR if you want to read more: Alley Cat Allies. Best Friends. The Anti-Cruelty Society.

The first story of a cat who found himself a home: Years ago, we TNR’d a pair of siblings. About nine months later, I got a call; one of them, chipped to me, had been brought in by people whose porch he’d been living under. They’d been feeding him and trying to tame him, but he’d remained skittish until the day he came to their door meowing loudly. Some unspeakable jerk had shot him with a BB gun, and he turned for help to the people who were kind to him. They were happy to take him in and pay his vet bills, and I was happy to sign the chip over to them. That cat is now an indoor cat (yay indoor cats!) who gets along with their dog, other cat, and children. I love happy endings.

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A ghostly love story

Since the academic blogosphere, at least my corner of it, has become both more sparsely populated and quieter than in its heyday, I’ve been branching out to gardening blogs and book blogs, such as Clothes In Books (who has almost exactly my taste in reading material) and Leaves and Pages. Thanks to the latter, I found a delightfully comic ghost story, Tryst, by Elswyth Thane, who IRL was Helen Ricker from Iowa. Other reviews here and here. Thane mostly wrote historical fiction set in the US, so I’m a little surprised I didn’t run across her books when I was a child, as they sound like the sort of thing my school and public libraries would have had a lot of. Maybe I did read them and I just don’t remember. Fairly early on I decided that I preferred British history and fiction; American lit seemed so full of back-breaking farm labor, immigrant families and families impoverished by the Great Depression, wars interrupting young lives (Revolution and Civil as well as WW I and II, which obviously do interrupt British lives), not enough time travel or larking about in boats.

Well, anyway, Tryst. The ghost heads straight for his club when he finds himself in London. As you do, I guess, if you’re an Englishman-ghost. I ought not to be snarky; I know the problems of where to be in a city, if you have no office to go to, and you don’t feel like sight-seeing, and it’s the wrong hour to eat. Which of us wouldn’t like to have a club to which to repair at odd hours? And then the kitten, back at the country house Nuns Farthing (seriously? Chaucer is hooting somewhere in the background): “On the hearth-rug, his small tail carried high, Muffin was purring loudly and rubbing himself against friendly legs, about the reality of which he himself had obviously no doubts at all.” I believe absolutely in the kitten. Felines certainly see, hear, and smell many things of which the big dumb hoo-mans are unaware.

The writing is sprightly, and I happily added more hot water to the bathtub several times so I could finish the book in comfort. On careful examination, this fluff dissolves like the bubble-bath. The story takes place in 1938, the book appeared in 1939, and the chap who snuffed it would likely not have survived the war in any case, so we needn’t feel sorry for him. The heroine, Sabrina, is charming, but I can’t see her as nurse, Land Girl, code-breaker, or office worker taking the place of a man at the front. She does take ghosts in stride, so she can rise to occasions, but she doesn’t seem to have many practical skills. Honestly, she’s probably better off out of this world, too. I’m not sure how much the lovers really have in common. He’s 15 years older than she is (okay, Sense and Sensibility, I know), they like the same books, they like cats, I suppose relationships have been built on less, but I’m not wild about the older man/younger woman pairing. I also do not care for brother George’s attempts at Being Masterful with the society girl that the ghost had an “understanding” with, though she’s not so sure, but George’s advances are certainly Of The Period, not unwelcome to the recipient, and don’t go further than a few kisses (George’s mother is in the house and they are all going to have lunch in a minute).

I thought that in some ways Tryst responds to Rebecca (published 1938), with a mysterious country house and a naive young newcomer of a slightly lower class, but Tryst lightens the suspense and substitutes an inscrutable but kindly housekeeper for the formidable Mrs Danvers. (I hated Rebecca, btw, in case that affects your judgment; I dislike all the characters in it about equally, whereas in Tryst they all seem fairly harmless even when misguided.) Given my obsession with houses, devotion to cats, and disdain for annoying yappy dogs, it would have been hard for me not to like this book, even though in the cold light of day I’m poking holes here and there. My verdict: an excellent bathtub read.

Josephine in the British Library

She’d been able to find out about Ferdinand [the bull]’s political history from the internet. It was all there, accessible in seconds. Some of the fun has gone out of scholarship, it’s become too easy. She’s had to work hard to find an excuse to come to the British Library for the day, where she will be happy and at peace for a few hours in the silent company of scholars. But she has found herself a pretext. Maybe in the boxes of uncatalogued and unpublished letters of Hubert Studdert Meade, and in the papers of his old college, and in the manuscript drafts of his translations, she will find something new, something unremarked—about his wife Alice, the forgotten novelist with her uncut pages. . . . The library welcomes her. Her items are waiting for her. She installs herself at her desk, plugs in her lightweight mini-laptop, and begins to browse through the contents of the slim old-fashioned dark-red string-tied cardboard folder and the larger and smarter pale green canvas box.

 

Margaret Drabble, The Dark Flood Rises (Canongate Books, 2017), pp. 250-251.

Josephine makes a serendipitous discovery

She is too tired to embark on reading . . . but she leafs through the illustrations . . . . Amongst them is an arresting and accomplished pencil drawing of an unfamiliar and handsome young man, in an open-necked shirt, wearing an unassuming air of nonchalant gallantry. She glances at the caption, and finds that his name is Valentine Studdert Meade, an unusual name which in itself has no resonance but which nevertheless strikes her with a jolt of recognition. There can’t be all that many Studdert Meades, so he must be connected with her Deceased Wife’s Sister novelist. . . . Here must be a clue to Alice Studdert Meade, in this fairly unlikely place, discovered more or less randomly. This, she says to herself, sadly but with some satisfaction, is Scholarship, in all its triviality. She turns to the index, to discover more about Valentine . . . . Here, so unexpectedly, are clues.

Margaret Drabble, The Dark Flood Rises (Canongate Books, 2017), pp. 102-103.

More about Josephine

The libraries mean as much to Josephine as explorations of England mean to her restless friend Fran. They confirm status, confer identity. When Josephine Drummond goes into the libraries that she uses most frequently, she is received with some degree of recognition. Sometimes her books are handed over without her having to request them by name. This doesn’t happen in the British Library in London, though even there she occasionally gets a friendly nod, but in Cambridge she is a familiar. Unlike some old women, she is easily recognisable, even memorable. Tall and pronounced of features, she will never dwindle into a little old lady, with all the conveniences and inconveniences which that status brings. Josephine may think she looks low-key, but she cannot help but look noticeable. She doesn’t look eccentric (or this is her friend Fran’s considered view) but she doesn’t look negligible. Her career hasn’t been distinguished, but has been a career, of a sort, and it’s not quite over yet.

Margaret Drabble, The Dark Flood Rises (Canongate Books, 2017),pp. 100-101.

Not dead yet

[Josephine and Owen, both retired, meet each Thursday evening for a drink and conversation]

Owen had also been in the English Literature industry, though on a higher and better paid plane than she, and they like to talk about what they are reading, or about the books they had taught in the past. Josephine also likes to talk about her self-appointed research project, and Owen tolerates her discourse about her very small but (to her) intriguing discoveries. There is an element of forgivable because too-transparent condescension in his attention: he has published several volumes; she, so far over her whole career, only a couple of papers. He once pointed out to her, kindly and not unjustly, that many women have later-flowering careers and pursuits, so it’s all right for her to indulge herself comfortably with Victorian and Edwardian literature now, in her old age. He views her research as a hobby, not unlike tapestry.

Margaret Drabble, The Dark Flood Rises (Canongate Books, 2017), p. 88.

Barcelona

My Spanish experiences are more Andalucian than Catalunyan, so, here, a rose from the Alhambra for the victims in Barcelona.

¡Ay, cómo lloran y lloran,
¡ay! ¡ay! cómo están llorando!

Emma Beddington on blogging:

It turns out I love writing. It is such a pleasure, so much so that it seems bizarre to me that I haven’t ever tried it before. . . . it has always seemed like a distant dream or an idea for retirement. Being a writer is just a fantasy, impossibly difficult and inaccessible, something you daydream about. How do people do that? . . . . But of course, the Internet has changed everything, cracking open a closed shop: online writing is exploding. The blogs I read are almost exclusively by people who have no professional writing experience and they are fresh and unguarded and funny. . . . I feel caught up in that excitement and I write all the time, in notebooks and in my head, late at night and on my lunch break. I am full of words.

We’ll Always Have Paris: Trying and Failing to be French (Macmillan, 2016), pp. 264-5.

Sadly, this book is not (yet?) available in the US. I got it this summer in the UK. Highly recommend! You can order it via Amazon.co.uk.

At last, August

July seemed like a very long month, perhaps because I was so busy. But the last three days of it also seemed very long, perhaps because I wasn’t trying to do very much, which I think is the secret of extending time. I kept thinking, “Is it still July? It’s still July. There’s some summer left. Wow.” I was surprised both that the trees and flowers were so late-summer looking, rather than early-summer as when I left (i.e., the trip was All A Dream and I was only “gone” one night), and that the season wasn’t even later (I was in Faerie and time stood still, or flowed more slowly, there than here). But here we are, on schedule.

The garden is shaggy but recognizable. Both creeping bellflower and bishop’s weed are making some attempts to return, but these attempts are as yet feeble and so I am pleased that I have made such progress against them. The mulch I spread lavishly before leaving is hosting lots of shoots grown up from bird seed, not to mention now being spread lavishly over the patio, because the beds need some sort of edging to hold the mulch in place. It has clearly been at least a couple of weeks since anyone mowed the lawn, and the shrubbery is growing enthusiastically over the walks it borders. On the whole, though, the garden has held up fairly well.

The house . . . Sir John has nearly emptied the TV room, and presided over some repairs, and moved around Stuff that needed to be moved so that those things could be worked on. Progress has definitely been made. And yet there is still a lot to do. There are more repairs to organize, more boxes to pack, and all the packed boxes still need to leave for rented storage space. I had hoped a lot of that might happen in my absence.

This experience, combined with a party we went to this weekend, have me thinking a lot about order, chaos, and stuff. Things. Objects. I feel like we have a lot of stuff. I am none too good at getting rid of stuff once it’s in the house. On the other hand, I do fairly well at not bringing it home in the first place. The friends who hosted the party have lived in the same four-bedroom house for probably 30 years, during which they raised one child and did a lot of traveling. They are musical and enjoy folk dancing; they read widely; they enjoy cooking and gardening. Every room is crammed with books, CDs, and souvenirs. The music room (probably originally intended as a small dining room), which faces south, has a windowsill overflowing with plants, pictures on the walls, multiple smaller instruments besides the piano, books, sheet music, and more. The family room has three large bookcases (not shelves, multi-shelf bookcases) full of cookbooks, as well as many and varied souvenirs of travels. The living room holds the music library as well as a multi-shelf case of small dolls in various national dance costumes and other dance souvenirs. And so on, with every room. Jet-lagged and needing to be quiet for a bit, I wandered around trying to find a place away from people for a few minutes, and the amount of stuff all over made me feel like there was nowhere to be quiet even when there weren’t people in the room. It’s not really into hoarding territory, by my standards (and my dad really is a hoarder, so I do know what that looks like). The house is livable and safe. But it does testify to a life lived rather than curated.

We also have friends both of whom are immigrants, and whose house shows that they left a lot behind when they came here. Everything is chosen. The furniture is colorful, the walls are white, a few choice objects are on display. It’s a restful house. To be sure, I don’t know what the private rooms are like. I have never seen them. Maybe they’re the house’s Id.

We’re somewhere in the middle. Books are our particular vice. Sir John is untidy and leaves piles of paper around much as a snail trails slime. Cat paraphernalia (beds, toys, scratching posts) also appear in every room. As do the cats, though we’ve cut down significantly there: when we had five, it really did seem like there was another cat everywhere you looked. Anyway, I’m trying to live with the current state of chaos: boxes in the living room, a stack of chairs (which we have agreed to de-accession) in the dining room, Sir John’s piles, my not-quite-unpacked luggage in my study, along with a single box of to-be-packed things that I need to pack. Behind the boxes, I’m beginning to see a pleasingly cleaned-up version of our house: what we might look like if we lived a curated life, rather than one in which Sir John can’t keep up with his mail and both of us are always accumulating more books. I prefer the boxes to the crammed shelves of our friends’ house. I hope there will come a time when we can cut back more on the stuff, yet keep what is important to us.

I guess that’s what this rambling post comes down to: trying to work out what is important. I know, people (cats) and experiences are important, and the rest is just stuff. But some stuff matters more than others, and I don’t like regretting the loss of objects I was too hasty about letting go. Once I’ve lived without some of it for awhile, we’ll see whether I say “Why was I keeping that?” or “Hello, there you are!” when we unpack the stored boxes.

In the meantime, August: balancing the work (finish summer projects, prepare for fall), the house stuff (as above), the life (take a week off and have some proper vacation time). I hope this, too, will be a long month.

Margaret Forster:

For years I’d been trained the way mothers of small children are, not to waste a moment of child-free time, and so I’d always got straight down to it, and the habit had carried on even after there was no real need to be so concentrated. But now, I was tired. I couldn’t do it, couldn’t produce the ten A4 pages in a morning which I’d been used to. I tried to persuade myself that, through being so slow now, every word would mean more, be more tellingly crafted. Not true. My old, rapid, if careless, style of writing was better by far than the halting, lame stuff I was turning out, crawling hesitantly over one mere page in three hours. Why bother doing it? Why expend precious energy, of which there was so little, on writing, when it would be better conserved for other things? Yet each morning the lure of the desk and the pen drew me up to that room, and I gave into it. Sometimes, sitting was painful, which made sticking to the writing ridiculous. It wasn’t even as though I thought I was turning out anything special enough to justify this regime—it was simply that for some strange reason I wanted to be there, doing it.

My Life in Houses, pp. 254-5.