The New Yorker has always had a peculiar affinity with cats, perhaps because they have a lot in common — an elegance, an abhorrence of sentimentality and an innate sense of superiority. The Big New Yorker Book of Cats is full of cats and owners, each holding one another at arm’s length and peering through invisible lorgnettes.
Pulitzer prizewinner Susan Sheehan writes about a tabby cat called Pynchon, owned by the proprietor of a Manhattan bookshop. Pynchon, who for unspecified reasons arrived in New York ‘with no front claws’, is fond of listening to classical music on the radio and regularly attends meetings of the James Joyce Society at the shop. However, he seems to have little in common with his namesake, being both unusually gregarious and enormously fat. Indeed at the annual cat show at Madison Square Garden, Pynchon was judged to be so overweight that he was in imminent danger of developing diabetes.
The whole question of what a cat will and won’t eat is explored in greater depth in Thomas Whiteside’s 1976 piece, ‘Din-Din’. Cat-food advertising — gourmet cat-food advertising in particular — turns out to be a very peculiar business. In the mid- 1960s a brand of cat food called 9-Lives was chugging along comfortably if unspectacularly with annual sales of around $15 million. Ten years later, these had soared to $100 million.
This was ascribed entirely to a cat called Morris which 9-Lives started using in their adverts. Morris was portrayed as being a tremendously fussy eater, forever turning up his nose at this and that before eagerly sinking his incisors into a plate of 9-Lives.
The thinking behind the ads ran as follows: cats often don’t eat for several days. Although this does them no harm at all, it plunges their owners into a state of deep anxiety. As a result they desperately try to tempt them with ever more exotic — and expensive — morsels. If Morris could be jolted out of his snooty disdain by a plate of 9-Lives, then millions of cat owners were keen to give it a try.
While aelurophiles — cat lovers — naturally carry the day here, there’s something for aelurophobes too. E.B. White’s 1930 essay, ‘How to Make a Cat Trap’, offers advice on how to catch a cat — using a homemade box and a ‘little piece of fresh fish’ as bait — then dispose of it. Rather troublingly, White recommends gas as the simplest and most humane method. All you have to do is ‘insert into the trap a tablespoonful of calcium cyanide, or a wad of cotton saturated with one ounce of carbon disulphide or chloroform’, and Alakazam! — it’s curtains for kitty.
There are stories from John Updike, T. Coraghessan Boyle and Sylvia Townsend Warner among others — the Updike, about an asthmatic who inherits 40 cats when his mother dies, is terrific. There are some fine cartoons — ‘Never, ever think outside the box’, one man instructs his cat as it stands beside its litter tray – and there’s even a piece about a cat-themed film festival. This included an unmissable work entitled ‘Sausalito Cat’ made by former Andy Warhol ‘superstar’ Viva, consisting of ‘painfully out-of-focus shots of the Sausalito waterfront interspersed with footage of a black cat standing in a doorway.’
All the virtues of the New Yorker writing are here, and quite a few of the defects too — several pieces being a good nine times too long. My own favourite is one of the shortest — the apparently true story of a cat on a New York construction site which adopted some orphaned baby rats. The cat suckled the rats, bathed them devotedly and treated them as if they were her own offspring. ‘This went on for about a week. Then she started eating them. She ate one a day for seven days.’
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