For all the tea in China

Two halves of the same cat

Every autumn I start putting out food for the strays again. I always tell myself I won’t, because strays means bonding and bonding means coming indoors and coming indoors means staying for ever and a day. I remind myself that I cannot save every single stray cat in all the world. Nevertheless, that seems to be what I am programmed to do. I have no other purpose.

The first dishes usually go to waste, but on the second day of the putting out of the food, strays appear; sometimes one, occasionally four but most often two of them. And so it is this year. At first I thought there was only one, since all I could see of it was a large, black furry bottom poking out of the dog/cat kennel whilst the head inside busily slurped. But no, it’s two – I heard yowling round the side and caught them nose to nose, whisker to whisker, an all black one and a mostly black one with white bits on her face. A boy and a girl, I think, possibly brother and sister. They will have to organise themselves not to turn up at exactly the same time.

The lawn fails to get the message

The lawn mowing duo turned up on time today, weather-beaten and muscular in their matching green tee-shirts. I haven’t yet decided whether they are married or siblings. Heavy morning rain had ceased only seconds before. They must have a line to whoever or whatever turns the rain on and off. (The cats think this is me.)

The industrial, gas-powered machines were unloaded from the truck, one large green person took the front and one the back and it was done in a tenth of the time it would have taken me. I could just about still do it, but have reached the stage of breathlessness/ agonising boredom where I just don’t want to do it. A monthly visit from The Green People is my only luxury.

They will not be back now till March, when the grass officially starts growing again. The grass has now, since it is November, officially stopped growing. Unfortunately nobody has told the grass. After the Green People left last month it was so made up, so overjoyed to have been mown by professionals, that it put on a spurt of growth. I have a feeling another spurt will follow their November visit. So under a carpet of snow, that bright green grass will be growing and growing…

But then, I’m not the one who will be doing the first cut next spring. Yay!

I have decided I don’t like my lady vet

I used to like the vet, when he was an eastern European chap with an accent you could cut with a knife. I don’t think he was Russian – because would Russian vets be allowed to come over here? – just sounded for all the world like one of those meercats in the TV ads. But he has gone. I went in one day to discover he had gone, for good, to France. He has taken all his cats, and his dogs, so he can’t be coming back. Indeed, why would you come back, here? I wouldn’t come back here if I had a chance to go somewhere else: no, not for all the tea in China.

But the lady we have instead – well, she is a lady, for a start. And she’s not him. She has an accent but not the same accent. She’s large, she has a tattoo and a brusque manner and I can’t bring myself to trust her. She talks to me like some generic, probably senile, Old Person, some tiresome Member of the Public; whereas he – I felt, anyway – actually seemed to be talking to me. I got the feeling he saw me as unpredictable and scarily odd: everybody seems to react to me like that – so be grateful that I am blogging rather than turning up on your street corner or lurking by the swings in the park. But occasionally amusing. And he didn’t make the mistake of thinking I was daft.

Really, it must be genetic. Why is it still easier to trust a man even though, throughout my life at any rate, the men I have known (in any detail) have proven themselves crueller, more devious, more judgmental and less supportive than women? No wonder we remain unemancipated.

But still, I think I’ll bite the bullet and try out (gasp!) another surgery altogether.

I think bread may be causing my IBS

I ate an experimental sandwich at lunch time and yes, the agony has returned. I am writing to distract myself from it. Think I will go and make myself a hot water bottle and distract myself still further by watching a really dreadful Christmas movie and knitting yet another dishcloth.

Slow, Slow (Slow-Slow-Slow)

When I gave up my TV set, angry at the BBC for refusing to fund free licences for the over 75s from next year, I expected to be watching less TV. In fact, no TV. That was before I discovered Amazon Prime.

Now, I have been paying for Amazon Prime for years without understanding exactly what it was. It used to be just getting your parcels the next day, then the price went up – considerably. I was never entirely clear why this should be and several times cancelled my Amazon Prime subscription, only to go slinking back to it as soon as my parcels started taking ages to arrive.

Only recently did I realise that all this time I could have been listening to music and watching movies free, gratis and for nothing. You do have to have the patience hunt for the good free stuff, though. A lot of the free stuff is bad – films so execrably bad you wonder how on earth they got the funding to make them; films with plot holes, logic holes, unsuitable-looking actors and actors who obviously aren’t actors at all but people netted at random from the local pub or garage forecourt.

I watched – forced myself to watch – recently a Christmas Movie so indescribably awful… Well, suffice it to say that the young heroine spent the whole movie strutting about the snow-clad Rocky Mountains (or similar – it’s a bit vague where they are) in a mini-skirt, surrounded by fake snow. The strutting about and the deafening clatter of her monstrous high heels continued throughout the movie. Everyone else was wearing either suits or Christmas jumpers.

At one point there was an inexplicable Soup Kitchen. It just sort of materialised, so that they could cook their Christmas Buns in it when the plumbing failed in their – Christmas Bakery Thingy. And the men in suits – well, the suits were all identical, all a size or two too small – and the men inside them all had lantern jaws and shoulders like Popeye, post spinach. Presumably the local gym had supplied the men, and a cheap-ish men’s outfitters had hired the suits out in bulk.

However, it’s worth the effort of wading through the turkeys to get to the good stuff. Last night I watched a film called He Won’t Get Far On Foot about an alcoholic, wheelchair-bound cartoonist. It was somewhat “gritty” and sad, but also funny. Joachim Phoenix. Heard of him but never seen him before.

And before that a French film: The House By the Sea. There’s something about French films, so very cool and triste and sophisticated. Everybody smoking more than is good for them, and occasionally committing suicide. Plenty of expressive shrugs.

There’s Mr Robot, of course. My absolute favourite and still going on. Every Monday a new episode appears, like magic, on my tablet. The only trouble is it’s so very noir it’s difficult to see what’s going on – I mean, the lighting is clever, and super-creepy, and the hero, Eliot, wears a black hoodie… They do all tend to mumble, which makes them ultra authentic and cool, but mumbling in an urban American accent can be a problem if you’re not American or urban – or cool, or young. Then I discovered subtitles. Yes, you can turn them on and off at will and they stand out so well against the pitch-blackness of all those sinister rooms.

And now, from the same director (Sam Esmail) there is Homecoming with Julia Roberts. Better lit but just as creepy. I don’t normally like Julia Roberts. She strikes me as one of that small bunch of actors who have a personal charisma so great that they will always be watchable, but at the same time are always playing themselves. Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, John Wayne… always themselves. Ultra-strong signal, narrow bandwidth. However, she is good in this. She’s excellent at suffering, I think. Silent suffering.

And I think I have finally discovered a phenomenon known as Slow TV. It’s not exactly a new thing – does anyone remember The Potter’s Wheel intermission? And the (very) lengthy shot of a photograph of a little girl with chalks, at a blackboard? The present-day version is a kind of televised vlog produced by an exhausted, unshaven chap of a certain age who buys a narrow boat and sails it around the waterways of England.

He seems to be on his own and filming everything with a mobile phone, although he is quite good at propping it up and leaving it at an angle so that you can see him tying the boat up prior to stopping for one of his many cups of tea. The first episode takes place almost entirely inside his camper van, where he sits, for days, surrounded by all his worldly goods, waiting for his purchase of his narrow boat to go through. It rains on the windscreen. He wonders if he is doing the right thing. He eats pork pies and pizzas discovered in village petrol stations. He drinks tea. Always that same mug.

And after that it is sailing – up one canal, down another, through a very long tunnel, then through an even longer tunnel. Tunnels are scary. You never know when you are going to meet another narrowboat coming the other way. But the England he passes through, at four miles per hour, is very green, very lush, very damp, very quiet and apparently completely devoid of people. Just – wonderful!

Haunted By Davids

Haunted by Davids

I observed fairly early on that the names of everyday boys and men, and those of the men in the romantic short stories in Nan’s old Woman’s Realms belonged to two different subsets of men’s names. Boys in my class, for instance, tended to be called John, James, Robert, William, Michael, David, Richard, Thomas, Charles or Gary. I remember one Andrew – but he was quite exotic – and one Paul – but of course he was Polish. What we didn’t have were any Dirks, Aidens, Bryces, Calebs, Dantes or Micahs.

I guessed, correctly, that a plain big lumpy girl like me was never going to snare herself a Micah. But I was haunted by Davids, for some reason. Everywhere I went, throughout my life there a David would “happen to be”. For some reason all Davids seemed to like me, whereas no other-named kind of man did.

I didn’t even like Davids, at least not in a marrying way. Davids sounded as if they ought to be round-shouldered and work in shoe shops, bringing out boxes of shoes to shoehorn onto your ungrateful feet; or perhaps behind the desk at the library, pathetically eager to help you locate obscure non-fictions in the card-index system or to point you in the direction of French dictionaries.

And so I married a man with another ordinary-ish man’s name. I didn’t particularly like it, but it was attached to him so I married it. Over the next twenty-two years or so I came to feel that I might have been better off with a David after all. Coincidentally, Devon Aunt chose to name all her rescue cats David. One stray, furry David after another, for thirty years or so.

Apple Peel and Cherry Pips

Halloween used to be a good time to find out the name of your future mate. At Halloween, it was said, a girl might see his face reflected dimly in a mirror – maybe standing behind you. I wonder if clothed or unclothed… Then there was the game with the apple core. You peeled an apple, being sure to keep the peel in a single piece, and tossed the peel over your shoulder, where it would – or might – form the initial of your husband to be.

Alternatively you could line up hazelnuts along a hot grate, giving each hazelnut the name of a prospective husband. Then you would recite:

If you love me, pop and fly; if you hate me, burn and die!

A variation – such of the nuts as cracked would be the fickle suitors.

Or you could place your shoes in the form of a letter ‘T’ (representing Thor’s hammer) and say

Hoping this night my true love to see, I place my shoes in the form of a “T”.

And then there were the cherry stones, which you placed around the rim of your plate as you ate them. My Nan actually taught me this one:

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief.

Nan preserved cherries in the summer from the cherry tree in the garden and we ate them in the winter, from thick glass jars arrayed on shelves around the top of the living room, just underneath the ceiling. But what I couldn’t understand was how one Sunday I was going to marry a Thief and the next a Rich Man, and so ad infinitum, all winter long. And if I didn’t like what appeared I could always eat another cherry.

Apparently there was also Silk, Satin, Muslin, Rags. That was what you would be married in. But Nan didn’t teach me that.

The Green Oil Lamp

I have only ever been to a fortune teller twice in my life. The second one asked me if I was married to a long-distance lorry driver, as she sensed my husband seemed to be absent a lot. I wanted to tell her that you didn’t need a long-distance lorry to seem to be absent a lot. A shed at the bottom of the garden would do just as well.

The first fortune teller had been the vicar’s wife, in a small but elaborate tent, masquerading as Gypsy Rose Something Or Other. I was quite young, and it was at a fête in the grounds of the local “big house”. I remember I had just failed to get the metal ring along yards of wiggly electrified loops, and was looking for something else to do. And thinking back – yes, I was dressed as Florence Nightingale in a longish skirt and a white apron, and clutching a green oil lamp.

I had been in for the fancy dress competition because Mum told me I must, and I hadn’t had any more success with that than the metal ring and the electrified snake. The green oil lamp occupied one entire small hand, and it was greasy and smelled of paraffin. I wanted to put it down somewhere and forget about it but I couldn’t, because Mum had told me I mustn’t.

The vicar’s wife looked at me despairingly from beneath her curtain-ring fringed headscarf. Then she waved her hands about and around her crystal ball. You will have four children and, um, an operation when you are forty, she pronounced, and snatched my penny or tuppence from the hand that wasn’t holding the oil lamp.

I waited for those four children with an odd superstitious confidence, considering I knew it was only the vicar’s wife; and I felt quite aggrieved when not only did the promised four offspring not arrive, but none did. And I do believe I rather dreaded that operation, which also did not happen – or at least not when it was supposed to.

The Bells, the Bells…!

I can’t pretend to have read Victor Hugo’s novel, but I do believe these words were said by Quasimodo, the deaf and deformed bell-ringer of Notre Dame. To check this, I googled who said the bells the bells.

Now, this is only the latest of today’s google searches. Before that I googled sonnerie, of which more (probably) in a subsequent post. Briefly, sonnerie is a musical form based on the sound of bells in a bell tower, or similar. And then I thought, who lived in a bell-tower and slobbered The Bells, the Bells…! Was it not Quasimodo?

Before that it was rotoscoping animation. This was because I found a free film to watch on Amazon Prime (no mean feat, since Amazon Prime contains some of the very worst films ever – that’s why they’re free). The all-knowing reviewers of this particular free film were going on about the technicalities of rotoscoping. What on earth is rotoscoping? I wondered. Turns out it’s a kind of tracing technique used in animation. The one example I can remember having seen is that iconic A-ha video:

aha2

Gosh, that Morten Harket was beautiful. Apparently he’s 60 nowadays. This is not good news.

Anyway, back to the googling. Before that I searched battery operated candle. I was thinking of lighting a solitary candle to celebrate Samhain. The trouble is you are supposed to leave it a-flickering in your window all night. I am averse to leaving anything burning overnight, especially with 19 cats restlessly patrolling the windowsills. Terrible fire risk. Also, the neighbours would probably have thought I’d lost the plot and come over to check on me.

Before that it was how to celebrate samhain alone. I mentioned Samhain in my last post and was suddenly inspired to – well, what exactly was I inspired to do? It’s all gone a bit blurry; after all it was several hours ago –

I believe I decided to replace all Christian festivals, in the privacy of my own home, with the marking of the eight sabbats on the Wheel of the Year:

sabbat

I recalled that I was an Old Soul (probably) and therefore (probably) pre-dated Christianity. I needed to return to my roots like the proverbial falling leaf (reading suggestion: Falling Leaves by Adeline Yen Mah).

You see, this is the trouble with being (probably) ADD – on the great, green pond of life you hop from one enticing lily-pad to the next, onward and onward, sideways and back, and then you can’t exactly recall how you got there.

To find the above Wheel of the Year I see I googled pagan festyivals. It found it in spite of the fat-fingered typing.

Before that it was wendy williams meghan markle latest. Now, this really lets me down after all the above semi-intellectual stuff, but Meghan Markle annoys me. She has especially annoyed me recently with all that simpering stuff about being a vulnerable new mom and having been so naïve as to think the British press would be fair to poor little me.

She married a Prince, for Pete’s sake, having previously been an actress in some TV drama that hardly anybody watched. She has him; she’s become a Duchess; she has the super-elegant wardrobe and all that money! She has comfort and security for life. She has that exorbitantly remodelled Frogmore Cottage, vaster and more luxurious than any cottage lived in by any normal British peasant:

cottage 4.jpg

she managed the first of the two requisite babies (the heir and the spare) in spite of being somewhat long-in-the-tooth for such enterprises, and no doubt the second will follow on schedule, and no doubt it will be a girl so that they can designer-dress it.

She and Harry chose to make a spiteful (him) and whingeing (her) documentary about how terribly stressed and put-upon they were during a visit to a continent where many people are suffering unimaginable hardships on a daily basis. Oh, thank you so much for asking how I am. You see (flutter, flutter) people hardly ever ask how I am…. She’s an actress, and she’s acting now, and not even that well.

And before that it was alan rickman death. Sadly, when you get older you tend to be plagued by doubts as to people’s existential status. I had a feeling he was dead, but then I thought, maybe he isn’t – but I’m sure he died – but surely he was too young to have – ? I was wondering whether I could face watching Love, Actually just one more time. Maybe twenty-five was not enough – but then I thought, before I watch it I need to know whether Alan Rickman died or not.

I sometimes wonder how I managed to exist at all, before there was Google. I seem to remember ordering numerous books from the local library. They seemed to have to order them for you, even if there wasn’t a single copy in the entire County system, even if they were terribly expensive and no one else, ever again, would want to take out that book, and you only needed it to check a single fact. You had to fill in an A6 size green card. In triplicate –

Things that go bump in the night

Recently I spent a pleasant hour inserting mildly relevant emoticons into the names of my ‘Contacts’ on my new mobile phone. Well, I lead a very dull life and have to take my fun where I can find it. The friend referred to in this blog as ‘Daisy’ had a daisy and ‘Rose’ had a rose; my friend down the road who in her (misspelt, incomprehensible) texts seem fixated on the ladybird, got a ladybird. My plumber got the umbrella + raindrops, my dentist got the little yellow man in the surgical mask and my doctor got the sickly green face. Ex got the anchor, and I won’t expand on that one.

When it came to the hospital I found myself automatically selecting the skull and crossbones. Half an hour later – superstitious, I suppose – I went back in and changed it to a spider’s web. Once in the hospital, I reminded myself, it is almost impossible to find your way around, and difficult to locate the Exit when you leave.

I suppose we are all a bit anxious about skulls. I remember the point in my childhood, if not the exact age, when I suddenly realised I had a skull inside my head, and that was what was keeping my brains in. It worried me. And then I started looking at Mum and Dad, and Nan and Grandad and everyone. They’ve all got skulls inside their heads! They’ve all got squidgy brains inside them!

It’s just one part of the vertebrate skeleton, but there’s a certain fascination, isn’t there? Why do skulls appear everywhere at Halloween? I guess we like to be frightened, but not too much. Presumably in imagination we superimpose the living face over the dead bone, and we don’t only do this for our contemporaries. Isn’t it fascinating to come face to face with a real Neanderthal, modelled from an ancient skull?

neanderthal

I was writing about paintings of St Jerome yesterday, and how he is surrounded by his own particular ‘iconography’ – red clothing, book, writing materials, and sometimes eyeglasses. This morning it occurred to me that I hadn’t said anything about the skull, which he always has. Was it the same little whisper of anxiety that made me delete the skull emoticon from my Contacts?

Skulls appear all over art, particularly medieval and renaissance art. In those days, life was, from our perspective, unimaginably short. A man from a landowning family in the Middle Ages had an average lifespan of 31.3 years. This is taking into account an infant mortality of 12% or thereabouts. Even in the Renaissance, say late 16th and early 17th century, the average lifespan was 39.7 years. Not long to win your passage into Heaven, and not long to avoid the terrifying actuality of Hell. So paintings of the time showed the skull, to remind people that they must focus on spiritual matters.

aston

Sir Thomas Aston at his Wife’s Deathbed

All this is a bit creepy, Halloween or no. However, in paintings of St Jerome the skull has a more nuanced meaning. The skull is the seat of thought and of spiritual perfection. The death of the physical body, symbolised by the skull, enabled one to be reborn at a higher level, where the spirit could rule. In St Jerome’s case – he was known for his translation of the Bible from Greek into Latin, and for his many Commentaries on the books of the Bible, and he is often depicted as a very old man with an angel, or occasionally a dove, whispering in his ear. The skull in paintings of Jerome, therefore, indicates that he is writing down truths from the spiritual world, even as his physical body fails him.

I don’t know whether you like Halloween? I personally don’t, mainly because, in this country anyway, it has become so tawdry and ridiculous. I live on my own and don’t like the prospect of four large teenage boys wearing masks knocking on my door at eight o’clock at night demanding – anything. Trick or Treat seems to me just a disguised form of blackmail, an implied threat. I also think it’s plain stupid, in this day and age, for smaller children to be sent out after dark to knock on strangers’ doors, with no knowledge of who or what might be waiting to open that door to them.

I prefer the pre-Christian festival of Samhain (sow-rin) or All Hallows. In Celtic times, after Harvest, it was customary to mark the arrival of ‘the dark half of the year’. People lit bonfires and wore costumes to frighten away ghosts, for it was believed that on All Hallows Eve, and at this time of year generally, barriers between Earth and the Other World became thin. The Living and the Dead might interact: there would be ghoulies and ghosties about.

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggety beasties
And thing that go bump in the night
Good Lord, deliver us.

An Old Naked Guy in a Curtain

Haven’t forgotten about cat/Halloween posts. Naked Guy just – appeared to me in a vision – or something.

saint jerome

Well, my sister, the one who was recently widowed, rang me from Canada. As part of her recovery she has signed on for an art degree course made up of a series of modules. Currently she is engaged upon a compulsory ‘painting’ module; something she had been dreading all summer.

Apparently, when the weekly project was announced – to copy an old master entitled Saint Jerome and the Angel by someone called Remi, there were grimaces all round. I’d have grimaced too. However, she completed it and, apart from getting his right leg a trifle too short in my opinion (I didn’t tell her) she made a really good job of it. I was going to try to insert her painting in here, but then I thought it wouldn’t be fair as I hadn’t asked her, and it might accidentally ‘identify’ her. Her angel a wee bit more spikey and etherial. We agreed the Remi angel was a bit of a porker. Maybe it’s just the draperies.

Anyway, we spent an hour or so on the phone discussing the Remi painting. I found it on my Fire after several false starts. No, not that one… it’s an old naked guy in a red curtain! But they were all old naked guys in red curtains. Everybody in the world seemed to have done their version of him. He’s got a leg, that pokes out… The same leg that’s a bit too short in her version.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do about the other leg. He doesn’t seem to have another leg…

We perused the painting together, and located it. It’s just a heel and part of a foot, really, and it looks for all the world like part of that improbable red drapery, but it is where a foot would be, given a knee where it is, beneath the book.

Sister and I tend to look at things differently. She looks at pictures like blocks of colour, and shade, and artistic stuff. I, not being gifted in that direction, look at them like stories. I want to know why stuff is there at all.

What’s that little pot? I asked. Next to the skull (why the skull?) there is a little black pot. Thinking about it, we decided it was an ink pot, which would go with the scrawny little feather in his right hand, which must be a quill.

Why is he reading?

We realised he was not reading. He was writing stuff down. In those days, presumably, paper or parchment would be bound into ‘books’ or ledgers.

What is he writing down?

Whatever the angel is telling him. Look – their eyes are locked, they are in rapt concentration on one another. She is teaching him something – look at her hands, she is making a series of points, enumerating them.

I don’t particularly like the painting. Why is her hair swept back by some invisible wind, whilst his beard isn’t being swept forward? Why does that left foot look so much like a piece of red curtain? He’s got the ‘flabby’ aspect of the ancient St Jerome right, but then why are his ancient arms and shoulders so magnificently muscled? Why is he naked in any case? Who sits about in a curtain? Why are her wings that dingy grey? What’s the point of having an angel if she’s – depressing?

This morning, out of curiosity, I decided to find out a bit more about Saint Jerome. He seems to have led a rather muddled real life but has a correspondingly vivid legendary life. He was the one who translated the Bible from Greek into Latin, producing what is now known as the Vulgate Bible. He also wrote a string of Commentaries on books of the Bible, and it is these that the angel is helping him with.

(He’s also the saint who, legendarily, removed the thorn from that poor lion’s paw. I love him for that, even though he only did it legendarily. Being a cat-person, if I came across a lion with a thorn in its poor old paw I would feel irresistibly drawn to try to help it. And no doubt the lion would eat me. )

st jerome lion

I like enjoy this painting much more than Old Naked Guy. Look at that lion! Oh, my poor paw! its face is saying. I love it. I suspect a real lion would be bigger than that in relation to a human being, but maybe not.

Further research. Like many saints, Jerome tends to be depicted with  a number of iconic objects, among them red garments (explains the curtain), a book and writing implements. Later – not in this painting – there were also eyeglasses. This is because in his Commentary to Ezechiel he complains that:

I am quite unable to go through the Hebrew books with such light as I have at night, for even in the full light of day they are hidden from my eyes owing to the smallness of the letters.

This made me smile. Suddenly I liked Old Naked Guy a lot better. Whilst researching for my previous post (the one about Cat’s Cradle) I had to get out the dreaded magnifying glass to read the tiny index. An admission of defeat. I am catching up with Old Guy. Short sighted, I was always comforted that I could read even tiny stuff if I took off my ‘eyeglasses’. Those days are definitely gone.

Addendum: Many, many decades ago I bought a postcard in the souvenir shop a posh London art gallery. I couldn’t afford to buy anything else. It was lurking around for ages, but then, like most of my possessions, it got lost. I loved Dürer – still do – and liked the look of the quiet old gentleman, with his casually sleeping lion and sleeping dog. How quiet it all looked. I so wanted to be in that sunlit room, sitting on one of those wooden benches. And it’s just dawned on me – that was St Jerome too.

durer 4.jpg

 

The Magic of Cat’s Cradle

When I was a kid some other kid showed me how to make a cat’s cradle by looping a circle of string around my hands. That was only one of the many possible patterns, I realise now – and probably the most basic; but nobody told me so I just thought – been there, done that, boring!

Now I discover there’s all this sort of stuff, for one pair of hands or two. Maybe more!

cats cradle 2

I seem to be spending the whole of my old age discovering yet more ways in which my youth was totally and utterly wasted.

I thought I might venture a few cat and/or Halloween-related posts. I have a really good book of English folklore – obtained second-hand/falling to bits – and with some difficulty. I also have The Golden Bough. These should serve as a starting point. There’s the good old internet to fill in any gaps, of course, but I do like to start with books, old books; proper books, all heavy and faded and dusty and smelling of – ah! -book.

I always assumed it was called Cat’s Cradle because what you were making was a cradle for a rather small cat. However, apparently not. It’s likely to have come from cratch-cradle. Cratch is one of those archaic English words. It used to mean – well, it meant to scratch or claw (appropriate for cats) but it also meant crib, or manger. It’s related to the French word crèche, which also used to mean manger.

If you type cratch into Google images you’re more likely to see a kind of plain or fancy gate still used on English narrowboats, which is there to ‘restrain’ the boat’s cargo and hold up part of the roof . The connection, I think, is the wooden framework involved – you can see how the same kind of triangular or crutch pattern could also have been the basis of a crib.

cratch2

It’s a kind of trellis, and cat’s cradle is also a kind of trellis.

I was looking for folklore around Cat’s Cradle, because apparently it is one of the oldest games ever, and has been played all over the world. The Golden Bough (1890) says that among the “Esquimaux” tribes, as they were referred to in those days, it was taboo for a little boy to play at Cat’s Cradle. Should he do so, when he grew to be an adult and went off hunting the whale his hands might become entangled in the harpoon line. I am guessing this would not do one’s hands any good. In fact, one might be handless at the end of it.

How is the one thing connected to the other? Because it’s an example of negative magic. In tribal (and not-so-tribal) societies magic can be both positive and negative. Positive magic would be to do a certain thing in order to make something desirable happen. Negative magic would be to avoid doing a certain thing in order to avoid something undesirable happening. So taboo and negative magic seem to be more or less the same. But it’s quite subtle. For example it’s not taboo to say ‘Do not put your hand in the fire’ – that’s just common sense. Taboo is to avoid doing something symbolic of the thing to be avoided, and the consequences of breaking the taboo will not necessarily take place now but at some time in the future.

Digressing slightly, it seems that in the past, in the village councils of one district of India, it was forbidden for anyone to twirl a spindle. (Since the meetings were all male, I would assume that both men and women might twirl spindles.) The twirling of the spindle would mean that the talk would be doomed to go round in circles and never reach a conclusion. It occurs to me that someone must have been secretly twirling in a dusty corner of the House of Commons over the last three years.

Cat’s Cradle has different names in different countries. In parts of America it is referred to, poetically, as Jack in the Pulpit. In China it’s Fan Sheng (turning rope) and in Russia, more prosaically, it is The Game of String.

choki

In case you should be seeking inspiration for Cat’s Cradle-related reading there’s a book called Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. I would like to claim to have known that all along, but I just found out, and I haven’t read it yet. I’m not entirely sure I want to. It’s science fiction (one of my favourites) but apparently it involves man’s greatest fear: the witnessing, or worse still, the survival of Armageddon.