When I first made her acquaintance she went by the name of Maggie Joy Blunt; she was writing reports of everyday life on the wartime home front and posting them off to the Mass Observation project. She was one of many Mass Observation diarists sampled in a popular series of books by social historian Simon Garfield. The books threw up quite a few eccentric and entertaining characters, but Maggie Joy stood out as a natural writer. Indeed she was constantly trying to get things published – just not very often succeeding – and her diary entries had a cool lucidity; a kind of intelligent overview, that some of the others lacked. I looked forward to reading her entries.
Sometimes I would amuse myself by trying to work out what the real names of these ‘characters’ might have been, before Garfield disguised them. What could ‘Herbert Brush’ have been called, for instance? (Now thought to have been Reginald Charles Harpur, of Sydenham). And Maggie Joy? Now revealed to be Jean Lucey Pratt, who died in 1986. I often wondered what happened in the gaps between her war diary entries. What sort of life did she really live? Well, now we know because Simon Garfield has edited extracts from sixty years of her diary-keeping to bring us A Notable Woman, the romantic journals of Jean Lucey Pratt.
She wrote in fountain pen, usually in Woolworth’s exercise books – about anything, but mostly about men, work and cats. Unlucky in love, with an unfortunate leaning towards married men and charming scoundrels, she was desperate to be a wife and mother. Maybe the desperation was her undoing? She never does find a husband but finally succeeds, well into her thirties, in losing her much-loathed virginity and from then on has a series of lovers, or ‘affaires’ as she liked to call them. She talks rather a lot about sex, and desire – and is frank for a woman writing in the ‘thirties and ‘forties. This element is missing from her wartime reports, which tend to focus on the shortage of fully-fashioned silk stockings and her perpetual search for cigarettes. Sometimes, reading her, you wish you could shout down some kind of time-funnel/megaphone – no, don’t smoke those dreadful things, don’t you know they’ll kill you? or Not another married man, Jean – can’t you see he’s an out-and-out rotter and just using you? But of course, she didn’t know, and she couldn’t see. Like the rest of us, she was staggering along in the dark, doing the best she could.
She was also a fellow cat-woman. Yes. I know: women who for whatever reason don’t have children are likely to be verging on insanity and surrounded by cats. Jean, after forays into architecture, journalism and biography, spent her later life running a small shop in Farnham Common, Buckinghamshire. It began as a general shop, but later she specialised in book-selling, and cat-book-selling in particular. She did better at this than at any of her other career choices and ended up supplying cat books to devoted customers all over the world. I’m most of the way through her diaries at this point but find myself a bit flummoxed, really, by her attitude – or perhaps I mean the then-prevailing attitude – towards cats.
She is obviously deeply attached to all her pets – it’s obvious both from the frequency with which she writes about them and the affection in her ‘voice’. As Maggie Joy Blunt in one of the previous Simon Garfield books she tells the story of how her favourite little cat is extremely ill, and she has to take it to the vets, on the bus. The cat is in a basket on her knee, and a child happens to be sitting next to her. After a while her cat gives an awful howl and ‘Maggie’ becomes aware that that she has just died. The child asks about the cat and Maggie, knowing she mustn’t upset the child, fights back her grief and says something to the effect that puss is just having a little nap right now. She records it in a very spare, contained sort of way, but it’s the story that everyone remembers reading in floods of tears. I am hoping it doesn’t come up again in A Notable Woman because I don’t think I can bear to read it a second time.
And yet – none of her cats seem to be neutered. Did cats just not get neutered in those wartime and pre-war days? And her female cats are constantly producing kittens. At intervals she records having to take both mother and kittens off to ‘the cats’ home’ in Slough, or finding a new home for this kitten or that kitten. I just don’t think I could have done it – any of it. It seems – well, irresponsible on the one hand and impossibly pragmatic on the other.
She tells of two kittens ‘stoated’ in the woods (her own invented word – I tried it in a game of scrabble recently); one kitten with a hole in its chest which at first she thinks must have been made by a bird, and another kitten that she had to send one of her visiting gentlemen out to despatch – he later mentions not having been able to do this. Why are kittens roaming around outside, in a wood, to be set upon by stoats? Why isn’t an injured kitten taken to the vets to be despatched, if it’s so severely injured? And why is she sending a man to do it, as if it’s one of men’s jobs to kill things?
I’m not blaming Jean – indeed, perhaps it’s just me being over-sensitive. I’ve come up against this same attitude before, in conversations with my mother, who is perhaps a generation younger than JLP, and it was the one subject over which I felt we were seriously at odds. She tried to explain it to me – that cats in her day were regarded as ‘just animals’ (which annoys me, since we are also ‘just animals’ and I don’t believe that stuff about God setting us in authority over them – as far as I’m concerned, if he did that, he wasn’t a God worth his salt). She said dogs and cats would be fed the scrapings from plates, the scraps from the table. I can’t remember whether she said there just wasn’t commercial cat-food in those days.
Jean herself mentions taking one of her cats to the vet to be advised that it isn’t getting enough of the right sort of food, and how she manages to beg a few extra scraps of meat from the butcher on the way home, since rationing was in place. To be fair, Jean herself didn’t seem to be getting the right sort of food at the time and was plagued with chest infections, recurring boils in the ears and so forth.
The thing that really annoys me is when older people refer to animals as ‘it’. We wouldn’t refer to one another as ‘it’. I can tell male from female cats by sight, but even if faced with a dog, say, or a parakeet – I’d make an attempt at its gender. Better to be wrong than insulting. Mum fudged it, really, by making all cats ‘she’ and all dogs ‘he’. I was never sure if this was a devious way of saying ‘it’ – one less likely to infuriate Linda – or whether dementia had genuinely deprived her of the ability to make the leap – if all dogs are ‘he’ how do puppies get made? Dementia did rob her early, and very noticeably, of logic – of the patently obvious, of the ‘if this then – inescapably – that’ process.
I’d be interested to hear what anyone else thinks about attitudes to pets, particularly if they have happened to stumble across A Notable Woman. I’m going to see the book through, in any case. Sixty years of diary-keeping, throwing a clear light on a period of recent British social history fast vanishing from actual memory, deserve to be read to the end.