The Tortoiseshell Cat: Patrick R Chalmers

The tortoiseshell cat

She sits on the mat

As gay as a sunflower she;

In orange and black you see her blink,

And her waistcoat’s white, and her nose is pink,

And her eyes are green of the sea.

But all is vanity, all the way;

Twilight’s coming, and close of day,

And every cat  in the twilight’s grey,

Every possible cat.

 

Matilda and friends

 

The tortoiseshell cat,

She is smooth and fat,

And we call her Josephine,

Because she weareth upon her back

This coat of colours, this raven black,

This red of the tangerine.

But all is vanity, all the way;

Twilight follows the brightest day,

And every cat in the twilight’s grey,

Every possible cat.

 

Patrick Reginald Chalmers (1872–1942) was an Irish writer, who worked as a banker. His first book was Green Days and Blue Days (1912), followed by A Peck of Malt (1915).

He wrote in a number of different areas, including field sports, deerstalking and horse racing, as well biographies of Kenneth Grahame and J. M. Barrie. He was a contributor to Punch magazine and The Field, and editor of the hunting diaries of Edward VIII (as Prince of Wales). He also wrote much poetry, with topics war, dogs and cats, and Irish life, as well as hunting and fishing.

A line from his poem “Roundabouts and Swings” has passed into common parlance, though the origin is often no longer remembered.

Wikipedia

Now that’s interesting, isn’t it? The same poet who wrote this pussycat poem also wrote a kind of novelty poem in which these two sets of ‘end’ lines appear:

But lookin’ at it broad, an’ while it ain’t no merchant king’s,
What’s lost upon the roundabouts we pulls up on the swings!”

For “up an’ down an’ round,” said ‘e, “goes all appointed things,
An’ losses on the roundabouts means profits on the swings!”

And that’s the origin of the common phrase “What you lose on the roundabouts you gain on the swings” or “It’s swings and roundabouts”.

I’d give you the whole poem but it’s long, and in a kind of Irish-Victorian cockney dialect that becomes tedious after a while. I do prefer the cat poem, which is a little masterpiece of cat-poem-ery.

Featured Image cat is Matilda, because when she was a stray, not so long ago, she used to ‘waltz’ up from somewhere mysterious beyond the bottom of my the garden to be fed. Matilda/Tilly is young, and even naughtier than my other tortoiseshell. Difficult to even get a photo of her because she is always waltzing or haring about (haring: verb, British: running around as fast and as wildly as a hare).

Here are some black and white moggies, whilst I’m at it. I struggle to get photos from my tablet to the computer to this blog. Something always seems to go wrong, and in the most dramatic way.

Overnight, for instance, my tablet has accumulated around 500 album covers in it’s photo memory – all the stuff I’ve been listening to on Kindle and Spotify – at least six copies of each. I’ve just been laboriously deleting them all. So let’s make hay while the sun shines:

Left to right, top to bottom:

  1. The elusive Frizzle
  2. Hugo and Hector
  3. Pandy, Hugo and Hector
  4. Ditto
  5. George doing what George does best / least dangerously.

 

Goodbye, Miss Chips

I originally trained to be a teacher. Three entirely wasted years at training college, using up all the grant students were then entitled to claim from their Local Authorities: bridges now were burnt; boats had been sunk; no second chances.  Why did I do that?

At eighteen, going on fourteen, I had based my decision on a range of factors, which were:

Not knowing what else to do, apart from getting a job, which I sensed (accurately) would be a disaster at this stage of my life. All I wanted was to be a poet, but there didn’t seem to be any openings for poets. A tutor suggested working in a factory while I wrote. I had never been in a factory and at that age was still running on the inverse snobbery of my parents, who were upper-working/lower-middle class. Only lower working-class people worked in factories. I had read Altarwise by Owl-Light from beginning to end. I had read The Wife of Bath’s Tale, albeit the bowdlerised schoolbook version. Duh! How could such a prodigy; a future poet almost if not quite as good as Dylan Thomas; such a towering intellectual be expected to work in a factory?

Later, I was to work in not one but several factories – collating greetings cards – week after week of sickeningly scarlet Valentines cards in the middle of July, I remember, glue and glitter that got everywhere – and a bookbinding factory. I would feel more at ease in such anonymous, uncompetitive, unchallenging environments than in any other. But at eighteen, going on fourteen, you know nothing and you think you know everything.

The shorter-than-me, half-Austrian boyfriend had accepted a place at a teacher training college in London. He was a maths genius, or so he’d been telling me for the past year. I had no way of knowing since I had never scored higher than twelve per cent in any maths test. I had spent the larger part of the previous year being dazzled by his talk of infinity and quadratic equations, while doing nothing very much in the way of studying English and French.  As a result I passed my two A Levels, but with grades so very, very low that to all intents and purposes they were fails; and this in spite of having achieved high-grade O levels in the same subjects.

I was supposed to be doing sociology A Level as well. People would joke that certificates in sociology were printed on toilet paper. I must be the only person from that era who hasn’t got one. I can’t remember a thing about sociology except that the textbook was heavy, and by Stephen Something-or-other. I must have stopped going to lectures early on in order to spend more time in the company of my long-haired pocket genius drinking black coffee and cheap cider, sharing plates of chips and learning about infinity and quadratic equations.

I knew I would never see him again but somehow my going to another, similar college maintained the connection to what had been the best year of my life in the sense of being alive. You don’t realise – the exhilaration of being eighteen and in love for the first time – the sense of possibilities – a whole vast planet yours for the taking. How soon that fades, but at the time you don’t realise, which is a mercy.

students

I needed to get away from Dad, but by some strange Freudian miscalculation managed to get myself accepted at a training college a short bus-ride away – so no actual leaving home and another three years of fierce and occasionally violent rows with Dad. I could have got away. And yet I couldn’t. It would take marriage – the classic short hop to another, similar man – to achieve that.

My mother said I was making a mistake – that I wasn’t temperamentally suited to be a teacher. But hey, I’m a trial-and-error kinda gal: I kinda have to do things, mess them up, realise I messed them up, then do the same thing over and over and over again.

So, for whatever reason I ended doing three separate six-week teaching practices in three separate schools and being dreadful on every occasion. I could hardly eat for terror during these six week torments. I hardly slept at night, knowing I would have to get up, get the bus and walk into that room full of evil, antisocial aliens all over again the following day.

Yes, I was the trainee in tears, who had to be rescued by her tutor from a room full of paper-aeroplane throwing, desk-banging, screeching, cheeking, fighting, mocking, singing, rioting teenagers.

I was the cowering, red-faced idiot in the too-short skirt being leered and sniggered at by boys taller, and only two or three years younger than myself, in black blazers. ‘Get yourself some glasses,’ my tutor suggested. ‘They’d make you look older: plain glass, of course.’

I was the one who had to be taught fractions in the staff room by the maths teacher before assembly, then fight my way in to 4B and teach a double lesson of it before it faded from short-term memory, praying the kids didn’t ask any questions because at that point I would be stuffed.

I was the inspiring young pedagogue who set creative writing tasks and got back forty-two almost identical one-line stories about Frankenstein creating a monster, the film having been on telly the night before.

The Certificate in Education, on crisp, cream paper with fancy scrollwork, which I was awarded at the end of the three years in spite of the above catalogue of disasters, apparently on the basis of an ‘outstanding’ in English (my Main Course) would rapidly become the albatross around my neck. Prospective employers would query, naturally, why, having studied for three years to be a teacher I wasn’t actually, now, teaching. And how could I explain without telling them the whole sad story I have just told you? Then they would have thought – what a dork. And why would anyone employ a dork? Nothing – believe me, nothing – fails like failure.

After a while I had a bit of a brainwave: what was to stop me leaving the Certificate in Education off my CV? And so I did that. It created a secondary problem in that with those three years  blank it looked as if you had been locked up in some sort of young offenders’ institution or living rough on the streets, but I found ways round it. I began to apply the only talent I actually possessed, and that in goodly measure – creativity/lateral thinking – the ability to spin an ever more intricate protective web of tales around myself – to my CV and other areas of my life. I became an invented, acceptable, suitable person. In the process, for many decades I lost sight of whoever was underneath.

But I survived.

THE DESERT ISLAND QUESTION (2)

Is your writing ego-driven? Are you, in your fantasy life, interviewed on Radio 4 by some really clever person? As you write, do you perhaps picture yourself on Breakfast TV’s red sofa, explaining what inspired your latest best-selling children’s book or modestly outlining plans for your upcoming stint as Poet Laureate? Did you read Stephen King’s account of his journey from hospital laundry (maggots crawling up his arms) to best-selling wonder-person and find yourself being Stephen King?

Now, on your Desert Island, is there going to be any point in writing?

Our island is metaphorical, of course. Desert Islands come in all shapes and forms – poverty, disability, obscurity … unpublishability. In fact I discovered a new kind of Island only yesterday.

As you will see from my previous post my blog ‘stats’ stopped working, or appeared to have. Normally I get feedback on the number of people who have looked at my blog and the countries they are in at the time. But for a day and a half there was nothing: no lit up countries, no nice little national flags. I had no way of telling whether this was computer weirdness or whether there actually was nobody at all in the entire universe reading my blog. Suddenly I didn’t feel in the least like writing, or posting. Oh, woe, whatever’s the point, I was asking myself, if even that one inexplicable individual in Bosnia Herzegovina will not be perusing my deathless prose? And then the penny dropped – time to put your money where your mouth is, Clever Clogs – time to answer your own Desert Island Question. Post on into the CyberVoid intrepid BlogLady – if you dare.

 Anyway…

Something to mull over, from American poet Emily Dickinson:

‘Publication is not the business of poets.’

Can we lump prose writers and poets together? Well, yes and no. I see it as a continuum, with, on the extreme left ART FOR ART’S SAKE* and on the extreme right MONEY FOR GOD’S SAKE**.

* L’art pour l’art – French philosopher Victor Cousin, early 19th Century

** Money for God’s Sake (10CC – more recently)

On the whole I’d say poetry – real poetry, not the verses you find in greetings cards and newspaper obituary columns – falls close to the Art for Art’s Sake end of the scale, if only because a person is lucky to get a poem published anywhere let alone make any money out of it – so if they persist with poetry they are likely to be doing so for love.

Prose is harder to locate between the two extremes. There are many ‘craftsmen’ writers who, although they enjoy writing and are good at it, do it solely to make a living. On our metaphorical Desert Island, with no prospect of, or need for, remuneration, they would probably be channelling their energies elsewhere: using some of that delicious stash of paper to design a raft, or to draw up plans for a three-story, dual-aspect extension to the hermit’s cabin. They would be figuring out better ways to catch fish, or constructing ingenious bridges out of liana vines to cross the ravine which I have just this minute discovered divides the island practically into two. They might pause to pop a message into a bottle: no harm in covering all angles.

And then there are – or we must presume there are – the ‘artist’ writers, those who write because they must, or because writing serves some sort of higher purpose for them.

Flannery O’Connor famously said she wrote ‘because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say’. I find this too. I find it difficult to follow a line of reasoning through to the end, feel overwhelmed sometimes by the chaos of new ideas. Everything splinters; it’s so hard to hold on to, like living inside a kaleidoscope. But when I write the shiny fragments settle down and start to form a picture. The more I write the clearer the picture becomes. I don’t express myself very well verbally, either. I used to mind a great deal about being forced into the role of Good Listener whereas inside I knew myself to be a Rampant Natterer. I am more sanguine nowadays, consoling myself with the words of Michel de Montaigne:

The world is all babble, and I never met a man who did not talk more, rather than less, than he should; yet half our lives are wasted in this way.

(Essay: On the Education of Children)

To be continued…