Monday, 25 June 2012

The Accidental Resthome for Unwanted Felines

Whilst London and my own little flat are now definitely the place I call home, for the 20 odd years before I moved down here, it was an L-shaped house in a Staffordshire village.  It was a large, wonderfully up-and-down house which meant it was usually full of things happening.  The Accidental Mother maintained (and still does!) an open house for any friends travelling up and down the country, meaning that our own family of four was often joined by numerous others at one time or another.  But asides from the human visitors who came and went there was always a pair of feline family members about the place too.  I have lived with cats since I was born, and for me a house without a cat just doesn't feel quite complete.  A kitchen without a coil of fur asleep on a chair or a laundry basket without a smug, hairy face peering out over the top of it is just plain wrong in my world order.

I always imagined I would get my own cat when I was grown-up (err, still waiting for that to happen...) and had my own place.  But my peripetetic first few years in London, and then my flat without a garden, prevented me from doing this.  Even now I own a property and I don't have to contend with prohibition from a landlord, a cat and the care it needs does not sit well with my slightly chaotic lifestyle.  I couldn't abandon it a couple of nights a week to go out partying, or for the rare weekends I make it out of London, or for weeks at a time when work takes me overseas.  It just wouldn't be fair.  Pets really are for life, not just for the occasional cold Monday evening when you decide to stay in, eat pizza and indulge your desire for trashy TV with an episode of 'Made in Chelsea'.

But I still wanted a cat.  After watching yet another RSPCA advert that reduced me to tears (I'm so tragically British and pathetic about animals), I resolved to see if there were any other way I could get some animal exposure in my life.  I contacted a nearby branch of Cats Protection, and volunteered as a fosterer, opening up my flat to a homeless feline for a week or so at a time.  I could have a cat to stay as often or as little as I like, whenever my schedule permitted.  Perfect!  Cats Protection would also provide me with all the food and equipment my new lodger would need, so fostering for them would not cost me a penny.  I passed a paperwork test (yes, I was a pro at getting tablets down the gullets of wriggling beasts who did not want their nasty medicine) and a home visit (not too many potential kitty death-traps in my flat).
What do you mean 'Don't get too comfortable?'

And then I got a call asking if I could go a pick up a black and white cat from the vet just up the road.  But my entire family were coming to stay that weekend, I cautioned.  There would be noisy DIY and four people in a confined space.  I was told firmly that he would probably love it.  I headed to the vet, and bore home my first feline lodger.  He quickly settled in, and yes, he loved the attention and the company of an entire family that weekend.  That was the unfortunately-named 'Nutty', cat number one.  He had separation anxiety issues that meant he had to know where I was at all times, including when I was taking a shower and he would determinedly balance on the edge of the bath to keep an eye on me.  Then came 'Thursday', a little black cat, dumped on the doorstep of Cats Protection on a Thursday.  (Alas, no - I don't have any say in what the poor things get called.)  And next appeared 'Thyme', a white and tabby lady, light as a feather but round as a bolster, who liked to stuff herself behind the TV, even when it was turned on.  (Her weightlessness turned out to be a bonus when she revealed herself to be a big fan of sitting on people, whatever they were in the middle of doing.)  Number four was a little tabby called 'Phoebe', crippled by shyness she hid behind the sofa for 48 hours, before emerging as a total sweetheart who adored people.  She adored them so much that if they dared so much as take a nap she would poke them awake to purr ingratiatingly right in their confused, weary face.
Stealth cat

And now there is an enormous monster of a feline, who goes by the un-catlike name of 'Russell' (seriously, why?!), lurking atop the highest cupboard in my kitchen.  Horribly shy, with ears ragged from years of street-fighting, he crouches above the fridge and hisses at me when I rummage for the milk.  (Maybe he's just cross at being lumbered with the name 'Russell'.)  On Wednesday he heads off to his new home, to hiss companionably at his new owner.  He's another lodger casually passing through the Accidental Resthome for Unwanted Felines - a pit-stop between what is often a pretty grim past and a much more hopeful, comfortable future.  But for the time these creatures spend in my care, I fret about their shyness and stress levels, hope they're eating enough and wonder what havoc they're wreaking in my flat while I'm out at work.  And, yes, whilst I worry I may one day turn into a crazy old cat lady, it's nice to have a pal to crash on the sofa with after a long day at work...and it's one less unwanted creature wandering London's streets.  We both win, I and the cats that once nobody wanted.

There is nothing remotely sponsored about this post.  I'm simply an admirer of the work that Cats Protection does.  The organisation's staff work very hard, because they are amazingly dedicated to animal welfare.  If you fancy adopting a cat, or could open up your house for a week or two to abandonned creatures awaiting a new full-time home of their own, or even if you'd rather show you care with a little cash please do get in touch with them.  If you're in London click here, or if you're anywhere else in the UK click here.  Thank you!

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Playing away

Fine, I'll admit it. I am having an affair.  I'm cheating on London with another city.  My new love is three and a half thousand miles from the city I call home, and all the cliches are true.  My city-on-the-side is younger and hotter than London.  It gives me things that London doesn't.  And I'm ashamed to say that this has been going on for a while; over the past few years we've spent more than a few dirty weekends together.  In fact, I'm with my new urban love right now.  Want to see a picture?
Check out that blue sky, and the sunshine.  And what a skyline.  And yes, that's a yellow cab you can see in the bottom corner, and the new tower rising above the former World Trade Center. Busted. I'm cheating on London with New York.

I'm sorry, London, but you've got a tough fight ahead to win back my affections.  You need to up your game.  New York is friendlier than you.  Its people smile more, talk to strangers rather than giving them the evil eye and they're not a bad-looking bunch.  The city runs on opportunity and possibility.  Five years in London has left me with a sense that London's glass is typically half-empty.  New York's glass always seems to be half-full, and refills are often free!  This place makes me feel braver, capable of more, less angrily focussed on the annoying minutiae of life.  Of course, when I am here I am on holiday, far from work and the office, and holidays are always more fun than the drudgery of the everyday.  But I could see myself doing all that I do in London here, but having a more enjoyable time of it.     

After several months of driving rain, and a number of sunshine days so small I can count them on one hand, London's been bringing me down.  New York greeted me with warmth at least, and sun after a bit; it is now perfect drinking-outside-on-the pavement weather.  And whilst I've also experienced New York's less pleasant climate extremes - from heatwaves to snowstorms - at least the city knows what's expected from it in each season, and it delivers with conviction.  London has less of that conviction; and not only in relation to its weather.  Maybe it's because New York is a newer city that it is still trying to impress.  Unlike, its older urban sibling, London, it has not sat back on its hundreds of years of achievement and congratulated itself.  Instead New York feels like it's still trying to prove itself, showing the other cities what it can do.  It is a city moving forward, under its own motive power.  London feels like it's stalling right now, treading water, drifting a little maybe.  That's not what a girl wants in her city - it's not nearly so attractive as drive and ambition.  I feel bad but who can help what the heart wants?  Sorry London, I think this might be serious.  

Sunday, 10 June 2012

'Writing Britain': literary landscapes at The British Library

Whilst my weekends are now blissfully free of long days spent pouring over journal articles and tedious tomes in libraries, I do occasionally find myself wandering back to one of my old degree-day haunts; the British Library in Kings Cross.  Not so I can shut myself away to relive the miserable period spent writing my dissertation, but to lounge in its garden with a book or to potter round an exhibition or two.  And the latest exhibition could've been put on just for me.  For someone who loves to read about places, and writes almost entirely about them, 'Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands' was completely fascinating.  Exploring English literature that features places and spaces all over the British Isles, the exhibition contains manuscripts of writers such as Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, Daphne du Maurier, William Wordsworth and even J.K.Rowling, with her description of Kings Cross station, the home of the fabled Platform 9 and 3/4.      
The exhibition is divided into thematic regions; from rural areas to the suburbs, and London to the waters that run through and around the UK.  Inside you can read handwritten novels and notes, view an enormous map of Liverpool made up entirely of words, and listen to recordings of poems and extracts, including the much loved 'Adelstrop' read by the widow of the poet Edward Thomas.  Whilst the descriptions and literary landscapes conjoured up on the pages were certainly interesting, I found myself learning more about how the writers thought and went about writing places.  One of my literary heroines, Stella Gibbons (author of the glorious 'Cold Comfort Farm'), had appalling hand-writing and made a complete mess of a clean page when she wrote.  Her manuscripts were a mass of scribblings out and appended notes.  Oscar Wilde too was a scrawler, peppering his manuscripts with speech bubbles filled with additions.  By contrast, Jane Austen's drafts were immaculately written, without a single amendment made; she clearly wrote with serious conviction.   

A large number of writers made themselves maps of the places of which they wrote, some simple, but others more elaborately detailed than their textual depictions.  A.A.Milne drew out 100 Aker Wood in which to plan the exploits of Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore et al.  Betjeman consulted railway line maps and even sketched stations in his notebook as he wrote 'The Metropolitan Railway'.  This suggested that to transform a place into words and phrases you need a clear visual image of where you are writing about, either for inspiration or reference.  (On an less geographical note, my inner cynic was delighted to discover the first appearance of the word 'sarcasm', in Spenser's The 'Shepheardes Calendar' published in 1579.  And the 'Stop HS2' effort could learn much from Wordsworth's 1844 letter to Gladstone, arguing against a proposed Kendal and Windermere railway which was planned to run through his beloved Lake District. )  

And after an hour or so wandering round 'Writing Britain', I began to wonder about writing about places today.  How do more modern writers dream up their literary geographies?  What would my London look like if I scribbled it down on a piece of paper?  Which places would constitute my landmarks?  If my writing about a place is all neatly typed and uniform (often remaining only in virtual rather than hard-copy form) what can people learn from the way I write?  Should I be handwriting more of my work?  (Even if my finished manuscripts would be more similar to those of Gibbons than Austen, in terms of their neatness!)  Or what will us bloggers leave behind for display in the British Library in fifty years time...?

Friday, 1 June 2012

'Welcome to London!': An open letter to our city's tourists

Dear visitors,

We're delighted you've chosen to spend your holidays here in our little city of London.  Not a bad place, eh?!  Lots of beautiful buildings and parks to visit, fun things to do, endless options to eat, drink, shop, dance and learn.  That's why we, the citizens of London, decided to live here.  But just occasionally you guys make us wish we didn't.  So we'd hugely appreciate it if you'd heed a little advice to make us all less angry, and ensure you have a delightful stay here.

Now, we appreciate that a holiday is something to share with your family and/or friends, but do you really need to do everything with each and every one of them?  Your vast gaggles outside hotels, museums, and tiny cafes that can serve three people at a time at most are something of an obstacle for Londoners on their way to work, or out to lunch or heading home.  And really, when you're at home, do you honestly walk arm-in-arm with five of your closest personal friends when you head out for coffee?! No, just here? Lucky us.  (And to all of you on that tour group in matching purple baseball caps, yes, yes we are laughing at you and your naff, coordinated headgear.)
We know there's a lot to see here in London but don't try and see it all; you just can't.  So, don't stop in the middle of the road or pavement to marvel at mundane things like telephone boxes, buses or taxis (surely you have motorised vehicles where you're from?).  Or we will walk in front of your camera-shot, just to spite you.  Save your wonderment for the stunning architecture, the fascinating things in our museums, even for the first pint of real ale you've ever drunk.  Oh, and a word about squirrels - they are neither rare nor particularly cute.  In fact the rest of the city thinks these furry little critters are vermin.  Don't waste your time feeding and photographing them - it's like taking a picture of a subway rat, and you might catch something nasty from them. (See also 'pigeons'.)

Travelling around the city can be a tad tricky on our public transport systems, we know.  If you've spent more than 10 minutes attempting to get a ticket out of a machine at one of our stations or stops, just give up and ask at one of the staffed booths.  It's what the staff are there for - selling tourists tickets - and it also prevents Londoners stuck behind you from ripping your nerdy backpacks off your shoulders in annoyance.  And wheeled suitcases, they sure are handy aren't they?  But do check, as you drag them along, well outside your own field of vision, that they are not running over the feet of those unlucky enough to be stuck behind you.  (A similar principle applies to large shoulder bags, backpacks and viciously pointy camera cases which the average Londoner does not massively enjoy being squashed with on a busy tube train.)  Fancy using a Boris Bike to see the city?  Ha! Good luck working the hire system out.  You're on your own there.

Whilst you're on the tube or ambling aimlessly along a pavement is not the greatest time to check your location on the farcically enormous maps you guys seem to bring with you.  Maybe use a smaller book-based map, or an iPhone.  Or ask someone.  Really, we don't mind.  In fact, we'd rather you drew us to one side and asked us a question than stopped right in front of us, bringing the entire street/platform/square to a standstill as you ponder your location, using your ludicrously huge map.  Stand on the right on escalators; there are even signs indicating which is right, for those people who still struggle with this basic distinction.  This is pretty low-grade stuff, but your loitering in the middle of an escalator, or continuing a conversation across the whole thing will create a queue of frustrated, tube-rage-filled Londoners behind you.  And believe me, nothing will take the shine off your holiday like the wrath of a Londoner.

Have a nice stay!

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