We sat on rickety chairs at a creaky table made of wooden pallets in a room decorated with ancient tools used to grind and mill the crops that would have grown around this Croatian tavern. A vintage sharpening wheel stone stood at the centre of the room with rusty axes and timber implements adorning the stone walls of the restaurant that used to be a stone mill. John and I finished our main courses and John stayed to listen to the band playing traditional music while I took a stroll outside. The music was getting too loud and I needed to distract myself from the thought that those heavy pieces equipment hanging on the walls might come crashing down. I inhaled a deep breath of late evening air and looked around for somewhere comfy to take a nap. As I hopped on to the low bench just outside the kitchen, I caught a glimpse of a dirty black and white kitten with hunger in its eyes. I made up my mind that this little guy was going to have some scraps and John asked the owner for some leftover meat. A few minutes later John appeared with a plate piled high and the leapt eagerly on to John’s knee. John dropped the food along the bottom of a dark wall and cats and kittens gradually emerged from the dark to enjoy the best dinner of their lives.
The restaurant was located in Cilipi, a village on the outskirts of the city of Dubrovnik in Southern Croatia where we stayed in a countryside villa not far from the airport. We soon got to know the local strays and we were grateful to people like the restaurant owner who do what they can to help. But overall there was a feeling of indifference towards the animals and people were surprised that we would walk down the long winding road away from the villa twice a day to feed the cats that we’d seen rummaging for leftovers in the rubbish bins. We applied ointment to their wounds and drops in their eyes to help heal their infections although sadly one or two were too afraid to let us near them and never got the treatment they needed. But not all stray cats have such difficult lives as we found out when we visited the riverside Konoba Vinica restaurant in the village of Monkovic. While we enjoyed lunch by the river Ljuta, a chunky ginger and white boy luxuriated in the sunny patches scattered throughout the vibrant green foliage, gratefully accepting titbits from patrons and words of kindness from the staff.
The old town of Dubrovnik was like a labyrinth of ancient stone walls leading us through a maze of narrow cobbled streets. The city was surrounded by a medieval stone rampart, fortifications that protected the settlement in times gone by and now acted as a roof-top walkway around the city’s core. John and I climbed the steps to the top of the wall where the parapets and bulwarks provided barricades and safe places from which to defend the fort. My chest puffed out as I strode purposefully along the brick path before stopping to admire the magnificent views across the Adriatic Sea. My daydreaming came to an end as the sun began to dip low into the skyline and John scooped me up into his arms. Dubrovnik was filled with the most beautiful landscapes I have seen and the people were generous and welcoming. My thoughts go out to the strays in the hope that as time goes by the authorities will embrace animal welfare as part of a civilised society and the kindness of strangers will continue to foster a culture of compassion towards all animals – human and non-human.
It is with a heavy heart that I share some sad news about the loss of a dear friend. A few days ago John informed me that my great buddy Tiffin was hit by a car just a few doors from where she lived and she died instantly. Her sister Muffin and our other friends Basil, Ginger and Zoukia are all in shock over this unhappy event. Tiffin was a unique combination of courage and vulnerability, beauty and strength, dignity and silliness. She spent half her time wide-eyed and scatty, the other half stealthy and agile. She slept for England and loved her food. I remember whenever I visited her house for dinner she would go around licking all the bowls clean afterwards. When her owner scattered biscuits on the patio at lunchtime she would always be the last to leave, sniffing out every single morsel.
Luckily she was found only minutes after the accident and at least we know what happened to her and had the chance to say goodbye. But it is disappointing that the person who hit her did not stop to check if she was alive and did not even move her out of the road. I understand that accidents happen and unfortunately cats don’t realise the danger that cars represent, but there is no excuse for leaving a cat lying in the middle of the road. I know my readers are compassionate people who would never hit an animal and leave it behind without blinking an eye, but not everyone is like that. Stop and check the animal people! If it’s wild call the RSPCA or take the pet to the vet for life-saving treatment and to be scanned for a microchip in the hope that the owners can be notified. Today we mourn the loss of a lovely girl whose life was cut short and to help us work through our grief, her ashes will be returned in the next few days and she will be laid to rest in her garden, the place where she was most happy.
For the final instalment of my New York adventure I’d like to share my experience of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Now you might think I’m a cultured cat given that I portray myself as refined and sophisticated but I’m self-taught so my knowledge of the visual arts is limited. I’m familiar with a few famous painters like Renoir and Picasso, I’ve heard of Michelangelo and I’ve admired a poster of Le Chat Noir from 19th century Paris once in a coffee shop; but I’ve spent more time in the countryside than I have in art galleries. I felt like a child in a sweet shop as I wandered through the imposing façade of this Gothic-revival style building and stood in the entrance hall surrounded by numerous corridors leading to halls filled with sculptures, jewellery, pottery, ornaments, textiles, costumes, musical instruments and paintings spanning 5000 years and representing cultures from all over the world.
I was dawdling because there was so much to see and John had to keep chivvying me on but you know how curious cats can be and I wanted to investigate every passageway. The paintings area was split into multiple rooms dedicated to a particular artist each with a concrete bench in the centre of each room. When I hopped on to a bench I noticed that many of the tourists were looking at me and taking pictures as though they’d never seen a cultured cat at an art gallery before. I’m sure John thought I was spending time mesmerised by serenity of Claude Monet’s Waterlily Pond or captivated by the work of Gustave Courbet and his portrayals of people and scenes from the 1800s but really I was posing for the cameras! Anyway, the sight of Van Gogh’s abstract portraits and still-life pictures had given me a wibbly-wobbly feeling that I didn’t enjoy so it was time to explore the Halls of Arms and Armour which displayed weapons and protective military clothing from the Roman Empire, Ancient Greece, Dynastic Egypt and the Americas. My fur prickled as my eyes caught the stare of a dark shadow behind an enclosed metal helmet that formed part of a suit of armour worn by Henry VIII of England. I don’t know how people moved let alone fought for their lives wearing heavy layers of chainmail and steel plates from head to toe. There are more comfortable ways of looking stately and formidable I’m sure.
The Egyptian pharaohs had the right idea with their hand-woven linen robes embroidered with bold patterns and head-dresses adorned with feathers and jewels. The pharaohs such as King Narmer or Queen Nefertiti were the most powerful person in their kingdom, head of government and high priest or priestess often worshipped in a temple such as the Temple of Dendur. The Temple of Dendur was built during the reign of Augustus who ruled Egypt from 30BC to 14AD and was situated on the West bank of the River Nile in Ancient Nubia before it was dismantled and transported piece by piece to the United States at a cost of around 9.5 million dollars before finally being installed at the Met in 1978. The temple is dedicated to the goddess Isis and the gods Harpocrates and Osiris and is engraved with hieroglyphs, images of the sun, the outspread wings of Horus the sky god and scenes of kings holding sceptres and the ankh. Head held high, I strode regally between two enormous columns decorated with carvings of papyrus and lotus plants into a large chamber surrounded by a reflecting pool. I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the still silvery water and looked up to see a vision of myself wearing a golden crown and a brightly beaded girdle waving majestically to my adoring crowd. I would call on them to devote themselves to the miracle of nature, to the earth and all its complex forms of plant and animal life, and to support the development of wildlife sanctuaries across the lands. Cats from every species would be free to meander through the lands and crowds would stop to gaze in awe at their furry beauty. All cats would become a symbol of grace and poise and Shad the Cat’s silhouette would be deified in inscriptions on the sandstone walls. What a wonderful world this would be!
Docked in the Hudson River as the centrepiece of the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, the aircraft carrier Intrepid stands as a witness to the atrocities and friendships that have been borne out of war. More than 50,000 men have served on board since its launch in 1943 surviving kamikaze attacks and missile strikes as it continued on its mission to defend its honour and provide a safe haven for its occupants during World War II, the Cold War and the Vietnam War. I wonder what life was like at sea during conflict and whether they would have liked a cat on board to help control the mouse population and give them something furry and warm to snuggle at night. Perhaps that’s a question best answered by someone who was there, like one of the US Navy veterans who volunteer at the Museum educating visitors on how the ship was run and speaking about their personal experiences. I got talking with one of them who stood proudly in the Squadron Ready Room wearing his USS Intrepid bomber jacket and cap with his rank insignia and service stripes on his arm. He let me take the helm on the navigation bridge and showed me the chart tables, radar consoles and communications equipment. As I sat on the comfortable slightly torn tan leather chair in front of the radar scopes and plotting boards, I imagined the burden of responsibility held by the Captain the moment that red phone rang with the orders to engage the enemy.
One floor down is the flight deck which exhibits a collection of lovingly restored aircraft, propeller driven jets that supported US ground troops in Vietnam and helicopters that recovered the NASA astronauts in the 1960s. I strolled along the deck under the pale blue sky admiring the different shapes and abilities of the flying machines before me when a sleek dark lean machine caught my eye. It was the A-12 Blackbird and reminded me of myself, jet black, powerfully built and formidable. Don’t laugh! I might be more generously proportioned and a lot less intimidating, but I’m just as glossy and appealing to the eye. Shape-wise I’m probably more akin to the H-19 Chickasaw chopper with its chunky dark blue body, soft rounded nose and nifty foldaway blades. Many of the planes had menacing names like the delta wing Skyhawk, the Crusader, Sea Cobra and Fighting Falcon. I noticed several were named after my own kind like the Cougar, the Tiger and the F-14 Tom Cat which was the fighter jet featured in the movie Top Gun.
The hangar deck displays some of the technology and hardware that supported the ship before it was decommissioned in 1974 and chronicles its history as well as telling the human story through archival footage. My attention was drawn by the sound of a human in distress and I looked up to see historic videotape of a crew member being interviewed, weeping as he spoke of the horrors he had witnessed during a battle. As I walked away I looked behind me and noticed that the people watching the video screen with sorrow in their eyes were from many different countries. It filled me with hope for humanity to think that if different races could be united in their sadness, perhaps they can face other challenges together towards a goal of peace. Cats like peace and I’m lucky to have lots of it at home, apart from when the cat from down the road trespasses in my garden and we have fisticuffs under the kitchen door much to John’s displeasure. The gap under the door is one inch wide so the only thing that gets damaged is our pride as we smack each other’s paws in territorial defiance of each other. It’s ridiculous really and I soon grow weary, amble back to my food bowl to check for leftovers and curl up on my favourite bed, gathering my strength for the next skirmish. By the way, in answer to my earlier question, the veteran told me he would have loved a cat a board but it probably wouldn’t have been fair to the cat. So he now has a cat at home who sounds like she’s as happy and spoilt as I am.
My New York adventure has taken me to the jungle, the Jurassic period and the top of a skyscraper. Now I would feel like I was boldly going where no cat had gone before as John and I made our way across the deck of the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum to see the Space Shuttle Enterprise. We walked through a dark entrance to the sound of real-life conversations between mission control and the Enterprise pilots during their flight tests and through a shadowy corridor decorated with eerily lit signs stating “Houston is go for take-off”, “Nothing endures but change” and “All engines running, we have lift-off”. The corridor led to a large chamber and I emerged cautiously, looking intently around expecting to see an astronaut hopping along the floor in a puffy white space-suit or a green eight-tentacled alien creeping out from behind one of the concrete pillars in the centre of this mystical space. I started to imagine a planet of cats that each lived in a house with a garden and had all their meals and entertainment provided by miniature purple people.
I started to wonder if such a place existed on the other side of the moon when I looked up and saw the vast white-tiled silhouette of the space shuttle Enterprise suspended directly above me. The engines, rocket boosters and fuel tank had been removed leaving the orbiter section which would have housed the orbital manoeuvring systems, science lab and sleeping areas for the astronauts. The Space Shuttle Enterprise was named after a fictional star-ship on John’s favourite TV series Star Trek (he’ll grumble at me for telling you that!). Unveiled in 1976, it was the first NASA orbiter and paved the way for the space shuttle program by performing test flights and acting as a prototype. There were stairs at the far end of the room that led to an elevated platform for a better view of the space-craft where I could picture the crews’ faces pressed against those tiny windows as they orbited the earth and experienced the intense vibrations that would represent the different stages of launch. All around the room were displays of flight instruments, photos, films and other original artefacts depicting the design of the space shuttle, as well as an orbital Soyuz space capsule designed by the Soviet space programme. I was flabbergasted to read on the information board that this small spherical space at around 2½ metres in diameter was the habitat module which carried equipment and cargo and even housed a toilet. It is just large enough to accommodate 3 people as long as they don’t want to lie down!
Now to the bottom of the briny deep in Submarine Growler, the only American guided missile submarine that is open to the public. When John suggested we get on board, I agreed but only because I thought he’d say no! I was worried about fitting my ample frame through the restrictive hatches or lost in its endless parallel corridors that all looked the same. But I had made a commitment and I’m not one to take that lightly so with my ears swivelling madly I lifted my nose in the air and strode up the bouncing metal staircase to the entrance hatch on the hull. With a secret sigh I climbed down the steep steps into this metal casket and imagined the bulkheads bending and creaking as the captain ordered the boat into a deep dive. We moved through various compartments including the aft torpedo room, the attack centre, the galley and crew’s mess. The Growler’s two periscopes were located in the centre of the control room and the cramped crew quarters were packed with small bunks from floor to ceiling.
It must have been hard for the sailors on board to have no contact with the outside world for months at a time, not to mention climbing all those ladders between decks which must have been exhausting. With so many doorways to get through, John and I soon got into a rhythm with John sashaying through each hatch sideways (his narrower aspect) and ducking so as not to hit his head while I developed a rather graceful leap over the high ledge at each access point only slipping once on a grease patch (which wasn’t my fault). As I headed up the almost vertical steps to the exit hatch and felt the fresh sea air rippling past my whiskers, I spared a thought for those who fought and died in submarines just like this one. It’s a piece of history and history should never be forgotten.
Every year in the UK many people celebrate the gunpowder plot of 1605 when Catholic conspirators including Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill King James I in protest at the way Catholics were treated by the authorities. The plot was foiled and the rebels were caught but the events continue to be commemorated on 5th November with bonfires, fireworks and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes. I’m not sure whether this is to commend Fawkes’ efforts to do away with the government, to celebrate his failure, or simply an excuse for people to set fire to things and make a whole lot of noise. Either way, it’s an intriguing human tradition full of contradictions as are many of your rituals. On the one hand bonfire night is a sociable affair that can bring together families, friends and strangers with the common purpose of getting to know each other and enjoying the festivities. On the other hand people have serious accidents as a result of fireworks and I’ve heard about some deliberate acts of cruelty to animals at this time.
I don’t mind sitting on my favourite window ledge watching the pyrotechnics flashing and banging in the sky as peoples’ money goes up in smoke! However not all cats are like me and this is a frightening and dangerous time for many pets that are scared and confused by the unnatural sights and thunderous sounds of fireworks. So please keep your pets in at night, stick to public firework displays that are safer and kinder to your neighbours rather than buying your own, and if you attend a bonfire don’t forget to protect the wild animals that make their home in the kindling having no idea that it will be set ablaze. If you enjoy being part of the celebrations, have fun and stay safe. If you don’t, hang in there, it’ll soon be over!
Last weekend at Wiston Park in Steyning thousands of people gathered together to celebrate the age of steam and it was wonderful to see young and old joining together to be part of a community event. The Wiston Steam Fair is volunteer-led, no big corporations, just charitable organisations and local businesses keen to commemorate the development of the commercial steam engine and show-off their steam-related contraptions. It’s a far cry from the digital world we live in now and it’s a reminder of life before automation when people lived and worked in the country, handcrafting goods in workshops and not washing their hands. Then steam power replaced wind and water power as a means to drive machinery during the industrial revolution in the late 19th century and humanity plunged down a new trajectory that would change the face of the world in many ways.
Thankfully the mid-morning sun was a pleasant 19c as opposed to the crazy 26c the south coast had endured over the previous few days, so the grass felt cool under my paws and John didn’t have to pack my frozen water bottle which I lick when I get too hot. As we wandered along the rows of exhibits, my senses were stirred by bizarre sounds and smells like the pungent whiff of hot-dogs and chips and the discordant mix of tunes from the carnival rides and the fairground organ. I stood mesmerised by the carousel going round and round with the porcelain ponies going up and down and I had to fight the urge the jump up for a ride. I thought it would be fun and I was sure an attractive black feline would get a discount on the admission price so I hopped on, picturing myself sitting debonair atop a haughty horse. Sadly the reality was quite different and the undulating flow of movement gave me motion sickness. I stepped carefully towards the edge of the merry-go-round swaying back and forth when my John appeared from nowhere and scooped me into his arms. Well that was fine, there was no time for frivolity anyway as John was keen to ditch the digital for the day and start using his old-fashioned second-hand film camera.
There were hundreds of exhibits as well as displays of more than 50 different steam machines from rollers to locomotives, lorries and traction engines. Some of them were rusty and dirty straight from the farm, while others looked pristine coated in shiny paints of burgundy or British racing green. Whatever the condition of the engine, each one was tended to with pride by people tinkering with mechanical parts or polishing brass-work and wooden panels. A little girl waved at me as she drove her miniature plough past me and the cheeky miniature train driver tooted his klaxon which made my jump. John and I caught the trailer ride up the hill and I’ve never seen so many buses in one place before. Yellow, green and red double-deckers as far as my eyes could see, along with old military vehicles, bicycles and motorcycles. We followed the vintage vehicle parade down to the next field while I scanned the spectacle for a yellow Robin Reliant van labelled Trotters Independent Traders. Although I didn’t see any faces I recognised from Only Fools and Horses, there were plenty of Del Boys around, like this guy eating an ice-cream with his rusty brown dog who was wagging his tail furiously while he licked his vanilla cone.