My dad died earlier this year. On the upside, we got a new cat. This may sound like a flip gag, and indeed it is, but it also isn’t. Let me explain. In the 1970s, fathers were not expected to show love to their children. Or indeed, much, to their wives. I grew up with my dad and three brothers in a house where familial affection, as we understand it now, was low in the everyday mix. However: we had a cat. She was called Phomphar. This name was my father’s idea, an onomatopoeic rendition of the noise she made when she was happy, which most people would call purring, but he called phompharing. This indicates something, which is that if my father did have a softer side, it was shown mainly to the cats. By softer side, what I mean is he would pick them up and aggressively sniff their heads and say “You’re a great beast – what are you? A great beast, yes you are!” But trust me, for Colin Baddiel, that was effectively a love sonnet.
Cats, therefore, for me are a deep point of connection, with my childhood and with my now gone parents. There was very little beauty in my childhood – this is not a misery memoir-style statement, it’s just a true one about Dollis Hill, northwest London, in the 1970s – but Phomphar was beautiful. Of course she was. She was a cat. Now, luckily, I have a lot more beauty in my life, and a lot more softness and a lot less gruff, blunt maleness, but I am still utterly in thrall to the beauty of cats. I am a fundamental atheist, but when I look at one of my cats – I presently have four – curving like a Matisse in a shaft of sunlight, I believe in God. Some people on social media see me as the antichrist, but really, I am the anti-Zouma.
I have never, since I was a child, not had at least one cat. Even when I was at university and living in halls of residence, I smuggled in a stray and fed it regularly. I also had one when I shared a flat with Frank Skinner. Frank is not a cat man, but he is very committed to comedy, and the name of the tabby who lived with us, arrived at after a short brainstorming session (mainly driven by his extraordinary punning ability) was Chairman Meow. There are not many hills I am prepared to die on, but that this is the best name ever for a cat is one. One proof is that it – the name, not the cat – was stolen soon after by Will & Grace. Another is that the first time I took her – Chairman was a her, unlike Zedong, although even if alive today and on Twitter, I doubt he’d have been that big on announcing pronouns – to the vet, and the receptionist asked for the cat’s name, it got in the crowded waiting room a massive laugh. Obviously, I was very pleased about this, except I noticed the receptionist just wrote down, on her computer, “Meow” – just, as if it were her surname. Which meant that when I went through to the actual vet and saw him glance at the information on his computer about this new cat, I could tell, from a raised eyebrow, that he was thinking “Meow” – what a shit name for a cat. Supposed to be a writer and comedian and he goes that unoriginal on a cat name? But it felt too late to explain.
It isn’t, however, just about beauty, because cats are not just beautiful (although they really are: what other small animal is a perfect micro-copy of their big version? When I see Ron, my all ginger polydactyl – he has seven toes – boy, I just think: this is a lion cub. I basically live with a lion cub). Some of you may be aware that although my day job is still, nominally, comedian, late in my career I’ve been pulled into a type of activism, where I spend much of my time trying to redress various negative stereotypes and myths and bad imaginings that surround a long-maligned group. It may be time however for me to move on from Jews, to cats.
I have got to the age now where the only jobs I want to do are ones I know I’m going to actively enjoy, so I recently suggested to a TV production company, who were keen to hear my ideas, a show called David Baddiel: Cat Man. The idea being that I – the person in the title – would go round the country visiting people with extraordinary and characterful cats, and they would show me the cats being extraordinary and characterful. That’s it. I can’t think of a show I’d love to do more. But what the TV company got back when they pitched this idea to broadcasters was: cats? Extraordinary and characterful? They just sit around preening themselves. They’re all the same. Now, dogs…
There’s a number of things wrong with this attitude. First, it’s wrong. I mean, it’s just a priori wrong. Cats have won. In the eternal battle between them and the barking, snappy ones as to who humans prefer being around, there is no doubt that first place has gone to the felines. People who don’t accept this will point to the fact that in the UK, there are still slightly more dog-owners than cat ones, but these are analogue people who presumably have never heard of the internet. In 2015 – these are the figures I can find, now it will be 10 times that – there were more than 2m cat videos on YouTube, with an average of 12,000 views each, a higher average than any other category. So from the point of view of what animals people like to watch and look at on their screens, these TV commissioners genuflecting reflexively towards dogs are just incorrect.
Secondly, it’s wrong. Because cats don’t pander to humans, that doesn’t mean that they are inexpressive. I’ve really had a lot of them, and each one has been very different and absurdly idiosyncratic. Pip, Ron’s mother, is often lazy and irritable, but will come over all kittenish and adorable if my wife sings her, at a particular pitch, Only You by Yazoo. Chairman Meow would stick her tongue out at you if you ran your fingers over a comb. Tiger, Ron’s brother, will grab your attention by tapping you gently on the arm with his paw, which is not unusual in and of itself, but he often becomes uncertain about the tap on the way to the tapping moment and so just stays with his paw poised in the air staring at you in hope and confusion, which is so cute it makes me want to die. These are just the tips of the various icebergs of personality that a few of the cats I’ve owned display.
Yes, there are some issues with cat ownership. Recently, I went to watch Chelsea play a midweek game and, because I’d be getting back quite late, decided to cook dinner (monkfish in teriyaki sauce) before leaving, thinking, “I’ll just pop that in the microwave when I return.” I left it in the pan, covered with a bowl and a cake mesh. When I got home, they’d eaten it. Pip, Ron and Tiger had combined so well – presumably they thought, “That’s nice, not only has he left us a meal, he’s set it up as the prize at the end of an entertaining obstacle course” – leaving the bowl and the cake mesh so neatly next to the pan, that I assumed the heist must have been perpetrated by a human. So I accused my teenage son, who professed he hadn’t done it and that the cats were clearly trying to frame him. And he was right.
But the thing is, I’m always going to forgive them. We take our cats on holiday, and Ron once went missing in the attic of a house we were renting on the day we were meant to leave. I spent three hours searching among the lung-eroding insulation and dust up there for him. By the time I caught him, we were late, probably going to have to pay a fine, and I was sweating with anxiety. But the minute I saw his face, I still thought: “Ahhh, Ron.”
Cats are not selfish. They are selves, complete, rounded, rich and strange characters, but the idea that they have no empathy – a mistake humans make about animals in general, all part of human exceptionalism, which is what allows us to keep them as pets, but more importantly, eat them – is deeply mistaken. Monkey, a male cat who I gave to my wife when we first got together – I acknowledge this is a bit presumptuous, I mean, a cat’s not just for a one-night stand, he’s for life, or at least, a long chapter within serial monogamy – was one of the nicest beings I’ve ever known. Once, he appeared upstairs in Morwenna’s study, meowing and meowing. Eventually she got up and he led her downstairs – to where one of our other cats had got his paw stuck under the door. Put that in your well-where-a-child-has-fallen-down and smoke it, Lassie.
Pip is not so nice. She is a grand matriarch and extremely territorial. But she is my daughter Dolly’s cat, chosen by her from a litter we found on Gumtree when she – Dolly – was seven. Elsewhere, Dolly and I have talked about the fact that she has suffered from an eating disorder. When things have been really bad with my daughter, when she has been at her lowest ebb, without fail, Pip has somehow known, and appeared, and tried – and sometimes, succeeded – to comfort her. It’s unbelievably moving to watch.
On which note. My father’s affection for cats stayed with him even as almost everything else he knew about himself went. He had two living with him in his last years. After his death, we took in one of them, Zelda, originally Pip’s daughter. We brought her back to her place of birth, and reintroduced her to her family, which really didn’t turn out like Surprise! Surprise! Unless I missed that episode of Surprise! Surprise! where a mother growled and hissed at her long-lost daughter and then chased her under a cupboard.
But Zelda turns out to have her own personality. She is neat and complex, and eager for human company, so likes to visit us in our bedroom at night. It turns out there’s nothing more reassuring, when you wake in the night, perhaps tormented by the recent shocking absence of your parent from this world, than feeling the soft weight of his cat on you, and hear her gentle phompharing.
The paperback of David Baddiel’s new children’s book, (The Boy Who Got) Accidentally Famous, is now ready for pre-order. His book, Jews Don’t Count, can be bought for £6.79 at guardianbookshop.com