Saturday, 3 October 2015

Zen Stripes

Unlike Magical Mr Mistoffelees, I couldn't produce a cat poem right out of the poetical hat to order the other week (so ended up writing about catsup instead); but here, finally, is my cat blog.

If we have to be categorised as cat people or dogmatised as dog people, then I am most definitely of the former and have been owned  by several very fine felines in my time.

The domestic moggy was probably first brought to these (British) shores from the eastern Mediterranean by Phoenician sailors. Cat skeletons have been found in pre-Roman Iron Age hill-forts in southern England dating back to 300 BC. It is likely they were originally ships' cats, protecting the grain that the Phoenicians brought to Britain from the ravages of mice on the long voyage.

Cats quickly became prized for their rat- and mouse-catching skills. According to 10th century documents, a newborn kitten was valued at one penny, the same as a piglet or a lamb; and the price of an adult she-cat was four pence, making her as valuable as a full-grown sheep or goat. In divorce cases, the husband had the right to take one cat from the household, but any others belonged to the wife. There were also quite hefty fines for killing a cat.

As well as keeping granaries free of mice, cats also helped to slow the progress of various waves of rat-borne plagues as they swept across Europe from the 6th century onwards, though being susceptible to bubonic plague themselves, cats will also have died in huge numbers.

In medieval times, they got some bad press from the Roman Catholic church which sanctioned the maiming and killing of cats on the grounds that they might be witches in disguise, but they survived such persecutions and in a more enlightened age cats have become firmly established as household pets.

This is the story of one such...

Zen was a marbled grey tabby. He had the most beautiful fur of any cat I've had the pleasure to have known. Tabby, to describe a cat with a striped coat, ultimately derives via the old French word atabis (meaning 'striped'), from the ancient town of Attabiy near Baghdad, which was famed for its production of a very stylish striped cloth. Tabby first found its way into common English parlance in the 17th century.

As well as being striped, Zen was remarkably sociable and very wise. He was born in a museum in the middle of a busy London roundabout, not the safest of places for a cat to grow up; so he was dropped into my life (literally) as a present from my somewhat inebriated housemate Bernadette, deposited from within the confines of her jacket as a newly-weaned kitten onto my bed at two o'clock on the morning of my 25th birthday. We lived in a mews house (no pun intended) in Camden, in a quiet cul-de-sac untroubled by the constant flow of traffic, so young Zen was able to explore the world at leisure. We only had a front-door (no rear garden) and that didn't feature a cat-flap as planning regulations wouldn't permit it, so Zen had to ask to go out or come in and spent most of every day roaming his locale. This included some big old gardens with orchards, various workshops (as is often the case in London mews) and  a couple of warehouses. I'm sure he found mice a-plenty, though he never brought them home. He would sleep on the end of my bed at night, would be waiting for me on the wall at the end of the street when I came home from work each evening and would often trot beside us to the local pub in summer and curl up under the table in a manner that would put many a dog to shame. His favourite tipple was water with a dash of vinegar and he had a taste for olives.

I used to talk to Zen a lot and he would commune with me after his fashion. Our views on life, love, politics and the pleasure of a tasty herring were very similar. Although he has been gone for years, I miss his calm presence and graceful poise...



Zen
Scrutable stripeling,
rapt in contemplation
of a sparrow bush,
the soundless brush
of one tail waving
denotes
complete absorption.

Hsu is a happy hexagram -
K'an above with
Ch'ien below
betokens
waiting, nourishment.

True to your essential being,
strength lies in patience,
perseverance brings good fortune.
The gift of food
comes in its own time.

Lucky cat,
your dish
already holds a brisling
if you did but know.
Sparrows fly.


Thanks for reading. Have a good week, S ;-)
Reactions:

3 comments:

Andy Higgins said...

Good read Steve - you might have heard this one from the The Weakerthans archive (they do lots of songs about cats and dogs) but this is monumental in my estimation - they actually finish their live set with it sometimes. A beautiful song - second in the 'Virtute' series - I learnt and played it to Sarah for a present one Easter or something - can't remember....

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnmcw6kJ2HQ

I reckon after 3 / 4 listens you might even shed a few tears. It didn't take me long ....

Steve Rowland said...

Ah, the mighty Weakerthans. Funnily enough, my first thought was to write a lyric, Song of Zen; but then I got caught up in the wider implications of Zen-ness and what eventually emerged was this I Ching influenced encapsulation of his mogginess.

Anonymous said...

Tremendous. I love this.