HENRIETTA WRIOTHESLEY on church cats
The Church Cat: Clerical Cats in Stories and Verse, edited by Mark Bryant, Hodder & Stoughton £6.99
THE ANCIENT Egyptians worshipped their cats. Perhaps for that reason, there are no cats at all in the Bible. There are dogs aplenty, but their amiable characteristics are ignored by the Hebrew writers, and most references are derogatory.
In the modern world, cats seem to have a special affinity with Christians, and especially those of the Catholic variety, whether Roman or Anglican. They are even permitted to take up residence in churches: I remember seeing a mothercat scuttling across the campo, kitten in mouth, to the church of St Rocco in Venice, where they obviously lived; and my local Anglo-Catholic church used to have a cat called Pusey. No doubt their skill in getting rid of the proverbial church mouse is the reason for this.
Many clergymen, sometimes seen themselves as aloof , solitary creatures, to whom the adjective "feline" is often applied, share their homes with cats; while in Anglican vicarages they are usually recognised as the parson's cat, I have the impression that in old-fashioned Catholic presbyteries they are generally dismissed as "the house-keeper's cat". Mark Bryant has put together an anthology of prose and verse pieces about clergymen and their feline owners. If you are one of those people who feel faint when a cat comes into the room, or you cannot stand the clergy, this is obviously not the book for you; but it would make a very good present for either a priest or a cat-lover; it should sell very well at Christmas, as there are so many of both about. The cover bears a charming Peaceable Kingdom painting by Derold Page of a contented pussycat asleep at the foot of a tree containing many multicoloured songbirds.
The book includes, among short stories, one of my favourites, "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral" by M.R James, with one of the most chilling lines in
fiction, "there is no kitchen cat." Other stories, by the likes of Geoffrey Household (really a story about a bishop's dog), Arnold Bennett, and Ernest Dudley are of the round-the-firesucking-his-pipe-said-thecolonel variety. Sadly, Saki's "Tobermory", the cat who talked, is not eligible, being a lay cat.
Among poems, Mr Bryant finds space for a long and feeble parody of "John Gilpin" which seems at a distance of 170 years to be relentlessly unfunny, and Kit Smart's heroic portrait "Of Jeoffiy, his Cat", which might appeal to a different readership from the rest of the book. He prints the poem "There was a presbyterian cat went forth to catch her prey," but does not tell us that it was used in the Church of Scotland for choir-practice, to avoid singing sacred words in a secular context. He does not use the following limerick, (possibly by Mgr Knox, though I'm not certain,) which I offer to him for his next anthology: There once was a curate of Kew, Who kept a tame cat in a pew.
He taught it to speak Alphabetical Greek, But it never got further than ,u* *Perhaps I should explain that the last character represents the Greek letter Mu.