Thursday 30 June 2022

Cat-English: Kingsley's Soft Side

 Another batch of what I laughingly call 'my papers' having turned up, I was browsing through some old copies of The Listener. In the issue of 11th June, 1987, I found this poem by – rather surprisingly – Kingsley Amis, a man not known for soft-hearted sentimentality, but a cat-lover none the less: 'I am enough of a cat-lover,' he wrote, 'to be suspicious of a household that doesn't have a cat ... I associate a person having a cat with them being gentler with other people.' The poem was written for an anthology of new poetry for children, Island of the Children, compiled by Angela Huth. 


It may seem funny but my cat
Is learning English. Think of that!
For years she did all right with 'Meow',
But that won’t satisfy her now,
And, where before she’d squawk or squeak,
She’ll try with all her might to speak.
So when I came downstairs today
I was impressed to hear her say
'Hallo'. Not like a person, true;
It might not sound quite right to you,
More of a simple squeak or squawk,
Still, that’s what happens when cats talk;
Their mouths and tongues and things are fine,
But different shapes from yours and mine;
They simply try their level best
And our good will must do the rest.
So, when I pick up Sarah’s dish
And ask who’s for a spot of fish,
I have to listen carefully,
But I’ve no doubt she answers, 'Me!'
And when I serve her with the stuff
It’s 'Ta', she tells me, right enough.
Well now, I could go on about
Her call of 'Bye!' when I go out
And 'Hi!' when I come home again
But by this stage the point is plain:
If you’ve a sympathetic ear
Cat-English comes through loud and clear;
Of course, the words are short and few,
The accent strange, and strident too,
And our side never gets a crack
At any kind of answer back,
But think of it the other way,
With them to listen, you to say.
Imagine the unholy row
You’d make with 'Mew!' and 'Purr!' and 'Meow!'
And not get anything across!
Sarah would give her head a toss,
Her nose or tail a scornful twitch –
I cannot really settle which –
And gaze at you in sad distress
For such pathetic childishness.
Unless you want a snub like that,
Leave all the talking to your cat.

[I've known cats myself that vocalise something very like 'Hello', but that's as far as it goes.]

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