Jim is a cat our male cat Charles brought over to our house in early December last year. It’s mid-April now and Jim’s still here so I guess it means he’s officially ours – especially since the lady whose barn he used to live in seems fine about it. How Jim ever managed to live in a barn is a great mystery since he rarely goes outside for any noticeable length of time and his main interests are hugging, muesli, kissing, beds, log fires, sofas and sleeping on people’s windpipes. Jim doesn’t catch mice but efficiently gobbles down the ones Charles brings him, leaving no spare innards or fur. He’s big and strong enough to throw Charles through a thin partition wall but in their playfights he takes the submissive role, enabling Charles to strut about under the illusion of being extremely tough and having a meow that resembles a fearsome battle cry and not the high pitched sound of a small nervous bird. Generally, Jim seems to have no sense at all of his own formidable strawberry blonde mass, nor even that he is technically a cat. “What is THAT?” his eyes seem to say, as he sees our female cat, Roscoe, who is around half his size. “I hope it doesn’t kill me.” Nextdoor-but-two’s cat Marley – who has let himself go, health-wise, and is no more than two thirds of Jim’s length – pins him against the wall, slashes his nose with a claw, and Jim refuses to fight back. He hurts our hearts every day with the amount of love that pours out from him, his sensitivity, and the pacifist approach he takes to everything. I find I am willing to do go to pretty much any lengths to make his environment positive and calming, which includes saving part of my muesli for him and not playing jazz LPs made after 1966 since he visibly dislikes all of them.
There’s a gate on Dartmoor, leading up onto Black Down from the old silver-lead mine, Wheal Betsy. The gate is totally functioning and a legal part of the footpath, but you have to climb through a gorse bush to get to it. I’m guessing only me and maybe four other people have gone through it since July. You get gates like that sometimes. I think it’s because the main road leading from Tavistock up towards Okehampton is in the way and the continuation of the footpath isn’t directly on the other side of the road. You come to think of these big roads as borders to the moor, but they’re not, and as I walked over to Blackdown last month I thought about a time when this one wasn’t here, cutting through everything like a carefully cultivated insult. I climbed Gibbet Hill, which is only one of many Gibbet Hills in the UK, but one that lives up to the ominous promises of its name more than most. From the top – unless the day isn’t made totally of cloud, like today – there’s a view directly across the valley to the church of St Michael de Rupe, on top of Brent Tor, which was allegedly dropped on top of the high forsaken hill by the Devil so nobody would worship there. This stretch of countryside was once home to the Gubbins, a kind of Sixteenth Century Dartmoor answer to Robin Hood’s Merry Men but with none of the famed noble aspects of those outlaws, a pitiful grasp of the English language and a sideline in sheep theft. Highwaymen often preyed on travellers in this region of the moor and, after being caught and tried, were returned to the scene of the crime and left in metal cages to die, with only scraps to feed on handed over by the occasional local who took pity on them. Sometimes a passing villager handed them a candle to eat. As I hooked back around to Gibbet Hill from Lydford Gorge and walked into the flourishing gale, the rain redoubled and pelted my face, stinging like Dartmoor rain had never stung before, visibility was reduced to a few yards, and, due to not seeing the red flags that had been raised to alert walkers that the military firing range on White Hill was in use, I heard shots ring out only 80 yards or so in front of me, and changed course, even more directly into the rain, which now felt like being pelted about the ears and mouth with gravel. I consoled myself with the thought that I was not in a cage, eating a candle.
I was on a cramped train from Birmingham to Nottingham, next to a vomiting man and his girlfriend. “So far he’s puked in Longfield and Tamworth,” she said, not entirely without pride. “”We’re going for the hat trick at Burton On Trent.”
I went in the sea. From what I could tell, I was the only person in the sea – possibly on the entire planet. It was one of those blowy late winter days when trying to get into the waves felt like trying to repeatedly stroke a guard dog that’s growling and bearing its teeth at you then, then when you finally get close enough to pat it tentatively on the forehead, the dog turns into a massive wrestler. The wrestler picked me up over his head and slammed me down onto the shingle. “There!” he said. “That’s what you get for being a twat. Now go home.” The next day, bruised from the sea and the rocks beneath it, I thought about the way my memory never seems to be more of an unreliable optimist when it comes to the sea, which, when I am not in it or looking directly at it, I view as a soothing meditative thing, rather than something that evidently wants to kill me, which, owe the course of the average 12 months, it far more frequently is.
Many years ago, just before they found their current house, my mum and dad had wanted to buy another old house in Nottinghamshire. A woman in late middle-age lived in the house with her teenage son, who stank of marijuana, and a very old man she called “Uncle Alexander”. When my mum and dad went to look in the bedroom, they were told “not to mind Uncle Alexander” who was asleep in there and “didn’t have his teeth in”. The bed was a single metal one, of the kind found in hospitals, with an uncovered mattress, and they discovered Uncle Alexander on top of it, asleep, in a button-up onesie that appeared to come from a far earlier epoch. As they examined the room, Uncle Alexander showed no sign of waking up and they worried in a very real and frightened way that he was not asleep at all, but deceased. The toilet in the house smelled, had brown walls and no seat, and the sewage worked via an open air cesspit. The third bedroom, where the teenage son was smoking a large spliff, smelled of all manner of the worst teenage smells. Queen Elizabeth II lurked in almost every part of the house, either in painted, embroidered, or photographed form. Nonetheless, my parents, being very romantic sorts, fell in love with the house, or at least the idea of what they could make it, and put in an offer. The owner told them she was was off to buy a house in Cornwall and that, because she was strapped for cash, the estate agent had loaned her the money to get there from Notts and spend a few days doing some viewings. She said my mum and dad could buy her house but only if they could feed her large ginger cat while she was in Cornwall, so my mum and dad drove several miles to the house from their rented one twice each day and fed the cat, half-expecting to find Uncle Alexander still in the bedroom on their first visit, and feeling an immense sense of relief when he wasn’t. But Cornwall turned out to be too expensive for the woman, her son and Uncle Alexander and the survey for their house shed a light on many, many structural failings. My mum and dad did not buy the house. On a recent walk in the area, they were slightly surprised to find it still standing. In the intervening years, my mum had seen the owner one more time, in a local supermarket, with a very old man. But on closer inspection she realised it was another very old man, definitely not Uncle Alexander.
I have never understood the big deal about vampires needing to be “invited in” before they can enter a house. That’s not “being a vampire”. That’s just being polite.
I act like my records have feelings but the truth is they probably don’t. I try to give them all equal love, worry when I’ve neglected one of them, and I don’t necessarily think there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s an approach that can get in the way when you just want to blast out a record you’ve heard hundreds of times and sing along to it.
I was in a secondhand shop a month or so ago sizing up an old plant pot outside a large village 50 miles east of my house and a man was telling his friend that he sometimes feels he has too much money, and doesn’t know what to spend it on, and – outside of the regular Indian takeaway, once a week, and the holidays with Julie – he begins to struggle for ideas. “She’s still having trouble with her baguettes,” a woman walking past me said to her companion, when I reached the centre of the village. On the other side of the conurbation, I began the walk I had planned, following the instructions in the book I had with me. A man in a Range Rover asked if I was lost. I told him I was fine, waving the book at him to show him everything was very much under control. “When was that book published?” he asked. “2004,” I said. “Well, the footpath is a quarry now,” he said. Rerouting, I noticed the countryside here was just like the countryside around my house if you only took in the basics of what was in it – big hills and steep-banked rivers and crumbling stone barns and hump-backed bridges – but what it actually was was a far more polite version of the countryside around my house. It was like what the hills and fields and sheep and lanes where I live would be if they decided to stop swearing and injecting heroin.
A friend and I were going out to meet another friend. “Will The Meat Tree be coming to?” asked the friend I was with. “Who?” I asked. “The Meat Tree,” said my friend. “I don’t know who that is,” I said. “You know! The Meat Tree! Short guy with glasses and curly hair,” said my friend. “Oh, you mean Demitri,” I said. “Fuck,” said my friend. “Is that what he’s actually called? That explains quite a lot. I’d thought it was just some kind of nickname related to an amusing story.”
Dogs are often lovely but I don’t trust their opinions. If a cat recommended me an album it had bought, I’d totally check it out. If a dog did the same, I’d promise to listen to the album, out of politeness, but with no intention of actually doing so.You can disagree, but ask yourself this: Who was it who first told you to listen to early Funkadelic or Patti Smith or Pentangle? Was it dogs? Of course it wasn’t. It was a cat you met under a dank bridge.
My latest book Villager is now out in paperback. You can purchase it here from Blackwells with free worldwide delivery. More entries from my notebooks can be read here.