The Cat That Got the Oat Milk by Kathryn Hughes

Kathryn Hughes

The Cat That Got the Oat Milk


I have just corrected the final proofs for my new book and the relief is tremendous. It concerns cats. More specifically, it concerns the cat, and deals with the moment at the end of the 19th century when the species was transformed from mouse-catching kitchen skivvy to pampered pet. One moment workaday tabbies were ambient pest-controllers and called things like Tom and Puss, the next they were lounging on cushions in the drawing room and answering to Lord Fluffy and Little Bunny Teedle Tit (yes, really).

This revolution in how we see our cats came home to me when I was staying with friends who discovered at 9pm on a Friday night that they had run out of ‘cat milk’ and that their cat, Oscar, was fixing them with an accusing stare. Oscar had been ‘adopted’ (to use the current parlance) as a young adult five years earlier from an animal shelter, having spent his early months on the streets where, presumably, he had not had access to specially bought ‘cat milk’. Now, though, he was vocal about his need for his favourite bedtime tipple.

Could we not, I suggested, just pop round to the supermarket opposite? My friends looked appalled and so did Oscar. He likes one particular brand, which can only be bought from a shop far across town. (‘Cat milk’, by the way, is an artificially engineered product catering to the fact that cats are lactose-intolerant – the idea of ‘the cat that got the cream’ exists only in story books.) So, we all bundled into the car to get Oscar his night cap. On our return, he seemed not exactly pleased, but reassured that his needs and preferences had been attended to. After a couple of sips, he strolled off to bed to enjoy the heated blanket bought just for him.

All this put me in mind of Saki’s wonderful 1911 short story ‘Tobermory’. It concerns a cat who has recently learned to speak and has been summoned by his proud but anxious owners to the drawing room to demonstrate his skills. Lady Blemley asks if he would care for some milk, but her hands shake so badly with nerves that she spills some on the carpet. Tobermory looks unconcerned, merely remarking with a shrug: ‘After all, it’s not my Axminster.’ Next, one of the houseguests asks the cat patronisingly whether it has been hard to learn to speak. He doesn’t bother to answer but stares dismissively into the middle distance.

When another guest, Major Barfield, asks archly about Tobermory’s ‘carryings-on with the tortoise-shell puss up at the stables’, Tobermory responds frigidly: ‘I should imagine you’d find it inconvenient if I were to shift the conversation on to your own little affairs.’ This is enough to send several other men, including one who is training for the priesthood, into a panic. The whole incident ends with Tobermory’s owners deciding that there is nothing for it but to murder him by feeding him poisoned fish (sensibly he spots the ruse).

When I was growing up in the countryside in the 1970s, our animals didn’t talk like Tobermory, although we thought of them as storybook characters. Our cat was called Tom, after the cat in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Tom Kitten, our mice were Hunca Munca and Tom Thumb from The Tale of Two Bad Mice, while our white rabbit was named Harvey after the titular character of James Stewart’s film of 1950, which was based on a Broadway play by Mary Chase. Our donkey was inevitably called Eeyore (although, pleasingly, he always looked on the bright side). We loved them all, but we didn’t run our lives around them. To do so would have been to place us in a category of the morally suspect who put the wellbeing of animals above that of humans. Once, at school, my friends and I collected money for a local petting zoo and were told coldly by our form mistress that our collective moral compass must be broken. The money would go to Save the Children instead.

And yet the truth is that in those far-off days we treated our animals in ways that today might leave us open to a visit from animal welfare inspectors. We didn’t, for instance, worry much about what they ate. The cats had the cheapest tins from the supermarket and the food was of such questionable texture that at times we had nightmares that it was made of cats rather than for cats. If they didn’t like it then they went out and caught supper for themselves, leaving an occasional mouse head on the kitchen floor as a pointed comment about what they thought of the home catering.

My cats, by contrast, are fed on a special kind of food bought from the vet. My gardenless flat has been stripped of houseplants in case Ted and Maud feel inclined to nibble on a cactus and immediately expire (our cats in the 1970s seemed to have an inbuilt sense of jeopardy and sensibly steered clear of my mother’s ultra-toxic poinsettia). My brother’s dogs, in turn, are on a gluten-free diet. No animal was gluten-free in the 1970s and nor was any child. There were schoolmates who puked after every meal, but that was just a personal quirk, like having a boss eye or wearing blue hair ribbons.

I’ve also been instructed by the vet to clean my cats’ teeth every night with a toothbrush and cat toothpaste, which as a child would have struck me like something out of a storybook – ‘The Naughty Kitten Who Wouldn’t Clean Her Teeth’. In the 1970s you just took it for granted that cats had no dentition beyond middle age, probably as a consequence of eating highly processed cat food. But it never seemed to bother them, so it never bothered us. Our cat, Tom, who was no longer a kitten, was still able to catch supper with nothing more than his rock-hard gums.

To some, like my angry form mistress in the 1970s, all this is a sign of decadence, the preoccupation of a pampered bourgeoisie that doesn’t have enough real things to worry about. For others, it suggests a more damaging psychological malaise. The charge is that, these days, we find human relationships so difficult that we rush to fill the emotional vacuum with animals on the grounds that they are less likely to disappoint or answer back.

I, certainly, am guilty as charged. I never dared to have children because I was terrified of how they might turn out. At least with Ted and Maud I know that they will never take drugs, flunk their A-levels or fail to visit me. On this last point, to be fair, they don’t have a choice. They are kept indoors at all times and, despite their pleas, I have yet to issue them with house keys.

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