Ah, Spring – and yet on marches the pandemic. In some countries, April’s chill sunshine has been accompanied by a lifting of restrictions. In England, those of indefatigable spirit have sat in blizzards, snow and icy winds in pursuit of a pub garden pint. In other countries, lockdowns may be light (France) or heavy (Peru). But wherever you are in the world, there is one thing, surely that can be agreed on – cats have won.
Yes, the endless, redundant question – ‘cats or dogs?’ – has found a clear answer in the eye of the covid storm. It’s cats. It always was cats.
All in all, it’s been a good pandemic for pets of all stripes (and spots), with our furry friends basking in the attention of the housebound. Dogs had an initial surge in popularity last year when the concept of lockdown was novel, or a ‘mood’, as people now say on social media. Dog walking was one of the few outdoor pursuits open to those in locked-down countries, and jokes abounded about over-tired dogs hiding their leads. Some predicted the pandemic would be over in a few weeks, like the First World War was supposed to be.
But as the death toll rose across the world last year, hopes of an early end to the crisis plummeted. Autumn came and went. In many countries, Christmas was all but cancelled. And we all became very, very tired of going for walks.
Lockdown rinses the joy out of life, the colour, the contrast. If you’re unlucky, you’re stuck indoors on your own, nary a soul to talk to. If you’re unluckier still, you’re stuck indoors with your family, flatmates, or lodger. Either way you’re sick of yourself and of each other. Fancy a walk? Didn’t think so.
As time crawled on slowly, every day a Groundhog Day, it became apparent that dogs are just no good if you are stuck in an extended, grim lockdown. They’re too obvious, too there. You don’t need to be a mind reader to know exactly what a dog is thinking. You spend every waking second together. If you’ve been for a walk, so has your dog. Your dog has literally nothing new to tell you.
The interiority of cats, on the other hand, makes them perfect partners in a pandemic. What’s a cat thinking? No-one has ever known. They remain mysterious, aloof, and independent; even while scratching the sofa to ribbons or throwing up on the sheepskin rug. Their small furry forms contain multitudes. Cats maintain a fascinating double life. Curled up, purring, on your lap one minute, and then shooting out the cat flap, alone, to who knows where, to do who knows what, the next. This is top-tier pandemic excitement.
At one point during the last long and grey winter lockdown, one of my cats, Brenda, contrived to have important cat business with not one, but two, neighbourhood cats. This was twice the amount of social interaction legally permitted for human beings at the time, and I was thrilled on her behalf. A few weeks later she brought a live mouse into my bedroom in the early hours of the morning. That electrifying event gave me enough material for a tweet, an Instagram post, and conversations with five separate people over the course of an entire week. You just don’t get that quality of discourse with a dog.
Given that their working conditions could be said to resemble one long, lifetime lockdown, the unique charm of cats has not been lost on writers, those most solitary of professionals. Throughout the ages, everyone from Baudelaire to Bukowski has expressed their love of felines. A photograph of Hermann Hesse on his hands and knees in pursuit of a tabby cat brings new levity to the Nobel prize-winner’s reputation. Hemingway’s house in Key West is still home to around 50 cats, descendants of his own pets, and Jean Cocteau loved cats so much he ended up president of the Paris-based Cat Friends Club, an honour a friend allegedly said (probably) “meant more to him than being a member of the Academie Française.’ Collette too, was famous for her love of cats – her 1933 novel La Chatte is about a man who loves his cat more than his new wife.
Georges Perec, though, summed it up best, in Species of Spaces: “Any cat owner will rightly tell you that cats inhabit houses much better than people do. Even in the most dreadfully square spaces, they know how to find favourable corners.”
And what is lockdown, really, other than the quest to find a favourable corner of your own, mentally, as well as physically? Look to your cats – they have all the answers.