Cat people

My family had dogs when I was a kid, two corgis at a time. But it was when we got a dog for our kids, a single very non-pedigree jack russell/chihuahua cross, that I began wondering about the role pets fulfil within families. Our dog had a tangibly calming effect in a family where, with a special-needs child, peace and quiet are not exactly guaranteed. A couple of years ago on this blog I found myself contemplating Aurel Stein’s dog Dash (or rather one of Stein’s dogs called Dash, his favourite), which he gifted to his close friends the Allens in Oxford; through this dog, I tried to suggest, Stein and the Allens found a way to express their mutual affection for one other.

The undigested thoughts that follow are provoked by a rare trip to Wales last week, on the one hand, which had me thinking about my dad, and on the other by this very moving BBC report about Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel, who runs a shelter for abandoned cats in the besieged city of Aleppo. Part of me watching it was thinking, “Typical: to get people to care, show them anything but the real human cost.” But one detail of the report clarified that this fluffy animal story was, actually, all about the human tragedy of Syria. Aljaleel explains how a little girl had brought her cat to him before her family fled to Turkey, and how she begs for news about the cat, and Aljaleel sends her photos by phone.

That girl may just be missing her cat. But cats and dogs stand in so easily for family and domestic life, and at some level I’m sure that in her anxiety about her cat, the girl is also expressing the pain and dislocation of having had to leave her home. When she gets her beloved cat back, God willing, she will be back home again, life will be as it was, and she can resume her childhood.

That, combined with my day in Wales, reminded me of a story that my dad used to tell. It is  the early 1920s, and he and his parents (he is only 2) are moving house, from a tenancy at Llanfihangel Aberbythych, near Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire, to a freehold farm in Newport Pagnell, Bucks. My grandparents were Welsh-speakers, and I’ve always felt that that relocation in the 1920s was not so different, in terms of the experience of the migrants, from more recent immigration from further abroad.

My dad’s story also involved the family cat. When the Morgans relocated to Newport Pagnell, the cat went missing, and turned up months later back in Llanfihangel, 150 miles away.

Now, I’ve no reason to disbelieve that the cat did make that journey back to Carmarthenshire. There are plenty of parallels, both cats and dogs. But aside from the facts of the case, it seems to me that this is a clear-cut piece of mythologising. That sounds intolerably pompous, I know, but if myth is essentially just the expression of beliefs or attitudes in symbolic terms, then this oft-repeated story is the Morgan myth of migration: the cat rejecting the new home in England embodies the deep anxieties its human family felt about leaving that home for a very different kind of place.

It may be more personal than that: my dad remembered being very unhappy indeed about leaving Wales, especially missing Mamgu, his grandmother, who had stayed behind in Llanfihangel. Another story he told was about his own attempt to return to Wales, at the age of three. He didn’t get very far (though far enough to freak out his parents), but again it makes sense that the idea of the cat succeeding in getting home was so important to him because it did what he couldn’t.

The peripatetic pet: a good story, or a proxy for our deepest human feelings about home and family? Pity the jack russell/chihuahua cross owned by an academic.

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About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

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