Read | Captain, My Captain ~ Shaun Bythell

10 July 2020

Captain, My Captain

Captain the bookshop cat has become one of the unexpected stars of Shaun Bythell's Diary of a Bookseller. Here the Wigtown-based author describes his love-hate relationship with his feline companion. 

Bloody cats; the ubiquitous trope of online videos. Whether they’re high-fiving their owners, or falling off tables as they nod-off, or Henri - whose mundane daily activities have been made into a series of faux existential French films, the damned things are the curse of social media, and the curse of my life.

My parents moved to the farm on which I grew up on the day of my birth - the first of October, 1970.  While my mother was recovering in hospital, my father spent my birthday shifting their few possessions from the cottage in which they lived into their new home with a tractor and trailer. They were both thirty years old. They inherited - with the farm - forty dairy cows, a handful of sheep and two cats. My father instantly took against the cats. They were farm cats, and their sole purpose was to keep the rodent population down, which they did with considerable ease, but my father has always loved dogs, which - as with most dog-lovers - made him a cat-hater.

I have no idea why this dichotomy exists, but it is almost universal - it’s cats or dogs. Never the twain (since this is a book festival blog, I should point out that is a quotation from `The Ballad of East and West' (1889) by Rudyard Kipling: `Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet’. I don’t mind admitting that I had to google that). The farm cats were kept outside and shown no affection. They performed their duties admirably and with little reward. I grew up in my father’s shadow - not as a cat-hater - but far more enamoured of the dogs of the farm than their feline companions. The cats were given names, but for no other reason than to differentiate one from the other - one was ‘GP’ (Grey Puss) and the other was - equally unimaginatively - called ‘Ginger’. 

The cats, though, took no prisoners and the dogs lived in fear of them. Farm cats kill rats. Swiping a dog across the nose with claws sharpened on cold Scottish granite is an almost laughably effortless exercise for them, and I suspect that - despite his derision for the creatures - my father had a grudging respect for the cats in the same way that if we ever had a dog which showed the slightest aggression towards sheep, he’d tether it to the biggest ram on the farm and let them fight it out. There was only ever one winner, and the difficult dogs never troubled the sheep again. Nor the cats.

In the middle of 2002 I employed a student from the local high-school to work Saturdays in the shop. Carol-Ann Brown. One of the first things she told me was that the bookshop needed a cat. Apparently all bookshops needed cats. I told her - in words which don’t bear repetition - that I had no need of a cat, nor anything other than someone who could price-up books and put them on the shelves, then sell them to customers. Now that we’ve been friends for almost twenty years, I know that this was precisely the red rag that I should never have waved, although I suspect that she would have found me a kitten regardless of what I told her. 

In the autumn of 2010 I returned one evening from a book-buying trip to Glasgow to find Carol-Ann and Jessica (my partner at the time) in the kitchen, both fussing over a kitten from the litter of my friend Steve’s cat. I was incandescent, but Carol-Ann had gone to the trouble of buying a litter-tray, cat food, and a cat-bed, and - however much you think you’re not a cat-lover - staring into the huge eyes of a six-week old kitten is utterly disarming. Jessica’s only pet prior to the arrival of the kitten had been a stick insect. She was mesmerised, and, much as I hate to admit it, I was too. The kitten stayed. 

There was much discussion over the sex - I was convinced that it was a tom, but Carol-Ann and Jessica were adamant that it was female. I’d made Jessica listen to Richard Burton’s reading of Dylan Thomas’s radio play Under Milk Wood, and she had made up her mind that - if the shop was ever to have a cat - it would be called Captain, after Captain Cat, the seafaring character from that story.

As the conjecture over the animal’s sex continued. Janette - who used to come to clean the shop twice a week in those days - suggested ‘Captina’ as a name if it turned out to be female, so the kitten went by both names for its first few weeks. Not that it cared. Provided it was fed and lavished with attention, it was hard to imagine an animal caring less. As it happened, I was correct - ‘she’ turned out to be ‘he’, and after six months the inevitable trip to the vet was required.

I’m still reluctant to admit this, but it really didn’t take long before I grew attached to the little brute. As a kitten with a black coat, white paws, and dinner-jacket white chest patch, Captain or Captina was hard to resist, and has has never been less than charming ever since. 

We made the decision - in part because the shop’s door is open all summer - that he should have the freedom to go outside, so I put a cat-flap in when he was six months old. I suspect that if I hadn’t, he’d have smashed his way through the glass of the door anyway. He’s part farm-cat (on his father’s side) and Siamese (on his mother’s). This has proved to be a remarkable combination - he is the most gentle and affectionate creature, although he is prone to attacking dogs. Perhaps that’s the farm-cat in him. One of Wigtown’s residents has a Staffordshire Bull Terrier which she regularly walks past the shop. She recently told me that when they approach the front door the dog starts to whimper and demands to cross the road. She’s convinced that it’s because he’s terrified of Captain.

I’ve missed out a few years. Captain grew and grew, and became an enormous beast. He’s probably the largest cat in Wigtown. In part this can be attributed to the fact that Jessica insisted on feeding him smoked salmon and fresh prawns, a diet of which I was hugely jealous. He became quickly bored of that, though, and she resorted to squirty cream as a means of retaining his affection. For a while, he barely fitted through the cat-flap. Now, he’s on a fairly healthy diet of dried food, occasionally augmented by Dreamies. Don’t try them. They’re revolting. I speak from drunken experience.

In April last year Lena - my wife - gave birth to our daughter, Freya. Captain was initially jealous, then indifferent, but in recent weeks he has become remarkably affectionate. Freya started to walk shortly after her first birthday, and celebrated that fact by chasing Captain around the house, attempting to poke his eyes, and to pull his tail. He was less than delighted. Today, though, after she’d tripped on the carpet, fallen down, and was crying inconsolably, he appeared, jumped up onto the sofa next to her, and began purring and meowing. I hate to anthropomorphise, but there’s no doubt in my mind that he was trying to calm her down. Probably, as Lena maintains, it is because he sees her as a future supplier of food.

In spite of having the freedom of the town, he has little (or no) understanding of traffic. He’s extremely fortunate that the nine lives with which he was imbued at birth seem to have multiplied. He is as streetwise as a herring, and it is only thanks to the fact that Wigtown residents know to expect him to amble casually across the street from the shop that he’s still alive. Recently, we returned from a book deal to find him prostrate in the middle of the road. We both thought that he’d been run over. I parked the van and ran over to see if there was any chance of saving him, only to discover that he was fast asleep. The traffic had driven around him as though he was a roundabout.

Lena’s cat, Fango, moved into the shop a couple of years ago too, and - despite the occasional growling match - the cats have found their ground. Captain wards off invading tom cats when he can be bothered, and when he’s not eating her food. He seems to be happy enough to share the space with Fango. I hope Lena and I can learn from them.

My parents’ last dog - Moose (chocolate labrador) died about eight years ago, and has never been replaced. Now even my father seems to find Captain a companionable creature. It’s a decade since he kindly offered to drown him. In the cat’s rare combination of ferocious independence and gentle nature, I suspect my father reluctantly sees himself reflected. Bloody cats.

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