International Cat Day

Biographies from the Basement August 2021 – International Cat Day

August 8th is International Cat Day, when the British charity International Cat Care invites us to focus on the welfare of domestic cats and the efforts it has been making for over 60 years to promote cat health and combat neglect.  I have dipped into our Biography Store Collection to find out about some lives in which cats played a central role.


Anyone who has ever lived with cats understands how their idiosyncracies are woven into everyday life.  Marilyn Edwards and her husband shared their Cumbrian cottage with a series of cats and her descriptions resonate with love and delight.


The Irish playwright and journalist Hugh Leonard documented his life with cat companions with similar tenderness and humour, as did former MI5 operative Derek Tangye, who left a glamorous life amongst London’s intelligentsia to experience seasons full of plants and animals in remote Cornwall.  The landscapes of that county were also vital to Helena Sanders, who was active in Cornish politics, though it was far from those rugged shores that she made one of her biggest contributions to animal welfare; in Helena Sanders and the Cats of Venice, Frank Wintle describes how she set up a shelter for stray cats in that beautiful city.  In The Cat who Looked at the Sky, Thea Welsh describes how the seemingly sensible arrangement of sharing cat ownership with friends came up against the real demands and foibles of a trio of strong willed cats.


You don’t have to observe even the most cuddly of domestic cats for long to be reminded of their relationship to their wild cousins, the big cats of Africa and Asia.  Known for many wildlife TV documentaries, zoologist and photographer Jonathan Scott has lived amongst the lions of Southern Africa for over 40 years.  In The Big Cat Man, he describes getting to know a pride of lions intimately as they go about their lives. Big cats also stalk the pages of Tippi Hedren’s The Cats of Shambala - I knew Hedren as the glamorous star of Hitchcock films like The Birds and Marnie;  I had no idea that her passion for lions and tigers led her to spend years making the film Roar (1981).  Coordinating large numbers of wild cats, many members of the cast and crew sustained serious mauling injuries, including Hedren herself.  She set up The Roar Foundation to look after the film’s animal cast, and the Foundation’s Shambala Preserve in California, described in this memoir, is still home to several lions and tigers.

  Sometimes, a subtitle of one of the books in the biography store is intriguingly surreal – this is certainly the case with John S. Clarke: Parliamentarian, Poet, Lion-tamer by Ray Challinor.  Clarke, one of 14 children in Victorian Jarrow, was still a teenager when he worked in a circus training the lions which were still a staple of circus entertainment at the time, before going on to a career in politics, serving as Labour MP for Glasgow Maryhill from 1929 to 1931. Given how fierce the atmosphere of the House of Commons can be, I imagine his experience of training lions must have given him some useful skills for managing it.  

Finally, let’s turn to some memorable fictional cats, and to the artists and writers who created them.  The animator Oliver Postgate will forever hold a special place in the hearts of those who grew up in the 60s and 70s, as the creator of The Clangers, Ivor the Engine and other favourites.  In 1974 he brought us Bagpuss, the soporific, stripy, endlessly benign and unflustered cat whose waking from sleep brings all the toy occupants of the little girl Emily’s shop to life, and Postgate’s memoir Seeing Things is as enchanting and fascinating as you might expect. 

Kathleen Hale, whose widowed mother worked as a travelling salesperson, was fortunate in having her artistic talents spotted by a teacher.  She went on to join the artistic scene in London during the First World War, working as Augustus John’s secretary and socialising with the Bloomsbury set.  Her children’s book Orlando’s Evening Out (1941) was the first fictional picture book to be published under the Puffin imprint, the children’s arm of Penguin, the then less than 10-year-old publishing house which was to transform access to books for the general public.  It featured Orlando the Marmalade Cat, who starred in a total of 19 books spanning almost 40 years, and her exquisite auto-lithographic technique, by which the artist hand-layers overprinted colours to create chromatic blends, are typical of the period. Her wonderful autobiography is modestly entitled A Slender Reputation; she published it at the age of 96, and died at 101.

“The Painter of Cat Life and Cat Character” is an apt subtitle for our beautifully illustrated coffee table biography of Henriette Ronner, as the 19th century Dutch-Belgain painter brought out the singular identities of all the cats she rendered against the silks and velvets, polished wood and well-stuffed upholstery of bourgeois domestic interiors – her feline subjects are so vivid that you feel you could reach out and touch them.


   Colette is one of the most important figures of French literature, and throughout her work her love of animals and particularly cats is obvious – though she never sentimentalises, and renders nature in all its light and shade, ambivalence and cruelty.  The pedigree Chartreux Saha of her novella The Cat (1933) must be one of the most disconcerting cats in literature, sidling elegantly through the early married life of two young people, inspiring both hypnotised devotion and primal jealousy.  We have many wonderful books about Colette in the collection – her My Mother’s House and Sido is perhaps the best introduction to her masterly handling of animal and human relationships.

In the last few years two books about cats by Japanese authors have been enormous bestselling hits: Hiro Arikawa’s The Travelling Cat Chronicles and The Guest Cat byTakashi Hiraide. Eighty years earlier, their compatriot the great Junichiro Tanizaki, often considered the greatest modern Japanese novelist, wrote the unforgettable A Cat, A Man and Two Women. Tanizaki was a literary genius and his memoir Childhood Years brims with his characteristic sensitivity and texture, describing the day to day life of a well to do family in late 19th century Tokyo.

   I couldn’t pursue the cat lover’s trail through the collection without pausing at the shelf where many books on Beatrix Potter are to be found.  She was originally a local, born in Bolton Gardens (a stone’s throw from Brompton Library) in 1866 and is of course famous for the beautifully painted and characterised animals of her 23 “Tales”. She depicted cats with the same detailed naturalism and sympathy she brought to all her animal subjects – Tom Kitten was always my favourite (he has his own tale and also features in The Tale of Samuel Whiskers) and her other feline creations were Miss Moppet, and Ginger who runs a shop with her friend the terrier Pickles in The Tale of Ginger and Pickles.


Claudia Jessop, Kensington Central Library.

Don’t forget to check out our podcast BioEpic, in which we delve into fascinating lives through our Special Collection of Biographies. Available on Anchor, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Breaker and Pocket Casts.

BioEpic – A podcast exploring The Biography Store.

Did you know that we have an insightful podcast exploring the Biography Store Collection?

A glimpse of The Biography Store Collection at Kensington Central Library

Over to Katie Williams to tell us more…

“Claudia Jessop and I wanted to seek new opportunities to promote the Biography Store Collection. With over 90,000 items in the collection it is very heavily borrowed by a wide variety of people and we wanted to shine a light more on the people whose biographies or whose lives are not celebrated as much. I have loved reading Claudia’s blogs about our collections and I thought that it would be good to get it out there into podcast form. So we formed a scooby gang, including Emma Marsh and Jackie Hastick, and we set about coming up with ideas for people who we wanted to celebrate and the logistics of how it could work.

We were very fortunate to get support from our Comms team and our first podcast was launched to coincide with our Black History Month 2020 programme. It was an absolute pleasure to celebrate the life of Claudia Jones, who was responsible for the Notting Hill Carnival and who shaped the cultural and social lives of so many people.

Our mission is this: to shine a light on those who have made an impact on our world.

Its been a really amazing experience not just discovering these people but crafting something which people will stream and enjoy. Episode 6 (about the wonderful James Baldwin) and Episode 7 (Lady Charlotte Guest) are now live “

Listen to BioEpic here:

Biographies from the Basement

At Kensington Central Library, we are fortunate in having the largest special collection of biographies in the country (and possibly further afield!) – 85,000 volumes of published biographical material: biography, autobiography, collections of letters, diaries, journals and speeches.

We are delighted to have reopened the library, and it is possible for you to borrow books from the Biography Collection once again (as our regular readers will know, the collection is never open for direct browsing access to the public, but all except our most fragile books may be borrowed). To minimise staff trips to the store while our one-way system is in place, we have organised timed collections of books.  These will take place at 12pm and 5pm Monday to Friday, and at 12pm and 4pm on Saturdays.  Please email your requests to libraries@rbkc.gov.uk

With the social distancing measures we are currently taking in the library, it won’t be possible to have our normal monthly display of books from the collection. In this blog I will have a fortnightly look at a book, and will sometimes take the opportunity to showcase (virtually!) one of our most interesting, quirky or unusual volumes.  I will also feature a cover and an inscription. In every post I’ll include an extract of the biography of someone who lived in Kensington or Chelsea at some point – see if you can identify the person!  Hope you enjoy it.

 

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

 

Biography of the Week

Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography

By Zora Neale Hurston

“I have been in Sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows with a harp and a sword in my hands.”

When I first discovered Zora Neale Hurston’s writing in my early 20s, I was bowled over – the copy of her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God I borrowed from Hammersmith Library opened up a world where poetic images tumbled and glittered like fragments of foil in a kaleidoscope, moving so quickly that I often had to revisit sentences to savour the impact.  But the writing was never self-conscious or showy, and Hurston’s underlying voice was perfectly controlled, generous and vital, sharp as a scalpel.  The power and inventiveness of her metaphors was such that I still remember some of them all these years later.

In 1942, at the same time as E. B. White was writing the essays we looked at last time, Hurston published Dust Tracks on a Road, her autobiography.  By this time, aged nearly 50, Hurston was a giant of the African American literary and scholarly scene, not only a writer of fiction but a leading anthropologist of African-American and Caribbean folklore.

She was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, the explosion of African-American creativity which produced ground breaking art, literature, culture and commentary, centred on Harlem in the 1920s, but in later years she received less and less attention and had faded into the realms of forgotten writers by the time she died in 1960.  Opinion had been divided about her use of dialect in her novels – some felt it was a crude caricature of the speech patterns of her community, which risked feeding into racist stereotypes; others believed it was a way of celebrating the poetic cadences of the American South and exploring the way language enriches and subverts.  Her later work looked at class and gender and how they shaped the lives of disadvantaged women, both black and white.

In 1975, the writer Alice Walker led the way to a rediscovery of her work, which was rightfully placed at the forefront of American literature.  In the 80s, the publisher Virago which was dedicated to making unjustly neglected out-of-print women writers available brought her autobiography out in a British edition, which is the one we have.  Hurston brings the same sparkling prose to her own life story, the story of a woman finding her inimitable voice against all the odds presented by poverty and racism. It resonates with her energy and genius, and I found it no easier to put down than that novel I first read 30 years ago.

The covers of our books can be wonderful examples of particular fashions in graphic design. And it’s always intriguing finding inscriptions in books – some are dedications by the author, some are intimate messages commemorating the giving of a gift. This week’s cover and inscription are from the same book – Memoir of Edwin Bainbridge by Thomas Darlington, published by Morgan and Scott in 1888.  Bainbridge, aged 22, was one of the 120 victims of the eruption of Mount Tarawera, on the North Island of New Zealand, on 10th June 1886. He had been travelling the world, and died at his hotel. His old school friend Darlington set about interviewing everyone who had known him to present this tribute to his life and heroic death (survivors of the eruption remembered him leading prayers to comfort and fortify them).

The binding is an elaborate one very typical of the period, with gilt lettering and a detailed image of Tarawera.  The inscription inside reads “To dear Willie on his fifth birthday, July 2nd 1889. G. B. Saltash”.   It seems extraordinary to us that such a sombre book should have been presented to a five-year-old. Presumably G. S. Saltash considered it a duty to inspire little Wille with the austere example of the classic ideal of Victorian manhood that Darlington evokes – self-sacrificing, valiant in the face of danger, pious and athletic.  We recognise this type as a quintessential Victorian idea, and a key component of the triumphalist mythology of Empire.  I feel rather sorry for poor Willie – I can’t help thinking he might have preferred one of the colourful illustrated books of nursery rhymes or fairy tales that were popular at the time.

The last extract describing the life of a resident of Kensington was from Queen Victoria by E. Gordon Browne, published in 1915.  Victoria always emphasised the simplicity of her upbringing, and Browne quotes her as saying: 

“I was brought up very simply—never had a room to myself till I was nearly grown up—always slept in my mother’s room till I came to the throne.”

 Can you identify the subject of the following extract?  (A clue: it’s an artist and it’s the late nineteeth century).

“In his garden he had a motley collection of animals, peacocks, armadilloes, the wombat, woodchuck, or Canadian marmot, and other outlandish creatures, including the famous zebu.” 

 

Lives at sea

We are an island nation, and throughout our history the sea has been inextricably mixed into our lives, whether we experience it as part of our immediate environment, learn about its place in our history, or trace its many marks on our language and literature. Images of the sea and seafaring metaphors sparkle and surge through our poetry and our idioms, and the sea exerts a pull of mystical romance.

To mark National Maritime Day on 1st September, our Biography Collection display at Kensington Central Library features memoirs of lives at sea. There are books tracing how the sea influenced artists and writers including Conrad and Turner, and books recording the experiences of sailors and fisherman struggling to maintain a livelihood in often pitiless conditions.

Many have been drawn to engage the sea in battles for supremacy, leading to amazing feats of endurance and will – these are the loan yachts-people, circumnavigators and channel swimmers who lead us through their life-changing struggles. There are intimate and personal records of how the sea effected changes in relationships and the sense of self (my personal favourite is Gwynneth Lewis’s Two in a Boat, an account of how the superficially crazy idea of going to sea became a jumping-off point for profound insights into the nature of moods, marriage and metamorphosis).

Our naval history is inevitably linked with painful themes of colonialism and war, and we have books on how projects of land conquest and trade depended on the conquest of the sea from the Elizabethan period onwards, and on how the protagonists of terrifying sea battles understood their experience.

And of course, there are pirates, with brutal realities often far stranger than the romantic legends we have inherited.

We hope you will dive in and find something to interest you.

The Biography Store Team, Kensington Central Library