Feline Confused

So, anyone else been inordinately broody since the EU referendum results rolled in to ruin our lives? Just me? Weird, I assumed recurring dreams of pregnancy and babies would be totally normal in a time of massive political crisis and uncertainty about the future…

our babies
A few baby designs we’re toying with

However, since I’m not planning any babies until I’ve given birth to a completed PhD, we’ll move on. ISN’T THIS EU STUFF A RIGHT BLOODY MESS? Honestly, it was so initially all-consuming I had to ask my beloved to put daytime blocks on all social media and news sites because I was getting n.o.t.h.i.n.g. done. Still got the blocks on and while I don’t advocate burying your head in the sand when it comes to issues as important as these, it has served to calm some of my anxieties and means I can work without feeling the need to trawl Twitter for pro-Tory tweets to get angry with.

But enough of that nonsense. This week I went to see Cats (the musical based on TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, not just emphatic felines) as part of my “different approaches to research” attempts (and also I bloody love a good musical). Growing up Cats was the show my mum didn’t want to take us to, and that always puzzled me. I knew she didn’t really like cats as animals (like, if one came in the garden she would wing a potato at it with all the speed, but thankfully none of the accuracy, of James Anderson) But now…I understand.

Cats is clearly the product of a cocaine-fuelled weekend at Lloyd-Webber Towers; Andy and Tim (Rice) in lycra reciting children’s poetry to one another then having a serendipitous lightbulb moment when they realise this is the 80s, everyone is just as high as they are and they can definitely net a few mil if they add some lights and a funky beat to the proceedings. And hey, for extra fun, let’s make it three and a half hours long with only a very vague storyline to keep the whole thing plodding along.

Maybe it was because we were boiling hot in the Playhouse, hemmed into the tiny balcony seats and distracted by the fact our legs were slowly dying through lack of movement, but by the time the interval rolled around, we both had to clarify that we hadn’t missed some vital piece of the story that was the key to unlocking this trippy, cat-infested ballet-come-opera. But nay, this really is just TS Eliot’s poems set to music that’s fast enough to convince you you’re having a total blast.

I exaggerate. There IS a worm of a story stringing things together. The Jellicle Cats are having a get together under the Jellicle moon where Old Deuteronomy (read: representative of the patriarchy) will choose a Jellicle cat to be reborn into a new Jellicle life. Oh, and if you don’t know what a Jellicle cat is, go see Cats – I assure you it won’t be long before that’s the ONLY Jellicle thing you know.

Before any sort of rebirthing plans are made, we meet a number of cats, including Grizabella (read: representative of women, particularly older women, in society), a former “glamour cat”…make of that what you will, but I think it’s meant to imply she’s a washed-up porn star/prostitute?? Bear in mind, Grizabella was never part of Eliot’s poetry, but no doubt he’d be totally fine with the misogynistic handling of an older female character. Anyway, Grizabella is the obvious choice to be reborn but, UH OH all the other cats hate her and refuse to go near her. So downtrodden is she that she’s forced to sing the heart-wrenching ballad Memory, a song about Elaine Paige’s rise to fame and fortune and a regular show on BBC Radio 2. Eventually the patriarchy takes pity on her and she flies off into the rafters never to be seen again until the curtain call where she gets the biggest WOO of the night for singing the one song that everybody knows.

What annoyed me the most about this pseudo-storyline was that it was probably Old Deuteronomy who told the other cats to treat her like shit in the first place only to have a change of heart and let her be part of the gang again. THIS MUCH-LAUDED MALE CAT IS A SEXIST BULLY. As are all the other cats. Great sense of pitch and rhythm, but bullies nonetheless. Who are they to judge Grizabella’s glamourous past? Whether they set out to or not, Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice have perfectly captured the treatment of older women in society through anthropomorphism (see, I told you it was about my research).

Ugh. I’ve spent so long getting worked up about sexism I haven’t left myself to discuss The Rum Tum Tugger, who, at one point crip walked on stage playing hip hop bagpipes (‘_’) Or the resonating racism in Growltiger’s Last Stand (despite recent changes to the lyrics), which really ought to be completely rewritten or cut from the show at this point.

I’ve also been quite negative about the show overall, which isn’t entirely fair. It was alright. Like 5/10? There was a 15 minute dance number just before the interval which really threatened to stick the knife in for me, but Scrimbleshanks The Railway Cat managed to save it. To give Cats its due, it’s brought a bunch of kids poems from the 30s to life for a modern audience and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon, which is pretty cool I suppose. I also want to reiterate, I love musicals, so I’m not just being a Debbie Downer here.

Take home message? Dogs are better than cats:


Thoughts on Zootropolis

As Popeye might say after a very busy period of work, “Ug ug ug ug ug ug ug! I’ve been so busy lately, it has been really mad”, and I’d like to mirror those sentiments exactly as an explanation for why I haven’t written a blog in so long. I had my second year review deadline a couple of weeks ago and I also (perhaps foolishly, only time will tell) signed up to teach next year so have been doing some prep stuff for that, all the while cracking on with some hot talking animal/poetry research. Earlier in the week I was feeling a bit BLAH about the whole PhD situation, though I’m assured that’s just the general vibe of second year. Anyway, I decided to take some time way from my desk and approach my research from a slightly different angle…

…yesterday I went to see Disney’s latest offering, Zootropolis, set in a world where anthropomorphic animals rule with not a human in sight. Guyyyyyyyyys! It was really great. So I figured, since I’m passing this little cinema sojourn off as research I’d better share some of my thoughts on the film in the context of my PhD (for those of you who have forgotten/just don’t know, I’m studying talking animals in poetry). I’m aiming to keep spoilers to an abso minimum, but apologies if there are any – will flag ’em. Also the accompanying pictures are actual stills from the film that Disney sent me because they knew I was writing this blog.

The general story of Zootropolis goes: animals have evolved to a point where prey and predators live in complete harmony, within human-type cities, where they drive cars, wear clothes and speak perfect American-English. We follow the story of Judy Hopps, a bunny from the country who wants to be the first rabbit police officer, but LOL bunnies can’t be cops, can they?! (SPOILER) Well, as we see during the course of a handy training school montage, yes. they. can.

So while all the animals pretend that they’re bffs, there’s still some very clear animosity towards foxes, who are characterised as sneaky, treacherous, mean and violent, and apparently, out of all the other predators (including but not limited to, tigers, lions and wolves), are the most likely to break the sacred bond of trust made with prey animals in order to guzzle down a lamb or two. So OF COURSE Juddy Hopps is going to have to befriend a fox in order to succeed in her adventure. Enter Nick P. Wilde, a smooth talking hustler perfectly voiced by Jason Bateman.

zootropolis 1

This raw deal for foxes seems to hark back to the medieval bestiaries, where foxes are portrayed as devious lad pals of Satan who pretended to be dead in order to lure birds into their mouths – a trope that has been handed down through fables and fairy tales and is still fairly pertinent today. BUT what’s nice about this film is the shattering of these dull illusions to show that foxes ARE a-okay and deserve respect, just like all the other animals. Really, that seems to be the take home message of the whole film – be kind to others and treat everyone the same. GOOD WORK, DISNEY, making us all reevaluate our treatment of any number of political issues including but not limited to race, gender and religion by forcing us to see ourselves in these little animal dudes!

So yeah, I’ve been reading a lot lately about the “sympathetic imagination” and the ways animals can be used to activate this facet to provoke empathy and compassion in humans. I will (poorly) elaborate on this in the following few lines: The fact that there are zero humans in this film is great, because it means the audience has to put themselves in the position of the animal, therefore subconsciously eliciting more respect for animals and their feelings as living beings. At the same time the sympathetic imagination allows us to overlay the message behind the movie onto other aspects of our lives – if we follow Judy Hopps’s example of positive attitude plus helpful demeanor everything will work out in our favour (that’s kind of a spoiler, but this is Disney, I’m sure you saw it coming so no complaints).


Interestingly there were no domestic animals featured in this film, i.e. cats and dogs, and I couldn’t quite figure out why. Maybe because IRL pets (cats and dogs in particks) bridge the gap between humans and animals so we don’t want to see them in predator/prey situations? Or maybe the idea of dogs and cats fending for themselves (without our benevolent intervention) isn’t quite so appealing as a rabbit and a fox getting shit done and makin’ it work?

Anyway, this is now really long and even though I have 2 more pages of notes, I’ll stop. If anyone else has seen this movie and would like to discuss it, I am MORE than willing to go into way too much detail (I had a whole section on the self-referential nature of Disney, but I’ll save that for another day.) Oh also, if you like Disney in general, be sure to check out Me3 Comedy’s podcast It Disney Matter (It Does) by clicking here (basically me and my comedy/life partner Richard Hanrahan discussing Disney movies with a comedy edge).

Here’s a brief run down of life since last I blogged:

  • Poetry – Oh yeah I won a thing! The Grierson Verse Prize…so that was nice and surprising.
  • Drawing – Bought myself some Posca pens and a black page notebook and have been doing stuff, will post images soon.
  • PhD – Counted up and already have 40-50 poems, which means only like 30 more to have the amount necessary. Slowly getting back into research too…as I explained above. Currently reading The Animated Bestiary by Paul Wells and The Lives of Animals  by J.M. Coetzee.
  • Puppy – Chumbo turned 1 in March! He’s so grown up these days and ridiculously well behaved (most of the time). Here he is being undeniably adorable:

chumbo age1



What I Go To School For

Has it really been a week since last I blogged? What’s the deal with Time these days? Have the Tories made cuts to that too? I’m feeling kind of like the ol’ Prof from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe at the moment. Or, at least I’m feeling how I imagine he feels; confused, slow and desperate to get back to Narnia.

Magical wardrobe. you say?
              Magical wardrobe. you say?

As is usual for this time of year, I have some kind of sinus issue that has been building for a good few weeks. This involves pain across my nose, cheeks, eyes and forehead, aka all the places everyone loves having constant pain. Went to the doctor and got a sweet steroid nasal spray. This is the same doctor, by the way, who was inordinately excited the first time he looked down my throat because apparently I have a perfectly visible epiglottis, the likes of which he had never seen. So there you go. But less about the inner workings of this sanctum I call “body”. I think I promised some chit chat about my research this week, which I know you’re all really excited about, so I shall deny you no longer.

For those of you who have never asked, i.e. all of you, I’m writing a collection of poetry featuring animals with voices and researching talking animals in other people’s poetry at the same time. The research is complementary to the poetry, y’see? I’m interested in why a poet might use an otherwise non-speaking, non-human animal to express difficult, human emotions. Speaking purely from my own experience, it’s just a darn sight easier to have a charming, cartoonish bear spouting about the pressures of life’s loneliness than to allow the reader to see the inner workings of your soul.

But I’m fairly sure there are other reasons to give animals voices besides personal masking. Comic effect, perhaps? The idea of a pelican reading a sermon for instance, is (subjectively) funny. Pelicans can’t read, let alone become priests – I mean, where on earth would you find vestments made to fit a pelican in the first place? It’s ridiculous. And would, in my humble opinion, make a good set up for a poem that has the potential to entertain an audience. The question of what’s in the sermon, and whether or not I would be attempting to make a discreet observation about religion comes back to masking I suppose, but the overall effect would be a humorous one and so we could say the pelican speaks to elicit amusement.

Father O'Pelecanidae
                   Father O’Pelecanidae

Over the last decade or so there has been some discussion about whether or not it’s entirely moral to force an animal to speak against its will as it were, with an underlying insinuation that animals who speak in literature and human culture in general are mere puppets of our anthropocentric society, and portraying them in this way makes them ridiculous and therefore easier to exploit and/or kill. Say whaaaaat? Part of me thinks this is verging on absurd, but then I wonder if I’ve just been conditioned by the Judaeo-Christian structures and scriptures that are (somehow) alive and well across the world to believe that humans should be allowed to use animals however we want to because we are (according to God and Father O’Pelecanidae) the smartest animals of all. (The other side of this coin is the argument that portraying “soft” versions of wild animals has led more people to the conclusion that it’s totally okay to go into the woods and try to cuddle a grizzly bear, because Winnie the Pooh is an amiable little tub of fun. Not the case, folks, don’t do it.)

So maybe that’s another reason a writer would use an animal speaker in their work, i.e. because they think they have every right to force words out of a beak or a snout just like they apparently have every right to slice a chicken into bite-sized bits for use in a stir-fry or a family fun fajita filler. I’m not here to judge. I mean, I’m literally having chicken fajitas for dinner later…and also writing loads of poems with animal speakers/characters.

BUT…part of me would like to believe I’m doing it in an attempt to get closer to animals in general, to try and see life from their perspective. Okay, I realise turning a pelican into a priest isn’t exactly seeing the world from the actual point of view of a pelican, but I do write serious poems about animals and the challenges they face. Of course they will never properly portray the feelings or thoughts of an animal (guys, I promise I’m human, stop asking), but poems like these can show a level of empathy for the other creatures that share the earth, highlighting one of the things that actually distinguishes us from animals in the first place.

And then I think, is it empathy or guilt? Have I written a poem about a roadkill fox because I’m trying to empathise and understand how shitty it would feel to be pancaked across a motorway, or have I written it because I feel guilty about the way large swathes of humanity have no regard for anything besides themselves? I don’t really have any answers beyond my own opinions and there’s not likely to be a definitive answer on this topic until animals get their fingers out and learn to speak for real. Aaaaand yet this is my life for the next two years.

This has been a lot longer and more rambling than I originally intended and actually not about Debra Hassig’s Medieval Bestiaries as I promised last week – sorry to anyone who was despo to hear my views on it, I’ll try and sort out some one-to-one sessions for y’all in the future. Anyway I think it’s been good for me to hash out a few ideas into an incoherent, self-indulgent mess #soundslikemysexlife/How was it for you? Answers on a postcard.

Here’s the rest of my week.

  • PhD Stuff

I just told you, stop asking me!

  • Poetry

Poem about the plight of a stag in the works. I know you’re all desperate to read it, but you’ll just have to wait…probably forever.

  • Comedy

We were oot watching Gein’s Family Giftshop on Wednesday night so slightly behind on the ol’ Bake Off – podcast should be up here today though. Yet to watch Fantasia so It Disney Matter will have to wait.

  • Drawings

Haven’t quite finished this week’s drawing, it’s been a busy time at home with visitors and shows and puppy woes so not had much time to myself.

  • Exercise

Fuck it, I decided to just get fat and be happy. JK! Sinus infection kept me from the pool again this week, but should be raring to go Monday morning, yay!

  • Puppy

There’s been no noticeable improvement with St Chumbo’s Fire as yet. We’re pretty much at the end of our super long tethers. Choices are: A) pay lots of money for a behaviourist to see if she can help with the aggression (both bitten lots again this week), B) rehome him and be utterly broken-hearted forever, or C) continue as we are, until the day he unexpectedly bites a child and we have to have him put down. Watch this space, folks. (I will literally die of crying if it’s B or C.)