Sunday, 4 October 2015

Hey Diddle Diddle: Cats and Nursery Rhymes

I never was a huge fan of nursery rhymes. Although they are meant to entertain small children, I always found them slightly sinister. This is perhaps backed up by the eldest son, who when little used to think the words to “Baa Baa Black Sheep” went:

Baa, baa, black sheep
Have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir,
Three bags full;
One for the monster ….

Obviously this should have been master, but my son misheard.
Perhaps I would have liked these rhymes more if they featured cats. So let's see what is on offer.

The Cat and the Fiddle
Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon,
The little dog laughed to see such fun
And the dish ran away with the spoon

What is the significance of the “cat and the fiddle”?
There are several different explanations.
One is that the cat is code for Queen Elizabeth I, and is a comment on her evasive behavior with foreign diplomats. She is famous for skillfully manipulating those emissaries sent by foreign princes to negotiate a marriage contracct with Elizabeth. Some believe this nursery rhyme is a comment on her ability to fiddle and pull the diplomates' strings and play with them as a cat does mice – especially as she never married and was famous for being the virgin Queen.
However, nice as this story is, sources believe Hey Diddle Diddle was written around 200 years after her reign – which hardly makes it topical and top of the rhyme-makers mind.
A representation of Bastet
holding a sistrum

Perhaps more convincing is the explanation likening the words to a description of a type of ancient Egyptian instrument called a sistrum. Many ancient depictions of the cat-goddess Bastet show her holding a sistrum which is fiddle-shaped. Intriguingly, the cow and the moon could be represented by another Egyptian goddess, Hathor, who bore horns on her head between which is suspended a large disc.

Alternatively, the “cat and fiddle” could be a corruption of the Latin expression “catus fideles” meaning faithful cat, but to the untrained ear sounding like ‘cat and fiddle’.

The Cat and the Pudding String
Sing, sing, what shall I sing?
The cat’s run away with the pudding string.
Do, do, what shall I do?
The cat’s run away with the pudding too.

This rhyme is altogether more straightforward. If you’ve ever made traditional Christmas puddings, you’ll have some idea what this is about. The pudding ingredients are mixed and then placed within a large muslin cloth which is gathered around the mix and tied off. The pudding is then steamed or boiled.
Obviously, a playful  cat took a fancy to the securing string and played with it. Perhaps the cook saw what kitty was about and chastised her, at which point the cat takes off with the string in her mouth and pulls the pudding after her.
Simple! (Must have been a small pudding though.)

Going to Saint Ives
As I was going to Saint Ives,
I met a man with seven wives;
Every wife had seven sacks;
Every sack had seven cats;
Every cat had seven kits
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives.
How many were there going to Saint Ives?
Beautiful St Ives on the Cornish coast of England

This one is my favorite because on the face of things it’s a simple test of multiplication. [St Ives is a town in Cornwall.]
However, is it instead a trick question?
Can you be confident the man with seven wives was indeed going towards St Ives, or could he and his entourage have been walking away (and therefore making the math considerably easier!!)
What do you think?

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Deadly Cat Customs

It is only relatively recently that cats have shed their sinister associations to become a much loved, benign pet and family member. In previous centuries the cat was viewed with suspicion or even regarded as the Devil's agent.

"Among quadrupeds the cat has long been looked upon with suspicion, a circumstance due no doubt to the belief that this was one of the forms in which witches were wont to masquerade." 
Corrie 1890/1

This goes some way to explain why there are so many superstitions linking cats and death. Indeed our first custom relates to cat predicting death. 

It was said if a cat refused to come into the house where a sick person lay, this was a predictor of the latter's impending departure from this earth. This ability was said to be due to the cat's ability to see beyond the physical world and tap into the supernatural.

"Mrs Fawset's cat had been curled asleep on the rug...he started up, eyes glaring, fur on end and made fantic efforts to get out of the room...We later learnt this was the exact time that Mrs Fawset died."
22 Nov 1930

Conversely, in previous centuries if a member of the household died, the cat was banned from the house. This stems from a belief that if the cat jumped over the body or coffin, the welfare of the deceased spirt would be imperiled.

"It was not uncommon for the cat to be imprisoned beneath an inverted tub." Wood 1911

This fear even extended to the funeral cortege, with widespread panic from the mourners if a cat was spotted strolling near the church.

Turning things on their head, the is a traditional saying: "Curiosity killed the cat." Playwright Ben Jonson used a similar phrase in his 1598 play, Every Man in his Humour.

"Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care will kill a cat, up-tails all, and a pox on the hangman."

Shakespeare used a similar version of this saying in Much Ado About Nothing (1599)
"What, courage man! What though care killed a cat, though has mettle enough in thee to kill care." 

So when did curiosity put in an appearance?

The earliest written record of "Curiosity killed the cat" was in a compendium published in 1873, where it was listed an an Irish proverb, and it makes more sense to me than "Care killed the cat."

New Release!

Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors, Volume 2 
Edited by Debra Brown and Sue Millard
Contributing author: Grace Elliot

An anthology of essays from the second year of the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, this book transports the reader across the centuries from prehistoric to twentieth century Britain. Nearly fifty different authors share the stories, incidents, and insights discovered while doing research for their own historical novels.

From medieval law and literature to Tudor queens and courtiers, from Stuart royals and rebels to Regency soldiers and social calls, experience the panorama of Britain’s yesteryear. Explore the history behind the fiction, and discover the true tales surrounding Britain’s castles, customs, and kings.

Purchase links:

Amazon US 
Amazon UK 

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Popular Feline Sayings and their Origins

Expressions such as ‘Letting the cat out of the bag’, and ‘A cat in hell’s chance’ are in common parlance – yet what are their origins? 

If you stop to think about it, putting a cat in a bag in the first place is a strange thing to do. So that you don't lose sleep over this, let’s take a look at the origins of these popular sayings.

Let the Cat Out of the Bag
This expression means to give away a secret. As a child I remember my parents using this expression, and feeling vaguely perplexed that a cat was in a bag in the first place. Why was it there? Who put it there? Although in my childish mind I knew with all certainty that the cat was ginger(I’ve no idea why).
It’s origins go back to 18th century tricksters selling goods in the market. The trader claimed to be selling piglets and presented the punter with a wriggling bag. If the potential purchaser asked to see inside, the tradesmen would tell them the pig was too lively and to open the bag risked it escaping. If the purchaser insisted, then the bag was opened and an irate cat jumped out – hence giving away the fraudster’s secret trick.

An interesting twist is another saying, “Never buy a pig in a poke” comes from the same source. This is a warning about buying unseen goods, with the ‘poke’ in question being another word for the bag or sack.

Raining Cats and Dogs
This popular expression meaning a deluge or exceptionally heavy rain, has less than pleasant origins. It goes back centuries to when towns were basically roads lined with houses with very little in the way of drainage. In addition, there were lots of stray animals who were often in a pitiful state of health. After a heavy downpour the rainwater flowed in makeshift rivers through the streets, sweeping refuse ahead of it.

When people emerged from their houses they often found the corpses of these unfortunate strays, washed up in the gutter. This gave the impression that the cats and dogs had actually fallen from the skies along with the rain, and hence gave rise to this expression.
It must have been a deeply unpleasant scene, as in  this description of a storm by Jonathan Swift, written in1710.
“Now from all parts the swelling kennels [gutters] flow, and bear their trophies with them as they go…drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud, dead cats, and turnip tops, come bumbling down the flood.”

A Cat-in-Hell’s Chance
This saying means that a successful outcome is very unlikely. Although the expression is well known its origins are murky and uncertain. A likely explanation may be found in the longer version:
“No more chance than a cat in hell without claws” – meaning ot be pitted against impossible odds without adequate means to defend oneself.

Indeed, as another saying goes: “He that plays with cats, must expect to be scratched.” 1710

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Some Favorite Cat Memes

Many apologies, but for reasons too complex to go into, I'm running way behind this week. Rather than leave a blank space (cue for a Taylor Swift song?) I've posted a few of my favorite cat memes to make you smile.

Normal service will be resumed in two weeks time.
Grace xxx

There's this one...

and this aspirational cat meme...
and sinister is always funny - especially when the cat comes off best
Then there's the way cats have life so sorted...
and this one reminds me of Widget - only in her case she wanted to taste the guinea pig food...
Then there are the cats that comment on the state of society
and the cats with a keen sense of observation
and not forgetting their sense of irony...
their unrivaled cuteness
and this...
That's quite a lot of favorites isn't it....and I haven't even scratched the surface.
Night all,
sleep well.
G x

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Portaloos and Puppies: Reflections on the Popularity of Spaniels

Yesterday I spent the day sitting in a field in the freezing cold, listening to various lectures on topics such as 'neuropathic pain' and 'cranial nerve examination'. This was part of my undertaking as a veterinarian to keep to date with developments in veterinary science. The event was called "Vet Festival" but what I had failed to appreciate before setting off was "Festival" was as in an outdoor music event rather than meaning a celebration. Hence the portaloos, tents, and me being desperately under-dressed in sandals! 

However it was all worthwhile because the lectures were excellent and very practical. Also, the organizer, Noel Fitzpatrick, wanted to emphasize / rekindle a love for animals - which he very much did. This set me thinking about pet keeping over the centuries, and hence the topic for this week's blog post - a royal loves of spaniels! 

The history linking England’s monarchs to spaniel breeds goes back centuries. In the 16th century Henry VIII decreed that only “some small spanyells for the ladies” would be allowed at court, and the spaniels were described as “smalle ladyes puppees”

Perhaps the king most associated with dogs was Charles II. He owned so many spaniels that his Gentleman of the Bedchamber, the Earl of Ailesbury [sic], used them as a metaphor for currying-favour, describing certain courtiers as: “Pliant as a spaniel dog.” The dogs Charles prefered are today known as King Charles Spaniels – a name which was never applied to them in their day. These dogs were much beloved of King Charles I – and folk lore has it that every dog across the land wept when at Charles I’s execution.

A subtly different strain of spaniel was favoured by Charles II – and became known as the ‘Cavalier’ King Charles Spaniel – a term synonymously linked to the Royalist cause and therefore potentially dangerous to own during the Civil War.  With the eventual restoration of the monarch in 1660, in celebration the new king was said to award Cavalier spaniels the freedom of every inn in the land, that they were not to be denied access to any public place and they alone were allowed the freedom to roam the royal parks!

Indeed Samuel Pepys accompanied Charles aboard the Naseby, in 1660, on his return to England. He records the presence of a dog: “That the King loved, which sh*t in the boat, which made us laugh and me think that a King and all that belong to him are but just as others are.”

In the 18th century and the Hanovarians now on the throne, spaniels were well established as part of court life, and regularly featured in portraits of royal children. Indeed, in the early 19th century the Prince Regent commissioned a portrait of his father, George III, with a spaniel at his feet and a statue of Charles II in the background. By 1841 it was estimated that five thousand spaniels were kept as pets in London alone, but it was to be over a hundred years later, in 1945 that the breed was first officially recognised as Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

In the early 18th century, the Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill, kept red and white coloured King Charles spaniels, which he records as trotting alongside his horse. His estate was named Blenheim, after the Battle of Blenheim, and as a patron of the red and white spaniel, this colour variety of King Charles and Cavalier King Charles became called Blenheim. 

Now of course spaniels are much loved companions for all dogs lovers, although their popularity has meant in-breeding has produced conditions such as Chiari-like malformation, syringomyelia and a propensity to heart disease, which are excrutiatingly painful (the former - as show in the lectures yesterday) and heart-breaking (the later.) Hence sometimes being popular is not always a good thing. 

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Cats in Fiction: Some Musings

Is it just me, or is a house not a home without a pet?

OK, I admit to being biased because I’m a bit bonkers when it comes to cats, but for me animals give a place soul – and the same is so for animals in books – their presence gives an extra dimension and by seeing how characters react to felines, give extra clues to their character. References to cats in particular can be found in classic literature from Charles Dickens to Henry James, Rudyard Kipling to Emile Zola.

Indeed, I suspect the Victorian novelist George Moore thinks much the same as me as he bemoaned the absence of pets from those most august of novels ‘Tom Jones’ and ‘Vanity Fair’. His reasoning went like this:
“Both books lack intimacy of thought and feeling. No one sits by the fire and thinks…and welcomes the approach of a familiar bird or animal.”

To my view, Charles Dickens was on the right track. He knew that animals are important in making a book come to life. Take for example ‘Bleak House’ which features several cats. There is Krook’s cat Lady Jane who follows her master or perches hissing on his shoulder. Then there is Mr Jellyby’s cat who finishes his morning milk, and finally, Mrs Pipchin’s old cat who likes to purr...   “While the contracting pupils of his eyes looked like two notes of admiration.”

Come to think of it, Dickens has quite an association with cats because he made several references to cat pies…but that’s another story.

Perhaps the master of feline literature is Rudyard Kipling in his “Just So” stories. He wrote a story titled “The cat that walked by himself”. In this tale the cat makes a bargain with the woman that he will accept milk and a place by the hearth, and in return will do only what he wants to do– which deliciously sums up the independent nature of the cats.

In one of my favorite novels, ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel, there is a delicious evocative passage that describing an interaction with Cromwell’s cat, Marlinspike.

“A cat may look at a king,” he [Cromwell] says. He is cradling Marlinspike in his arms, and talking to Thomas Avery, the boy he’s teaching his trade…
…He puts the cat down, opens the bag. He fishes up on a finger a string of rosary beads; for show says Avery, and he says, good boy. Marlinspike leaps on to his desk; he peers into the bag, dabbing with a paw. “The only mice in there are sugar ones.” The boy [Avery] pulls the cat’s ears, tussles with him. “We don’t have any little pets in Master Vaughan’s house.”

I love to find a reference to an animal in a novel. To see how characters react to it can speak volumes for their personality – things they may wish to keep hidden, leak to the surface when there’s a cat about. Do you have a favorite fictional cat? If so, do leave a comment and share the love. 

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Musings on London's Urban Foxes

I live in suburban London. On Tuesday I went to the shops and stopped on the corner of the street to speak to a neighbour. However, our conversation came to an abrupt halt when a pair of juvenile foxes ambled out of the garden to play on the road. Even though I’ve grown used to seeing foxes at night, this brazen disregard for our proximity was surprising.
Foxes are an increasing problem in our cities, because of the easy availability of food. Some misguided people deliberately feed the foxes, whilst another subset of people leave food litter on the streets which encourages not only foxes but also rats.

A History of Urban Foxes in London
Urban foxes are nothing new, but the high numbers are exceptional. But believe it or not, many of these first foxes were deliberately imported into London from Scotland or Wales. This was because in Victorian times there was a ready market for the sale of foxes to supply the hunt.

If a wealthy landowner’s estate was low on fox numbers, which made the foxhunt unsatisfactory, then a trip to London was the answer. Live foxes could be purchased in bulk at Leadenhall Market, transported to your estate and then released.
Victorian Leadenhall Market

A Most Unfortunate Fox
One exceptionally unlucky fox had an extremely traumatic life. He was sold, released, hunted, and resold, not once, not twice, but three times – and only met his death by the hunt on the fourth occasion. The fox was identified by a slit ear and holes in the other ear which marked him out as unique. He was repeatedly bought by the Duke of Grafton, but on learning of this remarkable tale there were protests.

It was argued in the press that the fox had earnt the right to be hunted no more.
“[His continued survival]…ought to have entitled him to the privilege formerly granted to a stag who had been fortunate enough to escape from his royal pursuers.”

Truly Wild Foxes
The population of truly wild foxes in London started to rise with the advent of the railways. The foxes followed the path cleared by the rail tracks and the burgeoning road network, and found rich pickings in the urban environment.

What constantly amazes me is that many people who put food out for foxes are either own dogs or are dog lovers. Of course I’m a huge animal lover and have nothing personal against foxes. However, feeding the urban fox population is a huge mistake because it encourages them to breed.

The Deadly Threat of Lungworm
A larger fox population means a greater reservoir of hosts for the deadly parasite, lungworm. This is a fox parasite, and when it infects dogs can cause death. If lungworm goes untreated the dog develops vague symptoms such as a cough or tummy upset. But far worse than this is that lungworm interferes with blood clotting.

Seemingly healthy dogs can die in the space of 24 hours from a minor cut which refuses to stop bleeding. Or some dogs bleed internally and collapse, much to the distress of their owner (who co-incidentally may have been attracting foxes into the garden with food).

Avoiding Lungworm
If you are a dog owner then don’t encourage foxes. In addition, to protect your pet take the following steps:

·         Your vet can recommend a product licensed to prevent lungworm. Use it regularly
·         Don’t leave toys or water bowls outside. This is because slugs and snails act as an intermediate host and have larvae in their slime. Dogs can become infected by contact with the snail trail
·         De-slug your garden
·         Don’t encourage foxes