The world is full of ideal pairings. Lord Peter Wimsey and Mervyn Bunter. Nick and Nora Charles. Sunsets and silhouettes. Sage and Gold. Pearls and onyx. Moon And Sixpence. Cheese and more cheese. I had imagined that I could think of them all.
However, years, ago, I was in a bookstore in London – and if anything good is going to occur to you, the odds are that it will happen in a bookstore. And if you are in a bookstore in London, well, those odds are overwhelming. Something was bound to happen.
Wel, what happened was that I came upon THE ideal pairing. So sublime, so perfect, that just thinking of it makes me imagine a world where the sun is perpetually setting, where the rays are always lengthy and golden, where the landscape is noble and the air is purring.
Castles. Cats. One rules the horizon, the other rules the home.
So what attracts a compact body of fur to a vast expanse of stone?
Well, surely it is the people who are in residence, their generous hearts laying down the drawbridge for pink-padded paws to cross. The kitchens ae warm, the chairs are plush and thickly upholstered, huge stone fireplaces flare in a medieval blaze: what cat wouldn't feel worthy, and right, in surroundings like these? And as castles are usually embraced by towns, and as towns are inevitably warmed by public houses – well, a cat might feel inclined to roam a little, too. A look of yearing in green or amber eyes, a plaintive meow: and a waitress or pubman might relent and part with a wedge of kidney pie, a slice of roast beef, a sausage or two. Perhaps for the evening the cat will curl in a corner and sleep, cozy in its homely nest – its ears full of the clinking of glasses, the scent of earthy, simple cooking swirling about its nostrils.
But in the morning the cats will return to their towering, granite homes. Why? Breakfast, surely. But could there be a more subtle influence at work?
The premise of the book is delightful: 20 chapters – a few pages each – of castles and their whiskered tenants. Each entry is full of photos: dark and evocative (Smudge crouches, herald-like, on the rocks of St. Michael's Mount), bright and comfortable (Ginger meows in the sun at Bunratty Castle). With castles on one hand, and cats on the other, this book is one strong and marvelous handclasp.
Through the pages cats are trotting down steps that are smooth and rounded with centuries of human steps, shod in colored fabric, leather or chain mail. What draws those felines there? Do they hear those steps? Are they following their paths? Do they sense assignations – war – barefoot servants too?
Cats peer through battlements. Their eyes glow in the broken spaces. Do they feel the anxiety of a soldier, long dead, looking beyond these stone teeth, across the borders, to see approaching armies: the Irish, the Scots, the Welsh?
Or when they fit themselves neatly inside an arrow slit: can they hear the winding of the crossbow? Can they feel the arrow bite through the air? Can they see the banners below, with their signs and symbols – held high, or grasped in the hands of corpses, shredding in the wind?
Some cats prefer the gardens, the whitewashed statuary – they sleep at the bases of balustrades, or by the feet of vases, carved with swags of concrete foilage. Maybe they dream of the gatherings that were once held there…dresses no longer of sweeping medieval cloth, but rigid with whalebone and petticoats, decorated with Elizabethan stiffness or Rococo madness. Perhaps their ears twitch as they listen in on distant conversations: about executions, Armadas and revolutions. Or they hear the thunder of hooves as horses and riders disappear into the forest for an idyll of bloody and most unfair sport.
This book shows cats of any and all description peering around corners, hiding behind gates, snug behind crenellations, walking down flagged paths…all attracted to these historical surroundings for the open-door policies of nearby kitchens, yes, but I would like to think that they also come to these castles for the sounds, voices and visions of long ago, for the inescapable life that still surrounds these places.
And that is why I'm drawn to these places, too.