Writing from a Cat’s Point of View by Lynne Barrett-Lee
From the moment I was asked if I’d like to tell Simon’s story, two things became clear. First, that I would say yes, without a single moment’s thought, and second, that it would be a labour of love.
After all, how could it not be? I love cats. I love writing. I love writing while with my cats. So I knew without a doubt that I’d love writing about one, particularly one with such a special story.
I had previous experience of penning animal tales, too. A few years earlier, I’d written about the world’s then biggest dog, Giant George, and more recently had ghostwritten The Girl With No Name - the story of a little girl who’d spent much of her childhood living in the remote Colombian jungle with a troop of monkeys, no less.
But this was a different kind of project altogether. Instead of writing about this cat I’d be writing the story as him. So a change of gender and a change of species, too. And though it would be challenging, I knew that would make it an adventure in itself – I only had to think back to my own childhood reading. Some of the books I loved best had been narrated by animals, including two of my all-time favourites - Black Beauty and the original Bambi. (Which is significantly more brutal than the Disney film.)
It didn’t take long for me to find Simon’s voice either. Strictly speaking, he didn’t have a ‘voice’, of course – not in the sense of being able to talk to me. But a ‘voice’ in a story doesn’t need to be spoken out loud – it’s so much more that that. A character’s voice is their history, their personality, their character traits, their essence - the sum total of what makes a person – or, in this case, cat – tick. What they like, what they’re scared of, what intrigues and inspires them. What makes them happy, or melancholy, or sad.
And once I began doing my research (there was lots of research to be done) I realised there was much already known about Simon. His essence was to be found everywhere; in the recollections of the Amethyst’s sailors, in the many photographs that still exist of him, in the news snippets and memories, in the scratchy Pathe bulletins, in the retelling of his story by many people, over many years. By the time I was done, and with a hefty dollop of authorly imagination, I knew just what kind of kitten my little orphaned stray was, and what sort of cat he had the potential to become.
I also had two important helpers. My own cats, Lola and Harvey (both orphans themselves) were invariably by my side as I wrote. And, being felines themselves, they were invaluable aides. There have been lots of cats in my life before these two, but never have any been so scrutinized and studied, so prodded and bothered and poked. Though as they’ll do anything for a treat (or, in Harvey’s case, a blob of butter) they certainly weren’t complaining.
One of the nicest aspects of writing from Simon’s point of view, however, is that it enabled me to get away with all sorts. If you are going to be bold enough to write about real historical events, then you’d either better be someone who knows of which they write, or extremely diligent and thorough in your research. Fail in that and you will soon stand corrected.
Being a cat, it turns out, was the easy part. If you’re a cat lover it doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to be able to walk a mile in their paws. (The same holds true for beetles, elks and Hippopotami.) But to imagine being a sailor, in the Royal Navy, aboard a frigate, in China… That was a whole different can of sardines.
Sailors, particularly in the navy, have a language all of their own, as well as all sorts of rituals and ways of doing things. Having never been in the navy I had a great deal to learn – from the term ‘splice the mainbrace!’ which means to have a tot of rum, to the complicated business of how a ship at sea is run, with all its nooks and crannies, all its pipes and bells and whistles.
So I read books and testimonials, pored over maps and photos, tried to familiarize myself with ‘jackspeak’ and naval lore. And there’s little doubt that there were holes in my knowledge to rival those in the Amethyst’s hull. Handily, however, I didn’t need to know everything, because Simon himself, being a kitten from Hong Kong, didn’t know a whole lot about seafaring either. So together, and curiously, we set about learning – which turned out to be a joy in itself.
What I’ve mostly felt, however, is humble. Like Simon, when I joined the Amethyst, I knew nothing about a lot, and a lot about very little. But once I began to understand what the men had to endure, my respect for them, already present, grew tenfold.
I therefore hope I’ve done them justice in the telling of Simon’s story, because I could not admire them – or Simon - more.
Find out more about Lynne and Able Seacat Simon at www.lynnebarrett-lee.com
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