The daylight comes earlier now, and at 5:30 it is peering through the windows. And with it comes a small black silhouette, poised politely at the bottom of the bed.
Clive waits, a silent question. He is well mannered, and does not walk up and down Phil as if he were a public footpath, as our cantankerous old cat used to. He waits, like Jeeves, for a convenient moment to begin the day with breakfast.
Our cats: each with his habits, each with her foibles, and each beloved in life, fondly eulogised by owners long after they have stalked off to bother someone in the afterlife.
Today, I pottered up to London to see a house I have long wanted to visit: Dr Johnson’s house. It is one of a string of Small Historic Houses who have banded together to attract tourists. They are the Shh! Houses. Dr Johnson is my first. I shall be storming the houses of Handel, amd Benjamin Franklin, Freud, Wesley and Keats before long, I hope.
But today it was the turn of the lexicographer: the larger-than-life celebrity in his own time, Dr Samuel Johnson.
I love Johnson because of his work methods. He did not have new books, could not afford them.Biographer John Hawkins describes: “The books he used for this purpose were what he had in his own collection, a copious but a miserably ragged one, and all such as he could borrow; which latter, if ever they came back to those that lent them, were so defaced as to be scarce worth owning”
So, like me, he made do with battered old ones, and covered a great long table in his attic study with tomes to help him in his cataloguing of the English language.
The house he used, in the City of London, was modest: tall, with two main rooms on each floor, bound together by a steep little staircase. There were entertaining rooms, utilitarian rooms, a kitchen, a dining room. There was a walk-in closet in the parlour used specifically for powdering Dr Johnson’s wig. There was a room for his favourite lady, and a room lined with cases and cases of books, almost none of them original, for all but three were auctioned off after Johnson’s death.
But his attic, his work-room, hummed with activity. It is a light work-space with windows looking out over a city which has changed immeasurably since he sat there poring over definitions. His dictionary was filled with touches which showed his humour.
It transpires, then, that Johnson liked cats very much indeed.
And the greatest of all his cats was a black cat. Called Hodge.
Hodge liked oysters, and used to sit enquiring silently, a feline question mark much like Clive. And rather than send his servant out on such a menial task, Dr Johnson would leave his work, and go out into the city to find oysters for his small friend. At that time oysters were not expensive delicacies, but food for the poor. But Hodge liked them, and Johnson was his oyster procurement officer.
Johnson’s friend and biographer, James Boswell, writes of Hodge: “I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr. Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, ‘Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;’ and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, ‘but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.’
If you look out of the window of 17, Gough Square, you may not imediately see him. But look again, and across the square, where any cat might sit posing a polite oyster-based enquiry: there he is. The statue, a relatively recent addition, was created by English sculptor Jon Bickley in 1997. But somehow, it feels right to have Hodge sitting there after so long.
See what you think.
Written in response to Side View’s weekend challenge: The Question, which you can find here.