David Baddiel, comedian and writer, on his cat, Ron.
GB Tell me why you chose Ron as your object of beauty.
DB I decided to choose a cat partly because we had talked a lot about cats and partly because it’s quite straightforward for me, when asked about an object of beauty, to choose a cat. They’re just so absurdly beautiful. I’m sort of prostrate before them all the time. I always think they’re so ridiculously beautiful. But then it became difficult because I have four and I’d have to choose. I felt bad choosing Ron, but even my family would suggest that Ron is the one that I am most in thrall to. I have a ring here which my wife made me, and it’s dedicated to Dolly, Ezra, those are my children, and Ron. She didn’t have her own name on it.
Pip is the central cat in the house. She is Ron and Tiger and Zelda’s mother. We’ve lived for a long time with the three of them. Pip and Ron are ginger cats who are brothers. Pip is probably more straightforwardly pretty. Zelda, who is a new incumbent, was my dad’s cat and my dad died so we then inherited his cat. She is very pretty as well. In fact, I think there’s a thing here with gender, which is I think female cats are more straightforwardly pretty.
But the thing about Ron is, that I think the one reason why I’m obsessed with cats is (and I can’t be the only person who found this insight, but I’ve never seen it anywhere else), cats I think, are the only animals who have a micro version of their big version. Obviously, there are bigger dogs and smaller dogs, bigger monkeys and smaller monkeys. But a chimpanzee is not a small version of a gorilla. It’s a different species, whereas a cat is an absolute small version of a big cat. That’s one reason why I like cats in general, the notion that I have in my house what is essentially a small lion – and Ron is as close as I’ve ever seen a cat to an actual lion. He’s like a lion cub. He’s enormous. He’s not fat, he’s just enormously muscley. He’s polydactyl. Pip gave birth to nine cats altogether and the ones that we’ve kept are all polydactyl with six fingers, but Ron has seven fingers and toes. And he’s unbelievably dexterous with them. He can open doors and open buckets of biscuits and all sorts of things. His fur is very soft and leonine, and thus the illusion that my cat is basically a lion cub is most borne out by Ron than any cat I’ve ever had. I’ve had about 20 cats in my life. I’ve always had cats. I’ve always since I was a kid. I’ve gone through a lot of cats, if you include the nine that Pip had. We lived with all her kids for a while. I think as an object of beauty, Ron is the Platonic ideal of a cat.
And Tiger is a nicer cat. In spite of the fact that he’s a big lion, Ron is quite timid. He doesn’t sit on my lap. He’s a bit weird about boundaries, whereas Tiger’s unbelievably friendly and nice. Which in my experience, I don’t wish to be sexist, but male cats, once they’ve been spayed, are more likely to be friendly than female cats. I think because females are more territorial because they have to be. But Tiger and Ron don’t care. Tiger is very, very friendly and very nice. Ron is just a bit odd. But if you look at my Twitter and Instagram feeds, which are quite full of cats, the one I put on most often is Ron. It’s not just the way he looks that makes him the Platonic ideal of a cat. He also does some very cat things. He has a very, very loud very reassuring purr. It’s a deep, manly, very contented purr. His fur is really, really beautiful to stroke, which is a key thing for me. I dream that one day you will sit on my lap. I spend a lot of time trying to coax him onto my lap. And sometimes he sits about an inch away from my lap.
My heart lifts when any of the cats appear but it lifts more when Ron is coming, partly because of his enormous paws, which help with the lion thing, and you can also hear him coming. The sort of flop flop flop of his paws, I find that sound very sweet and enticing
Thinking about why I find cats beautiful, there’s a personal thing and then there’s a more general thing. The personal thing is that when I was young, my dad was a very unaffectionate man towards us, but he was affectionate towards the cat. We had a few but Phompher was the central cat. She was very pretty. and I think I’ve focused quite a lot on that sense of softness and reassuringness things that were not to do with irritation and rage. If there was a calmness and softness around the house it centred around the cat. I think that’s the personal reason, but I would argue, I find it really weird when people tell me that they can’t see it with cats. Or people who just don’t like animals at all, which is particularly weird. But you do meet lots of people who prefer dogs. And I like dogs. I’m not militant about that. But I virtually never see a dog and feel that Egyptian thing of essentially being in awe of this creature. It’s to do with the incredible symmetry of a cat’s face, it is a cartoon image of a cute face.
I’ve heard other people say this, but it is amazing, that cats are the only animals to have realised that if you make yourselves appealing to humans, you don’t have to do anything else. The only other animals that have done that, like dogs, were trained by us. Other animals haven’t realised it at all and basically fear us. But whatever it was, 10,000 years ago, cats understood that just hanging out with humans and appealing to them in one way or another would get them fed. It’s such an extraordinary colonization by cats of human beings.
GB Do you believe you’ll meet dead pets at the rainbow bridge or anything like that?
DB I’m of the opinion that my atheism is confirmed by the fact that as far as I’m aware, no religion allows for animals to be in any type of Heaven which makes me absolutely convinced there is no God. Because there can’t be a heaven without animals. I literally think, okay, so it’s meant to be this place where everything’s bliss and fantastic. But there’s no cats. So how does that all work?
GB I think kids are a little bit more sociopathic when it comes to pets. And then when you get older, you’re so aware that there’s just nothing like the purity of this love.
DB It’s also to do with innocence. When you cry as an adult, at the end of Toy Story Three, because Andy gives up his toys, a child doesn’t understand that. They don’t worry about the death of innocence. There’s a sort of beauty which is just purely aesthetic, which I think is summed up for me by Ron, although, you know, in any day, it can be any given cat. And then there’s a kind of deeper thing which has to do with one’s strange relationship with animals. I’m moving towards veganism, which is quite difficult, because I like the taste of meat. But in general, I feel my thinking more and more is that we have created this absolutely terrible myth that animals are not empathetic. It’s so clear that animals have got empathy and sentience and care about other beings, all the rest of it. For me, that’s been most evident in the range of personalities I’ve looked after. My cats have all been unbelievably different and interesting and unusual. I think of them as people basically.
Once we were renting a house in Cornwall, and we took our cats, which we do quite often. Ron is really hard to get in a cat box. It’s literally like trying to get a lion into it. Yeah. Despite the fact that he’s terribly timid and frightened when if you try and wrestle him into anything, he won’t go. And so he got away from me and up into the attic of this house, and then just wouldn’t come out. We had to get someone to open up the skirting board. We enlisted a bloke from the village to come help us and Ron ran right past him, knocked him over. And then went into the insulation in the roof. I was really sweating and cross with him. But the minute I found him, my heart has melted straight away, because his face is so winning.
GB Do you think cats can experience beauty?
DB That’s a good question. None of my cats apart from Pip respond to music. So, it’s a very specific thing, but my wife singing Only You by Yazoo makes Pip come from wherever she is and come over all kittenish, which is sort of hilarious because she’s pretty overweight, and she turns over and gets all cute. My son and I tried to do that with some Mozart. We played some soprano singing and .it had a bit of effect, but not not as much. I’ve got a recording of my wife singing Only You to make PIP come to me because Pip doesn’t really like me that much. I don’t know if that’s beauty, because it’s a nice rendition of the song, but there’s some kind of aesthetic appreciation there.
GB What makes something worthy of the word beauty to you?
DB Well, I can’t answer that as easily, because I think there’s simple beauty and there’s complex beauty. So simple beauty is purely aesthetic. You look at something and you love what it looks like. I really love what that sunset looks like. But let’s stick with the face and the beauty of cats. It’s very deep seated and the coordinates of that particular face, the eyes, nose, mouth is unbearably touching to you. But I don’t think that’s complex, I think that’s just something to do with the way that we are programmed to like certain symmetry or angles. Then there’s a much more complex beauty, which has to do with the relationship you have with whatever the object of beauty is: the backstory, the history, whether there’s pain as well as glee and bliss involved – as there often is. I find beauty often in complexity. For example, when I’m moved by words, which are what I’m moved by most, it’s often when the words are pointing towards some great complexity in life. Middlemarch for example. Lots of Middlemarch is George Eliot just saying things about life that are unbelievably complex and true. I mean, as I say, I’m not sure a cat’s face quite does that, but it does it in a way, when you realise that there’s a whole history and narrative behind why you might respond to a cat, not just that they look nice.