Jane Shilling: Getting in touch with your felines

The thing is...


The thing is, we've all been looking forward to a decent conference row. And here it is, with Theresa May and her claim that an illegal immigrant escaped deportation because he owned a cat. Oh, no he didn't! riposted Ken Clarke.

But there was an immigrant, from Bolivia. And he did have a cat, name of Maya. His argument in court was that he had acquired Maya jointly with his British girlfriend, and that she represented the bewhiskered first fruit of an established family life, so the Home Office should stop trying to deport him. The judge agreed, ruling that Maya "need no longer fear having to adapt to Bolivian mice". Goodness how sweet.

But not if you are a Tory. Or a politician of any sort, in fact. For them, felines and family values don't mix. If the Tories had to visualise their animal avatar, you can bet they'd choose a slobbery chocolate labby. Labour's would be a twinkly-eyed rescue mutt, while the Lib Dems would really rather not think about cats at all, after that nasty business about their MP, his ex-wife and his mistress's kidnapped kitten.

Cats are synonymous with home-wrecking and sad singletons (in her gloomier moments, Bridget Jones used to imagine that she'd die alone and be devoured by her furry chums once they ran out of Kitekat). But recall the great cats in history and a different pattern begins to emerge. Something rather inclusive and modern – almost reminiscent of the Big Society, in fact.

Consider Dr Johnson's cat, Hodge, whose statue stands outside his lodgings in Gough Square, where he presided over an odd household of the distressed, the infirm and the beleaguered, who formed themselves into an affectionate and supportive ad-hoc family. Then there is Edward Lear's cat Foss: "A good addition to one's lonely, lonely, life," wrote Lear. Not forgetting Simpkin, the tabby carer (to use a modern term) of Beatrix Potter's elderly Tailor of Gloucester; and Fat Freddy's cat, ironical spectator of his owner's chaotic, drug-addled existence in the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.

So numerous are these caring cats that were I a Tory spad, I'd be tempted to page Larry, the Downing Street cat of whom little has been heard since he savaged an ITN reporter earlier this year, and demand his urgent appearance on a platform soon. What's that? He's in talks with Ed Miliband's people? Damn!

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