Linda Herrick

Linda Herrick is the Arts and Books Editor at the NZ Herald.

Paws for thought

British writer Tom Cox has attracted an avid following through his blogs and books about living in the Norfolk countryside with a gang of cats. He talks to Linda Herrick

Tom Cox with his housemates. 'if someone likes cats, it says something good about someone to be bonding with animals in that way,' he says.
Tom Cox with his housemates. 'if someone likes cats, it says something good about someone to be bonding with animals in that way,' he says.

William Boyd and Julie Burchill are fans of British writer Tom Cox's books and blogs but the 38-year-old is quietly astounded he has admirers further afield. His Guardian blog, The 21st Century Yokel, muses whimsically upon the joys of rural life in the heart of Norfolk, while books like Under The Paw and Talk To The Tail are heartfelt reflections on what it's like to live in a big, rattly, old house with a bunch of cats he is absolutely potty about.

"The blogs on the Guardian are so British," he says on the phone from Norfolk (and, yes, he does speak with a lovely, soft, yokelly burr).

"I write them imagining that no one who lives further than 80 miles from my house can read them. I have had publishers in America saying, 'This book is too British.

People wouldn't understand it.' But, when Under The Paw came out in Australia and New Zealand, I got some lovely readers' letters, and a surprising amount from what seemed like burly biker men from Australia who love cats. One of them said, 'None of my mates would expect me to read a book like this but you really summed up the way I feel about cats.'

"I thought I was just speaking for myself and it wasn't something I was expecting at all."

Cox's latest, The Good, The Bad & The Furry, features a cover photo of 18-year-old The Bear, a black cat with a white heart shape on his chest, tattered ears and piercing yellow eyes. The Bear, rescued as a kitten found in a plastic bag on a motorway, is part of the legacy of Cox's 2009 split from his long-term partner.

"I didn't know The Bear for the first five years of his life," he explains. "He wasn't just my ex's cat, he was my ex's ex's."

Cox has described The Bear as "the most polite cat I have ever met ... he is the only feline I have ever known who signals his hunger by nodding subtly towards the food cupboard".

When I spoke to Cox, he was on the eve of moving The Bear and feline friends (Ralph, Shipley and Roscoe) and - hooray - his new girlfriend, Gemma, into a rented house in Norwich, about 30km down the road.

"I have been in this house on my own for about five years," he says. "It was a big house for one person with four cats. When I was single I do remember feeling like owning four cats had more of a stigma about it. But I think if someone likes cats, it says something good about someone to be bonding with animals in that way.

"If you take it all the way to your average psychopath who hates animals, you are the opposite of that if you get on really well with animals."

Cox, who aspired to be a professional golfer in his teens (see his book Nice Jumper, shortlisted for the National Sporting Club Best Newcomer Award), took a circuitous route to where he is today.

He is, and has always been, a music nut.

"When the golf didn't happen in the way I'd hoped, I went back to my love of music and played catch-up for two years and listened to records. At one point I was a university dropout working in part-time jobs. I had a job in a factory standing in a skip and people threw things at me. The next thing, I've got a job at NME, which was the pinnacle of my ambitions, then I got the job as the Guardian's chief pop critic when I was 23.

"It was mainly enthusiasm. I wasn't a good writer at that point. I was starting to get interested in other subjects and that was when I was starting to write better stuff."

Cox, who was born in Nottinghamshire, moved from London to Norfolk in 2001 "to fulfil that idea of that being a good change in lifestyle. I initially thought, 'I am 26 now', which I viewed as old at the time, 'and that's when you need an estate car and you go to live in the country.' It was a slightly foolish move but one that has worked out really well. I have ended up in a landscape that I really love and I've got some fantastic friends here."

Cox this year engaged in a debate in the Guardian with campaigner Gareth Morgan over the latter's call for cats to be confined or eradicated in New Zealand. Cox was relatively restrained, pointing out that his elderly neighbour's life was greatly enhanced by the company of her cat for her remaining years.

Now, he says, "There might have been a few more hardcore cat lovers who have read my books and are in New Zealand and understand the situation better. [They] might feel I could have been more confrontational with him. For me to speak with authority, I would have to be over there but my initial reaction was, 'Oh my God, what is he trying to do?'"

There's a section early in The Good, The Bad & The Furry, which Cox had to force himself to revisit: the death at home of one of his other cats, Janet (a misnamed male). "I heard a loud, wrenching sound from a couple of rooms away," he writes. "I would compare it to the sound of a long-unoiled door being ripped from its hinges, yet it was too animal and visceral for that."

Janet had died on the stairs of a heart attack, and a weeping Cox had to take the body out into the garden to bury him in the pouring rain.

"That was the hardest thing I have ever written, without a doubt. I knew that once I'd got over that hurdle the book would become a more fun process.

"Obviously, I try and keep it light all the way through because they are fluffy books to an extent and are supposed to be entertaining.

"I had written about it on my blog before in a very hasty way. It probably came across in the book that Janet's death came at a difficult time of my life. I was still recovering from the break up, Talk To The Tail hadn't done particularly well and my publishers didn't give it the push they had given to the previous book. I had lost my main form of income in terms of my newspaper work.

"Then Janet died, and I was on my own in the house and with this animal that had been part of my life for so long. I had to walk down the garden and bury him in the rain. I thought, 'That's it. I hate my life'. Then I thought, 'Gosh. I am properly an adult. I thought I was an adult before.' Writing about it was quite cathartic and the reaction from people who had read the books and kind of felt they knew Janet helped me through it, it really did."

But now Cox has to go. Shipley is miaowing down the phone and there is that big move the next day. The new house, he says, will be The Bear's "retirement bungalow". "We have been doing so much house-hunting and the first question has always been, 'Would the cats like it?'"

He laughs. "Oh, is it nice for us as well? Maybe."

The Good, The Bad & The Furry (Sphere $29.99) is out now.

- NZ Herald

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