The naming of cats is a difficult matter…

Warning: this post contains dewy reminiscence and less-than-critical personal analysis

There is a window to the right of where I sit. Just below there, I can see a small sun terrace belonging to the neighbours on the floor below. But beyond that things fall away for another hundred metres into a gorge; two plateaus are linked by the Puente Nuevo, which leashes Ronda’s old town to the new. The old town – which perches opposite me across the gorge, is one of Spain’s oldest settlements. There are signs of habitation going back to 2,500BC. The architecture is a palimpsest of Moorish, Counter Reformation and modern tourism. Beyond the town the mountains, currently paled in a morning haze quite unlike the unfiltered all-day sunshine I had expected.

I’m not sure why I’ve included this information, except maybe to illustrate that I’m far from home, which may explain one of my current preoccupations.

We travelled here from Weeze airport near Düsseldorf, just across the border from the Netherlands. It was a quick flight but, coming after several weeks of sofa-surfing with friends and family, we caught the bus from Seville airport to the centre of town with a sense of newly-relaxed exhalation. I remember the moment precisely; we had passed through the rotating door of the budget hotel we were to occupy for the night before moving on to Ronda and, smiling at the dried flowers and twigs – giant pot pourri – sealed into the glass between the compartments of the door, I felt a tingle of excitement that all had gone well and soon I would be somewhere in the town, drinking a beer with my beloved and marvelling at the tiny, inconsequential differences between nations that still, to my untravelled eyes, seem so telling, alien and thrilling.

It’s not an unusual occurrence that, when required to produce a document of some kind – especially when in a hurry or a queue – I must go through a burlesque of pocket patting, bag emptying and deep-breath-taking. But by the time I had refilled my luggage from where the contents had been strewn out in front of the check-in desk, carried it up to the seventh-floor room, unpacked again, practiced my new exercise for not automatically leaping to the worst conclusion, and double checked everywhere, it was clear that I’d lost my wallet.

Not a lot in there; cash card, some receipts, birth certificate, beloved’s business card, a beer-bottle label with my face on it from a film festival in Amsterdam.

We racked up €17 in calls from the hotel room phone, a small price to pay for such an acute insight into the workings of Spanish customer services. Four times I was put on hold and cut off by the airport English-language call desk; then I was given a number to call Ryan Air which resulted in a speed-talking Spanish recorded message that took my money then cut the line. There was no answer at the lost luggage desk so we stomped out and caught a bus back to the airport. No one was there except a friendly but unhelpful woman at the information desk. Amongst the overtures for assistance that I made, I remember saying this: ‘The only thing I really, really want to get back is the birth certificate’. This surprised me, later. I hadn’t known that. But there was a rising sense of dismay, of something just out of reach yet impossible to recapture; something lost that really need not have been.

I cancelled my card and held over further investigations until the morning. But the sensation of stepping light into a new adventure had evaporated. I went to sleep ashamed to have caused such pandemonium and awoke with the heaviness of knowing I would need to spend more money talking to more people that didn’t want to help me to recover something that, by now, could be anywhere. The airport told me it was Ryan Air’s responsibility. Ryan Air told me that they were not responsible. It seemed a simple thing, even if the loss was my fault, for them to just look for the damn wallet. I became inordinately aggrieved at the world’s indifference. My self-recrimination was worthy of Torquemada. But why? The card was cancelled, we had money, and the wallet was no treasured possession, why did I still care?

It was the so-little-thought-of piece of paper, folded in four with faded red lines and decorous lettering – the formal effect ruined by the wonky type-work and bald information of the entries – that tugged at my thoughts. I can’t repeat the information it held because I don’t have it to hand and I can’t remember precisely what it says. Except that my name is Corin Kim Gilchrist, there is a registered address in Southampton that neither of my parents would ever remember if asked and, under my father’s name, ‘None’ or ‘Unknown’ or ‘Not known’. That part wasn’t true.

I was reckless to carry it with me; I could see my beloved struggling against a tide of ‘I told you so’. It must have been all she wanted to say, but she only said it once (perhaps twice). I hadn’t realised it meant so much; this small proof of nothing, a square of paper almost thirty-five years old that bore no relation to and gave no extra proof or sovereignty to my existence yet now, in this Seville hotel room, was becoming the most important object in my life. I agonised that I could never know the street I’d first been carried home to, however brief our stay. I was oafish and clumsy; this document had made it through years of squatting, social housing, passed from box to drawer-bottom to wallet to passport across half-a-dozen chaotic shared south-London homes and yet it, magically, had stayed with me.

Until I’d first needed the thing – I forget what for – in my early twenties, I had thought my name was Kim Gilchrist. Corin – my father’s choice – had gone out of the door the same time he did, when I was too young to notice or recall. It revealed the true entity I was, not the name I used myself, not the name on my bank account, my National Insurance, the voters’ register, the name I gave employers, landlords. I had an occluded, secret identity and this was the only proof. Now it was gone.

Corin comes from Corin Redgrave, my father told me a few years ago. He’s not a theatre goer and could give no other indication as to his choice other than he liked the name. Ignorant that I was named after an actor I had acted since a child, in school plays, am-dram, then studying in university and working sometimes as a director. I can speculate that Redgrave’s parents took the name from As You Like It. The name may also have its roots in Corineus, a legendary king of Britain who I researched for some time for a novel some years ago, not having noticed the connection to my own secret first name.

Kim, my mother’s choice, comes from the Rudyard Kipling novel. She told me that, in the book, Kim is called ‘little friend of all the world’. Many would laugh, rightfully, cynically and from sore experience, that this hardly applies to me. I read Kim, finally, seven years ago. There is a character called Mukherjee, which startled me at the time, as that was the name of the band I played in. I am now – in aspiration and daily habits at least – a novelist.

I was told a story – apocryphal, as it came from my father – that he and my mother bickered over my name even as I was carried to the font, where my grandfather waited. True or not it illustrates, perhaps, a condition of instability regarding identity, a condition I now focussed on this document of a name legitimised by baptism and state. This was why, 35 years later and stuck in Seville, I could not let it go or accept that paper as lost. I tried to transform the loss into a symbolic event: it represented a break with the past, with the tyranny of unremembered influence, an opportunity to remake myself as the man I am, not a reverberation of the child I’d been. Bollocks and sophistry, of course. I really wanted it back.

God bless German efficiency.

A lady from Weeze airport called my beloved’s mobile – they must have found the number from her business card, which I carried also in my wallet. It was safe and I found myself babbling that the birth certificate was the most important thing, the only item of real value and I was so glad to know it was safe. I thanked her again and again as if she’d saved some valued limb from amputation. It’s there now, waiting to be brought to me. But I’ve learned something weird. The things we define ourselves by are not only our actions, how we love and are loved in return, our work, haircuts, spiritual and intellectual lives, dietary peculiarities and morbid imagined secrets but also scraps of unthought-of bureaucratic ephemera. I’m more lucid about the whole affair now but, eight days ago, if you’d held out to me my birth certificate in one hand or a new-recovered manuscript of Shakespeare’s lost Cardenio*, I can’t in all confidence tell you which I would have chosen.

*The discovery and loss of Cardenio is a fascinating story. The tale is taken from one of Don Quixote’s novels-within-a-novel. Don Quixote is one of my favourite books. When in Berlin I bought a t-shirt of Picasso’s sketch of the Old Man of La Mancha. I was well pleased with it; hip yet classic and representing double-genius. Now, wearing it in Spain, I feel like some sucker-tourist.

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22 Comments

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22 responses to “The naming of cats is a difficult matter…

  1. …. phew … no, CKG, make that PHEW! … I promise to post again as soon as the sympathetic palpitations of the heart have ceased, … give me a day or two. :)! … (and I’ve been on the road myself)

    === marvelling at the tiny, inconsequential differences between nations that still, to my untravelled eyes, seem so telling, alien and thrilling.===

    Yes. These also fascinate me. Write about them at length, please.

  2. Thanks, I will have a think. I’ve had several possible topics churning around for the past few weeks but couldn’t settle – this combined more than one of them. Other topics I’ve considered are:

    – Black Sabbath
    – Our secret cultural influences
    – The 60s beat explosion
    – The difference between identifying with an artwork, as distinct from admiration
    – Two entire novels

    Would be interested, recalling a conversation we had a long time ago, on hearing you elaborate on your love of Dickens. Just a thought.

    • shuabparvez

      Now this is what most interested me:-

      “a beer-bottle label with my face on it from a film festival in Amsterdam”.

      Eh?! No, but seriously fun to hear about your exploits in Andulucia although I couldn’t properly separate fact from fiction – I suppose that was the point. It’s funny how when abroad things can go wrong and take epic proportions. I remember in Rio with Lena how my card wouldn’t work properly and so we had no cash, but I could pay for things in restaurants and bars. When we drove to Lapa (half-scared that we were being kidnapped as it seemed to take very long through the middle of nowhere), we had just enough Brazilian Reias to get ourselves home. It was a tight call and more thrilling when you know the possibility of getting shot at and killed is medium to high. An interesting moment was visiting the Manguiera Samba school on the outskirts of Rio – Samba schools are community centres where musicians and dancers practise for the carnival. Outside this particular community centre was a huge equivalent of a no smoking sign but with a gun pictured instead – NO GUNS ALLOWED. I digress. So tell me more about the beer bottle label.

  3. Great story, Shuab.

    ‘Samba schools are community centres where musicians and dancers practise’

    I’m just trying to imagine the community centres where I grew up trying to teach kids to dance for a carnival. Maybe, maybe glumly swing a collection bucket for the Lord Mayor’s Procession.

    ‘I couldn’t properly separate fact from fiction’

    Interesting. I wonder what you thought was fictional?

    re the beer label –

    I was at a groovy outdoor film festival on the Stenen Hooft (stone head), a tiny spit of land jutting into the Ij river. My friend dragged me over to where he was queuing for beer and told me to stand at the front. Still carrying my suspicious London reflexes I drew back warily whereupon my photo was taken, printed out onto a beer label and served up to me. Of course, because I stepped back you couldn’t tell it was me.

  4. shuabparvez

    Yes, it was pretty awesome actually watching the older generation shaking their booty along with young uns. A great community spirit all for the love of samba music. It’s funny because not many tourists visit – the entrance scenes are reminiscent of Cidade de Deus. So we were shepherded by our guide with a little red flag into the melee as locals watched bemused. Thankfully, Lena and I departed from the organised group to enjoy the party – it seemed pretty safe. But I feel truly sorry for the English guy we bumped into at the end of the evening, off his face on narcotics, who couldn’t remember the name of his hotel – a sitting target for the criminal elements of Rio.

  5. Sounds more like a stumbling target. This is good stuff. Have you thought about doing some travel writing and putting it up on your site, as a separate page to the fiction?

  6. shuabparvez

    Good idea. Is it possible to demarcate a blog like that?

  7. My vote for the near future:

    – The difference between identifying with an artwork, as distinct from admiration

    … and I’ll be back on Dickens, soon.

  8. The parents of the great sinologist Joseph Needham also quarrelled about naming him, their only child. They had an all-round terrible marriage, but they were both significant contributors to the development of his remarkable mind. The mother was treated by her husband as a loony mystic, as she might well have been — but her interest in the occult gave Needham a capacity to understand Taoist philosophy he mightn’t otherwise have had … certainly to the same degree.

  9. I’ve always held that the earlier and less conscioulsy accessible a memory, the more subterranean power it can hold over our decisions as adults. For me, many of our actions are either programmed responses to these influences or attempts at retrieval of the unrememberable (to, er, coin a phrase). Parents, in most cases, obviously hold the strongest position to contribute to this early moulding; but grandparents, siblings, neighbours, pets, also play their roles. Once we become older and more aware of adults’ behaviour, beliefs etc, we can begin to choose what we accept or reject but, by then, I suspect the foundations are already firm.

  10. shuabparvez

    Hey Kim, did I see Gunther Grass mentioned somewhere on your blog? I still haven’t mastered the art of channelling blog traffic to my sight lol But I wanted to show you my new book cover – take a look, tell me what you think! (took me ages just to learn how to attach it to my post properly) Hope you are well!

    • As you know, Shuab, Tin Drum is one of my default inspirations (along with Lear, Singing Detective, I Am the Walrus and many others). Any thoughts on Grass?

      Also, if you’re going to shamelessly plug your novel on R&R you should at least include a link.

      • shuabparvez

        Thanks Kim – I’m astounded at how technologically unsavvy I am and how enlightened you are! I’m in the top 5 of the weekly charts now – it can get competitive so I don’t know how long I’ll be able to sustain it. It’s quite fun though – bit like a very addictive computer game.

        Grass is an odd one – I think he’s one of those authors who I love for a single book. I tried dipping into some of his other works but they didn’t grab me enough. It’s very ironic he was a Nazi, but I’m not sure someone’s background should affect our interpretation of their literary work. A whole new debate there.

        I’m being a bit of a hermit at the moment. Lena is practising wickedly for her upcoming recitals. I had a walk around Wapping today, along the river and pass the hangmen’s nooses and could just imagine the pirates of yesteryear being throttled to death while the locals scrabbled among the cobbled streets. Sorry, I’m taking up more blog space than is strictly necessary!

      • I only set this blog up in March, Shuab. I hadn’t a clue but have found WordPress very intuitive to use. (As you know, I also work online and so end up fiddling around with it). I also know how imaptient you are (as you say!). So give it time. Also, take up as much space as you need. The Internet ain’t half full yet.

        I’m with you on Grass; I read Cat & Mouse, which I found brilliant, as minimal and enigmatic as Tin Drum is sprawling and discursive.

        ‘I’m not sure someone’s background should affect our interpretation of their literary work’

        Quite. This one does rear up occasionally; I was put out by Grass’s revelation but it certainly didn’t change my view of Tin Drum, except that I now view the work as a kind of psychosis, Oskar the manifested voice of all Grass found himself unable to say. Perhaps if he’d been truthful there would have been no compulsion to write.

        That said, I wonder if most have a line they won’t cross, and the quality of the work is also important. We can forgive genius greater crimes than minor talent.

      • shuabparvez

        Hi Kim – sorry to constantly post on this one thread. I’m going to have a look at your latest post – it looks very interesting! I wanted to ask for your opinion on this new book cover I’m getting designed – it’s by a professional designer.

        http://shuabparvez.wordpress.com/2009/09/27/a-new-book-cover/

  11. Vividly written as always, XB. I remember losing my mobile on a Ryanair flight to Nice. It was returned to me by the pilot – he’d seen it on the floor of the plane and picked it up, found out about my messages left to say I’d lost it, but didn’t trust any of the ground staff enough to leave it with them for me to collect… so I reckon you did well to get the wallet back.

    C K Gilchrist is a very good name for a novelist. The two initials add gravitas, I feel.

  12. Thanks, zeph. I guess our stories are rather positive. Both end with someone bothering to do the kind thing and make someon’e day.

    I’ve also noticed that I’ve used the word ‘palimpsest’ two blog-posts in a row. It’s not like I have a word-of-the-day calendar or anything. *sigh*

  13. mishari

    BTW, here’s a track off one of the garage CDs. This one’s for you.
    Like bathtub methamphetamine…cheap, nasty, hurts like hell when you snort it…but what a kick…the potency of cheap music. Who said that? Oscar, I expect…

    (I’m actually lisening to Miles Davis doing Someday My Prince Will Come as I type this. A disconnect? Nah. Horses for courses, innit?)

  14. Just a little controversy here. I think it’s both a cheap shot and a bit easy to claim Grass was a Nazi. He was extremely young at the end of WW11 and the Germans were enlisting anyone with a pulse when the Soviets were on their way with the threat of a firing squad if you didn’t play ball. So yes Grass was in the Army, enlisted in the SS but I’d say if you read his books you won’t find any Nazi mentality in there and although guilt features large they are too confessional and open for him to be concealing what he really thinks.

    As to Grass’ quality I agree – the Tin Drum is magnificent but I find the symbolism increasingly forced and less sunbconsciously realised as he gets older. Great draughtsman though.

  15. Controversy welcome as ever, Al (as are you, welcome back).

    I think Grass has stated that he was an ideologically committed Nazi as a youth. I was obsessed with Peter Gabriel at 15, Grass with Hitler. Neither of us had much clarity regarding the reality of our idols. His Cat & Mouse essays, from a narrative distance, an enigmatic and disciplined schoolboy’s dedication to excellence in the Nazi Youth (if I recall correctly). I understand that Grass, in his Peeling the Onion, speaks of himself in that period in the third person, still unable to fully integrate the person he was at that time. Cat & Mouse, I feel, portays this condition very well, at a time when Grass’s past was secret, even to his family.

    I think we’ve had a similar conversation on acacciatura, Al. I don’t judge Grass for his youthful decisions. I disagree that his work is confessional; at least that which I’ve read. I think it gives a fascinating insight into the secret, percolting, toxic gumbo that spawned Tin Drum. I do think his righteous crusade for Germany to address the ‘truth’ of its past over the ensuing years now appears a little hypocritical, but I cannot imagine the shame, grief and lonliness he must have experienced; the need to atone must have been intense.

  16. XB I mean confessional in the sense that the overall moods in Diary of a Snail or the Flounder are those of a weary male or in the Tin Drum is that of someone at a youthful distance. I don’t think it’s necessarily autobiographical and I’m certainly not bothered whether it is or isn’t bur I do find there’s a kind of psycholgical overlay in his books even when the subject matter is mythological/historical/symbolic.

  17. I’ve not read those books; I’m afraid I got a few pages into Dog Years and never quite picked it up again. One day, I’ll go back to them, I’m sure. I left a ten-year gap between reading the first two Gormenghast books and the shorter, third volume. I picked out the bookmark I’d left there and finished it in a day, last year, whilst doing jury service. It was as throbbingly suggestive of mental collapse as I’d remembered; like staring at a Louis Wain cat (any of them).

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