By A Very Oxford Cat

by Julia Cameron

H ave you ever asked a cat what’s on his bucket list? It could be instructive.

There were, I learned, two things for my cat, Simeon. One was to make himself famous, and the other to meet the White Rabbit. To achieve the first, he would write a book about Oxford.

I explained that Jan Morris had set the gold standard for a modern classic, and several others had contributed briefer treatments. What original thinking would he bring? And who was his target audience? Did he have a publisher in mind? He didn’t seem to have processed such matters. But as he had set his heart on this route to fame, I played along. And that is how this book came to be.

First, he needed to do some research. So one sunny Friday last year, I bought him a ticket for the open-top bus, and he dived up the stairs to get the front seat. I hunkered down in the library while he explored. We arranged to meet up outside the Ashmolean when he got hungry, at the end of the afternoon. It turned out to be a great adventure. The next day was spent on the laptop, with Simeon alongside, as I endeavoured to capture his somewhat erratic dictation.

He creates havoc in Blackwell’s; and discovers an unpublished verse by Gerard Manley Hopkins, which he takes to OUP. Wanting lasting fame, he also plans a monument to himself, beside the Cheshire cat, in the Botanical Gardens.

Simeon has a very negative view of the Internet. I tell him he can’t just say he 'feels strongly' about it, for this conveys only emotion. If he wants to persuade, he needs to make a strong case. Tim Berners-Lee, he avers, has single-handedly changed the meaning of the word 'laptop'. It used to mean a comfortable place for a cat to curl up. Now it means no place for a cat to curl up. There is indeed empirical evidence for that.

Mr Bean, Boris Johnson, Theresa May, Inspector Morse, the Queen of Hearts, the real teddy at Teddy Hall, all make appearances, as do Ruby Wax, Churchill, Hermione Granger, and Iris Murdoch. We learn how A A Milne and Christopher Robin got their names, and of Simeon's (real-life) encounter with Donald Trump. Of this he is inordinately proud.

I thought the White Rabbit died back in the 1860s, if indeed he ever lived. But now I am less sure. Readers must weigh the evidence at the end of the book for themselves.

This is a whimsical take on Oxford, the university and the city, a place where reality and story are hard to pull apart. It's a travel guide to Oxford in a genre all its own.

Julia Cameron lives in Kidlington and is also author of the Oxford and Cambridge Reformation Walking Tour. Her book Oxford By A Very Oxford Cat is available from Blackwell's Bookshop online here.

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