Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Feline groovy

I haven't written about this before, but I love cats. I don't have any myself, but wherever I go I am drawn to our bewhiskered dumb chums, and will never consider a moment wasted that is spent communing with my feline friends. I am well aware that cats and the interweb are a well-worn trope, but as we approach Christmas, I feel no (or, at the very least, little) shame in contributing to the global quotient of cat-based blog posts.

I met this particularly smiley cat in Borrowdale in the Lake District in March this year. I first spotted her as she was lurking up a bank, watching with suspicion passers by like me, as we walked along a lane from a campsite to a farm, where the showers were. On spotting her, I blinked my greeting - the traditional way of introducing oneself to cats - and she leapt onto the road to greet me. She was small and friendly, but unquestioningly an independent countryside cat.

Having showered and changed into clean dry clothes (a simple but unbeatable luxury after a cold wet night) I wandered back past her again, on my way back to the tent. She was happy to be stroked, and for a few minutes we passed the time of day in this pleasant way; me tickling her about the ears, and she purring warmly.

After a bit, she decided that there were interesting smells to be investigated beside a nearby stream, and together we checked them out, she occasionally returning to be stroked. Eventually, I decided to leave her to her stalking, and returned to the waterlogged campsite. Later that day, I asked the farmer what the cat's name was. She thought for a minute, and then said, "Oh, she doesn't really have one. She's just Cat."

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Wild night at the Red Onion

The bus from Whitehorse rolled into Skagway late afternoon. It was knocking on the end of September, and the small city's streets which, I presumed, would over the summer months be thronged with tourists disembarking from the cruise liners docked at the quays, were largely deserted. I did not mind this, and rather relished the opportunity to walk the wooden sidewalks unjostled.

Skagway became the place it is thanks to the gold rush, where it was a vital stopping post for prospectors, en route to the gold fields in the Yukon. I had read Pierre Berton's lively history of the gold rush ("Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush", which I would recommend to anybody), and already had a vivid image of the place back in its lawless gold rush days, over a hundred years before.

The modern Skagway was an odd combination of clean parodies of its own history and general tourist tat, and it was with some surprise when, after quite a bit of searching, I finally found Jeff "Soapy" Smith's Parlor (a grand name for an abandoned wooden shed) on Second Avenue. "Soapy" Smith acquired his nickname by being the master of a particular confidence trick - you sell cakes of soap, wrapped in paper, and demonstrate to the punters that you have wrapped dollar bills - sometimes up to a hundred dollars' worth - under the paper of some of the bars. You then sell perfectly normal soap for a dollar a piece, with the punters hoping to get one with the money. Except that the one with the money is never available to the ordinary punters, only to confederates, who demonstrate their "successes", to urge others to buy in.

In the early, lawless, days of Skagway, "Soapy" Smith realised that there were easier ways of making money from the gold rush than by the hard work of mining for gold, and set to work mining the prospectors, instead. To this end, Jeff. Smith's Parlor offered, for a premium, to send messages back to the loved ones left behind. The only problem with this being that "Soapy" Smith's Parlor did not have a connection to the telegraph lines - at the time, there wasn't one, this far north. Before he reached is inevitably bloody end in the summer of 1898, gunned down on Juneau Wharf, "Soapy" Smith was in charge of his own militia. When I visited it, his Parlor was boarded up, in an overgrown yard behind a wire fence, a somewhat sorry memorial to a dastardly, yet undeniably colourful individual.

That evening, having found some food in one of the few restaurants that was still open, I wandered back towards the quay, where the ship that was to take me back south down the Inside Passage was waiting, and sat in the bar of the Red Onion Saloon. As it boasted, albeit in a slightly coy way, it had been a brothel, back in the city's "glory" days, but it had obviously become the contemporary city's local.

Over a beer or two, I watched the summer workers, who would also be joining the ship heading south, as they celebrated their last night in town. It felt like the end of term, as kids who had made friends whilst they worked the summer season said their goodbyes to one another. They partied with a slightly sad air; former strangers who had been thrown together for a time, had fun, maybe even fallen in love, but who knew that they might never see each other again.

In the gent's, somebody had written a short poem of Emily Dickinson on one of the walls. Later, from the bow of the ship, as I watched the city's lights fading off into the night, it seemed to me to match perfectly the wistful mood of the evening:

So set its sun in thee,
What day is dark to me—
What distance far,
So I the ships may see
That touch how seldomly
Thy shore?

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

The Lions of West 12th Street

There are numerous famous lions in New York City. There are the glorious and proud carved animals who pose nobly outside the New York Public Library, for example, and any number of others, from across a wide expanse of world history, in the Met and the city's other museums. Walking along West 12th Street, one morning, on my way to the subway, however, I came across a particular pair of lions that struck me as slightly unusual.

I say "lions", but what I really mean, of course, is "a lion and a lioness", because rather than identical, matching statues of two male lions, which is what you usually see dotted about the place, the lions outside this particular brownstone were a male and female couple, one on either side of the steps; a large male, with a full mane, and a smaller and sleeker female. The lion sits, with his tongue protruding slightly, as if cheekily rasping the neighbourhood, whilst his mate has her mouth clothed, her head up, alert.

I don't believe I have ever seen a pair - a genuine couple, indeed - of lions, like this, so I took a picture, and then wandered on my way. Later, I looked for an explanation online, assuming that so distinctive a pair of guardians would have attracted the attention of other commentators, or possibly have a famous story attached to them that would be recorded somewhere. Perhaps I have been looking in the wrong place, or perhaps I have ascribed unwarranted rarity to perfectly mundane ornaments, but I have yet to find any explanation of the West 12th Street Lions.

In the absence of an obvious explanation, therefore, I have imagined a vivid scene set at some point in the 19th-century, where a delightful and mildly eccentric married couple decide to commission statues representing themselves to adorn their new property. A marriage of true equals, where each partner respected the other, there would naturally have been no suggestion of two identical male lions framing their doorway. Instead, and to reflect the husband and wife within, the West 12th Street Lions were born, to the possible bemusement and outrage of their more hidebound neighbours.

If anybody reading this knows anything about them, or indeed the real story, please let me know in the comments, below.