Death at the Breakfast Table

(or This Year in Cats)

by Tom George Hammond

My favourite writer is probably Kurt Vonnegut and I love the way he prologues his novels with a brief passage about his intentions behind writing the novel.  In Mother Night he is justifiably delighted with his story’s moral: “we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be”.  In his self-proclaimed “famous book about Dresden”, Slaughterhouse-Five, he tells us the first and last line of the book proper, and then tells us his next book will be more fun.  What’s happened with this piece is that, on Pip’s advice, I’ve tried to write something that is not entirely not uplifting.  Or a bit uplifting, without being sugary.  A black coffee, as it were.  I don’t have many ideas, but I think it will start with Tom Hooper’s Cats, and finish with a little flourish about time passing.  In-between I hope to mention death and war.  But I will definitely start with Cats.

Look:

Last year, on the 31st December 2019, I wrote a review of Cats and a very close friend called it deranged.  It was, but for some reason it was the first thing I’d written that people actually read in almost respectable numbers.  I never thought I’d see Cats again, and then my friend who called the review deranged arranged for she and I and three other poor souls to see the terrible thing again, at a large chain cinema in Piccadilly Circus (I’m sorry I can’t be more specific).  And like five fourteen-year-olds, we snuck in booze and acted like we were cheering on a live cabaret act, instead of watching a castrated Idris Elba sing badly.  It was a dumb, rowdy time, the sort we are probably not supposed to be having for much longer.  (I cannot imagine my parents doing that, at my age – sneaking alcopops into Super Mario Bros.)  But it was sort of blissful.  Like indulging your sweet tooth.  There is no greater joy in adulthood than in the brief pockets of time where you stop pretending that you’re an adult. 

After Cats there was a virus – and all that frivolity putrefied like off-milk.  Many found a resolve in this dire circumstance by pretending to be in a war, and in accordance with that metaphor we are now supposedly in the lockdown equivalent of the final push.  Cats, meanwhile, has mutated onto home video, a museum piece from the before times which I dare not watch.  In the paradox of quantum superstition, I am not sure whether the joke of Cats has survived.  The war spirit certainly hasn’t.  We are, after all, not in a war.  We are watching ourselves hibernate, watching the best part of ourselves; our humour, our goodwill, our curiosity; wash away.  A calmer tide will restore these things, of course.  One day soon we will be gently carried back to shore. 

In the saturnine spring of the first lockdown, Pip sent me a glorious piece about ghosts and human connection.  It trod beautifully on the absences we found in the lost year; on the emptiness at the end of the Zoom call, of the empty streets, of the emptiness within ourselves when we cannot live through other people.  And this crater of loneliness, a gaunt, silent, unwanted guest made themselves known.  We had woken up to find death at the breakfast table.  (I think that is a good title for this article, although it implies that I have a breakfast table – I do not, and I’d go further and say I know no one who has a breakfast table, nor anyone who would want one or make any real fuss about where they eat breakfast.)

It is death in several guises.  There is the ominous daily tapping of the window, announcing the statistics for that day; impossibly grim, ever fluctuating numbers becoming increasingly stitched into our reality until we feel no shock at the atrocity at all.  But there is another, more insidious incarnation, more casual, more idle, the presence of whom is so constant we almost forget they are there.  It is the spectre of death for loved ones, who have become – in our terrifyingly uprooted discourse – the “expendables”.  The words “pre-existing condition” seem to be so specific for certain members of our hateful commentariat, yet the term encompasses so many, from close family to friends, to parents of friends, to distant relatives, to casual acquaintances; the pre-existing conditions that seem to just be a condition of existing. 

And in this knotted web of people who have the moxie to live without an entirely clean bill of health, there have been sombre, difficult conversations.  People have had to more readily confront their own mortality.  The darker days of this pandemic have felt a bit like picnicking on the shores of the River Styx.  (Again, I do not picknick, and do not readily associate with those who do).  Such meetings with death are never forgotten, but they do remind that life is something one lives so much as clings on to, and the future is not a neatly wrapped object, but something furiously spinning away from us as we are further saddled with the past. 

We are in a remarkably self-aware time – and the awareness that we are living through a seismic historical moment is treated with the expectation of the history after this moment; somewhere a linear narrative can be formed of the decades that come after.  But this will not end when this ends (if this does end).  The past is all but simultaneous to the present and we will return to this lost year constantly, and the chains of loneliness we carried through it.  This is why Slaughterhouse-Five has no truck with linearity; as Billy Pilgrim crosses streams of time, Vonnegut illustrates how our lives are shaped by the moments of extremity; we understand life through our encounters with death. 

Vonnegut also understood that every war story has to end with a pan away from the battlefield towards nature – like grass beginning to regrow, poppies standing on fields of blood, or birds chirping after the sound of bombs.  Its nature continuing, peacefully, a sign of the past becoming dust and photographs; there is a world that lives without us, and it’s not quite so phased by old treaties and stay at home orders.  But in Slaughterhouse-Five the birds go; “Poo-tee-weet?” to poor Billy Pilgrim, as the war in Europe finally ends, like they want to know something, like they’re asking; “what happened?”, or better still, “what now?” …

Because for Vonnegut the end was not the war or the decades lived after – in fact there is no proper ending for poor Billy Pilgrim at all, just time dancing around him, barely trying to make sense.  Most people may not be living in this time much for now; as the empty feeling of a new lockdown sets in, it is far nicer to exist predominantly in the future, where everyone is singing and kissing in pubs.  But when that time actually comes (if that time actually comes), we may still find a part of ourselves sitting across from death, in the early hours of the morning, attempting to distract from his presence by making jokes about Cats.  

And so, like poor Billy Pilgrim, I find myself unstuck in time, in Leicester Square in 2025.  Disney, in an administrative error, produced a cartoon remake of Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, in which Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and Pluto capture several dozen sex slaves in a locked down mansion in California.  Somehow it has made more money than Cats.  My friend has arranged for me and three other poor souls to attend a midnight screening at a chain cinema (whose name escapes me), and we sneak in five bottles of champagne and pretend we produced the film.  It’s a dumb, rowdy time, the sort we’re probably not supposed to be having for much longer.  But it was sort of blissful. 

Afterwards, we spill out into Central London, donning masks as we navigate the various crowds.  I hear, above the din of people and music, an anguished bird chirping at me.  I look up, and see it, a tiny thing that looks rather afraid.  And then, from nowhere, something leaps towards it, and the bird is gobbled up by a massive, hairless cat with no genitals.  And it spits out a feather, then crawls on into the night.