The Last Free Cat: the story that went wrong

cov2Back in 2002 I was in Lloyd George’s living room reading an excerpt from a teen novel I’d written – or rather, started to write, as I couldn’t make it work and had abandoned it after a few chapters. Also in the room was the redoubtable playwright Liz Lochhead, who had been in the audience at BBC Scotland when my sitcom Degrees R Us won a BBC Talent award, and subsequently invited me to teach alongside her at the writing centre Ty Newydd (Lloyd George’s old home). Liz is a very authoritative woman and when she insisted I finish the aborted novel I felt obliged to comply. So I looked again at Feela.

Feela had begun life as a note in my diary: “Last Free Cat. Cats sold by large companies for huge prices, licensed – only rich have them. Kid has got one he found. Who can he trust? Shopped by friend? Police call”  This idea had been prompted by the glut of privatisations from the eighties onward, where it seemed that anything people wanted could become a source of profit. If cats were not freely available, what would people pay for them?

Pretty soon I had sketched out the main characters: Jade, a naïve girl from the rich side of town who’d lost her dad and moved into a poor neighbourhood; Kris, an emotionally alienated feral youth who nevertheless understood how the powerful use and manipulate us; Jade’s mum, a sound, loving woman who generally toed the line but felt strongly that they had the right to keep the stray cat they found in their garden. The setting, though this is disguised in the novel, was to be the world I knew: the impoverished inner city neighbourhood of Adamsdown, Cardiff, where I lived.

I started the novel a week after I got the idea, setting a target of 500 words a day. I had not plotted the story beyond the first few chapters: not unusual for me. I usually think it best to get a good start down on paper, then see what’s working and base my decisions for the rest of the story on this. What I did know is that Jade would find a cat, fall for it and be faced with the need to hide it. Kris would get wind of it but, given his contempt for the authorities, be apparently happy to keep her secret. The problem, however, is that the control of cats has been legitimised by an outbreak of deadly cat flu, transmittable to humans – or so the authorities say. Does Feela carry the virus? Jade’s fear of this leads to her giving the game away. The armed officers of the state (Comprot) raid her house and seize Jade’s mum and Feela.

By July 2 I’d reached this point and written 10,000 words. But I was running into problems. One was the fact that the fact Jade’s mum was in prison, and could therefore be used by the authorities to control Jade’s actions. The other was the fact that, no matter how hard I tried, I could not imagine how Jade and Kris could track down and rescue Feela. I made numerous abortive attempts to write the next chapter, but the story was just dying. It didn’t interest me any more. I went off camping to Chamonix, where I lay around feeling awful with a tooth abscess and a foundering relationship. I was grateful to come home to a commission from the OUP, who wanted me to write a version of Macbeth suitable for children (more on this in another chapter). After this I did have one more go at Feela, but it still wasn’t working. I began another book for Walker and pretty much forgot about privatised cats. . .until that evening, two years later, in Lloyd George’s living room.

The writing of any novel involves a multitude of decisions. Some novels come easily, everything works, and your story has that healthy sense of inevitability about it. Others do not. Decisions are as hard to make as in a game of chess, and one false move can lead to disaster. But the false move I’d made in Feela was so obvious a child could have seen it: I had taken the cat out of the story, when the compelling nature of that story came from Jade’s intense need to protect her pet, which also acted as a catalyst (no pun) in the awkward but burgeoning relationship between Jade and Kris.

The simple remedy was for the Comprot raid to have different results: Feela remains at large, while Jade’s mum dies as a result of it. Now it becomes Jade and Kris on the run from the authorities, trying to get Feela to a place of safety, thrown together in a situation where pressure in unending and emotion is raw. Their journey is an education for Jade about the nature of the society she lives in, and who is and who is not to be trusted. At the back of my mind I probably had the journey of Huck and Jim in Huckleberry Finn, an enormous influence on me. It’s also a journey across South Wales, although transformed into a fictional landscape.

Though the world of The Last Free Cat is set in the future, it is very much a story about the present, and the story is informed by many real-life events which I experienced in the course of years of political activism.  One example is the demonstration which is blocked off by Comprot and then charged with horses: exactly what happened in 1993 to a march of anti-racists against the BNP HQ in Welling.  It is only when the state is challenged that its true nature is revealed.

I don’t want to give away all the little twists and turns that I introduced into the plot, but like any good story it thrives on unexpected revelations.  What I will say is that the story ended well before I intended it should. I just wrote a line and thought, “no, stop, that’s said enough”.   In writing, as in life, knowing when to stop talking is as important as knowing what to say.

Whenever I think of the story I remember being on trains, conceiving scenes while listening to the songs which I imagined as the soundtrack to a Feela film. I also remember the train I caught home from an author visit, after I’d finished the story and given it to Natalie to read. Natalie is an avid and very discerning reader whose opinion I value as much as any editor. So when I rang her from the train and she said I’d have to come home before she’d tell me what she thought of the book, I was worried. After all, she’d not refrained from criticisms of other books which other reviewers had stoutly praised.

I arrived home and walked nervously into the living room of 12 Comet Street, Adamsdown. Natalie threw her arms around me and told me what a great book I’d written. To this day it is the greatest moment of my writing career. I was totally confident that others would feel the same way about it, and that confidence has been justified.

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