The Lighthouse Cat

Did you hear the true story about the lighthouse keeper’s pet cat that managed to wipe out a whole species of songbirds endemic to New Zealand single-handedly? Apparently this is the only known case of a single individual achieving that dubious distinction. It seems strangely ironic and so typical of our natural history; a tragedy almost kafkaesque in its inevitability and yet it shocks us.

The extinction of a species is a huge thing to contemplate: the murder of an entire community; decimation on a scale of absolutes. It’s hard to accept forever as a reality. Surely somewhere on some other remote protrusion of land this foolish bird still sings? Perhaps all our natural scientists and field students have simply not found it?

I had the lighthouse cat at the back of my mind as I read the captivating The Story of Beautiful Girl . The lighthouse motif is used extensively and effectively to structure an Image result for the story of beautiful girlepic story of indomitable love in the face of near-impossible circumstances. A much-used familiar theme but in this case skilfully crafted and alive with sincerity.  Rachel Simon takes the idea of a lighthouse symbolising safety, moves from the existence of a unique postbox on a farm (a lighthouse with a man’s face that pops up when there are letters), extends the visual symbol to it’s fictional ‘real-life’ equivalent (a coastal lighthouse with a man’s face in front) and succeeds in keeping us glued to the page while she unwraps an intricate human drama around this major lighthouse metaphor with great sensitivity and empathy.

SPOILER ALERT!!! Read no further if you intend to read this novel…

I foresaw the happy ending but not the lighthouse’s major role; such a neat circling back to those first amazing 20 pages. How I admired the fact that Simon took her structural vision for her novel and ran with it! Simon goes where many authors are told not to go; she is unashamedly sentimental in handling a difficult subject; love between a deaf black man and a mentally challenged white woman who have been institutionalised and ignored by society. I wasn’t too sure about the race difference being necessary but that’s what’s admirable; Simon takes her story all the way; no holds barred; as far as she can, to make it absolutely clear that their bond is immutable; to squeeze every last bit of emotion out of the reader that she can. But in the background I had the disturbing image of a vicious predator, the lighthouse cat, chomping away one little bird at a time…

Is that what fiction should do? Take us away from the cold Darwinian hearth of real-life?  Give us hope? Make us believe there’s always one songbird left, somewhere? T.S.Eliot said that the human race can’t bear too much reality. I suspect he was absolutely right; especially if you want a NY Times bestseller. Imagine the novel had ended with the lighthouse man metaphorically imprisoned in his tower (aka. lighthouse), consumed with sorrow and loneliness as he waits for the beloved who will never come… Nothing comforting about that. Real life, like lighthouse cats, can’t be controlled, but we can choose which books we choose to read and pass on by word-of-mouth to others. There’s probably a lesson there for writers wanting to join Simon on her New York Times Bestseller pedestal.

On the other hand happy endings don’t make us distraught or induce weeping and they don’t make us tremble; the thunder of unspeakable tragedy does. My physical responses to We Need to Talk About Kevin included dizziness nausea and weepiness, but I could no more have stopped reading than I could have stopped breathing. A marvelous book attacks you in the solar plexus and never lets you go. Perhaps, after all,  humans are more robust than we might expect. Perhaps we need both kinds of endings, to remind us that lighthouse stories come in many guises. When does craft move into the arena of art? Is it not when the work itself can move the human heart in a new direction? And is the author who presents the possibility of joy any less an artist than the one who speaks of pain?

I can’t help thinking what a great short story The Lighthouse Cat would make. It should be full of carnage and destruction and unbearable pathos.  It should be intensely disturbing; we should see the lighthouse lamp as a speck in the eternal void, hear the diabolical pet cat purr in the light-keeper’s arms.

Madeleine McCann loves pink

Madeleine, still missing

Madeleine loves pink

Ironic that soon after my post “Pink is the new Blue” I started reading the book Madeleine, Kate McCann’s heart-rending account of the abduction of her 4-year old daughter in Praia da Luz, Portugal in May 2007. It turns out that the little girl loves pink. Suddenly it seems unbelieavably irrelevant whether little girls wear pink or not. I even have the feeling I should be ashamed of having wasted time on that blog.

The little girl is still missing, still missed after 4 long years.  There is now no law-enforcement agency in  the world actively looking for Madeleine. Her parents are conducting a private search with the help of hired investigators. To date no-one has come forward to identify a man seen by witnesses walking away from their apartment with an (apparently) sleeping child in pyjamas in his arms. Who was he? What of the other sightings? Who were the other strange individuals hanging around the apartment preceding the abduction? Somebody must know…

Kate McCann mentions her daughter loving pink several times and proudly describes her as ‘girly’. Her grandmother mentions it staunchly at Christmas time (See quote below). Are we wasting too much time on irrelevant stuff? Who are these evil people that are taking children all over the world? Why are we not holding vigils outside our police and justice departments? Why does the media not focus on these horrific crimes with the same assiduity and persistence as they do political fraud and corruption?

The slut walk has engendered huge amounts of commentary in the print and online media, but missing children as a major reflection of our damaged society are completely off the radar unless one of them happens to be yours, in which case you live, dream and think about nothing else. Why are our governments not working towards creating an effective integrated trans-border child abduction unit with real powers to work with other similiar bodies across the world? Could it be that nobody’s interested? That it’s easier to ignore the real under-our-nose horror than to face it?

Could it be that there’s no commercial aspect to grip the politicians’ and media’s interest? If every one of the long-missing children was treated as a stolen oil-field we might actually get somewhere. I don’t actually care anymore if girls wear pink or not: I just want them to grow up warm and safe, wearing whatever colours they like and free to choose their own futures (with a little bit of help from the loving people that surround them).

Visit to see how you can help.

Madeleine and her cousin

“Mrs McCann [Madeleine’s grandmother], 67, said she planned to put a large pink teddy bear with a big white heart on the four-year-old’s bed, ready to welcome her home.

She said: ‘I always pick out clothes and put money in a little envelope for each of [Madeleine, Sean and Amelie]. This year I did the same for Madeleine. I’d never leave her out.

‘She loves the colour pink. I have a huge pink teddy bear with a white heart on it -‘  “

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Pink is the new Blue

Well, not so new actually. Apparently, according to a book review read along the way, baby girls’ rooms decorated in blue were all the rage before the first world war, and a baby boy dressed in pink was the norm. It’s an intriguing thought; that a daily reality we treat as fact might be viewed as the wrong way round in an earlier age.

The international SlutWalk phenomenon with all its controversy has finally hit South Africa. While pondering my own point of view on the great divide between the ‘proud to be a slut’ and the ‘keep your slut word to yourself’ brigades, I came upon Joanne Hichens’ thoughtful riposte to the ‘common sisterhood’ line of argument (Cape Times, Aug 29, 2011).

And that got me thinking about the whole pink debate. There’s an organisation in the UK that has its knickers in a knot (some might say) over little girls dressed in pink from top-to-toe, playing with pink toy ponies, riding pink bicycles etc. These strong women have devoted themselves to convincing politicians, business moguls and unaware parents that it’s best to avoid pink for the nation’s daughters, thereby challenging society’s views on little girls who are only supposed to like sugar and spice and everything nice (aside: my first memory of pink for girls was pink candy floss; the boys got blue) and encouraging the girls themselves to avoid being pigeon-holed.

Could it be ‘slut’ is a pigeon-hole just like the colour pink? To paraphrase Hichens we not only have to challenge the attitudes men have towards women, but also have to discuss attitudes women have towards themselves and their sexuality. Odd thing is I disliked pink growing up, but these days I have plenty of pink items in my wardrobe. Does that make me less or more of a feminist? Have I perhaps come out on the other side as a fully liberated human being who wears pink and blue with equal abandon?

PS. Read ‘In the pink’ on MercatorNet for an interesting viewpoint on the link between breast cancer and reproductive risk factors, including oral contraceptives and induced abortion.