About These Posts

The source of these posts is a stack of tattered papers that their owner (a neighbour) said were letters.  She was moving to a retirement home, and I was helping her clean out her house.  “You like old things,” she said, “so today I thought we’d start with this.”

“This” was a wicker dress-basket crammed with handcrafts, photographs, and other family memorabilia from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Dress basket

The letters were packed in large envelopes.  They looked and smelled much older than anything else in the basket, and were written in a script resembling Elizabethan/Jacobean italic – though with many blots and smudges.

My neighbour said she’d had a go at deciphering them, but had given up.  Some inky little drawings made her think they were the work of children.

Clever children?  Certainly.  Her great-aunts had been fond of pranks, and the letters were probably a tale of family pets, written while one or both had been away at boarding school.

And yes, they had gone to great effort to make the letters look old, they’d even devised a code to write them in, but really…

She told me to chuck them in the recycling bin, and help her sort and label the old photos while she could still remember who was who.  Which I did.

However, the thought of those bright, industrious children stayed with me, so I asked if I could take the letters home for a closer look.  She hesitated, frowned, and then agreed.

My First Thoughts

After many evenings spent poring over the “letters” I reached a few conclusions.

  • Some seemed to have been written with greater ease and confidence than others.  That indicated they were the work of either one child whose skill improved over time or two children, as my neighbour had said.
  • Some words, by their frequency, were easy to pick out.  For example, “arrkst”, “catt”, “keween”, “loorrt”, “maarrk”, “niewes”, and “sayt”.
  • The code was simple.  It relied on the overuse of vowels and certain consonants (f, k, p, s, and t).  Some consonants (b, d, g, q, and v) didn’t seem to be there at all, so the others had to be doing double duty – as themselves and as substitutes.
  • They weren’t letters.  None of the papers had a date or address on them, though a few were signed by someone called Kip.

My Neighbour’s Response

Whenever I visited my neighbour at the retirement home, I gave her an update on my progress with “the letters”.

She wasn’t particularly interested, but wThe Fox and the Grapeshen I suggested they were older than she thought, and had been written by a couple of inventive Elizabethan children familiar with Aesop’s fables and Beware the Cat, she became downright hostile.

“I threw those old letters away,” she said.  “Have you been going through my bins?”  

Then she asked after her own cat, who’d died several years back.  I reminded her of this, but all she said was, “You can’t trust anybody nowadays.”

I made one last try.  “Elizabethans often spelled words the way they said them.  There’s a weird phrase that I’ve spotted halfway through the papers, and it’s repeated several times.  Owerr oonerrrl or Owerroon errrl.  What does that sound like to you?”

She said, “l know I miss my cat, but I’m not yet so doolally that you need to sit there pretending to be him.  Now get up and shut that window – I’m cold.”

The Eureka Moment

That was it.  The papers weren’t the work of children.  They’d been written by cats.  Elizabethan cats.

And the code was the cats’ attempt to use the English alphabet to reproduce the sounds that they could make and therefore hear.  I think my neighbour also knew this, but there was no way she would admit it now she was old but “not yet so doolally”.

Incredible?  Maybe.  Improbable?  Yes.  But, given the level of literacy achieved by some Elizabethans, not impossible.  As late as 1809 William Bingley (quoted in Keith Thomas’s Man and the Natural World) noted that cats were “susceptible of considerable educational attainments”.

A Da Vinci Cat. Doubtless skilled in codes.
A Da Vinci Cat, doubtless skilled in codes.

I rushed home, and began transcribing the papers.  Very secretly, I might add, because I often have to sound out whole lines, and I do produce strange noises.

Transcribing the Cat Code

In my transcriptions I’ve taken liberties with punctuation, spelling, and word choice, though I’ve tried to keep the flavour of the originals.  Fortunately, the papers, though undated, seem to have been kept in approximate chronological order, or were sorted that way by my neighbour.

Southampton and cat 1603
The Earl, with a Mysterious Cat who might also know about codes.  Or even be one.  Attrib. to John de Critz (c.1551-1642)

Once I’d convinced myself that the papers were written by cats and whose cats they were (Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, is undeniably Owerroon Errrl, or Our Own Earl) I’ve had little difficulty finding the historical evidence to support my conviction.

Some of this evidence is included in notes at the end of a post.  More detailed information may well require separate pages.

However, where the feline observations differ from the historical record I’ve taken the cats’ word for it.  Even though they’re not always as good as they should be at distinguishing fact from fantasy.


25 thoughts on “About These Posts

    • toutparmoi July 7, 2015 / 8:32 pm

      What do cats say when they look at your artwork? (Particularly their own portraits, of course.) I think it might be Orrrrsm!

      Liked by 3 people

    • toutparmoi July 7, 2015 / 10:05 pm

      You’re far too modest, Shafali. And I don’t know the Cat Code for that, because although Gib seems to have a keen sense of physical modesty (in his second “book” Some Words About Me he didn’t like people looking at his privities, or as he spells it, “prriffties”) I haven’t seen much intellectual modesty in what I’ve transcribed so far!

      Liked by 3 people

    • Shafali July 8, 2015 / 12:17 am

      I think your cats and I will get along just fine 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. roshendalal July 27, 2015 / 5:48 pm

    Do publish these in a book–it is great work. Of course, the cats will get all the credit!

    Liked by 4 people

    • toutparmoi July 27, 2015 / 5:50 pm

      The cats will deserve it. Where would I be without those papers?

      Liked by 2 people

  2. sarahbruso July 27, 2015 / 8:12 pm

    As I was reading this I couldn’t help but think that, A) you’re really clever, and B) this would make an amazing movie.

    Liked by 2 people

    • toutparmoi July 27, 2015 / 8:38 pm

      Thank you so much for that. I don’t doubt that Gib thinks he’s clever, but I’m just the humble editor!

      My writing buddy who lives a few doors down the street from me also thought a movie, but as these are feline memoirs and observations rather than an ongoing story I don’t think a movie would work.

      From the papers I’ve transcribed, I’ve gathered that Gib, once he’s completed the True Relation of his life so far, embarks on a “diurnal” (journal or diary). He ponders on the art of telling lies. Or, as we would call it, writing fiction. Along with other things, of course, because he doesn’t lose his taste for scandal. 🙂

      Liked by 5 people

  3. amanpan July 29, 2015 / 1:03 am

    I agree with sarahbruso, this would make an amazing movie.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Tracey Rains August 16, 2015 / 5:08 am

    As the steward of several cats, I adore this! It has taken me forever to comment because I wanted to catch up with the reading, but wanted to comment here at the beginning! Brilliant! My feline companions say so too!

    Liked by 2 people

    • toutparmoi August 16, 2015 / 8:39 am

      Thank you! And I’m glad your feline friends approve.


  5. hallenterprises132 August 31, 2015 / 2:32 am

    My cat is giving me the evil eye because I am messing with my laptop AGAIN! He wants me to play, I want to write.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Soul Gifts December 30, 2015 / 7:21 pm

    . How awesome! Thank goodness they didn’t get thrown out. And that you have taken on the fascinating task of bringing them to light 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • toutparmoi December 30, 2015 / 10:22 pm

      Yes, it’s a miracle the papers have survived all these years!

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Soul Gifts December 31, 2015 / 2:00 pm

    Sharing this to Facebook for my cat loving friends 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. paintdigi June 29, 2016 / 11:40 am

    Good article. nice blog. good idea. good “historical duty” … bravo …. I invite you to my art blog … welcome

    Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi June 30, 2016 / 4:03 pm

      Thank you! I’m looking forward to spending some time browsing your blog.


  9. Val August 6, 2016 / 5:56 am

    And there I was thinking it was just birds that did this sort of thing. (Writing and worming). Delightful blog, I shall go away and ponder then come back and read some more. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi August 6, 2016 / 10:38 am

      Thanks! I suspect modern cats have got lazy, and prefer to doze in front of TV rather than write. But spying on the neighbours is still a favourite pastime.

      Liked by 1 person

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