My interest in Van cats goes back to 1965 when I read an article on “The Swimming Cats of Van” by Laura Lushington in Animals magazine. From childhood I grew up with cats at home but my particular interest in this breed was their connection with Van. Although Van is now in Turkey it was part of the historic heartland of the Armenians and during the 10th & 11th centuries was an independent principality of Vaspurakan under the Artsruni dynasty, with its capital on the island of Aghtamar. The Armenian presence was significant here until the Genocide of 1915. My particular interest was that I am an Orthodox Christian and the Armenians were not only the first Christian nation but had valiantly maintained the Orthodox faith throughout the centuries despite having lost their nationhood.
Over the years I kept an eye on reports about Van cats whenever they appeared in the news and finally, when my faithful black & white tomcat died in 1989, I decided it was time to get my own Van. I had bought my present house in a fairly quiet side road because I was anxious about my cat being hit by a car, but I determined now that any new feline would be a house-cat and take no risks. As I was out quite a bit, I decided that it was time for two cats, so that they would have each other for company and not get bored. Having contacted the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy, they put me in touch with the Van Cat Club and I enquired how I could obtain a pair of young cats. After some while they advised me to get in touch with Lois Miles of Ballantyne Cats in Lower Stondon, Bedfordshire. Lois had a pregnant cat and promised to get back in touch when the kittens were born. Having only had alley cats up to then I felt rather like someone putting their infant son’s name down for a place in some exclusive school.
My first two Vans were the offspring of Champion Kastamonou Batia and Scampers Foxtrot and were born on 18 February 1989. Lois had named them Kibar Refik (Noble Companion) and Kehlibar Yildiz (Amber Star) but as I felt it was important to emphasise their Armenian heritage I renamed them Gregory and Sarkis respectively. As they were intended as house pets and I wasn’t planning to breed from them, I had both neutered. At that time there was still a limited Van bloodstock available and Lois advised me that to spay a female cat would be rather wasteful. In anticipation of their arrival I created an outside pen at the side of the house measuring some 20 x 6 ft area which they could access through the cat flap in the kitchen door, which also had their litter tray. As they grew older and more adventurous it was soon clear that the fence would need to be extended and eventually it rose to ten feet high with a partial roof. Gregory was sharper witted than Sarkis and one could often see him gazing at the top of the pen as if calculating an escape and it wasn’t too long afterwards when I came home and found both cats missing. Going out into the pen I was confronted with a relaxed pair of cats sitting on the roof and looking down on me with a distinct air of triumph ! After that the pen became more secure but it didn’t stop the occasional dash into the garden, when they suddenly appeared from nowhere, and weaved through one’s legs. It seemed appropriate to call their pen ‘Colditz’. We marked their entry by commissioning a painting of them both looking out of a window, which we then framed as a trompe-l’œil picture in the blocked up frame of my dressing room.
At that time I had a second home in a country village just outside Doncaster, so when I stayed there for a week or more the cats travelled with me in a large cage. It became quite a routine travelling between London and Doncaster and the porters at the station got quite used to seeing a clergyman with these strange companions. Generally they preferred the train to a car and once on the train and stowed in a quiet corner they settled down. With cars they were more problematic and had an uncanny knack of sensing when we were about ten minutes from home and throwing up. On one occasion they were ‘ill’ from both ends just as we were approaching Grantham. Fortunately I had some good friends there who were also cat lovers and they were completely unfazed when I appeared at their door with two rather smelly cats and asked if I could bathe them. In Yorkshire the house had a large walled garden and they loved the opportunity to explore the exotic smells, hide or climb trees and I was able to keep an eye on them. I took to watching over them with a large bamboo cane and felt rather like a lion tamer at the circus. On one occasion someone came into the garden with their dog causing Sarkis to make a vertical ascent of the ten foot stone wall. There was also the time when Gregory caught a field mouse. I heard some squealing but by the time I reached him it was head first in his mouth and its body was only half visible. Sarkis sat watching fascinated and anxious to be part of the action but this was Gregory’s catch and whilst I tried to coax him to disgorge his prey the tail was suddenly sucked down with a defiant gulp. It was only later that day that he finally expelled it, involuntarily on my carpet !
Gregory was a born escapee and on one occasion jumped from an upstairs window sill onto the casement and hoisted himself onto the roof. My house was attached to a number of other buildings of various sizes, ending up with access either onto the lane outside or upwards onto the neighbouring church roof. I was desperate to contain him and encourage him down onto a lower roof, where I could retrieve him. Having attained his freedom, however, he was not minded to be co-operative and stalked across the pantiles with great dignity. My neighbour finally came to my rescue with his garden hose, which was intended to divert Gregory to the required area, but panicked him so that he actually jumped off the roof from the top. Needless to say he landed shaken but not stirred and with no injuries, but was grounded for a couple of days as a punishment.
One hot summer’s day when the cats were still quite young I put a large bowl of water down for them to drink only to find that Sarkis was soon sitting in it and having great fun chasing the light refracting off the water. Bathing was never a solitary affair as all my Van cats loved to sit on the bath’s edge and dabble their paws in the water or even drink from it whilst perched perilously balanced on the edge. True to their breed, when it rained they happily sat out in it. Many a damp night when I was half asleep a cat would land on the bed and I would reach out to stroke the soft fur, only to discover that I had been joined by a wet sponge. Pandering to their insatiable curiosity I erected a large shelf on the side of the pen from which the cats could watch my neighbours’ children and generally gaze superciliously at the antics of humans. The first flurry of snow found them sitting on their shelf pawing at the giant flakes whilst being perfectly camouflaged as the snow grew thicker, except for their noses which shone pinker than usual.
About that time I received a Grant of Arms from the College of Arms in London and I was asked if I wanted any additional artwork painted on the vellum scroll. It seemed a good opportunity to celebrate the Van cats, so I had them both painted: Gregory clambering up the poll from which my heraldic banner flies, whilst Sarkis sits patiently below.
From the start the brothers were inseparable and generally slept entwined so that the bundle of white fur might have been just one cat. Gregory was always the dominant one and Sarkis would follow wherever he went until one day Gregory suddenly turned on him with an unexpected ferocity, even trying to pull him out from under a bed where he had fled for shelter. This unexpected reversal caused much disruption for a couple of days but fortunately the house was large enough to keep them apart. I finally resorted to sending Sarkis to stay with some friends for a week whilst the tranquilising tablets supplied by the vet calmed Gregory down. When Sarkis returned there were no further incidents but the former familiarity had been lost. Over the next few weeks I gradually reduced Gregory’s medication but on one of his visits to the vet it was discovered that he had a brain tumour and the vet advised that he should be put to sleep. He was only 2½ years old.
Although Sarkis had had a few rough months with Gregory, I was anxious to have two cats again, so I went in search of another Van cat. The only kittens available at that time were bred by Jan & Gordon Dowling who ran the Cadiella cattery at Dagenham in Essex. When I arrived, the house was awash with beautiful kittens but while I was deciding which to have a very shrill meow could be heard advancing from another part of the house. The result was that this Van chose me. Cadiella Hoşsiher was born on 6 June 1992, the offspring of Akdamar Al Emiral and Adkrilo Pembe Fistik. He was a great-grandson of Kastamonou Batia, so a half great-nephew of Sarkis, although also related to him in others ways, but not always with benefit of clergy and sometimes within the prohibited degrees ! In fact of his sixteen great-great grandparents, Van Tuncata (born 1975) appears six times in the pedigree. His ancestry showed the urgent need for new blood lines, which began to appear at about this time.
The new kitten was duly named Gregory II. He came with a weepy eye which I was told was the result of having got talculm powder in it but when it persisted and I consulted the vet, it transpired he was lacking a tear duct. If my first two Van cats were distinctly Home Counties in their demeanour, Greggy had something of the Essex cat about him which the mucky eye somehow symbolised. He never quite grew into a stately pedigree cat like his two great-uncles but if he was the runt of the litter he made up for it by his longevity.
Having brought him home I put him in a room and let Sarkis discover him. The expression of horror on Sarkis’ face as this bundle of fur bounded up to him marked the moment Sarkis came of age. Previously he had been the junior cat but with the advent of this kitten Sarkis visibly matured. Always hating to be left alone, Greggy clung to him like a limpet and at times made himself a thundering nuisance. Fortunately Sarkis was a good-natured cat with an almost inexhaustible supply of patience, but at times Greggy’s aggression caused him to turn. Instantly recognising he had gone too far, Greggy would fall on his back and play the defenceless kitten, whilst Sarkis prowled menacingly around him hissing, with his ears back. Such spats became frequent but always ended peacefully, except on one occasion when Sarkis accidentally caught Greggy’s eye with a claw. There was a painful scratch but fortunately nothing more serious and Greggy retired wimpering to a corner of my bedroom, to keep me awake and anxious all night, until I could get him to the vet next morning.
Although both cats had two meals a day there was always a bowl of dried food (“prison rations” we called it) available. Both Gregory and Sarkis had eaten sensibly but Greggy was forever munching away and soon became quite a tubby little cat. Sarkis actually had a refined taste in food and enjoyed eating what we had, so his diet often included freshly cooked meat and he was especially fond of King Prawns but wouldn’t look at ordinary prawns or shrimps. By contrast Greggy only ate tinned cat food (preferably Whiskas) and wouldn’t look at the sort of things which Sarkis loved.
Once Sarkis took on the role of ‘Top Cat’ his personality developed accordingly. He had a delightful and affectionate temperament and adapted to situations with great ease. He would nestle at the foot of the bed and wait to be summoned up higher, whereas Greggy usually plonked himself down on one’s chest and even if moved off a dozen times would defiantly come back to the same position every time. Sarkis was completely without aggression, whereas Greggy was prone to nip. If house guests exceeded four of five Sarkis would take himself off to a quiet corner of the house and after a party he would suddenly reappear as the last guests were leaving. By contrast Greggy was always in the thick of things and singled out laps to commandeer. However welcome he was made there was always a high risk that the encounter would end in tears when the lap decided it had had enough. We took to giving a health warning when Greggy approached and advised guests never to lift him off their lap but simply to stand up abruptly with their hands well out of reach. As a house without children I was surprised that Greggy seemed to like them. On one occasion he allowed a friend’s son to manhandle him on the floor under the dining table without a single scratch. Another child, called Christian but aptly nicknamed Damian, even by his father, similarly got away with murder; but sadly his impeccably behaved elder sister, who merely tried to stroke Greggy, received a bite for her troubles. After one party Greggy jumped onto a table with a large lighted candle in its centre and managed not only to dip his tail into the hot wax but also to ignite it. Fortunately a friend came to his aid promptly and the singed tail was dipped into cold water and bandaged up immediately, though Greggy was neither bothered nor grateful.
There was something of the magpie about Sarkis. On one occasion a friend stayed over on a camp bed in one of the downstairs rooms. In the morning he couldn’t find his watch, which he felt certain he had left beside the bed. It was some days later that the watch was discovered in an upstairs room along with a number of other small shiny objects and it transpired that Sarkis had retrieved it and carried it away in his mouth to where he had amassed a small horde of treasures.
As Sarkis and Greggy became older and the garden in London better organised, they spent many happy hours with us there and attempts to escape became fewer and more easily thwarted. Opening the gate from Colditz into the garden always became a made rush for ‘freedom’ and Sarkis’s route always ended five feet up the eucalyptus tree at the end of the garden, where he froze realising he would get no further before rather unceremoniously shuffling down backwards. The garden also contained the Cat Mausoleum where Denys, my last alley-cat was buried, and where Sarkis and Gregory II’s ashes would eventually go. They frequently nestled up against the alabaster cat on its plinthe, which marked the site. Always fit and healthy, Sarkis finally developed a tumour and had to be put to sleep at the age of 17. Sarkis’ ashes were brought back home in a small marble sarcophagus, which I had bought in Egypt and we held a proper ‘Leavetaking’, when friends and neighbours gathered to remember him and he took his place in the mausoleum in the garden. Greggy, of course, acted as chief mourner.
Shortly before Sarkis died Trevor came to live here. He had been brought up with dogs and at first wasn’t terribly impressed by cats but Greggy had a way of ingratiating himself even with people he abused and before long Trevor was hooked. As the sole cat in the household Greggy now commanded the consideration he knew he deserved and didn’t have to share our attention with anyone. The five years of his lone supremacy were a golden age for him as he mellowed and bathed in the pleasure of being a pampered puss. He now began eating delicacies previously ignored and roast chick-chick on a Sunday evening became a regular feature, prepared with Greggy in mind rather than the human inhabitants. He took to sitting quietly at the table when we dined and watched silently as the chicken was carved, knowing that the choicest cuts would come his way without needing to make any effort. The large plate of chicken placed at his disposal would be tackled with determination in the form of regular forays. On those nights he was too full to climb the stairs to bed but sank into slumber within sight of the plate from where he indulged in periodic nocturnal feasting.
I decided that it would be good to commission another portrait, this time less formal than previous ones that had been painted. I took the inspiration from Sir James Gunn’s delightful “Conversation Piece at the Royal Lodge, Windsor.” This showed Trevor and I animatedly chatting at the breakfast table about some report in the Daily Telegraph, whilst Greggy gazes earnestly out at the viewer. He was so decidedly one of the family that to include him seemed completely natural.
This runt of the litter survived until he was almost nineteen and enjoyed a golden old-age. When my mother, in his late nineties, used to complain about things, I frequently reminded her that Greggy was actually older than her. For his last winter his basket was raised on a stand to avoid draughts from under the door and he reclined on a bed of old cashmere jumpers pushed next to the radiator, which was set to turn on if he became too cold. The early mild summer of 2011 meant that Greggy enjoyed another spring in the garden and when he suddenly stopped eating we knew he had signelled to us it was time for him to go. His ashes now rest in an antique copper sarcophagus next to Sarkis’ marble one.