What is it about authors and cats? Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century poet, critic and biographer immortalised by James Boswell, doted on his Hodge; Mark Twain delighted in the company of numerous felines and Charles Dickens rather macabrely had one of his cat Bob’s paws mounted as the handle of an ivory letter opener after the creature died.
Then, of course, there is poet Thomas Gray’s slightly whimsical Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes that immortalised the line “nor all, that glisters gold”.
Canberra is playing its part in keeping the tradition, which probably dates back to scribes and temple felines in ancient Egypt, alive with Belconnen author and historian Kristen Alexander, keen to sing the praises of her Miss Millie.
The graceful grey tabbie, who features prominently on the Australia's Few and the Battle of Britain author’s web page, has shared much of the researching, writing and editing of the work which was quietly released earlier this month.
A labour of love that has taken Kristen six years and three cats to complete, it celebrates the lives of seven Australian pilots and a British pilot who later chose to make Australia his home who fought in the Battle of Britain.
They include, for the record Jack Kennedy of Sydney, Dick Glyde of Perth, Stuart Walch from Tasmania, Canberra’s Des Sheen, Newcastle’s John Crossman, Bill Millington, and English-born James Coward who retired to Canberra with his wife, Cynthia, after spending many years in the ACT as a diplomat.
Kristen, who had previously written Clive Caldwell - Air Ace and Jack Davenport - Beaufighter Leader, told Gang Gang she had begun researching her latest book in 2008.
The family’s cat at the the time was Misty, a siamese who had belonged to her late mother.
“Misty used to work with me,” she said. “We had her for six years and it was very sad when she died; my last connection with mum was severed.”
Her place was taken, albeit briefly, by Cordelia, another siamese who unfortunately never enjoyed good health and like her namesake from King Lear was destined for an early grave.
“Cordelia was quite fragile,” Kristen said. “She passed away after just 18 months. Miss Millie [who took her place] came to us from the RSPCA. At three years of age she was a grown-up cat and quickly found her way into our hearts.”
Miss Millie was delighted to find she had a mistress who worked from home and quickly worked out ways to take advantage of this; hiding in boxes, shredding manuscript pages, creating diversions and walking across keyboards at every opportunity.
“She quickly came out of her shell,”” Kristen said. “This week she has been having a lot of fun helping my husband David [Fax] and I with sorting copies of the book for mail orders.
David and Kristen also run one of Canberra’s better-known military bookshops, Mawson’s Alexander Fax Booksellers, and Miss Millie has proved herself to be a true bibliophile.
“She loves the books when David brings boxes home,” Kristen said. “She is very possessive about them.”
One of the reasons Australian Eagles has taken so long to write is that it started life as six discrete biographies that have been edited down into a single narrative.
“It is my tribute to these men so I wanted to find out as much as I could about their lives; to put the events of the Battle of Britain into a broader context.”
While most of the Australian pilots featured were trained by the RAAF and then seconded to the RAF in the period leading up to the war two, Glyde and Millington, travelled to England under their own steam enlisted in the RAF. As citizens of the Empire they were officially British.
To find out more about Australia's Few and the Battle of Britain (and to see some great pictures of Miss Millie) visit kristenalexander.com.au
Today’s shot of Kristen and Miss Millie was taken by Canberra photographer, Tabitha Mann. The shot of Millie on her own was taken by her doting mother.