As my great uncle Hari Wab Ben-Delhi Sivilagonathon of Chandrapore used to say, apropos of nothing in particular; “Rahnam, my boy, there is more than one way to skin a cat.” (Actually, the animal he most commonly referred to was the mongoose, but in the interests of relevancy I shall keep to the feline domestic.)
On a cold, dry Saturday night in the middle of November in the almost painfully trendy environs of the Café Oto, Dalston, a number of cats of yet a different variety were being skinned; “The hep cats, the street cats, feral cats who roam and adventure late into the night – telling stories, weaving yarns, singing their songs, a law unto themselves,” the programme exclaims.
The person doing the skinning was a certain Saffie Ashtiany – Grande Dame of fringe dance, muse and mentor to the great and thoroughly unknown and sometime pop video director, now creator of the intriguingly titled ‘Cats Meet Show’. Ms Ashtiany is a diminutive Persian whose high cheeks, disappearing eyes, tiny hands and feet and bouffant of pitch black spidery hair make her resemble an Eastern version of one of those perfectly detailed Victorian dolls.
The Cats Meet has variously been described as a “multi-media arts extravaganza”. (Actually the ‘extravaganza’ is my addition.) It is a knitting together of music, fashion, theatre and performance in a way that could almost be described as “highbrow cabaret”. Interesting, you might say, possibly fascinating, and hopefully entertaining. But what of the actual results?
I arrived at Café Oto – the avant garde music venue of choice for discerning Hoxtonians – shortly before eight, allowing myself half-an-hour to get the lie of the land before things got started. I was met at the door by a gaggle (or should I say, ‘litter’) of felines bearing clipboards. Dressed head to toe in shimmering, slinky black, with their coifs piled upon their heads and teased to resemble ears, these, I later understood, were Ms Ashtiany’s ‘kittens’ – the assistants, researchers and Girl Fridays who have made the show possible. They all bore suitably improbable names like ‘Carmen Marcela De Witt’, ‘Izzy Valentine’ and ‘Eaoifa Forward’ – names that could have easily slalomed from the pen of the Brothers Coen, or that other master of the charactonym, WC Fields.
I shook hands with David Chapman, the show’s producer. Suited in austere black, he is also apparently Persian by birth. (Is this the ascendancy, I ask myself, of a cultural Iranian mafia?) Fighting through a scrum I attempted to introduce myself to the ‘Top Cat’ herself – Saffie Ashtiany – also apparelled in black, and it struck me, with belated obviousness, that the ubiquity of this colour amongst her team was a nod to the black cat of the show’s insignia. She was moving through the crowd as though on tiny castors, her eyes obscured by dark glasses. I leaned down to kiss the moving target of her cheek but missed and became entangled in her hair. She didn’t pause in her peregrinations so I had to accompany her in a little shuffling pirouette before I could extricate myself.
Bafflingly, and rather inconveniently, all the tables were marked with large ‘reserved’ signs so I removed myself to the crush at the bar behind a caucus of excitable gentlemen who were engaged in flamboyant displays of greeting.
The place was rapidly filling up. Achingly fashionable denizens of E8 in sartorial ensembles that shouldn’t have worked but somehow did, mixed with their older, less astute cousins from out West. One fellow wearing a striped Breton jersey, smoked glasses and with grey-blonde spiky hair (a sort of Billy Idol by way of Nicky Haslam) leapt to his feet to welcome a scuttling woman of solid middle age, who, funnelled into a chunky tweed skirt and jacket, resembled a bipedal cockroach.
Eventually everyone was seated or positioned at the bar. It was a quarter to nine, fifteen minutes over the appointed start time. A figure like a length of pipe cleaner wearing big black boots, top hat, tailcoat and spectacles with the lenses missing took up at the grand piano and began playing the theme tune to ‘Halloween’. This was Orlando Harrison from the band ‘Alabama 3’ who was listed on the programme as “Improvised piano”. Next, a slight, sandy haired man with a scratchy beard and tentative manner mounted the stage and took the microphone. He held a quivering sheet of paper aloft and read from it in a low monotone and heavy accent. This was Knut Sellevold, the curiously named and curiously chosen Master of Ceremonies. He was in fact one of the Cats, a Norwegian musician who was to perform with the final act, the ‘Bunny Group’. After some preliminary and elusive words about Victorian London, he announced the first act. The Cats were ready to meow, or in the first instance, to caterwaul.