Feline familiar: Giles Coren's cat and the laziness of the long-distance columnist
There's phoning it in and then there's scribbling 'will this do?' on a napkin and tossing it in the editor's general direction.
|Mic Wright||May 4||3|
Giles Coren has been a columnist for 28 years. That’s a personal achievement for him and a rather stinging indictment of The Times and Sunday Times and the contempt in which they hold their readers.
The largest section of Coren’s Wikipedia page is not the one about his journalism or TV work, but the accounting of the various controversies he has thrown himself into over the years.
This is a man known for writing abusive emails to sub-editors, xenophobically attacking Polish people in print, fantasising about murdering his neighbour’s teenage son on Twitter, fat-shaming his own son, eroticising his own daughter, running a poorly hidden sock puppet account to attack his critics, and repeatedly including racist caricatures in his copy, among many other things.
If Giles Coren didn’t have the cushy comfort of a Times column, gained in part on the back of his father’s fame, he would be unemployable.
And how does Coren treat his good fortune? By doing the bare minimum. And that is how we arrive at today’s subject: Giles Coren’s cat — a creature that typifies the columnist’s “will this do?” mining of his personal life and generally lax attitude to entertaining and informing readers.
When Coren tweeted last week that his wandering cat, Mo Tenzing, had taken a trip in an Amazon van and kindly been returned by the driver, it was inevitable that he would get a column out of it. After all, he has three Times columns to fill every week and only one of those is about restaurants.
Beneath the teeth-grindingly awful headline Beat that, Lassie! My cat’s odyssey has it all, Coren writes:
The Coren family’s boy cat, Mo Tenzing, goes missing so often that we have almost stopped worrying when he does. Mo is well known locally and when he doesn’t come home at night we’ll usually get a message on Nextdoor.com from a few streets away…
… but the problem is that Mo is so friendly and chilled that people never think he is lost. He spent three weeks in a tower block in Camden last August and it was only when someone tried to change the details on his microchip that we were alerted and went to rescue him — much fatter and smelling of fags and cheap perfume (I was jealous as hell).
But a call I got last Monday night really took the biscuit.
So far, so very mundane. But, of course, this is Giles Coren so the cute story of a cat’s adventure has to come with a steaming side order of national stereotyping. Enter Emilian, whose nationality Giles notes specifically in his original tweet and now in his column:
“Hello,” said a man with a Romanian accent. “Have you lost cat?”
“I don’t think so,” I said, having last seen Mo around lunchtime. “Have you got Mo Tenzing there?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Well, just chuck him out in the road and he’ll find his way home. Or I’ll come and pick him up. Where are you exactly?”
“Hemel Hempstead,” said the guy.
The charming settlement of Hemel Hempstead — one of Google’s suggested questions when you look it up is “Is Hemel Hempstead rough?” — is 24 miles away from London so Coren was understandably not keen to schlep over on a two-hour trip to collect his feckless feline. So he offers Emilian some money to drive Mo back home. And…
“I bring cat now,” he said. “I am not want money.”
And an hour later, this lovely man arrived at my door, with Mo on his shoulder, absolutely refusing to take even 40 quid for petrol.
“It’s the greatest Amazon delivery ever,” I said.
“Yes,” said Emilian. ‘And best thing, I am not leave cat on doorstep in giant cardboard box, big enough for hold giraffe!”
On one level that’s a heartwarming story about a man, his cat, and a delivery driver with a heart of gold. But look how Coren writes it; Emilian becomes a cartoon character whose speech is rendered in a stereotypical Eastern European and who serves as the vehicle for a punchline that Coren almost certainly made up as a clean kicker for that section of his column.
It would be easier to dismiss the unnecessary stereotyping if Coren didn’t have form for this kind of thing. Take his review of the restaurant Kaki from 2018 which begins:
When I phoned Kaki to see if one needed to book, the guy answered the phone in Chinese.
“TAKA TAKA TAKA BOKKA TAKKA TAKKA!” he said.
“Um, hi. Is that Kaki?” I asked.
“AAAA TAKKA. TAKKA TAKKA BOKKA BOKKA TAKKA.”
“Okay, thanks. I’ll see you later.”
A paragraph later, Coren tried to justify that blatantly racist opening by writing…
And just in case you think there was something racist or xenophobic or in any way grotty about my transcription of the conversation, I would now like to record, for balance, how the conversation will presumably have sounded to him:
Him: “Good afternoon. This is Kaki restaurant. How may I help you?”
Me: “GOBBA FLOBBA GOBBA GOBBA FLOBBA?”
Him: “I’m afraid my English isn’t up to much, but we look forward to welcoming you.”
… and later, in an Instagram dialogue with John Li, the owner of the Dumpling Shack in Spitalfields, who had written that it “[made] for depressing reading” and questioned why “a pretty powerful respected figure in the world of journalism and food” was “given a platform to speak like that”, Coren argued:
I am genuinely surprised that you were offended by it. Because there was no hint of the implied superiority or inferiority of either race involved. Although I can see how the opening paragraphs could have looked like awful old fashioned ‘ching chong’ shit if one didn’t read on and I’d probably do it differently next time.
But I’d love to meet to talk about it. Because if you think the whole of the rest of the piece was as deeply and venomously racist as you must do, to have whipped up such a storm, then I probably need to have that explained to me to avoid it happening again.
He hasn’t “done it differently next time”. His column today shows that. But it’s not surprising because while Coren periodically deletes his Twitter account during the latest controversy, his behaviour only strengthens his position at The Times. They run full-page ads in the paper for his Times Radio show and promote his podcast relentlessly.
In the storm that followed the Kaki review, Coren replied to one person’s tweet saying it seemed to have gone badly for him with the assurance of a man who has always failed upwards: “It’s actually panned out rather nicely.”
But there’s an issue with the cat column beyond the ‘70s-style ‘cuddly’ xenophobia in the way Coren rendered the delivery driver’s speech — it’s the third time in as many years that he and his wife Esther Walker have managed to spin columns out of the antics of Mo Tenzing. He also features in several podcast episodes. It’s the laziness of the long-distance columnist writ large.
In September 2019, five days after he posted on Instagram about the arrival of Mo and Iris — his other cat who really isn’t earning her kibble with column inspiration — Coren wrote his first column on the subject — Sorry, but I have kittens and nothing else matters.
It was a fitting contribution to the Times’ Notebook column, which essentially serves as a jotting pad for its contributor’s most banal thoughts and life events. Coren told the readers:
Today all I can think about is my little cats, Iris and Mo Tenzing.
They arrived last week and disappeared immediately behind the sofa and didn’t come out for 24 hours. I was sick with worry and had to cancel a day’s filming. Then a paid appearance at a restaurant awards ceremony. I’m thus down about six grand so far, not counting the price of the cats, food, flap, vaccinations, insurance and incredibly cute “cat tree” scratchy platform thing.
Not since Mark Knopfler sidled onto MTV among a cast of badly animated characters has someone so effortlessly boasted about getting money for nothing. It’s a common feature of Coren columns: Hinting at how much cash he receives for the simple act of being Giles Coren.
But it’s the opening line of that piece that’s most revealing…
I’m afraid I can’t bring myself to have kittens about anything this week because… I’ve got kittens. Most days, I can have kittens about anything for the purposes of covering a few hundred words…
That’s most columnists’ “craft” neatly summed up. For 28 years, Giles Coren has been handsomely paid to pretend to care about something three times a week. Is it any wonder he has to turn to tales of his cat at least once a year?
Along with appearances in the podcast, Mo Tenzing turned up again in October last year, when Walker wrote about the cat’s long absence and period living with someone else entirely — The Corens’ Burmese cross was the George Clooney of cats. Then he went missing...
The Londoner diary column in The Evening Standard had already run with ‘thrilling’ anecdote about tracking down Tenzing via a letter from the electronic tag company in September 2020. But the Corens could still get some copy out of it. If you’re reeling from The Line of Duty finale’s relative lack of drama, get yourself some high stakes action here as Walker recounts Mo’s discovery:
Then the bombshell: Miranda claimed she had taken Mo to our vet, the one with the poster of Mo in the window. She said they scanned his microchip and because he wasn’t registered as missing she was free to take him home – moreover, they told her to call PETtrac to change Mo’s name and keeper.
Giles and I looked at each other in stunned silence. But, but, but… What if an owner didn’t know to register their pet as missing? What if it is taken in and rehomed before the owners decide they are not on an extended walkabout?
On the current timescale, we can expect another Coren/Walker missive about their cat within 6 months. On the plus side, it’s better than Coren’s piece on how his holiday with his three-year-old daughter was “insanely romantic, in some ways even the sexiest holiday, that I’ve ever had” or the time he wrote in Esquire that his then-four-year-old son “[had] an arse on him like Vanessa Feltz and a full-frontal presentation at bath time that puts one in mind of a Gavin and Stacey-era James Corden.”
Unlike his children, the cats are never going to read their owner’s back catalogue of cruel and unusual columns. However, it seems like there’s no awful word or deed that will save Times readers from another 20-odd years of Giles Coren. Imagine how lazy he’ll be by that point. How many more cats will he need to buy?