In recent days at home I have been much absorbed in settling in a cat who has newly arrived in my house from the local pet rescue centre. As a result, I have been thinking a great deal about cats in books. They seem very plentiful in children’s books, but despite cats and readers being very complementary, there are not so many for adults.
My childhood cat books
One of the earliest books I remember is The Tale of Tom Kitten by Beatrix Potter, created in 1907. Tom Kitten was forever losing buttons off his trousers. One year a tin featuring his mother sewing on a button appeared in my Christmas stocking. The toffees in it soon disappeared, but it has found a place in my sewing basket ever since, to store all those loose buttons that we seamstresses collect.
The other feline companion of my childhood was Orlando the Marmalade Cat by Kathleen Hale. He first appeared in 1938, and the only copy that I have from that series is An Evening Out. Orlando is a caring father and husband. Grace is a rather retiring cat, but their kittens are splendid, and like Tom Kitten, easy to identify with: Pansy, Blanche and Tinkle. Especially Tinkle, who was the smallest, naughtiest and blackest kitten you ever saw. The family go to the circus, and Orlando, by mistake, gets caught up in the acts: Performing Dogs, the Human Horse, Mr Plunkett the elephant, Signora Celia and her celebrated seals and Mr Meek the lion-tamer. The audience think Orlando is part of the show, but when he saves the life of Mr Meek the Circus Manager presents him with a gold medal.
My daughter’s childhood books
Mog the forgetful cat appeared in 1970, the creation of Judith Kerr. Mog was recognisable to any family who had lived with a cat, especially as she was not very bright. But she too earned a medal when she accidentally saved the family from some burglars (pronounced burg-gew-lars in our family).
The other series that featured in reading to my daughter was The Church Mouse by Graham Oakley. Sampson the Cat was befriended by the Church Mice and saved them from threats of extermination.
The Tiger who came to Tea by Judith Kerr was another favourite, mostly for the illustrations that showed the absurd situation with plenty of delightful detail.
My grandson’s childhood book
When I asked my grandson, now 15, what cat book he remembered from earlier reading, he promptly replied The Patchwork Cat. William Mayne wrote the story and it was charmingly illustrated by Nicola Bayley. Tabby was very attached to her old patchwork quilt and when it was thrown out she went to the dump to rescue it, despite all kinds of terrors on the way.
And two for the adults
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
I read this classic Russian novel in 2006 and noted that it was hard to get into – it’s connections with our world are so strange. No doubt the citizens of Moscow who were familiar with Stalin did not find it so. I lived in London at the time and several people commented on this book when I read it on the bus.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1966) Penguin Classic. Translation by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Levear. 432pp
The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide
Enjoyable story about a man and his wife who are adopted by a cat, and then she dies. They must leave the house and this disrupts their grieving. Every cat lover will recognise the obsession and madness.
The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide (2014) Picador. Translated from the Japanese by Eric Selland. 140pp
And for the poets and poetry lovers …
You thought that TS Eliot was a rather dry modernist poet with a high squeaky voice. But his triumph was his collection of cat poems: The Rum Tum Tugger, Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer, Mr Mistoffelees, Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat amongst other. He also had an irrefutable theory about what cats are doing when they are sitting quietly looking at nothing.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
the reason I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in rapt concentration of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name
His ineffable, effable,
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.
[From The Naming of Cats, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by TS Eliot]
Have I left any important cats out?
And my little cat is called Bindi and she is already capable of upsetting a pile of books or dislodging some less favoured tomes from the bookshelf. She is making herself quite at home.