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There is always something fun going on at Ashokbhatia’s blog. This is one of my favourites.
We live in times when the only feline creatures we happen to know are from the realm of cat-toons. We know Doraemon, Felix, Garfield, Tom and Top Cat, to name just a few. Their eccentricities we adore. Their haughtiness we endure. Their ingenuity makes our spirits soar. Their ruthless manner in handling mice of all kinds we ignore. To put it simply, in a world dominated by TV and internet, they have become a part of folklore.
Now, one does not mean to offend any of these personalities whose intrinsic felineness is rather unmistakable. But there are several others from the realm of literature who are no less admirable. They were born in times when the printed word was ruling the roost. They have left an indelible impression on the minds and psyches of several generations. They have exemplified the traits of bosses and the bossed-over alike. Surely, once in…
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I’ve written a chapter for a forthcoming collection of critical essays on P. G. Wodehouse. (I’ll be sure to relay full information here when there is firm news about publication date and details.)
My piece is on Wodehouse and the Great War – which might sound to some people like one of those thesis subjects imagined by parodists of academia, like ‘Jane Austen and the French Revolution’ , but looking at Wodehouse in relation to the War really does reveal some quite interesting things about his early work, and his attitude to his writing . I think so, anyway.
The publisher’s reader seems fairly happy with my chapter, too, but sent one little note. Did I know ‘Goodbye to All Cats?’
I didn’t, but the echo of Graves in the title had me interested. A bit of quick research revealed that this was a story in the 1936 collection Young…
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I did wonder whether or not to introduce our new cat to you, even if he is to be called Monty in honour of Wodehouse’s Monty Bodkin. After all, you’re here to immerse yourself in all things Wodehouse, not read about the family pet. But then I was flicking through Richard Usborne’s After Hours With P.G Wodehouse, and came across the following passage:
The Wodehouse’s have adopted, and been lavish angels to, a dogs’ and cats’ shelter and home in Speonk. Ethel drove me to see it on my way back to the station: kennels and cages for puppies and dogs, kittens and cats brought in by sad owners hoping to get them adopted; or collected as strays. A vet presides, with a girl assistant. Both in white coats. Ethel is the Lady Bountiful, bringing bones and bits of treats for them . . . more than a hundred all told, and great is the barking and miaowing when she passes down the alleys. In Speonk and Remsenburg the name Wodehouse isn’t widely recognised as belonging to one of the greatest humorists and busiest writers in our language. But it is known as being on the notice board: THE P.G. WODEHOUSE SHELTER FOR CATS AND DOGS’.
Richard Usborne, originally published in The Guardian (1971)
So perhaps it’s not so out of keeping with the spirit of Wodehouse that I introduce Monty, who was found as a stray and adopted by our family through the local Cats and Dogs Home. I also suspect most of you will forgive the indulgence, as my 2012 blog piece Cats will be Cats still remains my third most popular post.It just goes to show what wonderful people we Wodehouse readers are.
So here’s Monty.
After my recent piece in defence of Aunt’s Aren’t Gentlemen (aka The Cat Nappers) I was compelled to read it again – and found it ripe with good stuff.
… his idea of a good time was to go off with a pair of binoculars and watch birds, a thing that never appealed to me. I can’t see any percentage in it. If I meet a bird, I wave a friendly hand at it, to let it know that I wish it well, but I don’t want to crouch behind a bush observing its habits.
Aunt’s Aren’t Gentlemen
This little bit on Birdwatching struck an instant chord with me, as someone whose childhood was spent being lugged about by a conscientious parent from one bit of dismal scrub to another, watching birds. Birthdays were marked with the excitement (not mine) of new binoculars, sturdy walking boots, and the latest compendium of Australian Birds. If Muriel Singer’s work The Children’s Book of American Birds existed outside the realms of Wodehouse (‘The Artistic Career of Corky’) it would undoubtedly have been presented to me. When I was older, I progressed to the joys of learning the Latin names for local species.
Sadly, like Bertie Wooster‘s chum Corky, I never had any enthusiasm for the subject: “ …birds, except when broiled and in the society of a cold bottle, bored him stiff.”
Nor was there any respite at home, where my happiness was thwarted by the presence of a Budgerigar. I cannot abide Budgerigars! Ours flapped about the house with carefree insolence, landing on whatever took its fancy – including me. When I took refuge under a bed, the blighter followed. Subsequent encounters with chickens, pigeons, seagulls and magpies have turned my distaste for the fowl species into a phobia.
My phobia has presented me with a few difficulties as a cat owner, because I am incapable of removing feathers and carcass from the premises. But preventing domestic cats from catching birds is not difficult, and I have no sympathy with bird lovers who advocate the destruction of cats (as if birds hold some kind of moral high ground when everyone knows Cats are the superior beings). And I believe Wodehouse would agree with me. As discussed in Cats will be Cats, Wodehouse was ruthless with any character he caught flinging cats – or worse.
Despite my phobia I am content, like Bertie Wooster, to wish birds well from a respectful distance. It is only when the plumed party-of-the-second-part attempts a closer relationship that I object. Pigeons are completely lacking in this courtesy and the use of Hawks to manage the feral pigeon population in London was a stroke of genius. I have great respect for birds of prey and I like to see them encouraged. Perhaps I shall become an anti-Pigeon campaigner – it’s a stance which I fear would not meet with Wodehouse’s approval. But these are desperate times.
The struggle between Prater’s cat and Prater’s cat’s conscience was short, and ended in the hollowest of victories for the former. The conscience really had no sort of chance from the beginning.
The Tabby Terror (1902) published in Tales of St Austin’s (1903)
P.G. Wodehouse and his wife Ethel were devoted animal lovers who donated generously to establish the Long Island Bide-a-Wee animal sanctuary. But Wodehouse was not above casting the occasional cat as chief miscreant when it suited him.
His black heart was hidden by a sleek coat of tabby fur, which rendered stroking a luxury. His scheming brain was out of sight in a shapely head.
The Tabby Terror
I was attacked in my own kitchen by a not dissimilar animal, this very a.m – a large, Churchillian beast with a decidedly high opinion of himself. He insisted upon the best chair from the moment of his arrival, and I expect will soon take to smoking cigars. Mr Mulliner outlines the attitude nicely in The Story of Webster:
Cats, as a class, have never completely got over the snootiness caused by the fact that in Ancient Egypt they were worshipped as gods.
The Story of Webster inMulliner Nights (1933)
My nominee for Most Fiendish Exhibit in the Wodehouse Cat Show must surely be Percy, from the stable of Mrs Pulteney-Banks. He appears in another story from the same volume, which leads one to wonder if Wodehouse had some cat troubles of his own at the time.
(H)e was pure poison. Orange of body and inky black of soul, he lay stretched out on the rug, exuding arrogance and hate… One could picture him stealing milk from a sick tabby.
Cats Will Be Cats in Mulliner Nights (1933)
Fortunately for the Mulliners, the cat Webster is on hand to dispose of Percy, for it is not a task to be undertaken lightly. Few mortals succeed in their efforts to outwit a Wodehousian cat, though many fools have tried:
At tea on the following evening the first really serious engagement of the campaign took place. The cat strolled into the team room in the patronising way characteristic of his kind, but was heavily shelled with lump sugar, and beat a rapid retreat… From that moment its paw was against every man, and the tale of the things it stole is too terrible to relate in detail. Like Death in the poem, it knocked at the doors of the highest and the lowest alike. Or rather, it did not exactly knock. It came in without knocking.
The Tabby Terror
A friendly war between species is one thing. Almost natural you might say, especially when careless authors start throwing cats, boys and sardines together. But Wodehouse takes a firm stance on anyone who oversteps the mark. Our sympathies can never rest easily with The Man Who Disliked Cats, who begins by flinging them about hotels, and works his way up to having them destroyed. He fails, loses the girl, and becomes a mere shadow of his former self.
He had the appearance of one who has searched for the leak in life’s gas pipe with a lighted candle; of one whom the clenched fist of Fate has smitten beneath the temperamental third waistcoat button.
The Man Who Disliked Cats in The Man Upstairs and Other Stories (1914)
And on that note, I must go. The malevolent feline of my household, of whom I spoke earlier, has returned and is giving me a meaningful eye. I’m sitting in his chair – and the consequences of thwarting this dictatorial example of his species are more than I can bare.
This piece is dedicated to my beloved cat Terry who recently passed away, leaving a huge hole in our hearts – and a cold spot on my pillow where a little cat used to be.