Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, by T S Eliot (1939)

Madame Biblophile was completely right when she identified Lynne Truss’s ‘Cat Out of Hell‘ as a great present for cat-loving bookish friends.  It also has the advantage of being new and relatively unknown, unlike my other go-to gift for cat and book lovers: ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’.

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This is a must-read for fans of felines and poetry alike and is an excellent way to catch out people who claim they ‘don’t get’ TS Eliot on the basis of having read some of his less ‘practical’ poems.

Personally, I’ll always buy the edition illustrated by Nicolas Bentley, because that was how I first read this book and also because I know so many cats who match the illustrations.imgres-1

The pictures and the poems leap and shriek off the page.  From the Rum Tum Tugger to Skimbleshanks: the Railway Cat, I suspect any cat-owner will be able to identify traits of their own beloved pet within the poems.  My personal favourites are:

 Bustopher Jones: the Cat about Town.  The poems in this book were written in the 1930s and the period charm is never more evident than in the description of ‘this Brummell of Cats.’ It’s true that when my father read this poem to me as a child I had no idea what was going on; now of course, I think there’s nothing funnier than an animal who ‘doesn’t haunt pubs – he has eight or nine clubs / for he’s the St James’s Street cat‘.  This is where the bookmark goes if you’re giving a present to a friend whose cat resembles Inga Moore’s classic ‘Six Dinner Sid‘.

Cat Morgan.  If BJ is too refined for your tastes, you may just fall in love with the pirate Cat Morgan, the only cat in the collection to narrate his own poem.  This is the page to mark out for aspiring writers, or friends who might need some prompting in understanding the importance of cats…

So if you ‘av business with Faber – or Faber –
I’ll give you this tip, and it’s worth a lot more:
You’ll save yourself time, and you’ll save yourself labour
If jist you make friends with the Cat at the door

Macavity the Mystery Cat.  This was my father’s favourite poem so I pretty much know it by heart.  Of all of the cat criminals who abound these pages he’s the best because ‘he always has an alibi, and one or two to spare: At whatever time the deed took place – Macavity wasn’t there!’  Then there are the crimes themselves, which range from the milk going missing or the trellis being broken to international sabotage: ‘When the Foreign Office find a Treaty’s gone astray / Or the Admiralty lose some plans and drawings by the way…’.  There’s probably no need to bookmark the page, but there are going to be more than a few readers who recognise their own pet in this wonderful poem.

Frankly, when it comes to dog poems, I’m not sure that I know any that compare.  ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ is a great book and there’s much fun to be had with Jack London, but this collection makes a strong case for the unique relationship between cats and reading, maybe Eliot said it best when he wrote:

…first your memory I’ll jog,
And say: A CAT IS NOT A DOG…

…Again, I must remind you that
A Dog’s a Dog – A CAT’S A CAT

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11 Responses to Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, by T S Eliot (1939)

  1. Thanks for the name check! I haven’t read this in so long but you’ve made me want to dig out my dusty old copy 🙂 Like your father, Macavity was always my favourite.

  2. They’re such great poems, everyone should have a dusty old copy somewhere for dipping in to!

  3. FictionFan says:

    Lovely review! I may have to get this for the cats for Christmas… 😉

  4. JacquiWine says:

    I love this book, too, and find myself picking it up every few months just to relive a little of its magic. Macavity never fails to make me smile!

  5. avivadautch says:

    Love this review, Shoshi. Thanks to you, I reread the poems last night. Such a great book and my cat is the quintessential Bustopher Jones.

  6. Isn’t he just, he’s such a literary cat!

  7. Sarah says:

    I really love that edition too! This has brought back so many memories – I haven’t read it in such a long time, and now I have two naughty kittens, there’s more reason to dig out my copy than ever!

  8. It really is one of those ‘old friend’ books, you may not look into it for years, but every time you pick it back up, it’s just as good.

  9. Pingback: You can’t have too many cat books: ‘The Guest Cat’ by Takashi Hiraide | Shoshi's Book Blog

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