BOOK (1939)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 June, 2011, 12:00am


Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats
T.S. Eliot
Faber and Faber

It was Ezra Pound, to whom T.S. Eliot dedicated The Wasteland, who gave him the nickname 'Old Possum'. The Wasteland remains perhaps the best known of Eliot's poems, but the light verse of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats is almost as widely recognised.

Most of the poems were not originally intended for publication. Eliot wrote them for his own amusement and for the enjoyment of his godchildren, to whom they were sent in letters.

They were first collected in 1939 and have been regularly reprinted since, usually in illustrated editions, of which the first featured drawings by Nicolas Bentley. The most recent collection, published in 2009 to mark the book's 70th anniversary, was illustrated by the artist responsible for The Gruffalo, Axel Scheffler.

Eliot's anthropomorphic cat poems still appeal to children and to cat lovers who, as well as enjoying the flights of comical fantasy, discern in them astute insights into feline psychology. Notable sketches include the industrious Old Gumbie Cat, the thuggish Growltiger, sleepy Old Deuteronomy and the perverse Rum Tum Tugger, whose psychological profile most cat owners will recognise instantly.

'The Rum Tum Tugger is artful and knowing,

The Rum Tum Tugger doesn't care for a cuddle;

But he'll leap on your lap in the middle of your sewing,

For there's nothing he enjoys like a horrible muddle.'

Perhaps the most memorable of all the cats is Eliot's feline reinterpretation of Sherlock Holmes' nemesis, Professor Moriarty, rechristened Macavity The Mystery Cat.

'Macavity, Macavity, there's no one like Macavity,

There never was a Cat of such deceitfulness and suavity.

He always has an alibi, and or one or two to spare:

And whatever time the deed took place - MACAVITY WASN'T THERE!

And they say that all the Cats whose wicked deeds are widely known (I might mention Mungojerrie, I might mention Griddlebone)

Are nothing more than agents for the Cat who all the time

Just controls their operations: the Napoleon of Crime!'

Eliot's cat poems remain popular in their own right, but reached their widest audience as the basis for the 1981 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats, which ran for what seemed like an eternity both in the West End and on Broadway.

Eliot missed all that, having died in 1965 - so he can hardly be blamed for the musical - but having written verse plays for the stage in London and New York, he might well have enjoyed the popular success.