Having spent the last few months supplying artwork, suggestions and authors to the British Library for their new Cats on the Page exhibition, I was delighted to see the whole exhibition open this December. I’m an avowed cat lover but it’s sure to delight anyone with an interest in literature, however feline-averse they might be.
I grew up as a dog person. A dog person by tradition, going generations back. My parents were dog people, and so were my grandparents. Bar the odd hamster or guinea pig, my family has only ever owned dogs. Cats were decidedly unwelcome. We did not understand cat people – who would choose to love an aloof, self-centred creature that would never actually love them back?
When I started at Faber, I was hugely excited to work on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a collection of poetry I had adored since seeing the Cats the musical aged seven. This was not, you understand, because of the animals themselves. I still really wasn’t bothered about cats, although I had grudgingly accepted that perhaps Jake, the college cat at university, was ‘okay, I guess’. But it was a delight to be involved in the new picture-book editions, seeing the illustrations of the wonderful Arthur Robins transforming the terrifying Macavity of my childhood into a cheeky, mask-wearing troublemaker, and reimagining Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer in a Bonnie and Clyde homage. We create a lot of cat books at Faber – the Squishy McFluff and Atticus Claw series, the Millions of Cats picture book and a host of cats sprinkled though other titles in supporting roles. I have grown to love them all.
My greatest excitement, though, came when we commissioned the book I wished had existed when I was seven – ‘the dog version’. The wonderful Christopher Reid agreed to write a collection of canine poetry to sit alongside Eliot’s creations. As ‘Old Toffer’, he created the ‘Consequential Dogs’ – a collection that Eliot had always wanted to write himself, ever since a cab driver had chatted to Eliot about his dog, who was wonderful, but not ‘what you’d call a consequential dog’. Tickled, Eliot had intended to write a collection with the same name, but never got round to it. Now, nearly eighty years after the first publication of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Christopher had finally written it. With wonderful illustrations from Elliot Elam, Old Toffer’s Book of Consequential Dogs is an absolute delight.
In the meantime of course, I’d decided to get a cat. Telling my parents I was getting one was akin to saying I’d picked up vandalism as a hobby in my spare time. ‘But we aren’t cat people,’ said my baffled mother. It felt oddly like a betrayal of our core values. However, I was fed up of living a pet-free life and we couldn’t have a dog. And I fell hopelessly, irrevocably in love with her. I’m a true convert. Pekkala is an affectionate, ridiculous ball of stripes and spots and I can’t imagine living without a cat in my life again. To feed my new-found fixation I started reading any books I could get hold of that featured cats. I started back with Eliot and branched out, reading poetry, essays, fiction and children’s books.
Cats on the Page, the British Library exhibition, is all about cats in literature – so Faber and the Eliot Estate were well placed to assist. You can see original Axel Scheffler illustrations from our 2009 edition of Old Possum, a letter from a child lucky enough to receive one of the original poems from Eliot, and even Eliot’s own illustration for the first published front cover. This January, Christopher Reid took part in an event discussing the legacy of Old Possum, and how it felt to pick up the mantle of cat poetry and create the complementary dog collection. With Michael Rosen and Simon Callow, he examined the brilliance of Eliot’s original poems, and explored the impact they still have on culture today. From the Lloyd Webber musical to the new film being released this year, the poems are still loved by children and adults alike.
I was personally delighted by the exhibition as a reader and as a cat lover. Many, many friends of my childhood feature, such as Six-Dinner-Sid, Mog, and Gobbolino. There are more recent finds from my adulthood too, including the wonderful Nana of Hiro Arikawa’s The Travelling Cat Chronicles. But also books I’d never seen before. Cats clearly touch people all over the world, and the collection reflects this. Poetry, music and theatre all are represented. There are even readings for visitors to listen to, a trail for children and a small reading library filled with cat books (well-stocked by Faber).
There are six different sections covering life with cats, cats around the world, criminal cats and more, and you’ll enjoy your visit in whatever order you check out the exhibits. It’s just a shame that it’s human-only visitors.
Hannah Love, Children’s Publicity Manager