Classics in Short No.119 If or perhaps or but: Old Possum and his Cats

Those cats –

Jellicles, Gumbies, Bravos, and all – have taken on a practical role in recent decades beyond anything that their biographer may have expected when he introduced himself to them in the 1930s. Certainly he was aware that their species might be found anywhere from St James’s Street to Bangkok but he never suspected that the great Jellicle Ball would be danced around the world to the infinite satisfaction of his and his publisher’s bank balance. However misinformed Gus the Theatre Cat may now appear to be when he judges that ‘the Theatre’s certainly not what it was’ and ‘these modern productions are all very well’, he does remind us from his days of acting with Irving and Tree, that the foundations for all the song and dance lie in Old Possum’s penetrating verbal reflections on the effanineffable nature of his subjects.

Ancient theatricality

may certainly be present in the phrasing of those reflections, for it’s easy to see a relationship between the street ballads and the vaudeville turns of past times:

Young Jockey he courted sweet Mog the Brunette Who had eyes like carnations and eyes black as jet...

but a greater influence was surely that of another cat-philosopher, the companion of Fosse: the elderly Edward Lear. He had been known to Young Possum from the boy’s schooldays in St Louis. Missouri and is echoed indirectly in the ballad forms of the Practical Cats, and directly in their dance by the Jellicle Moon. Elsewhere we are told how pleasant it is to know Mr Hodgson (and, by contrast,


unpleasant to know Mr Eliot). Did not, too, the publisher on whose editorial board Mr Eliot sat produce one of the best and most popular collections of Lear’s nonsenses?

The cats themselves

began to make themselves felt early in the 1930s when Master Tom Faber and the delectably-named Miss Alison Tandy would receive letters and verses from ‘Possum’ or ‘Uncle Tom’ as he began to explore the names and natures of his practical cats (and of Pollicle Dogs as well). Gradually manuscripts describing all the eventual dramatis personae accumulated and in 1939 Messrs Faber & Faber published the first edition of the verses, dedicated by O.P. to Mr. T.E.Faber, Miss Alison Tandy, Miss Susan Wolcott, and Miss Susanna Morley (all Eliot’s god-children) and also to the Man in White Spats. That was Eliot’s

32 Books for Keeps No.220 September 2016

long-time friend and some- time flat-mate, John Hayward, who was himself the subject of a manuscript poem, sent to Alison in 1937 with the ms. of The Rum Tum Tugger1

The book

was a very modest production, thin and with a pale yellow jacket which carried the only illustrations, done by O.P. himself, showing some cats climbing a ladder on the front and O.P.


with the Man in White Spats on the rear. Verses on The Naming of Cats and The Ad-dressing of Cats framed the twelve subjects, one of whom, THE GREAT RUMPUSCAT, puts in a late but decisive appearance in the verses about the awful warring of the dog-tribes of the Pekes and the Pollicles. In 1953 Cat Morgan (a former pirate cat) introduces himself and is given five stanzas to recount his current position as Commissionaire at the house of Faber & Faber. It should also be noted that the ‘unpleasant’ Mr Eliot, with ‘his conversation / Restricted to What Precisely / and If and Perhaps / or But’ made recordings of the verses with a gravitas that wonderfully enhanced the nonsense of it all.


seems to be a term insisted upon by Old Possum for these and many other casual effusions, distancing them from the more formal ‘Poetry’.

we consider the question of the book’s later illustrations which were first done by

Nicholas Bentley within a year of

the original publication. (It was clearly intended from the start that there should be pictures and an attempt had been made to get pleasant Mr Hodgson – then in America – to do them. Sketches were also made by the Man in White Spats.) But Eliot had great reservations about the pairing of illustrations with Poetry. In a letter of 1962 he laid out a stringent critique which can have a universal application: that a pictorial interpretation comes between the writer and his readers, producing something which should be left to their imagination. And while Verse might be exempt from such a ban, the aptness of pictorial interference was still relevant and he was never entirely happy with Bentley’s efforts (which were

1 See a notable biography of him by John Smart: Tarantula’s Web (Norwich: Michael Russell,2013).

probably excused for commercial reasons). I doubt he would have stood for such interpretations as those by Axel Scheffler or Errol Le Cain where the words are overwhelmed by the designs. Since he also reprobated the setting of poems to music, one wonders what his response might have been to Cats?

That production The point is germane if

nonetheless brought to light (thanks presumably to Valerie Eliot) ‘questionable career’

the of a hitherto

unknown character, one who ‘haunted many a low resort / Near the grimy road of Tottenham Court’: Grizabella; the glamour cat. Her life, alas, was cut short: ‘It turned out too sad...I can’t make my children weep over a cat who’s gone wrong’..

Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times. His book The Ladybird Story: Children’s Books for Everyone, The British Library, 978-0712357289, £25.00 hbk, is out now.

This article could not have been written without reference to The Poems of T.S.Eliot, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (2 vols. Faber, 2016). Rarely has a book for children been given such attentive and rewarding scholarship as that accorded within those volumes.

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