Review of small press and independent books.
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I would never have thought that the immortal T. S. Eliot's similarly immortal collection of humorous cat poems needed any puff from the likes of me - I might as well be recommending 'The Wind in the Willows' - but I can't believe how many people have never heard of it. The looks I get when I mention that Little Troubleblossom's favourite bedtime reading includes T. S. Eliot... well, some are just blank, others seem to think that I obviously have children called Tarquin and Guinevere, but absolutely nobody bursts into an impromptu rendition of 'Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat'.
'Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats' is still in print - it was first published in 1939 by Faber and Faber, and it still is, now as a rather classy slim paperback, but with the original typesetting (large and clear enough to read by night-light at three o'clock in the morning), and, of course, Nicolas Bentley's illustrations, which belong to the text just as much as E. H. Shepherd's do to 'Winnie-the-Pooh'. Hmm, I say 'rather classy', but Little Troubleblossom is convinced that the intricate black-on-yellow background of the repeated Faber logo is actually a frieze of potties - it took me a while to see it, you have to turn the book upside-down and imagine it as a yellow-on-black image...
The poems are just lovely, with rocking, rolling rhythms, a sturdy sense of humour and an equally sturdy lack of sentimental fluff - the terrible barge-cat Growltiger, quite possibly a distant ancestor of Scarface Claw, comes to a thoroughly sticky end, to general rejoicing along the Thames, and Gus, the Theatre Cat, is a sad, washed-up old actor monopolising the bar-room conversation over his gin. They're a great quick fix when the little one can't sleep, and the perfect seed material for a lifelong love of verse.
All together now... 'There's a whisper down the line at eleven thirty-nine, when the Night Mail's ready to depart...'
Aaargh, stop the presses, this is serious! I was just doing my Christmas shopping in never-you-mind-where, and you will never guess what I saw: Faber and Faber have produced a new edition of 'Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats' with illustrations by Axel Scheffler! (That's the Axel Scheffler who's most famous as Julia Donaldson's straight man, just in case you were in any doubt.)
I only had time for a brief flip through it, because the display shelf was right next to the lift and Little Troubleblossom wasn't in her reins, but I can safely say that Nicolas Bentley is definitely not turning in his grave: in fact, the illustrations are rather fine. Much as I like the originals, they are rather dated and they were never really suited to non-readers: you get one full-size coloured illustration on the facing page at the beginning of each poem, and then the rest is just text until you come to the tiny black-and-white illustration that closes it. Fine for readers; fine for babies whom you're reading aloud to while breastfeeding and who aren't looking anyway, but toddlers get bored. Scheffler has done a sequence of small illustrations throughout each poem, so there's always something to look at as you read, and as 'Tabby McTat' fans will already know, he does a lovely, lively cat.