The anthology demonstrates once again how easily human beings (editors included) can be relieved of all judgement by canine infatuation. The extracts in this tome are also poorly presented. Many are not by the people under whose names they appear. The book is touted as being 'From Homer to Hockney', but there is nothing in it by Hockney: only a report of an interview with the artist. A more serious deficiency is that most extracts are not dated - a tiresome omission, as attitudes to dogs are constantly evolving, and the first thing one wants to know about any piece is the date of its composition.
That said, the book contains some nuggets, including the heartrending description of Argus, Odysseus's faithful hound, recognising his master when at last he returns from Troy, but dying as he tries to make contact. Three thousand years ago, Homer caught the pathos and intensity of man-dog relationships with unsurpassable economy.
Action and drama set alight W R Spencer's heroic poem 'Beth-Gelert' in which Llewelyn slays his own 'peerless hound' in the mistaken belief that it has eaten his baby son, when in fact it has killed the wolf attacking the child. Cynicism crackles like static electricity in the account (from Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One) of Dennis Barlow, of the Happier Hunting Ground, removing the corpse of a Sealyham terrier from 207 Via Dolorosa, Bel Air, for cremation. In contrast, a six-page poem in dialect by Tennyson is insufferable, and a seven- pager by D H Lawrence acutely embarrassing ('Oh Bibbles, oh Pips, oh Pipsey, You little black love-bird]').
The Chatto Book of Cats is far more intelligently selected and much better arranged, being laid out in sections - Eating, Voices, Wisdom, Magic and so on - which help to focus a reader's attention. By no means all is soft and furry. Witches feature strongly; there are hair-raising accounts of men eating live cats in the 18th century; and the show-stopping finale of a story by Robert W Chambers (1895) in which a lunatic imagines the death of a money-lender who lived with a ferocious feline: 'I seized the tallow dip and sprang to the door. The cat passed me like a demon, and the tallow dip went out, but my knife flew swifter than she, and I heard her screech, and I knew my knife had found her . . . Mr Wilde lay on the floor with his throat torn open.'
Edward Lear laments the death of his beloved Foss at the age of 31 ('So he was placed in a box yesterday, & buried deep beneath the Figtree'). Poor mad Christopher Smart, writing in 1760, praises his cat Jeoffry ('For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him'), and is wittily echoed by other poets two centuries later. And who will forget the aristocratic Hungarian Hiddigeigei, immortalised here in a Hiawatha-like translation from the German of 1877:
With the stately Leonora
To the Rhine came Hiddigeigei.
A true house-pet, somewhat lonesome
Did he while away his life there;
For he hated to consort with
Any of the German cat-tribe . . .
Pussy galore: fanciers of every persuasion will surely find something here to set them purring.Reuse content