Next year will see the 80th anniversary of the publication of Old Possum’s Book Of Practical Cats, TS Eliot’s much-loved collection of feline-inspired poems for children large and small which gave us such memorable characters as Old Deuteronomy, Mr Mistoffelees and Macavity – all of whom went on to win a degree of fame far in excess of that of their creator when they became the stars of the spectacularly popular Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical Cats. Eliot had intended to write a follow-up book of poems about dogs, but never got round to it. According to his late widow Valerie, the idea came to him following a conversation with his chauffeur, who was describing his own hound – not pedigreed but loved all the same. “He’s not what you’d call a consequential dog,” the chauffeur said. Eliot apparently loved that phrase and quickly decided to write a book of “consequential dogs”. We can only guess what his dog poems might have been like had he found the time to pen them, but with the greatest respect to the internationally revered author of The Waste Land, it’s hard to imagine him coming up with anything more energetic or enjoyable than the rhymes in this collection by Christopher Reid, produced with the blessing of the Eliot Estate and winningly illustrated by Elliot Elam.
Among the “rowdy assembly” of mutts introduced to us here are Lola the lion-taming, tightrope-walking circus dog; Dobson the beagle detective, who is actually thinking when he appears to be sleeping; Frazzlesprat, the dog who thinks he’s a cat; Dog Juan, the lothario of Camden and Islington; and Flo the philosophical foxhound – “rather than chasing after foxes, / Brain-bamboozlers and paradoxes / Occupy Flo’s mind.”
Reid is a real master craftsman, and even though his poems are pitched at younger readers, perhaps from seven or eight and up, there is plenty for grown-ups to enjoy too, from the way he plays around with new coinages (Ballybeg Rosie the greyhound is described as an “Offandawayhound”) to the way he subtly varies his rhyme schemes for effect, occasionally leaving the reader hanging on for a couple of extra beats before delivering a punchline.
If there’s one poem that seems to spring straight from Eliot’s original conversation with his chauffeur all those years ago, it’s “Jack and Jill: A Pair Of Mutts”. The poet begins by asking if the “pampered pups” who “carry off rosettes and cups” are really any better than the “scruffy mutts you and I love?” He then goes on to sing the praises of Jack, “who, thrown a ball, will bring it back / Five hundred times in an afternoon” and his companion Jill, whose “accomplishments are no fewer: / She is a champion chair-leg chewer.”
When compared with these two lovable rogues, the poet concludes, “the aristocrats / Of pedigree might as well be cats.”
Old Toffer’s Book Of Consequential Dogs, by Christopher Reid, Faber & Faber, £16.99