When Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats appeared in the first week of October 1939, it might have been thought that its author had lost the plot. It was only 17 years since TS Eliot had published The Waste Land, his cryptic lament for the moral and psychic disintegration that both caused and followed the first world war. Now, a mere month into renewed hostilities in Europe, here was Eliot, the man with more claim to cultural authority than almost anyone living, wasting his time (not to mention everyone else’s) with light verse about cats.
Practical Cats consists of short verse profiles of 15 rambunctious felines with fanciful names, including Rum Tum Tugger and Growltiger. It stands in a classic tradition of catty nonsense, reaching back through The Owl and the Pussy-Cat (Edward Lear) and the Cheshire Cat (Lewis Carroll) to Christopher Smart’s “My Cat, Jeoffry”, an 18th-century epic that Eliot himself regarded as the Iliad of cat literature. Yet, despite the fact that he had such a pedigree, literary critics of the time couldn’t help feeling that Eliot, who was not only the author of Practical Cats but, by virtue of his job at Faber, its publisher, too, had misjudged the nation’s mood. At this very moment many families were contemplating euthanising their pets for fear of not being able to feed them properly once wartime rationing kicked in. Death and destruction were clearly on their way, and here was one of the country’s leading intellectuals writing stuff for kids. The view that the book was a significant indiscretion was shared in Eliot’s native US where John Holmes of the Boston Evening Transcript snapped that Practical Cats “should have been prevented”.