My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It was deeply distressing to me when the movie ‘Cats’ seemingly bombed at the cinemas and was shredded by the newspaper critics.
The distress was because I normally can’t abide Andrew Lloyd Webber and feel aggrieved about needing to defend him. But, defend I will. The movie was the first time I’d seen the musical based on T.S. Eliot’s famous book and I absolutely loved it. Moreover, the criticisms led me to think it was far overdue that I actually read this book of feline poetry rather than merely ‘know about it’.
And so I bought a copy. This particular one I chose out of dozens of options because it is illustrated by Axel Scheffler (of ‘Gruffalo’ fame). I have many, wonderful, fond memories of reading the many books written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by this brilliant artist to my children and so it seemed absolutely right to have Old Possum with Scheffler’s super drawings.
I might not have read this book when I was a child myself, but I did read A.A. Milne’s ‘When We Were Very Young’ and that same wartime childhood silliness is clearly there with Eliot. I was transported back to those days where you could simply enjoy the nonsense for the sake of it. It is hard to find such children’s books these days. Yes, there’s the Dr Seuss – which is a much more simplistic verse; there’s the super Julia Donaldson books too such as the aforementioned Gruffalo but these are very intelligent and meaningful books. There’s nothing that’s intelligent and silly at the same time. Milne was super at it; Eliot (a staggeringly intelligent man) excelled at it.
And that is my pet theory to why the movie bombed so much: People don’t read Milne, Eliot et al any longer. My daughter came with me to see the movie and found it just ‘weirded her out’ although she quite liked it. She felt like the storyline tried too hard and the lyrics just didn’t make sense. Well, ‘Cats The Musical’ hasn’t changed since Lloyd Webber wrote it decades ago and it was a big hit back then. Why is it so ‘weird’ now? Because back in the 70s we were all still reading Eliot and Milne. We don’t now, so people don’t get the idea behind it all.
There is an exception of course: Winnie the Pooh. But I can’t help but wonder if that poor bear’s time is up soon too? The books are prose, of course, and my consider here is poetry – which often has a shelf-life anyway – but I wonder if my grandchildren will be reading even the Pooh stories in years to come? They don’t exist yet, my grandchildren, I hasten to add.
The poems about cats penned by Eliot make sense in an era where there was no social media, no 24-7 TV on our phones, no movies on tap or computer games to play. They make sense when kids had to go outside for hours on end for amusement and played with crappy metal cars for days because there was nothing else to do. They made sense when you made up nonsense because there was nothing else for it but at the same time you noticed what cats and dogs did and how animals behave, and knew the names of trees and flowers and different kinds of fabric materials and a host of things you can see as important on old children’s programmes like Bagpuss but now would never, ever see at all. That’s when you observe things and make bizarre connections. Don’t get me wrong – children still have amazing imaginations today. It’s just not the same kind of imagination as we had.
People didn’t get the movie ‘Cats’, I am certain, because they haven’t read the poetry which is, basically, wholeheartedly lifted from the book like some movie version of cut and paste. And if they did read the poetry, I feel sadly sure that most today still just wouldn’t get it.
And that makes me feel horribly, painfully old. It’s such a shame to lose this superlative poetry written by a man whose knowledge and understanding would confound most ordinary folks, myself included, and yet had the magical gift of being able to communicate with children. There is, quite simply, no one writing stuff like this any more, and the world is a sadder place for that being true.
Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.
Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways, and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine and Northern Arts Review.