It was Linda W, one of the Happy Campers of Port Eliot Festival fame (how could we ever forget them, and you will be pleased to know that they will be making a return visit this year) who brought Mrs Chippy's Last Expedition 1914-1915 by Caroline Alexander along to an Endsleigh Salon evening back in April 2009. The reading theme was Intrepid Travellers and the benefits of our themed format mean a constant reminder of good books that others have shared for months afterwards. That first encounter with Mrs Chippy was memorable, so much so that I was too upset to make many notes at all because, I hate to tell you this, but when the chips are down and the crew on Shackelton's iced-in ship eventually have to make a final decision about who and what can go on the long walk to salvation...well a cat is not a welcome passenger.
Mrs Chippy in fact proved to be Mr Chippy, a mackerel tabby tom cat who accompanied ship's carpenter Harry 'Chippy' McNeish on board the Endurance for Shackelton's legendary journey to the Antarctic in 1914-15. Not dissimilar to Cats We Have Known here and in this, the only surviving picture of Mrs Chippy, sitting on the shoulder of a member of the crew
and nor was his balance quite a brilliant as Mrs Chippy's ...walking the icy deck rails might have been a challenge too far.
This gate pose was all bravado, We looked on incredulously, holding our breath and with safety nets in place.
Mrs Chippy however was eminently well-suited to life on board ship. Inquisitive to a fault, friendly, a fine sense of balance when walking the rails of the moving ship, a great mouser and a great sleeper and the book a wonderful way of recounting the events of the voyage, the highs and lows, the silly things that humans worry about and all the frequently concealed yet ever-present animosities and irritations amongst the crew. It is a clever way saying the unsayable, of being critical without seeming to be, and then blame it all on the cat.
Description is decidedly cat-like...skies are 'mouse-grey' seas are like 'frozen milk' and Mrs Chippy knows all the favourable hotspots on board for a snooze, the furnace, available laps and bunks, reclining feet and purring human chests.
Mrs Chippy a cat Rocky would have been proud to know given his own penchant for wandering across to the dog kennels here when in need of some entertainment on a dull day. On the confines of the deck of a ship the idle sledging dogs suffered extremes of cat-hate as Mrs Chippy chose to preen and groom himself within sight of the pack. Rocky would just parade up and down and round our kennels causing complete mayhem, and then have no truck with any of this chasing lark when the dogs were finally let out ...he would just sit and stare and go for the nose if anything canine dared to came too close. Barney, our black labrador, supposed to be a gun dog and good at chasing things, actually loved Rocky and would try to lick him to death ...it was not mutual.
When Mrs Chippy's fate has to be decided prepare to choke back a tear or two when it becomes apparent that even the most intelligent cat has his limitations as he woofs (wrong word) down his last supper of sardines... but also what a lovely cat to get to know so do you have any more literary cat suggestions??
My offering to get us started would be Blitzcat by Robert Westall. Yet another way of using a cat to convey the unsayable, in this case World War Two and the bombing of Coventry all made eminently readable for children.
Incidentally, my copy of Mrs Chippy's Last Expedition a nice 1997 hardback discovery when the Book Fair came to town a few weeks ago, though sadly one whose pages started to part company with its spine the minute I opened it. Buyer beware.