The Cat Competition is a children’s book about the cats and folk of West Dean, a village in the Sussex downs. It celebrates the love between a cat and it’s owner. The stories are set in the 1930’s the time of my Grandmother’s childhood, who lived in West Dean for over forty years in Harcourt House.
Lots of people have asked me about the illustrations in the book and I’d like to celebrate them below with short extracts, and the some of the tweets and Facebook posts.
In 1972, when I was seven and my brother Seb was eight, we went to live with our granny for a while. We flew across the Atlantic all the way from the United States of America to England in a gigantic jumbo jet. Extract:
Seb and I rushed from room to room, amazed at the antiques, oil paintings, wooden beams and leaded windows. When we were standing next to a mirror taller than my father and covered in gold, Granny told us that we were in the drawing room. Maybe living with Granny Rosemary was a bit like living in the 1930s because she liked the old ways and her house was full of antiques. Her house was over 500 years old. Extract:
One day a man who had spent his childhood growing up in the Big House inherited all of West Dean, including all its land, houses, farms, forests and rivers, and the Big House too. His name was Edward James. Thirty years later, in the year I was born, he decided to give West Dean Park away and turned the Big House into a college for artists and artisans. He gave away the keys to his castle. Extract:
One minute they’re curled up cuties purring for a stroke or a tickle, meowing for a morsel, but then in a moment they’re ready for hunting. Their claws are out and they’re crouching down to pounce. When they’re in this mood, don’t try tickling their tummies! Extract:
When we reach the railway tunnel we join Hasler’s Lane. On our left is a pasture for the lamb and on our right is thick woodland. After a dogleg turn at Whiteland Copse, we’ll find Old Shep’s abandoned hut sitting on its rusty cartwheels. Extract:
When the kittens were big enough, the Woodcutter said to Cat, ‘I’ve found homes for our kittens in the village, but we’re going to keep Midnight.’ He tickled Cat under the chin. ‘And because Midnight’s got a name, you should have one too. Can I call you Spark?’ Extract:
In the beginning, Spark hadn’t been sure about the Woodcutter moving in. It had seemed strange to share the cottage, but now that it’s the four of them she feels as if this is the way it’s supposed to be.
Spark left the cottage, picking her way through the ice and snow, and went down the lane to the big road by Pheasant Cottages. She sat there and waited, and when she saw Ben Dunk – the boy from Home Farm – on his bike, she walked out into the road.
Just before Christmas it snowed horribly.
It was too cold to go outside, so Mrs Cooper put down a litter tray for Mabel to use as a loo. It was impossible to keep warm, so Mabel spent many hours sitting in the airing cupboard.
Lucky pounced onto the table, prowled along the centre and scavenged a whole leg of turkey from the meat plate, right in front of everyone.
The children enjoy playing with the cat. They love to dress her up like a doll, with a little vest and cap. Felicity is quite happy if the children are gentle, but if they start to behave roughly she will wander off and return when they are calmer.
She opened the door to find out what was going on, and that is when she saw it all. Mr Woodrow had opened a window, letting in the rain and wind, and was pushing Felicity out. ‘Get out, you smelly cat,’ he said.
Mr Cat and Mrs Cat love everything to be tidy, clean and in order. They wear purple elasticated collars with name badges. They are marmalade cats, with coarse-cut orange stripes that have golden highlights. There are no white boots, bibs or tail tips – they are pure marmalade.
Before returning to Mrs Cat he will spring up the stairs of the belfry, to the top of the castellated tower with its four turrets, and admire the sunrise tipping over the downs into the valley of West Dean, like cream being poured from a jug. He will think of the day ahead and count his blessings. How lucky he is to enjoy his nine lives in such a lovely village.
Mr Cat likes to clean Mrs Cat by licking behind her ears and checking her fur for any bugs or dirt she has picked up from the garden. And then Mr Cat will lick his paw and wipe it around his own head. He must spend over two hours a day with this preening!
The church is busy with its many weekly services: Holy Communion on a Sunday, Evensong and Morning Prayer. And then there are the weddings, christenings and funerals. Mrs Cat delights in watching the weddings; everyone is always so jolly and colourful. After the funerals, Mrs Cat will look out for people in the graveyard. If they are looking as if they are missing someone she will keep them company for a while.
Father Harold led the children up the hill to the vicarage. In the garden he watched as his beautiful church turned to ash and rubble. Then they saw the roof collapse, and they heard a mighty clang as the bells crashed to the bottom of the tower. Mrs Cat tried to comfort Father Harold by sitting next to him; she had never seen him cry before.
It was dark and snug inside the pocket, with many smells: partridge, rabbit and something he hadn’t smelled before on the Woodcutter’s handkerchief. It was an odd motion riding on the bicycle. The chain squeaked like a mouse, and when he peeked out he saw the beautiful green hills.
The pub was named The Selsey Arms. It was run by Ron Carter. He’d lived in the village all his life and had married Ada, the grocer’s daughter, at St Andrew’s a few years earlier. But Ron’s dreams hadn’t worked out and he found himself alone. Over the years the Woodcutter watched Ron’s sadness deepen day by day, like the fungus on a damaged tree.
Ruby greeted the customers with a ‘Hello, love’ or a ‘Lovely morning, isn’t it?’ and as they left she would thank them and say ‘Have a lovely day’ or ‘Wrap up tight – it’s cold tonight.’
She would play the piano, which she called Joanna, and get the whole pub singing with her while Jaspurr sat on top.
Ron called out, and then whispered in Jaspurr’s ear. ‘I got some great news. You’ve got a new mum. Ruby and I are gonna be married. She says she’d like kids, too. She’s bringing you some TCP, which will sting, I’m afraid. But you know, the best medicine is laughter – love and laughter. So I think we’re going to be alright.’
Max was not like his mum or dad, the pure marmalades of the vicarage. When he was born everyone was a little baffled: he had no tail and was not marmalade. His fur had black bits, white bits, a little brown here and patches of orange there, with no hint of a pattern. Mr Cat and Mrs Cat were quite puzzled.
Mr Bell and Max work closely together. If Mr Bell shouts ‘MAX, KEYS!’ then Max will fetch the keys from the desk. If he shouts ‘MAX, DOOR!’ Max will push the door closed. So many customers leave the door open!
‘Hiss!’ went Max.
‘Grrrooowwwouuu,’ went Jaspurr.
Max went to jump on Jaspurr but Jaspurr sprang onto a water butt and then up a wooden drainpipe. Within seconds he was on the roof, dashing up to the top. He stood on the ridge and waited. Max appeared and charged towards him.
Max was very pleased with himself and took some time off to stroll around the shop. It was then that he found himself staring at a magazine cover as intently as he would a bird or mouse. It was a picture of a family of cats, and as he peered more closely he realised none of them had tails. Max stared at the picture, trying to make sense of it. Could this be true? They couldn’t all have lost their tails – they must have been born like him without a tail!
From the kids’ room Max has a perfect view of the flint bridge by the green, and he can see the other cats playing. They are having so much fun, but he’ll never go there. Would they talk to a cat with no tail?
José and his siblings would play nearby in the Jardin des Tuileries, a large park with trees the cats could climb and benches where people sat and picnicked. Sometimes the picnickers would feed the cats pieces of cheese and sausage, but there were also dangers lurking in the park.
At mealtimes Pablo would feed José fish from his fingers and let him lick his plate after supper. When he danced, he’d hold José like a baby and sing to him, ‘Todo lo que puedas imaginar es real,’ which is Spanish for ‘Everything you can imagine is real.’
When he awoke it was morning. The train was on the move and he had been so tired that the noise and movement of the train leaving the station hadn’t woken him up. José looked out of a window, and there was the countryside: tall trees, long hedges, little villages and fields of green. When he saw a river he thought of how thirsty he was, and so he jumped out of the window and ran towards the water.
Eejay’s philosophy: cats have independent thought. They’ll listen to your wishes but make up their own minds as to what they will do. They are nocturnal; sunshine is for sleeping in. Cats are not pack animals. They are solitary hunters and they don’t understand the idea of a team. Friendship with anyone may be brief! If it’s good: stay. If it’s bad: leave. They also believe that one must laugh at the working dog – they are very foolish to work so hard and be so obedient.
Walking through the door is like visiting another kingdom: a place where visiting kings are entertained at big parties, a place where Rolls-Royces purr, poets dream and artists paint. The huge flint house stands before you. It has the presence of a castle and the lure of a palace. This is Eejay’s magical home, West Dean Park.
‘He was Tilly’s cat.’ Edward said.
Edward had loved Tilly very much. She was a famous dancer and actress. When they lived at Monkton House she had once left wet footprints on the carpet and Edward had the pattern embroidered into the carpet as a reminder of her. (And that is still there today. Go and see!)
‘Well he’s divine! I tell you what, let’s have a big party and show him off!’
‘A party? Well, there is the summer fête at the vicarage…’
‘Yes!’ Miss Bond pretended to make an announcement: ‘CAT COMPETITION AT THE WEST DEAN SUMMER FETE 1935.’
‘A cat competition?’ Edward said, frowning.
‘Yes, but not at the vicarage. Let’s have a bigger party at the front of the house. There’s more space here and we’ll have room for a helter-skelter, donkey rides, fancy dress and Morris dancing!’
‘Well, the village would love that.’
‘Yes, and we’ll invite the Romanies in their painted caravans. We can do a coconut shy… have everyone sitting on bales of hay and dancin’ to… Oh! And that new “jazz” music! Can we, Eddie? Please, please, Eddie?’
‘Alright, Nancy, we’ll have a big party.’
‘Oh yes! Promise me, Eddie!’