Book review: Mog the Forgetful Cat by Judith Kerr

It wasn’t until Judith Kerr’s death this year that I put together the author of the classic picture books The Tiger Who Came to Tea and the Mog series with the author of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, a book I was captivated by as an older child. While I still remember parts of Pink Rabbit vividly, I’ve got only the foggiest recollection of any of Kerr’s picture books and no conscious memories of experiencing these for the first time. It was a delight to rediscover Mog the Forgetful Cat with my own daughter and although much of it was far beyond her comprehension at fourteen months, there’s a lot here she appreciates even now. 

As for me, I consider Mog a masterpiece in narrative structure. Kerr’s plot and pacing is impeccable, each word and illustrative detail purposeful. Mog’s forgetfulness is not incidental but is rather the crux of the entire story, which romps along to a satisfying conclusion. I’ve read umpteen books on how to write a novel but next time I attempt to structure my WIP I’m just going to come back to Mog and try to follow exactly what Kerr does.

Mog is the wordiest of all the books E owns so far, and unlike most of them the story here requires a certain level of intelligent deduction. There are several pages where the words alone don’t explain what’s happening  –  we are told that Mog falls asleep on a chair and dreams she is a bird, and then when she wakes Mrs Thomas is annoyed. The reader also has to consider the illustration, which shows Mog sleeping on top of Mrs Thomas’ hat, which is then squashed and torn.  (Is it strange that even as an adult it feels gratifying to work out what’s going on by connecting the words and the pictures? I’m sure I’ve read some thrillers recently which have been less intellectually taxing than this.) I imagine that the different levels to the book will give us lots to discuss even when E is a few years older. 

The language is simple but the sentence structure is almost poetic, with considered repetition of key words and phrases, such as the charmingly retro ‘Bother that cat!’ There’s a nostalgic feel throughout – this is a universe of clunky black and white TV sets, milkmen and policemen in proper hats. After being thwarted in his robbery attempt – SPOILER – the burglar even enjoys a cup of tea with the Thomas family and the bobby. Perhaps more incredible is that he was stealing an alarm clock and some cutlery. I do realise that proper, actual adults own silver, or did in the 70s anyway, but I still can’t fathom how this thief could possibly be making a decent living wage if this is the extent of his typical takings.

The illustrations are lovely – E likes each and every drawing of Mog, and the double-page image of Debbie’s dream, with the tiger and the monkey in the tree. She always wants to skip over the page where Mog is sad and alone in the dark garden, which I fondly imagine is because of her sensitivity to this powerful moment of despair.

 I do worry about Mr Thomas. I can’t help but feel that darker truths could be lurking beneath the comfortable veneer of this happy landscape. Mr Thomas appears careworn, with bags under his eyes and a distinctly dishevelled mode of dress. His cheeks surely are a bit on the red side – the effect of excessive alcohol consumption? Could his insistence on watching the fight on television and his extreme reaction to Mog’s tail over the screen be a clue to what is going on? I suspect gambling addiction and spiralling debt. Even his reaction to the burglar is suspect – we are told that Mrs Thomas acts immediately to call the police, while the children rally around Mog. Mr Thomas seems immobilised, either too enfeebled by his previous night of drinking, or perhaps even in league with the burglar, in some complicated insurance scam….

There really is something for everyone here. We don’t yet own any others in the series, but I feel compelled to buy the next. Check in again to read more thoughts on Mog’s future adventures and the fate of Mr Thomas. 

Fluffywuffy by Simon Puttock: a review

I chose this book at the library in a state of incipient panic, grimly determined that the outing would bear tangible fruit, whilst juggling an increasingly enraged baby. I knew it was several reading levels above her ability to comprehend, but I thought the name was cute and the cover looked charming! You would think after living over thirty years and reading many books both for children and for adults I would have grasped that the old adage exists for a reason. Covers mislead. And what’s more, even blurbs can be outright deceptive. The back of Fluffywuffy claims: ‘Kids will love this darkly funny story with a brilliant mischievous twist!’

Well, yes. That description’s accurate, as long as out-and-out murder is your opinion of a hilarious surprise in a book for toddlers. To backtrack, Fluffywuffy is a small pet of indeterminate breed, owned by the rather wishy-washy Mr Moot. The first page obliquely warns of Fluffywuffy’s nature by telling us that ‘Mr Moot lives a quiet life’ and showing various bothersome people running from the house. (In keeping with many great works of literature, the sinister undertones of this opening can only fully be appreciated in retrospect.) Mr Moot has a cousin who turns up unannounced for a visit and who proves to enjoy noisy nocturnal activities*, to the enragement of Fluffywuffy.  *Not a euphemism, part of the insanity of this book is the way it remains child-friendly up until that afore-mentioned twist.

As with many horror novels, the terror creeps up on the reader. Repetition is utilised to build up a sense of dread: the sentence ‘Fluffywuffy said nothing’ reoccurs on each page, as the cousin becomes more and more irritating. The illustrations of Fluffywuffy add to the ominous tone by showing his/her eyebrows progressively lowering, the only hint as to the darkness within his/her soul. 

The climax is truly unexpected. Mr Moot awakes to silence from his cousin, and a missing Fluffywuffy. The penultimate illustration shows Fluffywuffy in monstrous silhouettes – his mouth, which has until this point been pursed shut in a moue of disapproval, wide and gaping with dreadful teeth.  The cousin has disappeared, leaving behind him his half-eaten belongings. The book ends with Fluffywuffy resplendent on a pile of nibbled clothes, grinning an enormous, eerie grin. It’s remarkable how little ambiguity there is here. It’s abundantly clear that the cousin has been eaten – there’s not even the option of diplomatically discussing with your child whether another interpretation is possible. 

That blurb continues to amaze me – I love the blithe use of the phrase ‘brilliant mischief’, as if rather than drawing on the floor with crayons, my child might in act of naughty playfulness kill somebody instead. I do think there is something darkly compelling about this story, and perhaps if I had an older child with a robust outlook on the world and a well-developed sense of irony my take on it would be different. Maybe my reaction is too prudish, driven by a desire for my precious firstborn to experience only nice stories, the tales which are truly fluffy. Even so, having already traumatised her with Scarface Claw, I’m not taking any risks. Fluffywuffy has gone back to the library and there it will stay. 

Sundays in Starbucks or: how I learned to stop worrying and love soulless corporate coffee chains

I grew up in a pre-coffee shop universe. It seems almost impossible to believe now, but just as the internet was something you could access only when you’d been able to negotiate thirty minutes unfettered use of the phone line, there was a time and a place where your only hot beverage options were ‘coffee’, ‘tea’ or  ‘hot chocolate’.  You either drank them at a greasy plastic table, or from atop a frilly tablecloth, alongside a fruit scone served by a waitress in an actual uniform. Pret a Manger felt like a revelation when it first opened an hour away in Glasgow. The exoticism of a sandwich containing avocado was truly astounding to us poor proles from the provinces. And then, finally, the coffee chains reached those outer reaches of civilisation we called home, and suddenly there was somewhere that we could go as teenagers and just sit for hours, drinking liquified sugar. 

But then came the years of staying up till 5am to meet essay deadlines, coupled with the lure of the interest-free student overdraft. My relationship with coffee intensified. I bought a cafetière. I moved to London and started working in the media, and suddenly it was deeply uncool to frequent chains of any kind. Plus by then I was consumed by the requisite liberal guilt over tax evasion, the demise of the high street, the ills of globalisation, et cetera, et cetera.  

Recently I began spending five hours every Sunday writing in coffee shops. I fondly imagined myself studiously typing away in unique little cafés boasting artisanal roasts. And yet, a few weeks in, I have found myself most comfortable in the big chains. 

Spoilt by choice the first week, I giddily flitted to three different places in turn, scrupulously buying a pastry and a hot drink in each. My wallet and my waistline couldn’t countenance this on an ongoing basis and so the following week the deliberating began. Having chosen an establishment, there’s then the etiquette of how much you must buy in each place in order to effectively rent your table there. My personal code dictates a purchase at least each hour, but still by the third hour I start to imagine the staff are shooting me cross glances. Then there’s the guilt at taking up a table with a lukewarm beverage when other people are searching for seats. And obviously amidst it all there’s the knowledge that you’re just one more pretentious twat typing away on their MacBook. 

I was nervously negotiating all of this when I discovered a new coffee shop around the corner from my flat.Nestled underground like a hobbit hole, with baked goods enticingly arrayed in its windows, it was exceedingly charming – so much so that I entirely overlooked the sign – NO LAPTOPS AT WEEKENDS. I did notice the barista’s eyes twitching nervously down to my laptop bag as I ordered, but assumed she’d been abusing the free caffeine. I got as far as sliding it onto the table and sipping my decaf before she politely apprised me of their policy. She was lovely, and yet I nevertheless felt discomfited. I drank up and left. 

Since then, it’s been chains all the way. The staff don’t care what I order and when. There’s plenty of seats and loads of other people sitting there for hours at a time. Breastfeeding means I have to limit my caffeine intake anyway, so the actual quality of the coffee doesn’t really matter to me right now. I do feel guilty about bypassing the independents, but those local to me seem so busy that by taking up a space for hours perhaps I’m doing them more harm than good. I’m sure there’s some happy medium I’ve yet to find – the small struggling café where nobody ever goes? – but it’s a relief to have a break from the angst and just focus on the writing. I’m considering trying the pub next, if I can ever get to grips with the protocol for that… 

Review: Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy by Lynley Dodd

Around thirty years ago, Hairy Maclary scampered straight into my heart, where he has resided ever since. As one of my own childhood favourites, this was one of the very first books I bought for my daughter, when she was still watermelon-sized and bobbing around on the other side of my uterus. I had fond visions of us reading it together and chortling at the hilarious antics of the titular Hairy Maclary. Reader, it was not to be. Instead this book served as a salutary warning from the Parenting Gods – expect ye nothing.

For the uninitiated, Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy by Lynley Dodd, first published 1983, is a children’s classic with the eponymous Hairy Maclary as protagonist. He’s a scruffy wee dog who resembles a Scottish Terrier, although Wikipedia insists he’s “of mixed pedigree.” Also from Wikipedia, “His arch-enemy is the tomcat Scarface Claw.” The solemnity of that sentence gives just a hint of the epic battle between good and evil contained within the scant few pages of this board book.

  Such was the appeal of the charming rhyming language and beautiful illustrations to both myself and my partner, that from our earliest readings we entered into it with great gusto. We began the nightly renditions of this tale just weeks into our daughter’s life, emoting each line with great vigour, smugly convinced we were excelling at parenting our precious babe. 

And yet as time went by, a creeping suspicion presented itself separately to us both. By five months, it was an incontrovertible truth: our little baby had developed a deep, all-abiding, hysterical terror of the villainous Scarface Claw. The book wisely leaves much of his apparent reign of terror to the imagination, merely hinting darkly that he is “the toughest tom in town”.  We do however get an entire page given over to a close-up of his ferociously bared teeth within a gaping maw framed by devilishly quivering whiskers, his amber eyes narrowed above.  The text here is sparse but each word, nay, each character, is significant. I quote, ‘“EEEEEOWWWFFTZ!” said Scarface Claw.’ (That Z is surely a stroke of genius.) The ways in which you can pronounce this are of course only limited by your own enthusiasm. 

Usually keen to turn the pages, our daughter would brace herself visibly when this book appeared in front of her, shrinking back against our knees. Before the dreaded cat was even mentioned in the text, she would begin to whimper plaintively in anticipation. At the first appearance of his barbarous grin, this would become a full-throttled, anguished cry. As she gained the ability to actually move under her own volition, she would clamber backwards, clawing wildly in her efforts to escape the horrifying tome. Desperately, we tried transmuting the terrifying cat’s yowl to a gentle purr. It was to no avail. The damage had been done. 

There is no happy ending to this tale of woe. A full seven months later the fear persists. We’ve given up forcing this delightful children’s story on her now, but from time to time she will actually bring it to us herself, in what I can only presume is either a sadistic fascination or a valiant endeavour to live up to the exacting expectations of her cruel parents. It still ends in the most heart-wrenching of sobs. 

It’s undeniable; we have already damaged our child. Don’t let this put you off the book though – the illustrations are lovely, as is the use of language. It’s a classic for a good reason. Just don’t use it as a release for your frustrated amateur dramatic ambitions, as we did. I’ve learned my lesson – there’s no place for rose-tinted expectations in parenting. Expect only disaster and tears, and then you’ll never be disappointed. 

On Writing; On Running

The comparison occurred to me midway through a painful thirty minute jog. I was working my way through the Couch to 5k programme for perhaps the fourth or fifth time. I love running; I’m just not terribly good at keeping it up. I feel the same way about writing. It’s been a constant in my life, from my childhood playwriting stage, to my short stories, to the uni essays and blog posts, with several aborted starts at novels over the decades. But it’s never been a consistent habit, never something I’ve managed to commit to wholeheartedly. 

I love the thought of running, and of writing. Sometimes I even love the first few minutes, before the pain and the despair take over. Because both these things are really hard. They seem simple but it takes strength to keep going when you feel like a puce blob and you have a stitch, or when you know with soul-crushing certainty that every word you are typing is utter crap. 

I’m not claiming to have figured it all out, or to be any kind of expert, except maybe at  trying and failing over and over again. And through my many, many failures, I have gradually learnt that the one and only thing which actually matters is that you keep on going through the fear and the malaise. 

There are two enemies to overcome – inferiority and superiority. There will always be somebody who runs circuits around you while you puff doggedly away, their pert bottom receding into the distance as black spots dance in front of your eyes. That’s life. Likewise, it’s dangerous and pointless to compare anything you write to anything anyone else has written. Learn from them yes, but you can’t be Hemingway. And there’s no point trying – even Hemingway didn’t want to be Hemingway. 

But the more insidious danger to both the runner and the writer is superiority. Bear with me here, you might have to have a grandiose and embarrassingly egoistic streak to get this.  As soon as I’ve been doing anything successfully for a few days, my narcissistic brain immediately jumps to the inevitable end conclusion. Ran five days this week? Great, let’s start planning for the ultra-marathon. Written every day for ten days? Brilliant, time to research how to sell that non-existent novel to a publisher. Yes, ambition is good. But the thing is, it’s so damaging to be only focused on the end goal. The small day to day advances and successes are forgotten and all you can see is how far off and unachievable that final summit seems.

When it’s going right, both writing and running help me focus on the present. It’s the closest I ever get to inner peace. I try to use running as a mental health exercise, a type of meditation. And no matter how bad and painful things get, I can always cling to the knowledge it will be over soon and afterwards I will feel amazing. 

The trick with both is to focus on keeping going, step by step, one foot in front of the other, one word after another and trust that you will reach the end somehow. 

Top 10 ways I avoided writing this week…(two years ago)

This post is a time capsule. I wrote it around two years ago, before I had a baby and learned that far from having no time, I had so much time. All of it my own. Oceans and oceans of lovely, solitary time. Anyway, I happened upon this recently and aside from the smug opening paragraph I can still relate to it, so I decided to publish it here because this is my site and I can.

Living and working in London and attempting to do anything other than live and work in London means you never feel like you have enough time. There’s always the lingering feeling that in an ideal world you would have weeks to sleep and days to cook and hours and hours to exercise. So I took a week off work for a self-imposed writing boot camp. Unfortunately it was in my flat rather than a picturesque cottage in the country, but the goal was the same. I wanted to discover what I was capable of given the time and space to write in. 

Results were mixed. But I did discover great new capabilities for procrastination as I grappled with self-discipline. Here are the ten most ridiculous things I did instead of write: 

1. Decided to put on a new album to listen to. Fell down a rabbit hole of 100 best album lists online. Read the entire list of NME’s 500 Greatest Albums. Tried to keep a mental tally of how many I’d listened to, but lost track and had to start again.  

2. Tracked down a long-lost school friend on Facebook. After trawling through pictures of her brother’s girlfriend’s cousin’s wedding, considered becoming a private detective. Rejected it because you don’t get to wear cool hats any more.

3. Made a batch of butternut squash and chilli scones. Actually kind of wonderful and hardly a waste of time at all. 

4. Deep cleaned the bathroom, gaining an intimate acquaintance with every tile on the wall in the process.

5. Spent so long staring at my bare foot that I came to see it was almost definitely deformed. After much googling, diagnosed Morton’s Neuroma. Treated myself with wine to deal with the stress. 

6. Spent a good chunk of time exploring the world of Harry Potter fan fiction. It’s a dark and dangerous place. Don’t enter unless you’re prepared to envisage Draco Malfoy in new and alarming ways. Fretted that lots of the fan fiction is much better than anything I’ve ever written.

7. Made chicken curry and froze it. Made a bakewell cake and froze it. Made empanadas and froze them. Yes, I like food, why do you ask?

8. So many memes. 

9. Organised my drawers. Something so satisfying about folding your pants while the rest of your life crashes and burns in the background. 

10. Buzzfeed listicles. Yes, just like this one. I’M SO SORRY FOR WASTING YOUR TIME AND DISTRACTING YOU FROM WHATEVER YOU SHOULD BE DOING WITH YOUR LIFE. GO. GO NOW AND DO IT!