Off to the Isle of Cats — and Back by Teatime!

« It’s no good trying to teach people who need to be taught. » — Aleister Crowley

You may have happened across our earlier post on that astounding but tragically short-lived touche-à-tout, Gerard Hoffnung (1925-59). Well, here’s a look at another facet of the man’s work, crafted this time in tandem with, of all people, the definitive-but ambivalent biographer of opprobrious occultist and Ozzy song subject Aleister Crowley, namely the intriguing John Symonds (1914-2006). Come to think of it, the affiliation makes impeccable sense, and it proceeds swimmingly.

In an era where it often seems that those rare adults who yet read do so at toddler-ish levels, it’s easy to forget how many so-called children’s books of yore had plenty to offer the refined adult mind. Here, then, are some highlights from Messrs. Hoffnung and Symonds’ 1955 opus, The Isle of Cats.

« He closed his eyes, yawned, arched his back and began to dig his claws in and out of the sofa. Uncle Tom was no ordinary cat, for he could tell the time, look through a telescope (keeping one paw over the other eye, of course), beat up an egg, steer a raft, smoke a pipe and do many other things. »
« He’s the Mayor, » whispered Uncle Tom to Gabby, « so be nice to him. »
« He was still saying thank you as he and Uncle Tom were being driven away in the Mayor’s car, followed by various cats on bicycles, tricycles and penny-farthings. »
The wrestling bout pitting Tim the Terror (left) against The Furry Fury (right). Things end with a crash when Tim lets go.
« The Hall of Fame contained the portraits of the island’s most celebrated cats. »
« There were portraits of lots of other famous cats, including Martha who had seven hundred and forty nine children, six hundred and eighty three of whom survived, and were now working hard as tram-drivers, crossing-sweepers, lamp-lighters, pastry-cooks and so forth, with the exception of three who simply won’t work at all. »
« At the Orphanage, all the kittens were lined up on either side of the Great Hall, looking as good as gold, their hankerchiefs sewn to their shirts, close enough to their noses to blow into them. »
« Just then they sailed over the madhouse and saw some cats standing on their heads, waving their legs in the air. »
The book’s endpapers illustration, granting the reader a lofty view from the Mayor’s hot air (of course) balloon.

As a bonus, for the finale, here’s the poster Hoffnung was commissioned to illustrate for the classic, Brexit-anticipating 1949 Ealing Studios comedy Passport to Pimlico. [ watch the trailer! ]

Hoffnung’s loving widow, Annetta, wrote, in her 1988 biography of Gerard: « As he sat at his drawing board, increasingly involved and complicated fantasies tumbled from Gerard’s pen onto the paper. In 1949 came perhaps the most intricate of all, a drawing for the poster advertising a popular film of the day, Passport to Pimlico. I do not have the original design but it is unlikely to have been larger than 12″ x 15″, and to squeeze so much into so little space is no mean achievement. » I couldn’t find a trace of this image online, so I’m providing a nice ‘n’ large scan for you. Eat your heart out, Will Elder!

-RG