First Macavity the cat, now Molly the mutt: the sequel TS Eliot dreamed of writing

Eighty years after Old Possum, a companion collection of dog poems pays tribute to the literary giant

From Macavity to Rum Tum Tugger, TS Eliot’s poems about cats, originally intended as gifts for his godchildren, have thrilled generations of children and adults alike, becoming a cultural phenomenon in the process.

Now Eliot’s publishing house Faber & Faber is marking next year’s 80th anniversary of the publication of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats with a long-dreamt-of sequel. Old Toffer’s Book of Consequential Dogs, which contains 22 new poems by Costa award-winning poet and former Faber poetry editor Christopher Reid, is out this month, kickstarting a year of celebrations as the publisher heads towards its 90th year.

Eliot had considered writing a dog-centred companion book to Practical Cats, and even squirrelled away the title after his driver told him that he “had a dog, but not a consequential one”. However, the work was never started, explains Reid.

“Then a few years back Clare Reihill [who helps administer the Eliot estate] asked if I’d like to do a book of this kind,” he says. “I said yes immediately because I could see how to do it … I knew the tone of it, and how it could differ from Eliot’s poems without being wildly different.”

An illustration from Old Toffer’s Book of Consequential Dogs
Old Toffer’s Book of Consequential Dogs. Photograph: Elliot Elam / Faber & Faber

Reid, perhaps best known for winning the 2009 Costa book award for his collection, A Scattering, written in tribute to his late wife, is on the surface an unlikely choice of successor to the austere Eliot. Although it’s arguable that just as Eliot, the cat lover, was a very feline kind of person, so the enthusiastic Reid is more obviously doglike – “and like them, I can growl”, he admits.

Dig deeper, however, and it becomes clear why the Eliot estate contacted him. “I did put a lot of dogs in my other poems – I hadn’t actually realised there were so many until an American journalist pointed it out,” he admits “Why were there so many? I think it’s because there’s something slightly tragic and poignant about the relationship between humans and dogs – the way that they try to greet you but you can’t completely connect.”

Among the consequential dogs, which Reid hopes will thrill a new generation of fans, are lurcher Molly ,“a dog of the Night” and “a rare enough beast”; languid lap dog Leopold; and Flo, the wonderfully philosophical foxhound whose “powerful mind works all the time/on problems mundane and sublime/…Like: What are shoes for?/If not to chew? And: Why are dog biscuits always too few?”

“The poems were very vivid to me as I wrote them – I describe it as though one by one the dogs lined up and instead of asking to be taken for a walk they were asking to be taken for a poem,” he says, adding that his main ambition is for children to hear them.

“I think that when kids hear somebody reading a poem they grow wide-eyed and their imaginations are set free. In my experience they always make more of it, doing their own thinking and imagining. It would be wonderful if a child read the book and then said why isn’t there a spaniel? To which I would say write your own spaniel poem and off they would go to do that.”

He describes his book as “done with love, respect and a bit of cheek – most certainly a homage”, and says he was determined to avoid simply copying Eliot’s work – “although I did adhere closely for The Naming of Dogs because I thought I should get that out of the way as a salute to Eliot before going off and doing what I wanted”. He was also keen not to stray into whimsy or sentimentality because “there’s nothing twee or cute or randomly silly about Eliot, his cats have full personalities and I wanted my dogs to be seen in the same way. I see the book as an expression of delight in dogs.”

An illustration from Old Toffer’s Book of Consequential Dogs.
Old Toffer’s Book of Consequential Dogs. Photograph: Elliot Elam / Faber & Faber

There were, however, inevitable differences. “While Eliot’s best cats are mischievous, uncontrollable and frankly villainous, dogs, on the other hand, are more trusting, beholden to humanity – they don’t take themselves as far from human beings as cats do.”

In spite of that Reid decided against including any humans in the book. “I did have a poem about ownership of dogs, but it didn’t fit the tone and by that point I was having to tell myself to stop, to be honest. I knew I had to trim it down and cut a few poems.”

As to whether he’d like to see Old Toffer’s Book of Consequential Dogs one day enshrined in musical theatre history alongside Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, Reid simply laughs. “It depends who the composer is … I’ll be long dead by then.”


Sarah Hughes

The GuardianTramp

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