Friday, 26 October 2012

Dick Whittington and His Cat: (or The Magic of Cats)

by Nick Green

Turn again, Whittington, Lord Mayor of London!
Turn again, Whittington, thrice Mayor of London!

Is ‘Dick Whittington and his Cat’ really a fairytale? I’m going to call it one. Even though there is no actual magic (but see below), most of the ingredients are there: the poor and naive youth, the quest, the hardship, and at least a semi-supernatural element in the prophecy of the Bow Bells, calling the young Whittington back from Highgate Hill. I would argue that ‘Dick Whittington’ is not just a fairytale, but a particularly interesting one, being the only one (to my knowledge) that features a real person.

The historical Richard Whittington, of course, was Lord Mayor a total of four times (but legend ignores that as it doesn’t scan). Also, he was never particularly poor, and no-one knows if he really kept a cat. According to my diligent academic research (Wikipedia), the story’s origins lie further back, in a Persian folktale of a youth and his cat, onto which the legend of Whittington was later grafted. We can only guess the reason for this, but by all accounts Richard W was an all-round good egg and probably deserved it.

DW and C (as I shall write henceforth) is a simple enough yarn. A young lad comes to London seeking his fortune, following a rumour that the streets are paved with gold. Of course, they aren’t, and he ends up as a scullery boy. But his master is a merchant, and offers a place on his ship for anything that Dick might want to sell. All Dick has is his beloved cat, so reluctantly he sends that. Then, despairing of his fortune and missing his cat, Dick runs away, only to be checked on the edge of the city by the calling of the Bow Bells, who seem to be foretelling his future. He will become Lord Mayor of London, not once, but three times. Dick turns back, and arrives at his master’s house to astonishing news. The King of Barbary (whose kingdom is plagued by rats and mice) has bought his cat for a huge sum of gold. Dick’s fortune in made, and his destiny set in motion.

It’s a heartwarming story, but what makes it a fairytale? Someone being elected to high office three times isn’t a fairytale – that’s Margaret Thatcher. Even the prophetic bells aren’t really enough to elevate this story to the level of fairytale. There has to be another element that makes it so enduring.

Let’s face it. It’s the cat.

Think of the story of DW and C, and it’s always the same image: the youth treading the roads with his belongings in a sack on a stick, and a cat trotting faithfully beside him. If that animal were a dog, you’d have no story. ‘Dog follows human’ is not news. ‘Cat walks with human’ is the stuff of legend (unless your name is Jackie Morris). And the cat is what people remember. I mentioned before that no cats are recorded in the life of the historical Richard Whittington – and yet the creature still keeps popping up in tantalising glimpses, much as you’d expect a cat to do. In his will, Whittington ordered the rebuilding of Newgate Prison, and over one of the gates you could find the carving of a cat. Later, in 1572, Whittington’s heirs presented a chariot with a carved cat to the Merchants’ Guild. And in front of the Whittington Hospital, on Highgate Hill where Dick was said to have turned around, the cat keeps watch in the form of a statue. Despite all his philanthropy and good works – not to mention his real, provable existence – Whittington’s perhaps-mythical cat has effortlessly outlasted him. It’s not fair, is it?

In the story, it’s the cat that fills the role normally occupied in a fairytale by magic. It manages this even though it does nothing extraordinary – it doesn’t talk or dress up like the animal in Puss In Boots, it just goes around being a very good mouser and Dick Whittington’s dearest friend. In short, it does what any cat does. Because what a cat does, is magic.

This idea is at the heart of my own series of books, 'The Cat Kin'. In this, a group of London children join a class where they learn to move, see, hear and fight like cats. The art of ‘pashki’ is entirely my invention, but such is the universal appeal and mystery of cats that many readers ask if pashki is in fact real, or based in reality. Indeed, if you search the web, you can find claims that it is (and I didn’t put them there). Like Whittington’s cat, pashki seems to want to have a life of its own. Cats, for whatever reason, continue to exert their mystical fascination over us human beings.

One final reason why I love the story of Dick Whittington and his Cat, is that it’s a great parable for an aspiring writer. Dick follows a bright dream initially, only to be bitterly disappointed, giving up and turning away from it. And then, when all seems lost, he is called back to his struggle with the promise of a great reward – a threefold reward. And since I’m just now publishing the third book in the Cat Kin trilogy, you could say that this ending rings a bell for me too.

It was difficult to get Nick Green to tell me enough about himself for me to make a decent go of  introducing him.  I suspect him of being the kind of guy who refuses to part with information even when tied to the chair in the underground room, with the water rising around him and the candle-flame slowly burning through the cord holding the anvil suspended over his head.  Out of sheer bloody-mindedness, no doubt.

At any rate, after applying a good deal of pressure I managed to extract only this:  Nick is the second oldest and second tallest of four brothers, and the only one who isn’t ginger.  It was while working for a children’s book club that he made the rash decision to start writing books as well as selling them.  He read English at Edinburgh University, and now lives in Hertford with his wife and an itinerant population of cats.

Fortunately, I have other sources of information. I first heard of Nick’s debut novel ‘ The Cat Kin’ because it was news.  Nick self-published the book believing in its worth: and he was absolutely right.  After it was reviewed in The Times by Amanda Craig, who called it ‘a gripping adventure’, it was bought by Faber & Faber.  Nick was writing the sequel, there was going to be a trilogy, and everyone seemed to be talking about it.  What brilliant success!  I whizzed out and bought a copy… and was entranced. 

It’s a classic children’s adventure story with a fantasy/sci-fi twist: Two inner-city kids, Ben and Tiffany, each living tough lives, join an after-school gym class run by a strange woman called Mrs Powell who teaches the lost Ancient Egyptian art of ‘pashki’ – moving and sensing like a cat.  Soon Ben, Tiffany and the rest of their class are leaping over London’s rooftops, slipping near-invisibly through the streets – and about to need all nine of their new lives as they discover the very dark deeds taking place in the old factory with the chimney like a wizard’s tower, visible from Ben’s apartment block.

And there was a dark side to the success story of Nick’s publication, too.  Despite many good reviews, despite the fact that by this time Nick had written the sequel, Faber & Faber decided not, after all, to go ahead with publishing this second volume, ‘Cat’s Paw’. A crushing blow. 

Bloodied but unbowed, Nick decided that this left him with only one thing to do – self-publish ‘Cat’s Paw’, and be damned to 'em. Which he did.  And lo! in the best of fairytale traditions courage and tenacity, allied to faith and talent, paid off.  ‘The Cat Kin’ was republished by Strident Publishing along with its sequel ‘ Cat’s Paw’, and the final book of the trilogy, 'Cat's Cradle' is being published this very Hallowe'en.  I'm really looking forward to reading it.  

Picture credits: 
Nick Green
Dick Whittington on Highgate Hill:  by Gustave Doré: 'London, A Pilgrimage'
The Dick Whittington Stone at Highgate
Whittington and His Cat: mid 19th century print, courtesy of SpitalfieldsLife (where you can find the story of Blackie, the last cat of Spitalfields Market).


  1. The fact that the cat appeared so early in statues, etc, connected with DW, suggests, to me at least, that the story had already passed into folklore and perhaps his euros thought they might as well go along with it.

    There's a sort-of similar story in the 19th century collection "Taes From The Fjeld", called"The Honest Penny" whee the boy is kicked out of home for giving away stuff when they Lready have very litte, and sends the cat with his merchant master as in DW, with similar results, except there IS magic, because the master finds the cat back on his ship after selling it, so manages to sell it three times! :-)

  2. That's "heirs" not euros, " where" not whee, "little" and "already".

  3. Purr - waiting for Cat's Cradle!

  4. wow, i love this topic you are writing on... cats and the magic they create just being themselves! I also made a post in my witchy blog about black cats particularly. something close to that of yours:) Anna

  5. I don't like Dick Whittington - he sold his cat! That puts me right off him.
    But I've several times drunk in his old manor house, which is now the Whittington Inn -