MOSTLY TRUE


Some said they would come back as horses, my husband thought he could be a giraffe, most said they’d be some sort of cat; but I noticed that no one chose the dog, and I don’t know why.

The horse, by tradition, lives outdoors rain or shine and gets sat upon by people large and sometimes larger. I asked my husband why a giraffe, and he thought it would be nice to look over high fences. I wonder if this is indicative of some sort of perverse peeping Tom syndrome. The cat people are nice for the most part, though prone to play hide and seek often, and I was never any good at that game, because I’d always make enough noise so they would be sure to find me. When they got to me I chose the dog because I can’t imagine a life without dogs, and dogs know about things children and old people need.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that there are no guard giraffes or cats, though cats sometimes earn their keep by good will hunting. The various ways a dog hunts is not always with good will. Watching a Border Collie at work shows how it should be done; shoulders hunched, eyes squinted, a crawl on the belly while eyeballing the sheep, a quick dart, and the race is on. A Jack Russell Terrier, on the other hand, feels he needs to shout at them until they submit to him. He cannot be deterred from the chase, though to my knowledge never catches sight of his prey.

Do we as humans, carry similar animal traits? If a dog, I could choose to emulate our old German Shepherd or now, in later life, perhaps our Old English Sheepdog. In the first choice, I could be alert, a little intimidating, loyal and protective. As a Sheepdog I could just take it slow and easy and enjoy life while waiting for my next meal. I could do that.

I wonder if I was a Jack Russell as a young woman—barking a lot but not accomplishing much. On the other hand, Jack Russells are very smart, very intuitive. I WAS a fast learner, and my father told me I had good common sense, so that’s a plus. I was low maintenance and put up a good appearance. I was great at parties and never embarrassed myself or my hostess, which is unlike the JRT I know who would enliven the party too much and has been known to do so. Which is why there are places for dogs and people like that.

When I die perhaps I’ll come back as a tree. It’s much less complicated.

TOBERMORY REVISITED


cat

The cat is the perfect subject for a Saki story. There is something catlike about many of his young protagonists; urbane, poised, a bit smug, and yet underneath it all, a feral streak. So it comes as no surprise that Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916), better known by his pen name “Saki”, wrote a wonderful cat story. “Tobermory” (1911). Even better, it’s about a cat who was taught to talk.

Talking cats go back a long time in English literary curiosities. But Saki puts his own stamp on this small but rewarding genre of animal tales. A man named Cornelius Appin has managed to teach a cat, Tobermory,to talk. The cat belongs to his friends, the Blemleys, and it is at Mrs. Blemley’s house party that Appin reveals that he has managed to teach Tobermory the power of speech. At first, the party guests are naturally incredulous, but when Sir Wilfred Blemley fetches Tobermory in from a neighboring room, it soon becomes clear to everyone present that Tobermory has indeed learned to talk.

The guests begin asking Tobermory questions; whether he’d like some milk (yes) was it difficult learning human language (he doesn’t deign to answer that one) , and what he thinks of human intelligence. The woman who asks this last question, Mavis, gets more than she bargained for, with Tobermory replying that he overheard the Blemleys discussing Mavis, and Sir Wilfrid described Mavis a a ‘brainless woman’, (his wife agreed, adding that Mavis was so idiotic that she’d agreed to buy a useless old car off Lady Blemley.)

Seeking to change the subject, another guest, Major Barfield, asks Tobermory about his ‘affairs’ with the ‘stable cat’. Tobermory turns the question around, asking the Major how he would like it if Tobermory told everyone about his affairs, implying that Tobermory knows all about the Major’s extramarital dalliances.) Fearing that Tobermory knows all about their lives, and will expose all their darkest secrets, the guests begin to grow nervous. Tobermory goes on to reveal that one of the guests had admitted that she had only come to the Blemleys party for the food, and she found them dull company. Before he can cause any more embarrassment among the guests, Tobermory spies an old adversary of his, the tomcat from the nearby Rectory, outside, and in a flash he vanishes through the open French window.’

black cat

After he’s gone, the Blemleys discuss what to do about Tobermory, that he cannot be kept alive now he’s acquired this new gift of speech – as he’ll reveal everyone’s secret – they resolve to have him destroyed by lacing the food scraps Tobermory eats with some strychnine. However, although Tobermory dies, he meets his end not by ingesting the poison but by being mortally wounded in a fight with his deadly enemy, the big Tom from the Rectory. Cornelius Appin, the man who had taught Tobermory to speak, tries to impart his teachings to an elephant in the Dresden Zoo, but the elephant. evidently not in a hurry to learn about verbs and nouns, lashed out and killed him.

Tobermory is arguably one of the funniest short stories in the English language, partly because it is about exposing the hypocrisy of those upper middle class people whom Saki, in some of his other short stories, deems ‘respectable’ (the adjective is not meant to be taken as a compliment). Everyone is two-faced at the Blemleys’ party, except for Tobermory, who tells the truth. This gives him his power, like the child protagonists in Saki’s other classic stories, The Lumber Room, and Gabriel-Ernest, and Sredni Vashtar. He cuts through the adult world of lies and ‘respectability’ exposing it for the sham it is. For doing so, he has to die, but even here he eludes the deceitful adults’ plan to poison his food. He dies a hero, vanquished but with his dignity and integrity intact.

Critics have analysed ‘Tobermory’ as a satire on various political groups who were active at the time, chiefly the female suffragette movement. But this seems unlikely, or, if it was really his intent, it is barely evident in the story, where male and female guests at the party are exposed for all sorts of social hypocrisies, and political issues are not touched upon. It seems to make more sense to interpret the story as an attack on hypocrisy itself, with Saki firmly siding with the animal, as he always does, (or in some stories with the child character.) First and foremost we shouldn’t forget that the story is delightfully funny, not just because of its fantastical concept of a talking cat, but because it shows ‘civilised’ society (which always uttered with a wry sneer in Saki’s stories) as, fundamentally, something of a sham. It is the still-faintly-feral Tobermory, in his scrap with the Rectory tomcat, who is the real-thing. Even leaning to talk in the manner of the ‘respectable’ adults cannot make him forget this.