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Political mewsings

Cartoonist Ted Harrison takes a look at the history of cat cartoons

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A while back, when Larry was given the job of Downing Street mouser-in-chief, I found myself drawing a cartoon series for a Sunday newspaper. Described as the political mewsings of Larry it allowed me to imagine a cat’s eye view of the goings on behind the country’s most famous front door.

I realised I was following in a noble tradition of cat cartoonists, for cats have been a favourite subject for some 150 years.

The great Punch cartoonist Sir John Tenniel created the definite Cheshire Cat for Alice in Wonderland – the cat that slowly vanished leaving only its grin behind.

His life overlapped with the most celebrated cat cartoonist of all Louis Wain who made a living drawing cats with extraordinarily large eyes and very human characteristics. I remember my grandmother had a cat called after him. Louis Wain was certainly in the celebrity CATegory at the time. His work was widely reproduced as picture postcards, which are now keenly sought by collectors. They can be worth up to £50 each and a Louis Wain ceramic cat designed for an Austrian manufacturer fetched over £8000 at a recent auction.

There are of course celebrated cartoon cats as well as cat cartoonists. Top Cat and Garfield are two of the most recognizable.  Although some cat cartoons have not endeared themselves to cat lovers. Simon Bond’s book ‘101 Uses for a Dead Cat’ was very funny, but in the worst possible taste.

Cats have enigmatic faces and the art, for a cartoonist, in drawing cats is to focus on the eyes. Think of Garfield’s heavy-lidded eyes and the way subtle changes are used to convey all the expression. So it was with Larry. Not a specially beautiful or conspicuous cat, but the eyes could tell all. A meaningful look to right or left could make a telling political point. He could also eavesdrop. Politicians can be wildly indiscrete if they think they are not being overheard. But a sleeping cat in a Prime Minister’s office hears everything, even the secrets of state.

A cat too is a self-important creature. Clearly to Larry the policeman on duty outside Number 10 is there for the sole purpose of letting him in or out.

Of course Larry had to work for his living. Keeping the rodents in check was his responsibility. From all accounts he hasn’t done his job very well. There are still plenty of rats in politics. The human ones can be voted out of office, but Larry will carry on until he retires. No new incumbent of Number 10 would dare sack him.

Ted Harrison is a writer and artist who divides his life between the two places he calls home - West Wales and Shetland. He is a former BBC Radio 4 presenter and correspondent.

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