Nicola Bayley & William Mayne
The Patchwork Cat
Puffin Books 1984 (1981)
This picture book is both a delightful and a painful work to review. First the delight.
The text of The Patchwork Cat strikes a wonderful balance between using simple repetitious wording suitable for reading aloud to the preliterate child and pure prose poetry. Tabby the cat sleeps on a quilt. It is patchwork, like herself. She loves it. It’s the relationship she has with the quilt and with the milkman that form the focus of the narrative. “Oh milkman, milkman,” she says, “you can come and live at my house any time.” All is going well until the moment when she cannot find the patchwork quilt, her matching patchwork quilt.
“Ah,” says the mother, “we have done some snatchwork on your patchwork. We have thrown it out because it is so very dirty, and we shall buy a basket.”
Tabby does not want a basket. She will do some angry scratchwork on it if it comes.
She eventually finds it in the dustbin, where she falls asleep until rudely awakened by the rubbish truck, and then her woes are compounded. How will she find her way back from the rubbish tip, and what will become of the discarded patchwork quilt?
This was a favourite story for our kids when they were growing up. Or at least it was one of our favourite stories to read to them. The wonderful narrative from calm to jeopardy and back again is suffused with internal rhymes and natural rhythms. We still quote Tabby’s morning call of “Good morning, good yawning,” which bookends the tale.
But the words are beautifully complemented by the illustrations. (Or is it the other way round?) Cat people will recognise the truth embodied in both the line drawings and the colour illustrations with which artist Nicola Bayley has embellished the text. Words and black-and-white images are on the left, exquisite colour paintings (in which one can almost see every hair, every stitch) are on the right. The expressions that cat owners read in the eyes of a feline — ranging all the way from hurt to contentment — are subtly portrayed in Bayley’s pictures, along with fascinating details which the eye of the listener will eagerly scan while the words wash over them.
And now the moment has come to carry out a painful duty. I had great fondness for Mayne’s work in children’s literature when I was growing up — in fact I still have The Twelve Dancers (1962) and Earthfasts (1966) on my shelves — so I was distressed to find only recently that he was imprisoned and put on the sex offenders register in 2004 for indecently assaulting young girls in the 60s and 70s. In 2010 he was found dead at his home, an ignominious end to a distinguished literary career. Is it ever possible or permissible to praise what good an individual has done without condoning in any way what evil they may also have committed?