The cat and the quilt

“Tabby drags her patchwork quilt up to the gate. She will not let it go.” One of Nicola Bayley’s illustrations for The Patchwork Cat

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.

The reason?

“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.

Nicola Bayley and friend (image: Walker Books)

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?

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17 thoughts on “The cat and the quilt

  1. The delight part is beautiful. I have never seen or heard of this book and I think my daughter missed out. The painful duty, is very sad and having worked with someone for years who was the same and I never knew until I read something in a newspaper….. I truly do not understand why they do it, the person I knew was lovely and kind, it made me so sad. But anyway you can praise the wonderful work and feel great sadness for what happened to him and more so for his victims. I am not condoning what he did, I just do not understand why and why it still happens.

    1. It’s a real conundrum, isn’t it, Lynne? I’d ordinarily say when faced with decisions like this (to read or not to read — and further, to praise or not praise) is to go with gut feeling if you can’t go with your conscience. In this case, I think it’s made harder by our disgust with the damage it’s caused to the victims. No simple answers, I suspect.

  2. I have many of Mayne’s books and I bought most of them after I found out that he was a sex offender. I find I can separate his despicable and unforgivable actions from his work. I’m not sure what it says about me, but I realise I would have to stop reading quite a few of my favourite books if it depended on approving of the sort of people their authors were/are.

    1. That’s true. I think of musicians like Chuck Berry or Jerry Lee Lewis, and Wagner too, or artists like Caravaggio — should we stop listening to and approving their music or admiring their art because of their sexual proclivities or virulent prejudices or murderous propensities, or should their accomplishments stand on their own merits? And then there are all those anonymous medieval artists, craftsmen, musicians and so on who left us exquisite creations, of whom we know virtually nothing, who may have as easily been devils as angels.

  3. earthbalm

    An interesting post and a beautiful looking book. It’s difficult or impossible to comment without taking a moral standpoint. I feel it’s sufficient for me to say that there are ‘artworks’ (books, songs, paintings etc.) that I once loved that I can no longer see in the same light. I, personally, find it difficult to separate the art from the person but believe that everybody must make their own choice.

    1. Do you think it depends on the nature of the crime, or the individual’s sense of remorse, restitution and rehabilitation, or both? If you google ‘former convict author’ there are plenty of examples of, say, murderers, who have ‘made good’ since their release and been accepted by society.

      But there are also individuals like Rolf Harris, convicted of offenses following Operation Yewtree investigations, cleared of others but facing further charges in a few days time, who has become persona non grata but who has always proclaimed his innocence. I haven’t followed any of the cases, but in the last instance his musical output has been conspicuous by its absence in the broadcast media.

      As for Mayne, I shall be reviewing other titles of his, judging them on their own merits; that may possibly tell against me.

      1. earthbalm

        Yes, it’s a very complex and problematic issue and each case should be considered individually and with care. Mr Harris is a particular problem for me as without his “Sun Arise” (which was constantly played at home when I was a child) I might have a very different attitude to ‘World’ music. We also know that there have been miscarriages of justice and false accusations.

        1. ‘Yes’ to all you’ve said. Sun Arise was a genius single amongst much of the bland pop that was around at the time, and made a big impression on me, as with you. And I don’t judge, really, as I haven’t followed the cases nor seen the facts presented.

      2. earthbalm

        I tried to add a comment yesterday but for some reason, my Mac keyboard refused to type the letters r and l! Quite bizarre! I left the comment box and tried typing into Safari and – no problems! Very strange indeed!

        1. To ignobly stoop to utter stereotypes, maybe your Mac was made in Japan to have it confuse those particular letters?! But I wouldn’t stoop so low for the sake of a cheap joke …

  4. The illustrations are lovely Chris and the story sounds sensitively done. As the others have said, it’s a case of whether one can separate the work from the person. Sadly, I’ve found that these things do colour how I feel about a work – I can never hear Wagner’s music without associating it with his repellent personality and associations with anti Semitism, for instance. But that’s just my personality I suppose. The work is still lovely

    1. There’s that old psychological trick, isn’t there, where the speaker says something like “Now, when I talk about the next topic I want you to wipe your minds of any thoughts concerning a pink elephant wearing a tutu and riding a tricycle into the room…”

      And of course, that arresting image is all the listener can think about while the rest of the speech goes on. You can’t uninvent the hydrogen bomb, retrieve the cat when it’s out of the bag, put the genie back in the bottle, unsay a secret shared … well, you get the picture!

      It is indeed hard to separate in our minds the unacceptable things Mayne did from his positive creative achievements, or Wagner’s innovative music from his anti-Semitism, or indeed Richard Strauss’ efforts for musicians (including Jewish composers) from his collaboration and compromises with Nazism.

      Maybe we all have to compromise to a large extent — I know there are things my younger self has done or said that I am now ashamed of, but I’ve had to learn to forgive that person and not repeat the faults. It’s when there’s no recognition of wrongs done that it’s next to impossible to forgive.

      Now, I hope you’ve forgotten that pink elephant …

      1. Very true. We all make mistakes, do stupid things, hurt people. But most of us – hopefully – later realise that what we did was wrong and pehaps if we can, make amends. Not so some of the examples you’ve given there.
        I shall be thinking of pink elephants all afternoon now 🙂

  5. The cat book seems utterly delightful. I will seek a copy for the grandkids.

    As for the erring person, I would say that what is beautiful in a closet should not be thrown away just because there were despicably ugly things kept in the same place, as long as the beautiful ones are unsullied.

    If some of the scurrilous speculation directed at Dodgson was proven to be fact, would it then be wrong to admire his work as Carroll?

  6. What a treat. I didn’t know about this book. Yes, I do think you have to separate the person from the work. There are plenty examples of horrible people who were great artistts.

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