Michael Ondaatje‘s The cat’s table (Cape, 2011) starts off like one of those boys’ adventure stories of old – and an entertaining one at that – but deepens grippingly as it progresses into a meditation on memory and on what matters in the becoming to what we become. It’s the early 1950s. Three boys aged 11 or 12 are voyaging with minimum adult supervision on the liner Oronsay from Colombo, in what was then Ceylon, to London, where Michael, the narrator, is to link up with a mother he’s afraid he won’t even recognise. High jinks as they explore, plot and delve. For meals Michael is seated at the Cat’s Table, the furthest – and therefore lowest in status – from the Captain’s Table, with some interesting adults who are also travelling alone; “It would always be strangers like them, at the Cat’s Tables of my life, who would alter me” he can reflect later. So there are no cats, though dogs do have a part to play in one of the unfolding dramas.
While Michael Ondaatje has played down suggestions that the novel is autobiographical, it does parallel the progress of his life; born Ceylon, educated in England (at the same school as Raymond Chandler), successful writer, long time Canadian resident. He has long been one of my favourite authors. Though best known for the award-winning The English patient (1992) it’s his first novel, Coming through slaughter (1976) and In the skin of a lion (1987) that top my list. The first is the best music novel I’ve ever read, elliptically unfolding and poetically relating the tragic rise and demise in the first decade of the twentieth century of New Orleans trumpeter Buddy Bolden, the charismatic but never recorded originator of that first great jazz style, while the second is a riveting tale of love and politically driven sabotage set in Quebec. He has also published several books of poetry and, as we shall see, it shows in the unique way he uses language in his novels, of which The Cat’s Table is only his sixth.
There is a passage at the core of The Cat’s Table – the nighttime passing of the liner Oronsay through the Suez Canal (or rather El Suweis as the adult writer Michael resonantly calls it) – that is fit, I would submit, to stand alongside the Piper at the gates of dawn chapter of Kenneth Grahame‘s The wind in the willows without having to invoke the god Pan. Though they never really talk about it, and they soon lose contact once in England, the experience is crucial to the later fame of one of Michael’s young onboard friends’ success as an artist. What I was saying about Ondaatje being a poet: you could lay the so carefully weighted words out on the page as a poem and they’d be equally valid. Listen:
We were not active, but a constantly changing world slid past our ship, the darkness various and full of suggestion. Unseen tractors were grinding along the abutments. The cranes bent low, poised to pluck oner of us off as we passed. We had crossed open seas at twenty-two knots, and now we moved as if hobbled, at the speed of a slow bicycle, as if within the gradual unrolling of a scroll. (p175 pbk ed).
I remember still how we moved in that canal, our visibility muted, and those sounds that were messages from shore, and the sleepers on deck missing this panorama of activity. We were on the railing bucking up and down. We could have fallen and lost our ship and begun another fate – as paupers or as princes. (p177)
It’s magical prose, and that has always been his trademark; he takes you there. There is so much more to be enjoyed in The Cat’s Table, so many characters among the men and women they are befriended by or just meet. There is great poignancy in Michael’s growing awareness and a brief lyrical episode of simple physical contact with comforting cousin Emily. There is excitement too, of course, in the boys’ adventures on board and the mystery and drama of the prisoner in chains, and intrigue of a different kind in the oblique relating of Michael-in-the-book’s subsequent life leading to the writing of this book. Which, even though my pile of unread books is high, I shall almost certainly be reading again at bit further down the line.
One of us was desperately reading the tea leaves for omens. Southend United were bringing 30,000 fans, had lost two previous Johnstone Paint Trophy finals (or whatever it was called back then), and it was their first time at Wembley. Crewe Alexandra could only muster just over 10,ooo and it was their second time at the Stadium inside a year. On the other hand Crewe were a division above and the form team, I was unbeaten at Wembley, we went in their ‘lucky’ gate and – the clincher – one of us (hi Sal!) had her photo taken with Gresty, Crewe’s cuddly leonine mascot. So the scene was set. Whereas last year we were sat sweltering in the blazing May sun, this year, still on the same side, we could relax in the gentle, welcome and welcoming warmth (finally) of that so far this year seldom seen solar life and light giver; while the vastly outnumbering Southend lot – we felt a little sorry for them – were stuck in the shade.
Crewe started well, their passing game instantly in place and playing like they owned the park. They scored in the sixth minute, a beautifully worked corner: Davis stepping over the flatly delivered ball to the edge of the area for captain Murphy to stride up and hit a beauty. Mark and I turned to one another, mouthed “Training ground” and so it proved to be. Southend, big and strong, winning pretty much everything in the air, came back and were particularly dangerous at corners; Crewe needed a second goal. They got it five minutes into the second half after a fine passing move finished off by teenage striker Max Clayton and while it remained a contest – Crewe keeper Steve Phillips was a significant presence – the longer it went on the less likely an upset became. At the time we thought giving Max Clayton ‘Man of the Match’ was an odd decision given the midfield, in particular Arsenal loanee Chuks Aneke had worked hard, but watching the edited highlights on telly later that night it made sense; the lad has class and his movement was revealed holding a lot more threat close up, with a neat touch. Good game, very satisfying afternoon; thanks S & M.
A solid night’s Scribal for March. A thoughtful and varied set of poems covering a lot of ground from featured poet and Scribal regular, Alan Bainbridge, while featured music act Ernest Herb sat at a couple of keyboards, hit and stroked some keys , twiddled a few knobs, and sang a bit, covered a broad range of musics – I’m sure I heard Graham Bond on the Hammond organ on his best number – and finished suitably with a Bob Marley song. Open mic of usual high standard, no ifs or buts this time (though I can’t possibly comment on myself). Biggest cheer of the night was for a storming version of an unlikely cover for Scribal – Taylor Swift’s We are never ever getting back together from The Last Quarter,who are certainly waxing, not waning. Go, Nicky, Go!