Scratch and Co. – The great cat expedition

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Read 10/02/2019-13/02/2019

Rating 3 stars

This is a curious little book, written in 1968 and apparently satirising mountaineering literature. I’ve never read any mountaineering literature, so I can’t comment on that. I bought it on holiday in the Lake District, because I like to read books set in the places I visit.

Molly Lefebure has a range of books to her name, including biographies of poets, war novels, children’s books and books about the Lake District. Scratch and Co doesn’t fully fit into any of those genres. I thought at first that it might be a children’s book, because it’s illustrated and the protagonists are anthropomorphised cats, rabbits, dogs and a mongoose. Perhaps even a little bit Beatrix Potter. Not even in 1968, though, would a children’s book allow for the main characters to be almost constantly boozing on catnip, foxglove brandy and bleaberry wine.

It’s the tale of a group of mountaineering cats who set out to scale the Highest Known Peak in Catdom, known to humans as Scafell Pike. Illustrated by Alfred Wainwright in the style of one of his walking guides, the expedition starts in Seathwaite and passes through Stockley Bridge. The cats get last minute supplies from the Post Office in Grange. Some of the rabbit porters are from Borrowdale. Each of these villages lie south of Keswick along the River Derwent, on the approach to Scafell Pike. I only own Wainwright’s guide to the Eastern Fells, so I couldn’t compare his illustrations in Scratch and Co with those for his guide to the Southern Fells. I’m guessing that they’re still accurate, though.

Very much of its time, the book features characters reminiscent of the sitcoms by Roy Clarke, David Croft, Jimmy Perry and their like. There’s a fusty old ex-army leader, a mild mannered former teacher, a food obsessive, a pair of sarcastic young’uns, a medic and two contrasting journalists. Attitudes are full of prejudice – against the young, against different species of animal, against women. There’s also a troublesome Punjabi servant in the form of Ranjit Singh who makes tiffin for his journalist boss, Manx Scoop, and on first appearance is described as looking ill-tempered. I found his characterisation troublesome, anyway.

I had to look past these attitudes to focus on the story. The cats are aided in their expedition by the rabbit porters I’ve mentioned, who are experts at carrying equipment and provisions at lower levels, and who are also depicted as being a bit workshy unless kept in line by the administration of an umbrella to their backsides. There are plenty of references, too, to the cats holding off from baking them in a pie. At higher levels, the cats rely on the local Terriers, dogs who specialise in portering and guiding over difficult terrain, like the Sherpas in the Himalayas. The cats see themselves as superior to the dogs, despite being utterly reliant on them.

Among the cats as well as between the different species there’s teasing and tension, but when it comes down to it, they all work as a team and look out for one another. It’s a funny book and also very exciting at times. Lefebure’s descriptions of the weather and the landscape made me feel like I was there.

There’s jeopardy, too, especially when the foxes make their appearance and the weather takes a turn for the worst. Our heroes get taken for a ride by the foxes and then caught in a blizzard, and it’s touch and go whether they’ll survive.

There are surreal moments, as well, such as when two of the cats try to get a weather report from a sleeping butterfly who is revealed to have a thunderous voice out of keeping with his delicate form, and when the fusty old ex-army leader accidentally brews a pair of socks in a teapot then drinks it.

We’re heading up to the Lakes for a long weekend. I’m no climber anyway and, it being February, there’s no danger that I’ll suddenly decide to ascend Scafell Pike. I’ll keep an eye out for foxes on our rambles, though, and cats in climbing gear.

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