14 August 2023

If you get gloomy just take an hour off…

If you get gloomy just take an hour off…

Verses and poetry, I have to admit, are not my thing. But as luck would have it, my friend Robert Hyde of Galileo Publishing (famous for publishing my literary discovery, Thelen’s Island of Second Sight, has just brought out a new edition of “archy and mehitabel”, and proudly presented me with a copy.* No, I had never read any of it, I had to admit, somewhat embarrassed. But I did have a faint recollection that when I first started to write my cat Koschka’s blog during the pandemic, our Solutions Architect, Guylaine, sent me an extract from “the song of mehitabel”, mentioning the author’s name, Don Marquis. Sadly, as so often, I was too busy then to take the plunge.

But now I had archy and mehitabel thrust in my hands and, needless to say, I was totally captivated as soon as I saw it. The front cover shows a cat in a coconut-like boat, floating past the pyramids in Egypt, and  looking very wizened. “I was Cleopatra once”, she claims.

And what a feline she is, “toujours gai”, a streetwise alley cat, a dancer given to amorous adventures and a loose life-style we’re told, but every inch a lady nevertheless, even in her mature years when having a litter of kittens is a nuisance rather than fun. She has had what archiy describes an an extensive past. Not for her the life of a tame tabby who is someone’s pet, oh no: the life I led was the life I liked and there s a pep in the old dame yet.

Don Marquis (Donald Robert Perry Marquis, 1878-1937) was an American author, poet, playwright and journalist-newspaper man, who in the 1920s worked successfully for various papers in New York. Marquis first introduced archy and methitabel in 1916 and these two have been immensely popular ever since, providing the inspiration for plays and musicals … and making the author a household name.

The real hero of the collection of verses is archy, the witty, whimsical cockroach, hugely cynical and humorous. Make no mistake, before he found himself reincarnated in the lowly form of a cockroach, he too used to walk the earth in a different guise. In fact he was the medieval poet and troubadour, Francois Villon.

Archy types up the missives to his boss on a rickety old-style typewriter, but due to his diminutive size and weight he cannot keep the shift key down, so all his output is in lowercase, with no apostrophes or question marks either. I can’t quite figure out how he manages to achieve the carriage return …, but that, archy says, are technical details, when the main question is whether the stuff is literature or not.

It is most definitely literature, and it is philosophy and social criticism – all of that. Archy’s musings cover a wide spectrum of topics, including the injustice of the universe, unemployment,  prohibition as well as the disadvantages of not being handsome and the ‚corrupting influence of the great city‘. He has a sarcastic outlook on life in general and on the way humans have organized themselves:

the bees got their
governmental system settled
millions years ago
but the human race is still

and on mankind:

two legged animal called
man who is genuinely
puzzled as to whether
his grandfather was a god
or a monkey

One recurring concern is the fate that he and mehitabel share – the fact that they both inhabit a humble body that is way below their station. The fact that they are both trapped in the wrong bodies that in no way do justice to their ambitions. But they are both survivors, they both are high-spirited and feisty in their own way and against all the odds. Fearless mehitabel has the additional disadvantage of being of female gender at the mercy of males, a situation which she curses:

it isn t fair
these damned tom cats have all
the fun and freedom

Nor does she relish repeated motherhood:

archy she says to me
the life of a female
artist is continually
hampered what in hell
have i done to deserve
all these kittens

Part of the charm of this cult classic collection of poems are no doubt the brilliantly congenial illustrations by George Herriman (1880-1944), an American comic artist and caricaturist, who is best known for Krazy Kat. Originally a daily comic strip, from 1916 Herriman started writing 1-page short stories featuring Krazy Kat and Ignatz (the mouse), and in the same year the first Krazy Kat film was produced (the first animated cat in cinematography).

Last but not least, Galileo’s publication of archy and mehitabel is greatly enhanced by its introduction, written by Simon Callow (actor, director, writer). I don’t always appreciate forewords (often find them pompous) – but this one is captivating and passionate, beautifully written. A chef d’oeuvre in itself. Not having read the book, when asked to write the introduction to it, this is what Callow says: “Two pages was enough to tell me that I had in my hands a book that might have been written expressly for my delight. I cursed the nearly 70 years I had wilfully spent without it in my life.”

All I can say is: Don’t let that happen to you, this is a book that you will want to dip into time and time again. Take archy’s advice:

If you get gloomy just
take an hour off and sit
and think how
much better this world
is than hell



* https://galileopublishing.co.uk/archy-and-mehitabel/

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