Mowzer and her human are old. Their families are grown. Mowzer and Tom live in their cottage, comfortable with each other’s company and their well-worn routines. Tom takes his fishing boat out and catches fish for Mowzer’s supper. One Winter, a great storm takes hold. Mowzer knows it is the great strom-cat, who plays with men on the sea as if they were mice. No boat can leave the safety of Mousehole harbour. In a community which relies on fish for its table, this is a disaster. The residents of Mousehole are left to starve.
Old Tom knows it is his duty to go out and fish. The young men have families. Mowzer accompanies him. She cannot imagine life without old Tom. Besides, she knows no human would stand a chance against the wrath of the Great Storm Cat.
Inspired by the Cornish legend of Old Tom Bawcock, The Mousehole Cat has become a primary school staple since traditional tales were written into the National Curriculum. It is a beautiful retelling. The cats in the story know more than their human counterparts. The reader is privy to this ‘secret’ – to the knowledge Mowzer has of the Great Storm-Cat. This is a legend within a legend, offering excellent scope for discussion about what legends do. Is the great storm-cat real, or are the cats explaining the storm through narrative? If so, what might the story of Tom Bawcock be about?
I came to the story through this video. Friends had recorded it from the television, (I kid you not, on a VHS,) alongside a documentary about the making of the film. Left to my own devices, I’m not certain it would have got back to our friends. I was delighted to find it on YouTube, many years later.
The text is poetic. In places, such as the list of Mowzer’s weekly menu, it lends itself to rereading. These sections fit in with the flow of the story, but they also become separate rhymes. This is ideal for young children. When learning to read, we gain confidence through repetition of favourite passages.
As a teenager, I spent a lot of time trying to reproduce the illustrations. None of these attempts survived – to memory, none were completed to my satisfaction. Regardless, the book remained a favourite beyond early childhood, and encouraged me to look closely at artwork.
My family have always had cats. I loved Nicola Bayley’s illustrations from three or four, when I met The Patchwork Cat. Since my late teens, I have collected her work. From The Mouldy to the animal cat books, to the wonder that is ‘The Necessary Cat’. When I’m in book haunts like Hay-on-Wye, Bayley’s name is always high in my mind. I would hazard a guess that this is one of a small number of books better known for its illustrator than it’s author. This is no criticism of the text, only a mark of how these pictures stay with you. A quick GoodReads search reveals Barber has written another cat story, and a couple more legends. I will get my paws on a couple of these and get back to you. If they are anything like The Mousehole Cat, they should be compulsory reading.
Tom Bawcock’s Eve is celebrated annually in Mousehole. It is a life’s ambition to visit during the celebrations.
Did you come to any books via TV or Video? Comment below. Would love to hear your thoughts. I understand this is a discussion new Children’s Laureate Lauren Child is keen to start.