Philippa Sandall, Seafurrers: the Ships’ Cats Who Lapped and Mapped the World

Affirm Press, 2017, 244pp., ISBN: 9781925712155, h/bk, AUS $24.99

Matthew Flinders was onto something when he wrote his little treatise about his faithful cat Trim. He could not have foreseen that cats would one day take over the internet, or that they would inspire everything from merchandise to musicals.

Like Flinders, Australian author Philippa Sandall is indulging her love of cats with this original book. Her other books have focussed on nutrition, particularly sugar and the ‘glucose revolution’.

Feline witticisms abound from the title (a play on ‘seafarers’) to the ‘whiskipedia’ sub-sections. There is a cute double-meaning in the sub-title – the ships’ cats who lapped and mapped the world – both sitting on laps and circumnavigating the globe, as Trim did.

The book began as a blog – seafurrers.com – which helps to explain why the stories are succinctly arranged as historical ‘incidents’, which are drawn from a quote from an original source, such as a sailor’s journal or diary (references in the back of the book), and then commented on by Bart, a fictional cat named after the 15th century Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias Novais. This ruse of providing a ‘cat’s-eye view of maritime history’ gives agency to the animal at the centre of the book. The 38 maritime ‘incidents’ Sandall, sorry, Bart, describes, come from around the world and across six centuries of sailing. Readers will hail ‘Simon’, the hero of HMS Amethyst who was awarded the Dickin Medal (the animal’s Victoria Cross) in 1949 for keeping the rat population down despite having been injured by an exploding shell. They will chuckle at the lengths Henry Fielding’s captain went to in 1755 to rescue a kitten that fell overboard and the melancholy that descended on the ship’s crew when it appeared that the sodden moggie would not revive. Bart’s writing style is engaging and humorous – like a cat who got the cream.

The short chapters and informal writing style make the book accessible to literate children as well as adults. My 12 year old nephew enjoyed the chapter on the ghost ship (where the only survivors were three cats) but felt it read more like fiction than fact. The book would have been strengthened by more historical context – the stories are whimsical and informative, but might have been made even more interesting if they were grounded in a chapter about the history of cats on ships. I also felt the book was slightly unbalanced in terms of its choice of stories – I know cats are irresistibly cute and will do their best to make you adore them, but surely there are some accounts of ships where the cat’s presence was not welcomed or cats were unceremoniously discarded when they were no longer needed. Sandall’s book will lead you to believe that life on board ship was heaven for cats.

The illustrations in this quirky, feline, maritime miscellany add to its charm. Ad Long, a self-confessed landlubber, has cat-ified images in the public domain and certainly has a sense of humour. They are affectionate examples of cats as mascots and mates. He also illustrates the Seafurrers blog and writes for The Guardian and crime fiction when he’s feline-fine. The other illustrations are maps and historic photographs, all of which are referenced in the back of the book.

While there is no shortage of delightful books for feline-lovers, Seafurrers should find its way into many a Christmas stocking.

Reviewed by Alison Wishart, October 2018.

Visit the publisher’s website here:http://affirmpress.com.au/publishing/seafurrers/

and the Seafurrers blog here: http://seafurrers.com/

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