Larry Kryske, Churchill’s Cat: A Feline Remembrance. Plano, Tex.: Homeport Publishing, 2019, 226 pages, paperback, $12.99, Kindle $3.99. Excerpted from “Jock, the Intelligent Cat,” a review for the Hillsdale College Churchill Project. For the original article, click here. To subscribe to weekly articles from Hillsdale-Churchill, click here, scroll to bottom, and fill in your email in the box entitled “Stay in touch with us.” Your email address is not given out and remains a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
More than a Cat, Jock was a Diarist
Churchill’s Cat is neither a “juvenile” for young readers nor a venture into fantasy (apart from requiring you to accept that cats think about more than mice). Naturally, it appeals to cat lovers and Churchillophiles, especially those of both persuasions. But it also offers what few books do: a unique insight to Churchill in very old age, 88 to 90, when his stately ship of life, as President Kennedy said, was anchored in tranquil waters.
Marmalade cats answering to “Tango” or “Mr. Cat” had lived at Chartwell long before the Second World War. The most famous was Jock, presented to Sir Winston in on his 88th birthday in London by longtime private secretary John Colville. Jock died in 1974 aged 12, the feline equivalent of 84. Since then, an orange cat has by custom resided on the grounds. The incumbent is Jock VII, installed 2020—acquired like his predecessors from an RSPCA animal rescue center.
Larry Kryske has provided Jock I with a translator and a publisher, offering a charming insight into Churchill’s life. He asks you only to suspend disbelief and accept that cats are people, too.
Notably, Jock never refers to WSC as “my master,” but rather as “my human.” Among the familiar Churchill lines is the famous reminder: “Dogs look up to you, cats look down at you, but pigs treat you as an equal.” “Do you look down on me, Jock?” Churchill asks. No, Jock thinks. Theirs is a partnership of equals.
The paperback is easily read in a few evenings and laden with lines many will recall. The chapter titles, for instance, are mostly the titles of Churchill books. Other titles are from famous Churchill quotes: “These are great days… Keep right on to the end of the road… All will be well.”
Inevitably, Jock travels from London to Chartwell. That chapter is appropriately entitled, “The New World” (Volume 2 of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples.) Like his human, Jock spends most of his time in the Kentish countryside.
The cat’s-eye view is entrancing: “Chartwell stood like a novel among a bookcase of non-fiction.… It was symbolic of existence itself—a fish in water, a bird in the air, Winston Churchill at Chartwell…. This cherished place was a glory personified.” Rather insightful for a cat. (I told you he was intelligent.)
Of course, Jock the writer succumbs to cat-like priorities. “Just look at this majestic view,” says WSC. “the Weald of Kent—there is no finer view in all England.” (That was from his father, Lord Randolph, arriving for the first time with his fiancé Jennie at Blenheim Palace.) But Jock is not impressed. “I’m not as influenced by scenic beauty. I am more curious about what tasty creatures live among the bushes.”
Jock overhears interesting conversations—fictitious, some of them. The most profound are with Lady Churchill. Alas Clementine is in hospital being treated for exhaustion when their daughter Mary brings news that their eldest daughter Diana had taken her own life. Sir Winston “was too overwhelmed with sadness to speak. For the second occasion in his life, he had outlived a daughter.”
Here Kryske captures what most reporters ignore: the great man’s melancholy in twilight. Clementine reminds him of all the good he had accomplished. Winston Churchill feels only remorse. “I have profound misgivings about the future. Our leaders are more concerned with appearance than substance. Grave dangers lie before us. Who will be the voice in the wilderness now?” Does that say anything to us in 2023? I fear so.
Reminded of how he had once risen to be a desperately needed voice, Churchill can only say: “Those were stirring times. But now they’re relegated to history books, as am I.” He repeats the lines of Thomas More (“Oft, in the Stilly Night”) that he first recalled visiting the Fleet in 1939. He was again First Lord of the Admiralty, the post he’d “quitted in pain and sorrow” almost exactly 25 years before:
I feel like one
Who treads alone
Some banquet-hall deserted,
Whose lights are fled,
Whose garlands dead,
And all but he departed!
There is solid history here too, as there only can be from an author steeped in knowledge of the saga. Jock the cat notices how visits from Field Marshal Montgomery cheer Sir Winston. Together they share old photos. It takes a veteran Churchillian to describe a 1917 photo that showed them both—with WSC’s secretary Eddie Marsh—during the Great War. “And there I am,” says Monty proudly, “a dapper lieutenant-colonel…. That’s probably the first picture taken of us together.” It was.
The last chapter is of course “Triumph and Tragedy.” The world saw his death as a tragedy. Sir Winston Churchill saw it as blessed relief. Jock the cat captures the moment:
I leaped onto an empty bed, the darkened room surrounded by flickering candles. He wasn’t lying there any longer. Why not? Just off the foot of the bed sat a strange, elevated box. I walked over to it. Winston was lying inside the box…. I looked down at his still, white face. He looked serene, indeed peaceful…. I yowled with pain…leaped out of the box onto his bed, then out of his bedroom, never to return.
Anyone attracted by the magnitude and character of Churchill will profit by this book. The words of a cat, perhaps, but they are words of deep understanding.
Jock the cat captures the pain, the joy, the ethos.