Thursday, February 11, 2010

They call me Mate, they call me Young Man, they call me Sir, they call me Babber...

... that's not my name.

The final poem in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats poses a serious and important question: “How would you ad-dress a Cat?”

After the tales of  Growltiger, Macavity, Mr Mistoffelees, Skimbleshanks and the Rum Tum Tugger, T.S. Eliot discusses the propriety and good manners of talking to creatures of the notoriously stand-offish feline persuasion.

(Just had a thought – someone could make a musical out of Old Possum and his cats. The cast would dress up in stripy cat costumes, there’d be lots of catchy tunes, it’d make a fortune. What? Oh.)

Anyway, after some intense metaphysical speculation about the difference between cats and dogs (“A CAT IS NOT A DOG” – Wittgenstein would have been proud of that one) Eliot comes to the conclusion that if you’re being polite, you address the relevant moggy as  “O CAT!”

If you’re on more familiar terms then you can try “OOPSA CAT!”

And if you give the cat enough nibbles, or noms as cool cats call them, “in time you reach your aim, And finally call him by his NAME”.

Nice idea, Thomas Stearns. Although it doesn’t work for the Hairiest Cat in Christendom, who slummocks around our house all day and whose reaction to any attempt at intelligent communication is to dump another load of spare fluff all over the sofa.

But what happens about the ad-dressing of people in general, and the present writer in particular?

You walk into a bookshop. You pick up whatever slim volume you want to leave lying around the house for the next three months without opening, let alone reading. You get to the front of the queue and the assistant calls you “Mate”. It’s meant in a friendly way, no doubt, but you need to be pretty familiar with someone to call them “Mate” without it sounding just a little bit false. Unless you’re in Peckham, which you aren’t.

You visit a computer games shop and they call you “Dude”. Do you really look cool enough to be a dude? No: it’s just flummery, or corporate programming.

You step out of your front door and you happen to bump into the Mayor of Bath (yes, it does happen). He calls you “Young man.” A flattering thought, although it stretches the definition of the word “young” to breaking point when it’s applied to someone who won’t see the good side of 49 again.

Still, it’s better than being called “Old man”, which while close to the truth in this writer’s case sounds patronising in the extreme.

How about “Sir”? The trouble with that one is that it can be used with such a huge variety of nuances – from the respectful to the neutral to the downright sneering.

No, whatever T.S. Eliot may have thought about cats, the best bet if you don’t know someone’s name is probably just to keep quiet.

Although “Guv’nor” has quite a ring, come to think of it.

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