No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, September 28, 2007

#55: Trim: Being the True Story of a Brave Seafaring Cat -- Matthew Flinders

This good-natured purring animal was born on board His Majesty's ship the Roundabout in 1799 during a passage from the Cape of Good Hopeto Botany Bay; and saving the rights and titles of the parish of Stepney, was consequently an Indian by birth. The signs of superior intelligence which marked his infancy, procured for him an education beyond what is usually bestowed upon the individuals of his tribe; and being brought up amongst sailors, his manners acquired a peculiarity of cant which rendered them as different from those of other cats, as the actions of a fearless seaman are from those of a lounging, shame-faced ploughboy;
I bought this on spec: it's a neat little hardcover, about 50 pages long, and it was on offer in Nauticalia in Greenwich. I'm fond of ships' cats, and fascinated by the affection they often elicit from Navy and civilian sailors alike. In Trim, Flinders -- more generally known for circumnavigating Australia, a feat which he clearly couldn't have managed without Trim's help -- shows a warm and whimsical side of himself. Apparently the book was written while its author was held prisoner in Mauritius by the French. Flinders wanted to improve his prose, and his beloved cat had just disappeared (eaten, he was sure, by hungry slaves): the result is this touching little tribute.

Trim, named after a character in Tristram Shandy, was a proper seafaring cat. He was perfectly capable of swimming, and of catching hold of a rope-end, if he fell overboard. He invited himself to dine in the officers' mess, and his somewhat forward table manners (grabbing food off the fork of a lieutenant who was talking too much) were tolerated to a surprising degree. He did get a hiding for stealing meat from the larder, though. He took an interest in astronomical observations, scaled the rigging only when the order was given, and loved to chase musket balls around the deck.

Trim did not take to life on land, on one memorable occasion leaping straight through a sash window that somebody had inconsiderately left closed with him on the wrong side. Back at sea, though, he survived shipwreck and privation before his master's imprisonment: Flinders was prevailed upon to lend him to the young daughter of a French lady, but he strayed (or, given the character of the creature, escaped) and was never seen again.

Flinders is definitely writing half in jest when he lauds Trim's fine looks, bemoans his vanity, recounts his adventures &co: it's a gentle parody of the picaresque. But the affection he felt for his constant feline companion, and the clarity with which he conveys Trim's character, is timeless: it brings Flinders and Trim back to life.

There's a lovely page about Trim here, with a photo of the statue of Flinders, fine upstanding Navy chap, and his cat rubbing against his leg.
And the Maritime Museum have a delightful multimedia Trim page for children, here.

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