At the foot of Highgate Hill in North London is a statue of Dick Whittington’s cat. The Dick Whittington story is a part of English folklore. It has been embellished over the centuries, and re-enacted through ballads, nursery rhymes, poetry, theater, pantomimes, and even puppet shows. Dick Whittington might be a stranger to people who were born here, but if you grew up in the UK, he’s as popular as Guy Fawkes, who is mostly remembered because of fireworks night every November 5th, not because he tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament. I believe that the Dick Whittington fantasy shines a light on our current predicament.
There really was a Dick Whittington (1354–1423) and he was the Lord Mayor of London (three times over). He was a Horatio Alger kind of figure who carped on about success and money, and this is where the cat enters the picture. Because the history has become legend, I am going to borrow from various outlandish versions to bolster my points. The young orphan Dick arrived in El Dorado (London) to seek his fortune. He was employed as a scullion (a menial kitchen worker) in the house of a rich man. Dick Whittington’s only asset was his cat, a renowned rat catcher and mouser. His boss organized a maritime trading expedition and the cat was shanghaied or pressganged into service to perform pest control duties on board the ship.
Blown off course, the vessel wound up on the Barbary Coast and a Moorish king purchased the entire caboodle, the cargo and the boat. To seal the deal, he entertained the crew with a feast, but a plague of rats and mice scuttled the fiesta. Dick Whittington’s cat was immediately put to work, and the king was so taken by its ratting abilities that he paid extravagantly for the creature. Plus, the cat was pregnant with kittens, so the price went up. Dick Whittington was handsomely rewarded for the cat’s prowess and he transformed from life as a virtual indentured servant to the Big Dance (City Hall). The rest of the yarn doesn’t matter, but it does help explain why the cat has her own statue, not that far from Highgate Cemetery, where Karl Marx is buried.
I am done with the Dick Whittington saga for now, but what goes around comes around. I am hearing today that rat infestations are now on the uptick in major US metropolitan areas. Because the Covid-19 essentially shut down the restaurant business, rat-feeding grounds are a lot sparser. So the rats are branching out and diversifying. Reports are coming in that there is talk of rat gang warfare being conducted over contested turf. The ones on my block in Brooklyn are as large as Dick Whittington’s cat and are amongst our oldest tenants and neighbors.
Because rats don’t help with diseases but rather advance them (see the Bubonic Plague), this is cause for some concern. Perhaps the most revealing article about rats and their nasty habits is found in Joseph Mitchell’s remarkable volume of newspaper essays and short stories Up In The Old Hotel. Entitled The Rats of the Waterfront, Joe Mitchell described a particular near miss that should give New Yorkers the willies.
During World War II, a freighter that had sailed from Egypt was parked off shore as it awaited docking in Staten Island. A vigilant local health inspector noticed some ferocious behavior among the ship’s rat population. He immediately quarantined the ship and the crew. The rats were found to be carrying the Bubonic Plague. If you have ever visited an industrial harbor, you might have seen those large circular discs that are attached to the ropes that tie up the ships to the quayside. They look like strange deck quoits, Frisbees, or RAF Spitfire and Lancaster insignias. They exist for a reason and it is thanks to guys like the mid-level Staten Island health inspector that they do. Basically these devices stop rats from running down the ropes and landing shore side. Had these particular contaminated rats made it to Staten Island terra firma, New York might have suffered more casualties than all of the US combined military losses throughout the war. Dick Whittington’s cat would have had her labors cut out for her.
This seems to be the perfect place for yours truly, the writer, to segue into the next and final section of this treatise. I was looking for something that rhymes with cats and rats. I came up with bats (loco). Here we go. Don’t worry, it all ties together.
The President of this country is an infamous bullshit artist. At best, Trump could be considered as someone who might not be able to differentiate fact from fiction. At worst, he is nothing but a conscious bald-faced liar. If people choose to believe him on anything, they might as well surrender any vestige of critical thought and join the French Foreign Legion instead, or at least put in for credits at the Zombie Academy of Higher Learning. There is no doubt about this, Trump lies his ass off all of the time. A blind person can see it.
The Trump mess conferences on the Covid-19 response are ample evidence. Perhaps his most notable boo-boos are to be found in him tossing out quack cures, like the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, or ingesting Drano or Arm & Hammer laundry detergent. And he has got his knickers in a veritable knot for the vaccine, the miracle of all miracles. No human being worth his or her salt doesn’t want a vaccine to be discovered. But Donald Trump is a so-called human being, so his motivations are more than suspect.
I, for one, shudder at the prospect of the vaccine being invented and patented here with a buffoon like Trump behind the stick. Firstly, it will be for sale. Some parts of the world will be fucked (any Muslim or Hispanic country), while others will be beneficiaries (Borisville and Bolsonaroland). And it will be an enormous shot in the arm for US imperialism. This kind of favoritism will not be limited to other continents. The US could well become segregated between vaccine-verboten and vaccine-inundated territories. It might make ethnic cleansing easier than gentrification or monster storms, floods, earthquakes and runaway wildfires do.
Which brings me back to Dick Whittington and his cat. What was going through Dick Whittington’s mind when he sold the world’s best ratter to the highest bidder? Was he just a cheap pimp looking for a new sharkskin zoot suit? The Bubonic Plague was bouncing all around Europe and he is selling a vaccine (the cat) so he can get rich quick and become the Big Banana of London. No London Calling here. Joe Strummer, a Londoner of some notoriety, would be turning in his grave. Joe was never bats, not like the President.
But perhaps the most telling part of the Dick Whittington opus is that it is not true, it’s 99% hogwash. Which is why I automatically made the connection between this folklore and Donald Trump. The rat part, hell I came up with that myself. It’s a bonsella (South Africanese for bonus). Remember that rats come in different varieties, the four-legged types and the two-legged models. And certain cats can drive rats bats.