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The Cheshire Cat

from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

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By Elise

A photo of Elise Valmorbida's smile in the same style as the Cheshire Cat

I remember an English test at primary school. One task was to tweak words in order to create their antonyms. I got stuck on sense. “What word is the opposite?” I wondered. I pondered. “Nonsense is not the opposite of sense at all.”

I’d read, and re-read, every single Dr Seuss book I could find at the local library. I couldn’t get enough of The Cat in the Hat, and all those odd-bodies who did strange, and yet logical, things. My TV heroes, infinitely recurring, were Bugs Bunny, the Addams Family, Maxwell (Get) Smart, Jerry Lewis and Danny Kaye. They were all precisely silly. I learned by heart The Pobble (who lost his toes, despite his Aunt Jemima’s cautionary drink of lavender water tinged with pink). I adored the very names Edward Lear and Hilaire Belloc—they were names with laughter in them. The rhythms and rhymes of their works were so strong, so utterly absorbing, that I’d say they learned me.

Years later, I studied philosophy at university—and I’m sure it was all because of A Mad Tea-party: “you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!” said the Hatter. Or “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’!” added the March Hare. Or “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!” added the ever-dormant Dormouse—making the equation true. Alice never did find out why a raven is like a writing desk, but mathematicians and philosophers have lots of satisfying answers up their sleeves.

Ever since my childhood, I’ve brought precious offerings to the altar of Lewis Carroll: Beckett’s sucking stones, Shakespeare’s fortune-tellers and fools, Breton’s misread signs, Satie’s notes and notebooks, Ionesco’s rhinoceros, Buñuel’s donkeys and priests, Man Ray’s photograms, Stravinsky’s clashes and colours, Gorey’s insect god, Svankmajer’s puppet nightmares, Jacques Tati’s shark fountain, David Lynch’s corridors, the Coen Brothers’ wigs and wardrobes…

Lewis Carroll. Even the pen-name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson is a pleasing puzzle. His riddles, his acrostics, his mathematical problems, his poems, his letters, and yes, his tales/tails, are deep in my bones. Seriously funny bones.

But which character comes first to mind and lasts the longest?

The Cheshire Cat.

This creature is the model of reasonableness. About the acceptability of turning into a fig or a pig. About madness (growling v. purring). About going where you need to go. If you walk for long enough, you’ll get somewhere.

Alice says: “I wish you wouldn’t keep appearing and vanishing so suddenly: you make one quite giddy.”

“All right,” said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.

How silly, sensible, and sublime, to begin with the end, and to end it all with a smile.

The 26 writing group has worked with The Story Museum as part of its 26 Characters exhibition. The group have produced a collection of poems, and couldn’t resist being part of the gallery of favourite characters.

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