By now, the whole world knows that Rishi Sunak, at the ripe young age of 42, is the youngest Prime Minister that the United Kingdom has had over the past 216 years. If you are not aware of this earth-shattering, historic statistic, you must be in deep meditation in the dark, damp caves of the Himalayas, your blissfully ignorant body encrusted with anthills. These political milestones are invariably expressed within the limits of certain time frames. Reason being, prior to a couple of hundred years and a bit, there was one William Pitt the Younger, who took the oath of office as PM when he was barely 24 years old, just a few years after he passed his driving test, always assuming one drove cars during the Younger Pitt’s reign. Wet behind the ears? Tell me about it. If William Pitt the Younger made his precocious mark in British politics, could William Pitt the Elder have been far behind? Not on your nelly. The father of the son was also the Prime Minister several years before the chit of a scion walked into No.10, always assuming there was a No.10 during that time. Not that it matters really, as one is merely employing the expression No.10 as an imperishable symbol of Britain’s highest executive official residence. Anyhow, as we in India know only too well, these things run in families – fathers, daughters, sons, grandsons and granddaughters – they all tilt ever so frequently at our own political windmills.
As for Rishi Sunak, since we set much store by numerology, there is a statistical, serendipitous symmetry at play, if you’ll excuse the serendipitous alliteration, between him and the Younger Pitt. Sunak is 42 as he takes over as PM. Flip that number round and what do you get? 24 of course, which was Pitt’s age when he took over the reins to reign. This must be a good omen for Rishi. Why that must be so, I haven’t the foggiest, but then, the logic of numbers brooks no argument. Rishi, his wife Akshata, their two daughters, pet dog Nova and the Downing Street cat Larry, are by now, well ensconced at No.10, toasting their feet with the logs crackling merrily at the fireplace, what with winter almost at their doorstep and energy costs soaring through the chimneys.
When I say, ‘the Downing Street cat’ in that off-hand way, I am doing a great disservice to this brown and white tabby, Larry. This is no ordinary cat mate, this is the officially designated ‘Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office’ who has served for 11 years in that distinguished capacity, seeing off four Prime Ministers, namely, David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. And now the fifth, Rishi Sunak to contend with. Most people would view Larry as just a regular house cat but in political circles, his status is akin to the magical Jellicle cats of T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, later set memorably to music by Andrew Lloyd Webber for the musical, Cats. In her immensely readable, best-selling book of satirical columns, the incandescent Marina Hyde posits thus on PM David Cameron’s priorities, ‘The Prime Minister was at pains to address one of the dominant news preoccupations over the past 48 hours. To wit: the future of Larry, the Downing Street cat.’ Furthermore, Downing Street’s tryst with cats goes all the way back to 1929. Among the many cats that have served at No.10, two of them in more recent times were christened Humphrey and Sybil, named after two unforgettable characters from British sitcoms, Sir Humphrey Appleby from the Yes, Minister / Yes, Prime Minister series and Sybil Fawlty from the hilarious Fawlty Towers.
When I started writing this column, it had entirely skipped my mind that only a few weeks ago, when Boris Johnson was eased out of office, while Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak went hammer and tongs at each other, attempting to cajole the British public to make the right choice for PM, I had written an extensive piece on Rishi’s chances, how such a result might resonate in India blah, blah, blah, the relevance or otherwise of his Hindu Indian origins, his billionaire Indian in-laws – in fact everything that everyone is now talking about after Liz Truss’ brief and disastrous sojourn at No.10, and Rishi’s dramatic entry into that storied residence. We will have to live with American Presidents murdering the new incumbent’s name, Biden called him Rashid Sunook, for crying out loud. No better than Trump’s Swami Vivekamundan!
Point being that rather than going over all that guff again, I thought it would be better from the point of view of public interest, to speak with Larry the tabby cat and get a unique perspective on these amazing goings-on at one of the most famous addresses in the world. After all, no one has had a closer view of the frenetic comings and goings in and out of No.10 than Larry, the residence’s celebrated feline mascot. Accordingly, I approached Larry cautiously. You never know with cats. They can be temperamental.
‘Good morning, Larry. I trust you are well. Can you spare a few minutes and take some questions?’
Larry looked at me with suspicion, his hackles rising ever so slightly. ‘Have you been cleared by Security? I cannot speak to any old hobbledehoy without the PMO’s clearance. No offence.’
I quickly scribbled “hobbledehoy” in my note pad. Some vocabulary! For a cat, I mean. ‘None taken Larry, I have obtained permission from the authorities. Here’s my card issued by the PMO. Can we start? I hope you don’t mind the cameras. This will be a great photo-op for you.’
‘Look I will give you 10 minutes, not a second more. And what do you mean, great photo-op for me? More like, for you. I am the most photographed cat in the world, and you should be grateful I am giving you the time of day. Better get a move on, because waiting in line are the New York Times and Washington Post, those rags The Sun and Daily Mirror from my neck of the woods, and nearly a dozen newspapers and television channels from India. Pravda and Izvestia from Russia are also trying to muscle in, but I have refused on account of the Ukraine – Russia war. I am a very busy and principled cat.’
‘Right, Larry. Noted and understood. Why don’t you give me a quick, snappy sketch of the four PM’s you have served so far?’
‘I am prevented by the Official Secrets Act from saying too much about them but just for you, here goes. Cameron was fairly pleasant, a hail-fellow-well-met kind of guy, May was up a gum tree, tying herself up in knots over Brexit, Bo Jo was a one-off, gave the impression of being mad as a March hare but he was sharp as a tack. And great fun when in the mood. He scratched my belly every time he stepped out. And that hair! As for Truss, she was hopping around like a cat on a hot, tin roof. She was not here long enough for me to judge her properly, but she blinked a lot.’
‘Blinked a lot? Meaning?’
‘Meaning, blinked a lot. Are you dumb? It must have been the tension. Makes people do strange things.’
‘And now you have Rishi. What do you make of him?’
Larry took a long stretch and yawned before answering, ‘Yes, now as you so shrewdly point out, I have Rishi Sunak. Early days yet, but he was occupying No.11 when he was Chancellor under Boris, and he used to keep popping into No.10 frequently. However, I am the Chief Mouser at No.10, and don’t fraternize much with the lower orders at No.11.’
‘What, by the way is a mouser?’
‘That’s Mouser to you, with a capital M. Show some respect.’ Larry was pretty haughty at this unintended solecism of mine. Mouser, because I make short work of the rats and mice that keep scurrying around these parts. Ever since The Plague.’
‘The Plague? Spotted those capitals this time. But that was way, way back in..…never mind. Getting back to Sunak and family, are they looking after you well, Larry?’
‘I have to wait and watch. For a start, he is a teetotaler, which is fine with me as I am abstemious myself. Three saucersful of milk is my limit. But I am dead in the water if he is a vegetarian, as some rumours seem to suggest. Where will I get my daily supply of fish from? I’ll have to swallow my pride and sidle through Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s cat flap at No.11. He is bound to have a portion of salmon or tuna, or even a tin of sardines in the fridge.’
‘Good thinking, Larry. And how are you on the subject of Rishi being the first brown Briton from an Asian background becoming the PM of what has thus far been a Caucasian preserve?’ I thought that would fox Larry, but I was wrong.
‘Aren’t we getting a bit racist here, Mr. Whatever-your-name-is? We did have Gordon Brown, but that doesn’t count. Ha, ha that was just me being witty. Look, I am more or less colour blind, so it does not make a blind bit of difference to me what colour Rishi is. I am only worried about the food. I’ll go batty if they keep dishing out rice and dal, morning, noon and night. Can’t eat rats all day long, either. My digestion will go for a six.’
‘One last question, Larry, after that I am out of here. I hear Rishi has brought a dog, Nova, along with him. Where does that leave you in the pecking order?’
‘A brown Labrador, yes. Had to be brown! Look, as long as the canine keeps to herself, I have no issues. I’ll stay aloof, but if she pulls any tricks and tries to be super Nova, she will feel the benefit of my sharp, manicured claws. Previous PMs have also brought in dogs to No.10, but the dumb chums knew their place. One good thing, though. I can’t see the pooch surviving on rice and dal. So, I am looking forward to some left-over mince or steak or something I can get my teeth into.’
‘Brilliant, Larry. Bon appétit. Unlike your PMs, you have nine lives. Make the most of it. Thank you for your time. Much appreciated.’
Before I knew what was happening, the security detail had thrown a ring of guards round Larry. It was time for his afternoon siesta. As I walked away, I could hear a gentle, musical purr, which, to my fevered brain, sounded like Memory from Cats. Larry was in dreamland, tucking into a juicy halibut. The Chief Mouser may or may not have been awake, but he showed himself to be very woke.