Book review: Able Seacat Simon by Lynne Barrett-Lee

When a starving kitten was rescued from the docks in Hong Kong by a British sailor, his perilous adventures on a Royal Navy frigate turned him into a medal-winning hero.
Able Seacat Simon by Lynne Barrett-LeeAble Seacat Simon by Lynne Barrett-Lee
Able Seacat Simon by Lynne Barrett-Lee

Blackie – officially known as Able Seacat Simon – was ship’s cat on the ill-fated HMS Amethyst which sailed into troubled waters on its way to Nanking in 1949 as the Chinese Civil War was raging.

In what became known as the Yangtse Incident, the ship was shelled by Communist forces, killing 17 of the crew including the captain, and then held hostage for 101 days in gruelling heat.

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Injured, weakened and minus his precious whiskers after being blown into the air by an explosion, Blackie kept down the ship’s rampant rat population and helped to keep spirits high as the traumatised sailors planned their escape.

His amazing exploits, and his morale-boosting friendship with a mainly young crew, are brought to vivid life in Lynne Barrett-Lee’s revealing and affectionate ‘cat’s eye’ view of events that had a nation on the edge of its seats and created an unexpected international celebrity.

Alongside Blackie, the young, orphaned black and white cat who captured hearts both on board and at home, we live through 18 months of discovery, camaraderie, drama and danger with the brave men of HMS Amethyst.

Hungry, wet and weak, the gutsy little kitten found by a teenage sailor on the docks at Stonecutters Island in Hong Kong in May 1948 and smuggled on board HMS Amethyst soon finds his sea legs and becomes everyone’s favourite.

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Sailors have traditionally had a special relationship with cats, believing that they keep the ship safe from danger, and the captain, impressed with his new rat-catcher in residence, officially names him Simon after his own beloved pet.

But the cat is Blackie to the crew and he settles into his new life of order, routine, regular food, and cuddles from his new friends.

A year later, the post-war peace is not as robust as everyone had thought and the Amethyst is ordered to sail up the Yangtse to Nanking to relieve sister ship HMS Consort and take over the guarding of the British Embassy.

Tragedy strikes as the ship, in the wrong place at the wrong time, comes under fire from Communist guns. Many of the crew are killed and Blackie, dozing in the captain’s cabin, is among those who are seriously wounded.

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With the help of the ship’s doctor, the brave cat makes a full recovery and uses his natural instincts to comfort sailors in the sick bay, purring and raising morale as the ship’s crew is held hostage on board.

At home, news of Blackie’s heroism spreads and he becomes a worldwide celebrity. But when the ship finally escapes and heads back to England, there will be an unwelcome parting from his pals for the animal now known as Able Seacat Simon…

Although a fictional account, Blackie’s adventures are based on real events and provide an unusual but powerful and emotional reflection not just on the actions of one small, remarkable cat but on the resilience and courage of the men who became his best friends.

Quartered by law in a quarantine centre in Surrey, Blackie contracted a virus and died several weeks later. He was buried with full Naval Honours and became the only cat ever to receive the Dickin Medal, an award for the bravest and most courageous animals.

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Barrett-Lee, a novelist, acclaimed ghostwriter and cat lover, reveals in her author’s note that narrating the story through the medium of Blackie, alias Simon, helped her to get to better know the ship’s young crew and to understand just what they went through.

‘I could not respect or admire them more,’ she writes. It’s a fitting conclusion that will be shared by readers of this moving and inspiring tribute to the men of the Amethyst and their loyal feline friend.

(Simon & Schuster, hardback, £9.99)