By rights we should have found out today who is to be mayor of London for the next four years, but fate, a former incumbent, and epidemiology intervened to dictate otherwise. Chances are, based on opinion polls, it would have been a shoo in for Sadiq Khan to be elected to a second term, just as was the case with his predecessor, one Boris Johnston, the man who decided that London wasn’t going to have a mayoral election after all.
London Mayors tend to be very high profile individuals. This is the case even if Donald Trump likes them and doesn’t troll them mercilessly on Twitter. Johnson’s predecessor was Ken Livingstone who had a spot of bother back in 2018 when he suggested that Adolf Hitler was actually a bit of an old Zionist softie.
But the most famous London mayor of all, celebrated in annual pantos … oh yes he is … is, of course, Dick Whittington. Except that he’s been so mythologised in poems, plays and stories, that you begin to wonder, did he actually exist, or is he more like King Arthur than Boris Johnson. Furthermore, there’s the all-important follow-up question, if he did exist, and if he did become Mayor of London, did he have a cat?
Let’s sort out the first part of the question before proceeding to the issue of his famous pet, portrayed on many a pantomime stage by actors of whose careers it can truly be said ‘it’s behind you!’
The legend has it that Dick Whittington abandoned his home—somewhere in the north of England that voted for Brexit and recently elected its first Tory MP since the middle ages. He headed for London, armed only with his wits and his moggie, because he had heard the streets there were paved with gold. When he got to the southern metropolis, having given Slough a wide berth en route, he discovered his mistake. The streets were not paved with gold, in fact the streets were not even paved, furthermore, he was expected to pave them. Disillusioned, he headed for home but was detained by the ringing of the Bow Bells which somehow managed to communicate to him, campanologically, that he would one day become Mayor of London. So, he retraced his steps. Some years later, after encountering a number of stock pantomime characters who couldn’t even get parts as extras on Eastenders, he duly rose to the mayoralty of what was then the greatest city in the known world.
As it happens there was indeed a Richard Whittington who became Mayor of London, not twice, but four times in the 1400s. He was a wealthy merchant and a Member of Parliament who, on his death, bequeathed his fortune to a charitable trust which bears his name to this day. So far, so good. But what about Puss in Boots? Actually, as that’s the name of an entirely different feline pantomime hero we should probably just refer to the mayoral moggie as ‘cat’. The mythology has the animal being hugely instrumental in Whittington’s good fortune. Dick’s cat was to rat-catching what Lionel Messi is to turning opponents in the penalty area and scoring from six metres. Legend has it that Whittington made enough money from hiring out his moggie, to provide him with the basis of a large fortune. Bear in mind that it wasn’t that all that long since rats had been instrumental in spreading bubonic plague and halving the population of Europe. So a good ratter would have been in great demand.
Except that the real Richard Whittington – not plain ‘Dick’ but the more aristocratic ‘Richard’—was not a bumpkin from ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ country who came to London to become a Cockney shapeshifter. If he wanted money all he had to do was ask Dad, who was a fully paid-up member of the gentry. Richard’s arrival in London was dictated by the fact that he was not an eldest son, and so, would not inherit the family estate. He needed to make his fortune as a merchant, which he duly did. Given that he was well-to-do, he would have had no need for a resident cat to be hired out as an ace ratter, and there is no evidence that he ever served in the capacity of ‘human’ to a member of the feline race.
Having said that, when Sadiq Khan, Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone go to their eternal rewards will their obituaries note whether or not they ever owned a pussycat? Doubtful!
So, when it comes to the question of whether or not Sadiq Khan ever had a predecessor named Dick Whittington, the answer is an emphatic ‘yes’. But as to whether said Whittington was the proud manservant of a cat, that’s probably fake mews.
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