Monthly Archives: May 2015

Solitaire or solidaire

A terrible fate befalls me. Imagine. Ambling gently along in the flow of things, I am suddenly plucked out by malevolent predator. An eagle, its talons piercing my pitiful pelt, lifts me from the earth. My stomach leaps to my throat, my terrified moleheart threatens to burst through my ribcage with its thumping. The door to my dear little burrow recedes, then the molehills, then the fields until it all a blur. I am flailing, helpless.

Plucked from the flow? Well yes and no, and certainly nothing so dramatic. I was not exactly in the flow to start with, and the plucking was hardly sudden but rather was cumulative. A little more typing, a little less vigilant about taking breaks, a little less mindful with my Qi Gong, a little more bell-ringing. I was daring to be carefree, limitless. In short, I had begun to take my little body for granted, and my right paw, my writing paw couldn’t keep up the pace. All of a sudden, manipulating a key, opening a jar, turning on a tap, negotiating scissors were beyond my grasp.

My left paw was been keen as mustard to help, but what it didn’t seem to realise is how much it relied on my shoulder which was less eager to bear the burden. My voice, like my shoulder, was underwhelmed at being called into action, not as a murmurer. Heaven forbid. It’s specialisation was out loud. And my mind…well, my mind was adamant it was not going to allow one pesky paw to wreck its plans.

The trouble with us solitaires is that we forget about working communally. And although my general sense is that all that is held in my moleskin is me, it only takes one cog to to slip and I feel as if I am an anarchy of individual parts.

It is taking a little time to move from solitaire to solidaire, to bring the reflective molemind back into the ascendant and permit the active molemind to enjoy a little respite; and to allow the paws to take turns, to pause, to wave about, to swing and to soak in Epsom salts; and for the whole enpelted self to walk about in the wind and the rain, to reconstitute itself with eight brocades, gentle conversations and absorb itself in reading. And to do some work, just a little bit at a time.

The pinger is my friend. Ten minutes allows for about four lines if I know what I’m saying – and then a fifteen minute break – Qi Gong bone-opening exercises, a potter to the end of the drive, brewing a pot of tea. I’m not sure how long I can sustain it, but then my new reflective self tells me that perhaps the sky won’t fall in – with the eagle and me in its claws – if I miss the murmurs deadline.

Ballons d’essai

There are times when just a word or a phrase topples a whole edifice of mindsets. After reading my murmurs about mistakes last week, Marigold sent me just such a phrase. It was
‘ballon d’essai’. Now, having bathed in its warmth and daring for a couple of days, and absorbed it to my very marrow, I am ready to take it further. One paw on heart and the other sweeping out to the side, I shall go out into the open and proclaim it to any blackbird that might care to listen.

A ballon d’essai encompasses the idea of trial runs, of putting out feelers, of experimenting. It eliminates the whole concept of a mistake. The ballon d’essai pooh-poohs the doom-laden expectation that something must be perfectly formulated in one’s head before it is set down or allowed to go out into the world. It exudes lightness, playfulness and a sense of adventure.

I love the ballon part of it. Ballerinas are said to have ballon when they give the impression of weightlessness as they glide through the air. In laboratories, a ballon is one of those bulbous experimental flasks that holds the promise of eternal life or damnation, depending on what films your rackety relatives took you to. And a ballon, once you have leapt balletically and experimented to your heart’s content, is what you savour your Napoléon cognac in if you happen to be Great Uncle Mole and it is your birthday.

And a ballon is of course a balloon – and here I must bring Uncle Ratty in. I am not sure if he was actually there for Monsieur Baschwitz’s dashing exploit, but he would always tell a story as if he had played some key part in it. So I will imagine him as a kind of collector – the chap who fossicked for all the odds and ends.

It was 1917. The Axis powers were creeping steadily westwards. Allies were falling like nine-pins. Wouldn’t it be splendid, some bright spark suggested, if we could find out Axis troop movements. Well yes, but the main railway junction was in Luxembourg and Luxembourg had been entirely swallowed up. A balloon! some even brighter, but madder spark suggested.

And so it began. How to test the plan? How long it would take, what the prevailing wind currents might be, where to launch it from, given the rapidly changing borderlines? And so while test balloons were being sewn dozens of seamstresses, I imagine Uncle Ratty on a quest for homing pigeons, wicker baskets from the Hospital for the Blind, birdseed, chickenwire to wrap around the baskets so that when they landed the birds would not be eaten by ferrets. But how to make get the balloons to land in the right place? The birds might home but they would not keep time. Uncle Ratty is sent off again to scour the pawnshops for the once popular Waterbury alarum clocks with their very particular winding mechanisms. There is a demonstration of the experiment in the office of some Secret Service chap in London. For this the birds in their baskets are replaced with boots taken off German POWs. Did Uncle Ratty collect these, too? The clock is stuck to the ceiling. The boots are suspended from string threaded through curtain rings and attached to the clock. The clock is wound. It ticks. The alarm goes off and four boots crash to the floor.

Multiple pigeon flights were sent off to test the plan before Monsieur Baschwitz took to the air in his vellum balloon. He had to wait for a night that was long enough for the journey, moonless enough not to be spotted, promised prevailing winds that would not send him off course and further into enemy territory. He almost overshot Luxembourg, but didn’t. And his spy network – well that’s another story.

But this one – well, it has to be the beacon for me in my quest to banish any thought of mistakes in my little molemind and celebrate my future in a plethora of ballons d’essai.*

* I suspect Uncle Ratty occasionally raided his stories from favourite books – in this case Janet Morgan’s The Secrets of the Rue St Roch


Here I am, pen in paw. Autumn sun is dappling my desk. A perfect place, a perfect time to write. But paw and pen remain suspended. Perhaps I shouldn’t be writing in this notebook. Perhaps I shouldn’t be writing this scene. Perhaps it should be from a different point of view. Perhaps this is the wrong novel. A drop of ink plops onto the page, spreads and I contemplate folding it in half and creating a Rorschach pattern, subjecting myself to a bit of self-analysis.

Truth is I am frightened of making the wrong decision. So frightened I freeze. The tiniest question can swell itself up and taunt me from the writing pad, prance about in the wet inkblot, bullychant: You’re going to make the wrong decision. You’re going to make such a mess of this. Everyone is going to think you are incompetent. Nanananana!

Tante Mathilde was a great one for perfection. Don’t open your mouth until you know the whole poem perrrfectly. Mistakes were slapdash, slipshod and lazy. Mistakes were unpatriotic and would call the whole Mole family into disrepute. Even coughing or sneezing were signs moral degeneration. Tante Mathilde NEVER made mistakes.

Mistakes were locked up in Tante Mathilde’s day, sent to institutions, never mentioned. All those steps between start and finish never existed. And the finish of some other mole’s oeuvre was so far removed from the start of one’s own that it was beyond emulation. Dear Tante Mathilde, how many of your trials went onto the bonfire so that they might never be seen?

Mistake – I try to roll the word around, make it my chum. Mis-take, Mi-stake. I try to squeeze it to Risk-take. It won’t quite go.

Am I really such a tremulous mole? I find my chest puffing up at the thought of it, my snout quivering with indignation. Shying away from a sentence? Where is the brazen activist
of yesteryear? Deep in my little moleheart there lurks a Garibaldi. I have been known to carry placards, stood firm against hecklers, made rousing speeches. Does courage only come when an injustice hurtles straight to my firebrand belly, ignites it and makes me roar.

Would it be so terrible if this were the wrong notebook? Isn’t it my notebook. Can’t I cross things off or tear things out or stick things on? Is there such a thing as a wrong scene – or is it just a step, a way of testing or material that might be used later? Wrong point of view? Perhaps, but at least I’d know. Wrong novel? It will only descend into chaos if I fail to take it in hand. Wouldn’t it become the right one because I made it so?

The next time I feel timorous I shall head to a cupboard deep in my burrow. I shall hunt out a pair of broomsticks, an old sheet, a pot of paint and a brush. And you will see me at the barricades proclaiming the wise words of Anne Lamott:

‘Perfectionism is the Voice of the Oppressor, the Enemy of the People.’*

*Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.


A decade or so ago I began to feel a craving for winter so deep I wanted to howl for the lack of it. I yearned for monochromatic landscapes, blizzards, and air so cold it hurt to breathe. And then for reasons bleak, I found myself thrice returning to a European winter. Two of those were among the coldest on record. Deep snow that didn’t melt – just added to itself, layer upon layer. For the most part, ground and sky were indistinguishable. On the few occasions the thin sun appeared it dissolved only enough snow to lengthen the icicles that hung from the gutters.

I still love the winter. I feel invigorated by it. Snow is an essential element for me. But the craving is no longer so painful. At least it hadn’t been until earlier this week.

The second of those very cold winters was four years ago. I had been in Switzerland for several months, winding up the parental home, but was not yet ready to leave this country of my growing. A dear and enduring friend, a fellow hermit, gave me sanctuary. She, along with her dog, two cats and a tortoise, lived on the edge of a small farming village. Her house was a Stöckli, a tiny, three storey wooden house with external steps up to the entrance on the first floor – so that it could be reached even when the snow was deep.

We were comfortable together. She had known me from when I was eight or nine, cut adrift from my moorings, at sea in a foreign country. She recognised me then as a fellow solitude, a being whose heart beat out of time with the rest. An only child, her life criss-crossed countries, too. Her stories, whether about the days doings or the deep past, were vivid, details and emotions remembered, and told always with dry humour: the grandfather, bigger than life itself, training horses at Chantilly; a big lemon car with my friend, always tiny – tinier still when young, lost in the upholstery of the backseat. The fortunes of English family rose and sank – at one time owners of London pubs with Russian names. She told tales of her indomitable mother, and of her small son, so enchanted by trains he would clamber onto them at the village station, trains that reloaded at this small Swiss town and were heading for Moscow.

That winter we entered a daily rhythm. We breakfasted together, each with our preferred pot of tea. Then I struck out into the morning dark, crossing snowy fields, striding through beech and pine woods and across the railway tracks to catch a train into Berne. I’d spend the day burrowing through archives, pausing briefly for lunch in the canteen.

I had found a pile of coupons in a desk drawer whilst clearing out the parental home. Some were still valid. These I cashed in for punnets of gourmet soups which I brought back to the Stöckli each night. And so in one fell swoop we managed to avoid money and cooking, those pitfalls of mutual obligation, and thanked my dear late Papa for his hoarding.

I heard at the beginning of this week that my friend had died and I could feel myself longing for that intense cold again. This morning, on my walk, I looked up at our local mountain. It was coated with thick snow. So deep and only May. More snow than I have seen on Mount Wellington for years.

Tell it slant

Each day after lunch I have a little ritual of listening to the wireless while I plunge my paws into the washing up, and I never know what delectable chance encounter might come my way. Today, I was twiddling the dials when I caught a man’s voice introducing a programme called The Poet and the Murderer. Well, a title like that and the promise of an intriguing tale – I twiddled no further. And it was a riveting tale, but that was not what got me going.

The poet in question was Emily Dickinson, and it was a line from one of her poems:

‘Tell the Truth, but tell it slant…’

Hmm, I thought. This needs mulling on. It lingered with me all through my washing up, and by and by I felt a little murmur coming on. And here I am, pen in paw.

That sounds so smooth, doesn’t it; a chance remark, a mull, a murmur, a pen and the whole caboodle flowing onto the page. Alas, there are times (more than I care to name), when somewhere between thought and flow, things come to a sticky standstill. I know exactly the spot where it happened today; it was between mull and murmur. Mull had first drawn me back to the few times I visited Toad Hall in my infancy. Looking back, I think Great Uncle Mole and Uncle Ratty were rather cautious about exposing a young mole to Toad; thought he might be a bad influence. Although Toad was very old by then, he still loved to put on a good show and his enthusiasm of the moment was a small cinema he had set up in the wine cellar. Oh dear, I must get to the point. The films Toad was showing were made in the war. They were black and white and usually historical, but their historical nature was a veil, a pretence that they had nothing to do with the war. When I watch them now, all I see is targeted messages of courage and self-sacrifice.

That, I mused on, although told slant was not the truth, but propaganda. More interesting would be the fertile ground of writers and artists living under totalitarian or otherwise oppressive regimes who were driven to use fable, symbol, or poetic metaphor in order to tell their truths.

This was where I should have stopped, but no. I began to look for factual back-up for my vague thoughts. I opened tomes, read both erudite and crazed interpretations, pattered down unknown alleyways. But all the time I was shining my headlamp in search for perfect examples.

I dazzled them and they fragmented before my eyes.

What I had lost between mull and murmur was that space in one’s freewheeling mind that allows inspiration to take hold, the thought that comes out of left field, the trick of light that one sees from the corner of one’s eye. What I had missed was that Truth is also best heard slant.