Monthly Archives: June 2015

Time tipping

If you had peered into my soul as the Tasmanian winter solstice approached and passed, you would have noticed a certain unease, a giddiness caused by the tipping of time.

Until the last few years, midwinter has been very hushed here in Hobart. Inhabitants have stuck to their burrows and waited for spring. But now they venture forth in their tens of thousands for Dark MoFo, a ten-day festival with feasts and fires, music and performance. The end (if you disregard the nude swim the next morning), is marked by a parade on the eve of the solstice.

It is a new festival and the themes are borrowed from other places whose marking of mid-winter is deeply imbedded. Indonesian artists came this year to build an Ogoh Ogoh, a monster that in Balinese Hindu culture is paraded through the streets to purify the world of the spiritual pollution we creatures have infested it with. In Bali the Ogoh Ogoh is turned anti-clockwise at every crossroad to confuse the evil spirits and is then taken to the sea and burnt. Here in Hobart, we were invited to feed the monster with scraps of paper that held our scrawled fears, and then to parade with it, banging our pots and pans into a cacophony, before setting it alight on the waterfront.

I wondered about winter solstice celebrations that might be closer to my moleheart, and discovered one not so very far from my birthplace on the south coast of England. Not that I can claim it to be deeply embedded in my psyche; the burning of the clocks was only brought into being twenty years ago, by a community arts group in Brighton called Same Sky. The idea is similar to the Ogoh Ogoh: locals fill an effigy with fears, but also hopes and, carrying home-made lanterns of cane and white tissue, they parade it down to the waterfront, and obliterate it in a bonfire . The difference is – or was when this event was first organised, – that the monster was a clock.

Now the idea of the monster as clock delights the cockles of my moleheart. The unease I feel at winter solstice is the sense of time tipping. The first half of the year feels pregnant with possibility but then it hurtles towards the end with accumulating litanies of things not done, expectations dashed, the spectre of summer and Christmas and time running out.

When I first returned to the southern hemisphere after clearing out the parental burrow, I came laden with time pieces: a grandfather clock with a loud and arrhythmical tick and an hourly wheezing and grinding of chains that built up to the striking of the hour; a mantle clock that used to drown out long-distance telephone calls with its quarter-hourly Big Ben chime; Grandpapa’s watch, which I nursed through its exhausted go-slows; Grandmama’s delicate fob watch; and my father’s more robust wristwatch on an uncomfortable spring-metal strap. Was this obsession something to do with honouring my ancestors, some sense that they had given me time and it was now up to me to seize every moment I had; their passing reminding me of my own life passing by?

Since then these timepieces have fallen silent. The odd beat of the grandfather clock sent lurches to my heart and I stopped pulling down its weights. The mantle clock lost its chime and I stopped winding it. Grandpapa’s watch came to a halt at midnight on Remembrance Day. I had already given away my father’s.

But there is still a clock ticking in my head, still voices that remind me how old I am, how little I’ve achieved in such a long time, how much shorter my future is than my past.

I feel as if I need to take time into my own hands, find myself some cane, string, glue and tissue paper, build a clock effigy, parade it down my drive and set it alight. It may be several days since the solstice, but who cares about a week here or there.


While I have been laying low this last couple of weeks, I have rediscovered an old pleasure. I think I was first introduced to it the year I caught chickenpox. It was during our annual moletrek to England, and I was deposited with Great Uncle Mole to convalesce while the rest of the family galavanted around the countryside.

I don’t know whether I’ve mentioned this before, but Great Uncle Mole was a tunnel designer – well engineer, really. And while he was working at his great big drawing board I was deposited in a nearby chair with a dog-eared book on trigonometry which he said he had loved in his youth. It was very quiet; just the scratch of a pen and his tuneless whistling. And the clock ticking, chiming the quarter hour, the hour. My tummy began to rumble. When Great Uncle Mole was absorbed in his work he lost all sense of time.

So you can imagine how my little moleheart leapt with joy when I heard the rackety approach of Uncle Ratty. ‘I’ll take the high road…’, he sang in his rich baritone as he kicked off his gumboots and flung open the door. He pulled the book out of my paws and rolled his eyes. We left Great Uncle Mole to it, and went out to the courtyard to eat marmalade sandwiches under
Garibaldi’s heroic statue.

I think that’s where it began. Garibaldi led to what was to become Italy, and Italy led to the boot, with Sicily being kicked off the bottom. And before you could say Jack Robinson, Uncle Ratty had gone into the burrow and re-emerged with a wooden box that had once held Madeira wine but was now stuffed to the gunnels with maps.

They were higgledy-piggledy, and so we opened them up at random, Dorset, Bombay, Venice, Ireland, Bern, Portmadoc, Palestine. It was like Christmas, unfolding the stiff linen and gradually seeing the thirty two rectangles some mole in a workshop had carefully glued on. And then not seeing the gaps at all, but a feast for the imagination, an abundance of possibilities. We played with names at first. I shouted them out alphabetically while Uncle Ratty picked slugs off the lettuces. Alfoxton Park to Zigzag Hill. Or he would tell me I was a black and yellow taxi in Bombay and was to find him the best route from All India Radio in the Fort district to the Mafatlal swimming pool on Chowpatty Beach. Or ask me what trains to catch to get from Galway to Wexford. Or he would say we were cyclists in canton Bern and needed the flattest route from Arni to Lützelflüh. When I didn’t understand how I would know that, he found some cardboard and we traced the contours, and cut them out and glued them, one above the other, to make hills and mountains. His muddy paws made them all the more realistic.

I didn’t know any of those places then, just loved the names, loved imagining myself along roads, across rivers, up hills and past forts. Now my pleasure lies both in imagining journeys I might or might not take, and retracing the ones that have fed into my making. Remembering with maps embeds me into the soil and the air of a place. I remember with my body the steps, the smells, the sounds and languages, the people I met, the thoughts I had.

Sneezles and Wheezles

If you had been a fly on the wall of my burrow, a kind of fly-reporter sniffing out scintillating Life of Mole news items, your gleanings would have been very meagre this week. You would have been hard-pressed to even see your subject from within the unseemly knot of sheets, doona, blankets, scarves, jumpers, pillows, bed socks and hot water bottles that was what my nest had become.

When a lurgy smites there is no decision to be made. A flick-switch disengages the busy mind. The body wraps itself up, curls into a ball and goes into semi- hibernation. Night and day merge. Forays are zombie-like: hot lemon, honey, horehound, handkerchiefs, warmer socks, throat pastilles.

And nothing matters.

But then, some time later – who knows how long? one day? two? three? four?, – a sunbeam penetrates the nest and warms the snuffly snout. The bunged up eyelids are tempted to open. One does. The tummy rumbles a little, although the throat wishes nothing to pass it. Another snooze, fitful still, wheezy, and the paws begin to knead their way out of the bedclothes, feel the ground, and wait for the body to slowly bring itself upright. It pads to the kitchen, fills the kettle, makes a hot brew.

Sitting on the sofa, I watch the trees, the birds and the clouds. I feel the warmth of the mug between my paws.

This is the moment that matters, that needs to be savoured. If allowed to be, over the next few days, the molebody will gentle itself into a rhythm. But it is a perilous moment. It is the moment that the mind’s armies threaten to rally, to flick the switch and rescue and assert authority. The trail of bedclothes, mugs, tissues, washing up, knotted bedclothes and possibly even emails and appointments and deadlines (missed, approaching, intended, imagined) flood the barely upright body, and weight it with such overwhelm that all it can do is burrow itself back into the tangled nest and close its eyes.

And now the voice starts. ‘Malingerer’, it chants. ‘Malingerer’.

In French that might be comforting; it only means that you are unwell. But somehow, perhaps a reflection on English attitudes towards the French at the time, when the English took it on they insinuated the idea of pretence into the word, splattered it across countless regulations and policies governing the lives of those workers, soldiers, sailors, apprentices, convicts, servants whose illness feigned, or not, might be inconvenient.

The voice has a definite magisterial tone, sonorous and slightly nasal.

I try to hold the mug in paws, watching the clouds moment for as long as I can. I hope to observe the shoulds and musts from a distance, allow them to joust with each other and only come to me when they have bested the clamouring urgents and worked out between themselves what the truly important tasks are for me to ease my way back into – if and when my body is ready.

And Malingerer – it is rather a melodic sort of word.


As I was trundling up Knocklofty in the dark and feeling the crunch of snow beneath my hind paws, I was suddenly transported back to Bern, early morning walks in the dark there, the crunch of oak and beech leaves crisp with frost -and I was humming.

I don’t really call it Bern, or even less Berne. I call it Bärn – pronounced like ‘ban’ – except the ‘a’ is drawn out – as if you were leaping off one of the city’s bridges ‘aaaaaah’. And you have to insert about three ‘r’s that roll like the current of the Aare, the river which hurtles round the city and corsets it into a tight ‘U’. That is Bärn.

Now the Switzerland I got to know when I was small mole was deeply conservative. Baths were not to be run, nor lavatories flushed after 9pm. It was forbidden to do the washing on a Sunday and compulsory to clear the sheets and clothes from the communal drying rooms. Switzerland was deeply regulated and also deeply patriotic. No irregular rectangle for their flag, but a square: red with a white cross – and it was everywhere; as were images of gentians, edelweiss and mountain roses. Songs were about mountains, and jolly millers climbing them. Beating their chests, I imagine, and probably yodelling when they reach the summits. On our regular school outing we were cajoled up these same mountains like columns of soldiers. Fidiri, Fidira, Fidiralala…, we sang as we marched uphill in pairs – or wheezed in my case. The experience asphyxiated something in my moleheart. I felt encaged by mountains and longed for the sea and shabby chaos our family had left behind. Lalalala-ha-ha-ha-la, Juhe.

The song I found myself humming as I trundled up Knocklofty this week was quite a different kettle of fish. I first heard it when I was a slightly older mole and beginning to fidget at the confines of the parental burrow. I first heard it one evening when I took a tram into sleepy, buttoned-up Bern and discovered Bärn. It was hidden, not behind its beautiful facades, but deep underground, down steep steps descending from trapdoors off the cobbled streets. They were always dark, these spaces, thick with smoke. You had to feel your way for somewhere to sit, usually the rough stone floor.

Just a chap on a wooden chair with a guitar. Mani Matter, law student by day and troubadour by night.

Our schooling was all in German. Anyone who wanted to be taken seriously wrote and spoke in German. Bärndütsch was seen as backward. But Mani Matter sang in this local dialect. He and a like-minded group were determined to wrestle the language from the stranglehold of sentimental Heimat prose and platitude, and bring it to life with irony, philosophical thinking and robust debate.

His songs were gentle, witty little stories sung to jaunty tunes. And they contained nuggets.

The song* I was humming as I trundled up Knocklofty is a story in which the narrator is walking home one night when he sees a man approaching the parliamentary buildings with dynamite. Is he really about to blow them up he asks. Yes, it has to be, let anarchy reign. As a good citizen the narrator feels duty-bound to do something. His fear makes him eloquent. He espouses the state, the hard won values of freedom and democracy. In a speech that ‘would have made a horse patriotic’, he moves the anarchist to tears. Danger is averted and the anarchist slinks off.

But at home in bed the narrator runs through his speech again. Doubts begin to eat away at his convictions. Was he right to praise Switzerland like that? Now the doubts grow each time he passes the parliament, and he can’t help thinking that all it would take is a couple of sacks of dynamite.

It was this song, allowing doubt to enter what for me had been an impenetrable cultural narrative, that allowed me to embrace my adoptive city. It sowed the seed of a deep love for Bärn, and a way of questioning that stays with me here and now, the other side of the world.