Monthly Archives: July 2015

The Cousins

I had the strangest dream last night. It may have been the Shropshire Blue that I polished off before I went to bed; that and my excursion to the archives to fossick through the documents newly released by the Foreign Office and MI6. The long and the short of it is that I dreamt that Cousin Ezekiel had shot Mr X.

I’m not sure why I haven’t mentioned Cousin Ezekiel before. I suppose I didn’t see him very often, but that doesn’t mean he left no impression. He turned up every year or so with a carpetbag. My late Mama called it a Hebammekoffer because it was the kind of thing midwives carried about. Cousin Ezekiel was not amused at this; he was very particular about his appearance. He dressed like a conductor and had even somehow managed to part the pelt on the top of his head. There was some debate in the burrow about how this might have been achieved. Uncle Ratty said he was sure it was Macassar oil, and Great Uncle Mole saying that Macassar oil might work for parting rat fur, but for parting mole pelt nothing short of varnish would do the trick.

I remember on summer mornings when we ate breakfast in Great Uncle Mole’s little garden, how Cousin Ezekiel buffed his claws and then blew the dust off in short, sharp puffs. He kept the buffer in a velvet pouch, drawn close with a tassled drawstring. Buffing at the breakfast table irritated Mama, but I would try to will Cousin Ezekiel to devote his concentration to buffing from the first flick of his coat-tails as he sat down to the dabbing of the last crumb of toast from his snout with the starched napkin kept solely for his visits. I wanted him to keep buffing because as soon as he had drawn the strings of his pouch closed, he would adjust his pince-nez, lean forward on the table with steepled paws and interrogate me about my dreams.

Now there is nothing quite so private to a young mole as its dreams. All its waking life is somehow under adult surveillance. But in the nest, eyes closed, the young mole can slither into a deliciously chaotic, inexplicable world of impossible feats, and wild adventures. I only once made the mistake of acceding to Cousin Ezekiel’s demand. He hooked the tail of my dream, reeled it in, and then dissected it for the entertainment of the assembled company, speaking of me in the third person as if I were not there. His spoke his words sharply but with unusually long silences between each one. And with mitteleuropean confidence, he delved into the deep flaws in my nature that the dream revealed, the traumas I had suffered, and my illicit desires. After that experience, I made my dreams up.

You may well be asking yourself about the chap who was shot. On the whole, we don’t go in for first names in the Mole family. Cousins were cousins. Of course naming moles by relationship becomes problematic because they change according to where you hang yourself and them on the family tree. To be quite honest I am a bit vague about whose cousin, Cousin Ezekiel was. Not mine. I don’t even think they were my Mama’s. Great Uncle Mole’s probably. What would that have made them to me? Once, twice, thrice removed? No matter, the reason Cousin Ezekiel had a monitor was because he had a twin and we had to find a way of referring to them separately. Although fortunately they seldom came to the burrow together. They were highly competitive and a game of Monopoly would have them at each others throats before the first card had been dealt

Cousin Ezekiel’s twin was as elusive as Ezekiel was probing. When asked to select a name, he said that X would do. Cousin X, someone ventured, I think it might have been Mama. No, Mr, he had said firmly, Mr X. And when, map enthusiast that I was, I brought out an atlas to get The Cousins to show me where they came from, he cut off Cousin Ezekiel’s reply and said: ‘Ruritania. Find that if you can’.

Mr X existed in a state of high drama. He always arrived unannounced and late at night. He wore a cape in all weathers, outside and in, and hogged a position in front of the fireplace whether it was lit or not. His visits to England were inevitably associated with some mission or other, or so he said. He was a great raconteur. And he would launch into tales of the danger he was in, but then stop in mid sentence and cite the Official Secrets Act. ‘Hush-hush, you know’.

Why did I have my dream? Cousin Ezekiel would never have accepted my mundane explanation of the Shropshire Blue, but he is not around to offer an alternative. But I am glad I had it, because it has reminded me that between them the cousin sowed the seeds to my current trade. Cousin Ezekiel forcing me into falsifying dreams, and Mr X forcing me into inventing the endings to the dramatic tales he never concluded.

Heart murmurs and beauty spots

English can be so dashed underhand. It takes some perfectly benign word and injects it with a second, malign interpretation. Some while back, I heard on the grapevine – well perhaps not a grapevine, but via one of those ingenious subterranean communication systems, – that a pal of mine had tried to locate Murmurs of Mole, but instead of my ponderings was presented with the addresses of skin clinics and advice on how to diagnose heart ailments.

Heart murmurs. Could anything sound more benign? I imagine sweet nothings, one loving heart communicating sub voce with another. And not so very long ago, a mole (of the skin variety) was considered a mark of beauty? A beauty spot – like an especially glorious feature in the landscape. It was once considered such a mark of beauty by humans that if they did not have one occurring naturally they might carefully apply one to a cheekbone, with a pen.

A pen. But a darker memory keeps wanting to surface; one that is deeply associated with a grizzled old mole called Trelawney. He lived in a burrow in the neighbouring field, far too close to Great Uncle Mole for comfort. Great Uncle Mole called him an old curmudgeon. ‘A curmudgeon, indeed’, Uncle Ratty would mutter. ‘Raving lunatic, more like’. Trelawney kept an illegal still in his kitchen where he made a firewater concoction that involved fermented worms and horehound. His parlour, on the other hand, had been given over to an arsenal of blunderbusses. Whenever it took his fancy, but especially when there was a full moon, he would blast one off, sometimes two, – usually into the air, but on bad days in random arcs. With each shot, we’d hear him bellowing out the name of a ship: ‘Providence’, bang, ‘Charles II’, bang, ‘Castle Forbes’, bang . . .. His ancestors were Cornish, it was said, and ran a network of smuggling tunnels, never discovered by the authorities. Although why he had it in for the ships, no-one could fathom.

Trelawney was a noisy mole, which was just as well. I could usually hear him coming in time to scuttle back to the burrow before he had me in his sights. But sometimes he remembered the stealth his ancestors must have cultivated. He thrilled in coming up on small moles from behind and roaring so close to our earholes, we almost asphyxiated in the fug of his 100% proof breath. Worse would come. He’d clamp his gigantic paw on your shoulder, claws digging into your pelt – and spin you round and nail you with his manic eyes. Then he’d frighten the living daylights out of you with his tales.

Mole-catchers were his pet theme. They lurked everywhere, behind every hedgerow, gatepost and shed. Mole-catchers lurked with sacks and they especially liked small moles because of their soft, velvety pelts. These soft velvety pelts were in particular demand because the most narcissistic of humans were not content with using a pen for their beauty spots. Why did we think these beauty spots were called moles? Because they were made of mole. Eyebrows, too, slithers of pelt. Mole pelt. He would leer as he said this, baring his ruined teeth. Young mole pelt.

Trelawney became more and more erratic as time went on, and one year when I returned for my annual stay with Great Uncle Mole, he was there no more. The garden of his burrow had been tidied. The front door had been painted. The air was somehow still, almost dead. It wasn’t the same. I realised that I missed the thrill of his presence.

But I have no desire for my dear readers to be confronted by moles and murmurs of the wrong kind when they seek my pages. Luddite mole though I am, I must examine the blueprints again and find a way of protecting them from the intrusions of Trelawneyish intimations of mortality.

Above all, I must reclaim mole for myself and my kinsfolk. If I were a puffed up sort of a mole I would pronounce us the glorious features in the landscape.


There are times that a word I have been quite innocently mulling about detonates without warning. It usually happens when I have read the word and then pondered the concept it represents, with the written word still floating in the background of my mind somewhere like a banner from an old advertising aeroplane. Perhaps it comes from all those Sunday afternoons spent nutting out cryptic crosswords with Uncle Ratty and his sister, and Papa, of course. Not only then, it has been a delicious weekly treat that has stayed with me over the years; one that comes packaged with memories of Russian Caravan tea and Madeira cake and a hint of Papa’s pipe tobacco. There is no doubt in my mind that messing about with double meanings and contractions, and seeing words as bundles of letters waiting to anagram themselves into different ones has permanently confused my neural pathways.

The word I was mulling about was ‘rehearsal’, and this had set me off into a reverie about Boxing Day, when the entire extended Mole family would descend on and down Great Uncle Mole’s burrow for charades and high tea. These were not the kind charades where one creature mimes a word to an audience, but rather an elaborate series of playlets in each of which crucial syllable is casually dropped into the script. We conspired in whispers, we ransacked trunks, raided the burrow for props, unhung curtains for cloaks, dusted our pelts with flour, wore saucepans on our heads. I have never been in any other kind of play, but I was bitten by the bug. All these years later there is still an inner Thespian bursting to get out.

But that was not how my mulling about rehearsals was set into motion. I had been berating myself for faffing, for not planning my day in advance. There was in my mind a whole scroll, a sort of NOT DONE list that blared like an out-of-tune trumpet. If only I could have that day over, I thought. And then I remembered a line from poem by Wisława Szymborska: ‘your character like a raincoat buttoned on the run.’ This was the line that set me off into Boxing Days of the past, but then I came back to the present and sought the poem out. ‘If only I could rehearse just one Wednesday in advance’, Szymborska writes, ‘or repeat a single Thursday that has passed. But here comes Friday with a script I haven’t seen.’ I can almost see her, speechless on a stage as she faces her audience. ‘I know nothing of the role I play … I have to guess on the spot … just what the play’s about’.

Rehearsal. Rehearse. Suddenly the hearse leapt out at me. Re-hearse. Hearse again. Another day wasted, consigned to the grave. There surely couldn’t be an etymological connection between the one word and the other; although whether there is or not becomes immaterial to the imagination which loops and swirls letters and objects, tingles and tastes, colours and shapes with irreverent abandon.

Still, I couldn’t help myself. I moseyed along to the bookshelf where I keep Great Uncle Mole’s Oxford English Dictionary. They are weighty volumes, almost too much for my tired paws, but it takes barely a flicker to kindle my insatiable curiosity. Hearse and rehearse do indeed stem from the same old French word. ‘Harrow’ was their English root. Preparing somehow, I suppose, – the ground, a play.

Life. Unrehearsed. Harrowing.

But what those charades didn’t have was a rehearsal. They didn’t need to be perfect. That was why they were such a hoot.


Oh Lordy, I hadn’t quite realised how far and wide these murmurs might venture – beyond the grave, even, or so it seemed. Returning from a stroll a couple of days ago, I discovered an airmail letter in my letterbox. The envelope blended rather with the icy blue stamp which depicted Marianne, Phrygian cap on head and an uncharacteristic wariness in her eyes. Jetlag, possibly. Or was it from hovering above Mathilde’s spiky copperplate all the way from the Alsace. Because the address had without doubt been written by Mathilde’s paw – Mathilde who had been dead these last twenty-three years.

I pootled back to my burrow, humming the Marseillaise to still the unease in my tummy. Mathilde alive had sent me aquiver, but I’d been able to rest in the knowledge that she was over ten thousand miles away. ‘Ils sont kilomètres’, I can hear her correcting. ’16 886 kilomètres, précisément’. Now miles and kilometres had become immaterial. Beyond the grave she was omniscient.

I don’t usually pour myself a whisky mid-afternoon, but these were peculiar circumstances. Fortified, I sliced the envelope open with a small dagger and pulled out the missive. It was typed. The words ‘Vélosolex’ and ‘le coquin Ratty’ leapt out at me. There were more references further on to Ratty being a swine and a thief and English, to boot. Mathilde was never mild in her accusations. And there was a demand to return the said Vélosolex ‘immédiatement’.

Alas, I don’t have the Uncle Ratty’s Vélosolex anymore. Would I return it if I did? I do still have the photograph, though. It is still in its frame although the brown paper backing is becoming brittle. It came into conversation during my apprenticeship year when I was living with Great Uncle Mole, and was bemoaning the cost of a train ticket back to the parental burrow in Switzerland. ‘We used our legs when we were your age’, Great Uncle Mole said, ‘And our bicycles’. ‘Or the Velosolex’, said Uncle Ratty with a dreamy look in his eyes as he went off to unhook the photograph from the wall. ‘Those days’, he said, and went on to talk about the Resistance, rather implying that he had been involved. I was at a skeptical age and when he showed me the fuzzy photograph of himself, or so he said, on a Vélosolex next to a pockmarked wall, I just thought, well one rat in a beret looks much like another. I expressed my doubts to Great Uncle Mole who often pooh-poohed his friend’s stories. ‘Of course it’s Ratty’, he said, ‘I took the bally thing myself’.

I felt ashamed at having doubted Uncle Ratty, especially as that very afternoon he took me to a lock-up not far from the river. His boat took up most of the space, but behind it was a strange shape under a dust-sheet. He flicked it off like a magician and revealed this wonderful contraption, a squat black bicycle with a motor that could be hooked to the handlebars, or engaged with the wheel. Not only was he showing it to me, he was giving it to me – his treasure – so that I could travel to Switzerland, a twenty-five hour trip if you disregard the Channel.

Over the next couple of days we planned out the route Calais, Arras, Charleville, Metz, Nancy Mulhouse, Basle, Berne. He drew it all out for me in indelible pencil and attached the sheets of paper to a board with a bulldog clip, and he found odd bits of wood and wire and even a torch and secured the lot onto the handlebars.

It was a long, slow journey but incredibly exciting. I could feel the kind of stirrings that I imagine attacked the ancient Mr Toad from time to time. I rode through sleet and hail and sun. I slept in fields by day and rode at night. I got lost in towns and found my way again. I grew up on that Vélosolex. And I repeated the adventure half a dozen times.

Did Ratty give it to me because it wasn’t his to keep? Or did he, I now wonder, have some thought of my returning it to Mathilde as he plotted my route through Alsace. Was it indeed Mathilde’s? I’ve never known Uncle Ratty to even pinch a sugar-lump. Honourable to a fault, however tall his stories sometimes were.

The letter was not from Mathilde. It was from her niece, Solange who although the spitting image of her aunt, was of this world. Like her aunt, she wasted nothing and this old envelope, already addressed by Mathilde, had no doubt been lying around for a score years or more, waiting for an occasion. And Solange had happened upon murmurs and the Vélosolex, and taken the opportunity to try and right regurgitated wrongs.

How can I possibly know what the circumstances were in those chaotic post-war years? And there is no-one left to ask. No Great Uncle Mole or Uncle Ratty or Tante Mole. Nor is there Mathilde, not even beyond the grave.

Spaghetti junction

There are times when I tremble before a blank sheet of paper, but it is not usually beginning that plagues my writing life. In the mornings I tootle off to my shed, and sit down on my stool with the sort of flourish you might expect from a concert pianist: flicking back coat-tails, raising paws over keys, breathing in – slowly, deeply, before concentrating the entire body for the first note or word. On a blank paper day, one word will lead to another, a page will fill and then another. The first word is immaterial and the last is a surprise. But these days are rare. Most days are not blank page days.

Beginning is not a problem, but continuing is. What yesterday’s Mole wrote may be unfathomable to the Mole who returns to the shed today. Or today’s Mole may be utterly immobilised by the plethora of choices inherent in the writings of yesterday’s Mole. Or perhaps not immobilised, but fired with enthusiasm for some small secondary thread, some chance aside that will (so thinks the euphoric and delusional today Mole) lead to some brilliant narrative scenario. Tomorrow’s Mole will then be seen, head in paws, trying to unravel the mess.

When I am stuck one of my greatest sources of solace is the Paris Review interview series. In the winter of 1986 D L Doctorow told his interviewer that writing was ‘like driving your car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ I imagine a little black Morris Eight with running boards snailing along. The night is misty, but the road is straight, defined each side by poplar trees. There are no crossroads. Perhaps it is Normandy.

This is not the road I am on. Imagine a spaghetti junction. Outside Los Angeles, let us say. This Mole is quailing on Uncle Ratty’s old Velosolex, hedged in by thundering semi-trailers and smart Cadillacs. Night-blindness casts all signage into fuzzy obscurity. And were it not obscure, timidity would still prevent the Mole from launching into the carbon-dioxide haze of traffic to change lanes. Instead the Velosolex and its rider are swept off course for miles and miles and miles, with no hope of return. Not like the little Morris Eight in Normandy gently chugging to its destination without distraction.

The trouble with quotes is that they are always out of context. When I went to re-read the original interview I saw that yes, it was a country road Doctorow was imagining, but it was not without its hazards. He acknowledged that the car might veer off ‘into culverts, through fences into fields, and so on’. And you mightn’t notice you’d gone off course, not for ages. Then you have to flounder about, retrace your tyre marks and try to get back to the road. I imagine – no, I know – this can sometimes take days, weeks, months.

It is a hazardous way of working – Doctorow acknowledges this, but there is a lesson here to be learnt. If I can ever extricate myself from this spaghetti junction, I shall commit to myself to sticking to country roads from now on. Even when I lose my way I shall be able to feel the dew under my paws, the breeze on my pelt and fill my molelungs with great gulps of fresh air as I retrace my steps.