Monthly Archives: August 2016

Ps & Qs

This murmur has been a long time coming. I have been in one of my writing muddles. It happens when I have written too much. I am fine when I edit as I go, but if I don’t I find it very hard to re-read. I look at the middle of the page and see the words spreading out north, south, east and west. When I am writing, I need a particular kind of focus, a sort of policing force, that blanks down the options and steers me along in a specific direction. I don’t have any great preference for one paw over another; put a pen in each and I will write from the middle and proceed to the edges, one paw’s writing mirroring the other’s. When I want to write something that makes sense to others I need a run up to it, a sort of nudge that starts me on the left and propels me to the right.

This ambimindedness can make things tricky, but sometimes it can be quite useful. When one paw is sore, for instance, I can hand the baton to the other. And there was something else that I learned the day after the Save Our Souls Storm.

You may have begun to wonder what became of the oilskin package that Uncle Ratty rescued (along with Chelsea Rat) and brought back to Great Uncle Mole’s burrow.

We were a bedraggled trio when we got back to the burrow. It was well after midnight but Uncle Ratty insisted on hot baths and cocoa before we retired. So it wasn’t until the next morning, when I woke up in the little room that was always mine, that I was truly assailed with the sense of being both embraced and unshackled. Something happened to my little moleheart every time I came to stay with Great Uncle Mole. It lurched a little when I remembered that he was not there, but that did not stop me from my rather exuberant celebration.

When Uncle Ratty tapped on the door frame I was no longer jumping on my bed, but I was standing in front of the tarnished bar mirror whistling the Marseillaise, paw on heart,

‘You’ll need to twiddle it down a bit, young Moley. Poor old Chatters is nervous as a kitten.’
At least he didn’t tell me to mind my Ps & Qs (whatever they were – Pleases and ThanQs, I supposed), which is what Great Uncle Mole would have done in his growly voice.


‘Seems he prefers it. School name. Doesn’t like being a headline.’

Chatters. I don’t think I ‘d ever met anyone less chatty than the The Chelsea Rat. Perhaps it was his chattering teeth.

If it hadn’t still been pelting with rain, I would have left the burrow and gone for an explore after breakfast, but it was and I found myself stuck in the parlour where Chatters was making a poor show of sitting in Great Uncle Mole’s chair. He hadn’t the right girth or solidity. Great Uncle Ratty had lit a fire and brought in a pot of tea and shortbread even though we’d barely finished our toast and marmalade in the kitchen. We sat silently around the hearth, Uncle Ratty in his chair, me between them on the Egyptian pouffe. The rain hammered on the roof and every time there was a clap of thunder, Chatters’ dead eyes jerked open and he drummed his claws on the arm of the chair in agitation. Uncle Ratty tried to take his mind of it by bringing out a game of Ludo. God knows why. Then he decided music might do the trick and put Ma Rainey on the gramophone to cheer him up. Chatters became even more agitated and so he tried Schubert instead.

I began to envision my whole holiday incarcerated in this gloomy silence.

‘I know’, said Uncle Ratty, and disappeared.

He came back in staggering with the oilskin parcel and with a thunk laid it down on the table next to Chatters.

‘The nipper would like to know what this is.’

He’ll say no, I thought, if he says anything at all. But Uncle Ratty was not asking permission.

‘So I brought it in here.’ He began unfolding the corners.

‘Treasure’, he said to me.

I waited to be dazzled by diamonds and gold florins but when Uncle Ratty removed the oilskin my first impression was of unbroken greyness. Looking more closely I could identify a large wooden tray with lots of subdivisions, each filled with letters on blocks. There were other bits and pieces. I was intrigued. But treasure seemed to be over-egging the pudding.

Chatters’ paw reached out tentatively. Uncle Ratty handed him what looked like a small, shallow, lidless box. ‘Composing stick’, he said as if he were handing an instrument to a surgeon, ‘Galley’ he said, passing over a wooden try about the size of a Famous Five book.
A curious transformation came over Chatters. I could almost see his blood circulating; he became all animation, deftly picking out types and slotting them away into composing stick.

‘If the type does not make it treasure in your eyes, young Moley, the tale of it might at least stir your romantic heart.’ He settled into a tale-telling position which meant filling and lighting his pipe with agonising slowness. I fidgeted on the pouffe.

‘Shall I tell it, Chatters?’ As if there had been any question. A nod from the typesetter.

‘We already know that 7th January 1928 marked the beginning of the Big Thaw’, he began. ‘That was only the beginning. Chatters and his family were evacuated to Wales . The poor blighters had precious little to begin with but now they were homeless as well. After a week or two, when the flood levels receded, Chatters and his Papa went back to London to examine the ruins. All that was left intact was the larder and the bolthole into the Apothecary Gardens, the rest was a mass of sludge, fallen-in passageways, and a whole lot of flotsam brought in by the flood.’ Somehow yesterday and 1928 merged themselves in my mind. I forgot that the family had been poor and imagined all those splendid rooms I’d walked through in Chatters’ burrow being sucked into the Thames, their contents sinking or floating out to sea.

‘They painstakingly went through the debris to see if anything could be rescued.’

‘Two chairs, a bedstead, a jam cauldron and some forks’. The voice was still high, but not as querulous as last night. There was no break in the typesetting.

‘And in what had once been the parental sleeping chamber…’, Uncle Ratty paused for effect. ‘A pile of what they thought must be coal, although it was rather angular. They put it aside because Chatters’ Papa knew he could sell it to a chap who owned a pub. But first they had to do what they could to make some liveable space. Some chums, and one or two relations pitched in’

‘Ratty was one of them’, Chatters squeaked from Great Uncle Mole’s chair.

‘It wasn’t until the family had squeezed back into the burrow and Chatters’ Mama was washing the mud off everything, that they discovered the coal was not coal at all but type. Being of a practical bent and thinking of the next meal, his Papa was all for melting it down. But to his spouse, poet and visionary, the heavy grey pile presented a glimmer hope. And when she examined the font of the typeface more carefully she felt her heart flutter in a way that, were she not the mother of seven nippers, she might have identified as falling in love.’

I glanced over at Chatters. His paws were constantly on the move between the tray and the stick. The sorts clicked together like little dominoes as they were put into place. I was mesmerised. Uncle Ratty’s tale still wafted in through my ears but I could not take my eyes off Chatters.

‘Chatters’ Papa was reluctant to leave the canals for this pie in the sky scheme, but when a chat with a lock-keeper led to a printing press that had belonged to a defunct missionary society and going dirt cheap, he put faith in Providence and his energy into learning the trade. It took her years, but under the firm paw of Chatter’s Mama the Apothecary Garden Press came into being. It was a bespoke press. The font on the sorts was not of a common or garden type and lent itself to special commissions. She exploited her inside knowledge of the Tate mercilessly for patrons, and inveigled her offspring into running errands.’

Each time Chatters completed three rows on his composing stick he slid the sorts onto the galley. Now it was full.

‘Allons enfants de la Patrie
Le jour de gloire est arrivĂ© !’ I sang.

Uncle Ratty gave me a stern look, not because I had so rudely interrupted him but, I was sure, because he believed my singing would undo all his careful work and send Chatters into a helpless bundle of nerves again. I stopped. But it wasn’t rebelliousness that had provoked me into song, it was the words I was reading on Chatters’ galley.

‘I heard young Moley singing this morning. It emboldens the heart whatever one might think of the politics. But,’ the voice from Great Uncle Mole’s chair squeaked, ‘What is more to the point, this nipper has a printer’s eye.’

I don’t think I had noticed that I was reading upside down and back to front, but suddenly all my muddles, or mubbles, or wnpples, or wnqqles or selbbum, selddum, sleqqnw or sleppnw had been revealed as having a name, a name to be proud of: A Printer’s Eye.

And the ‘Ps & Qs’ that were to be minded and which, when spoken to me, always appeared to be capitalised, had nothing to do with Pleases and ThanQs but with the difficulties faced by printers when trying to differentiate between ‘p’s and ‘q’s and ‘b’s and ‘d’s.

Chatters’ La Marseillaise hangs on my burrow wall to this day.

And if you are curious to read about the possible source of the type that was washed into that Chelsea Embankment burrow in January 1928 you can find the story here.

Mole is having a sabbatical and will be unplugged this week. the next murmur will appear on Friday 9th September.


The Flood

It has been a strange, warm, wet winter, the wettest winter on record here on this island. We have had floods, homes lost, over a hundred bridges washed away, and here, in the centre of the city where there was once a department store, then a fire, then a building site we now have a lake. Diggers lie semi-submerged, their cabins beneath its surface, their articulated arms and shovels above like so many Loch Ness Monsters. At home in my burrow I watch Niagara cascading from the leaf-clogged gutter, and am reminded of what Uncle Ratty and I later referred to as the Save Our Souls Storm.

It was a September and I don’t know why I wasn’t at school, but I can remember the train journey and the beating of my little heart as we began to enter molekin country. I always badgered my way into the same compartment. Any other creature already there, or joining us later, was an interloper as far as I was concerned. And so I took not the blindest piece of notice of the old biddy who took exception when I wrenched the window open and stuck my snout out. My Mama, had she been there, would have called it smut-gathering, but for me sniffing the air, feeling the rush of wind on my pelt, even the grit in my eyes, were part of an almost sacred ritual.

I didn’t wrench the window open at any old time but during the few moments between pulling out of the last tunnel and rounding the bend. My snout had to be out of that window so that, through my streaming eyes, I would be able to witness our entrance into the station and, most especially, to see the familiar figures of Great Uncle Mole and Uncle Ratty. They were always there, side by side, on the same section of the platform between the potted geraniums and the Left Luggage. Always. I may have been the subject of my parent’s peripatetic life, but Great Uncle Mole and Uncle Ratty were constants.

This time, though, I could only make out one figure. The leaner shape of Uncle Ratty. Great Uncle Mole wasn’t there. I felt a lurch in my moletum, a sudden presentiment that their burrow, which was such a sanctuary to me, might not always be there.

But as we drew in, and the train screeched to a halt positioning my carriage opposite the Left Luggage exactly as I had calculated, I could see that Uncle Ratty’s good cheer was undiminished.

Great Uncle Mole, he explained, had been called out of retirement for some emergency consultations in London, and would be away for the best part of the week. Now that my mind was eased and I could begin to breathe normally again, I began to relish the prospect of a week with Uncle Ratty. We could sing raucous sea shanties in the passageways, adventure out as the fancy took us and be beastly careless about the time we got home. There would be no-one to tut-tut Uncle Ratty when his stories veered wildly from the truth or to press books like Investigations into Rigid Frame Bridges, volume III, into my paws when what I was yearning for were the Famous Five. I loved Great Uncle Mole dearly, but he did rather have his own way of doing things.

But the experiment was never to take place. When we got back to the burrow there was a telegramme on the doormat. Please rescue stop larder episode all over again stop cannot bear it stop. Thirteen words precisely. Before I had even put down my case, we were heading off to to catch another train. I was fermenting with questions but Uncle Ratty was so taken up with consulting his Bradshaws, hustling us to the station, buying sandwiches, procuring tickets and locating seats, that I had to put up with them growling about in my stomach. But once we were on the 2.32 London bound train I knew I had him trapped for at least three quarters of an hour.

And so, while heavy drops began to hit the carriage window, he began telling me about his cousin, The Chelsea Rat, so named by the Evening Star in 1928, and stuck with it ever since, poor blighter. ‘Why was he in the paper?’ I piped in, unable to contain myself even though I knew Uncle Ratty would tell me in his own time. ‘And what about the larder?’

A crack of thunder all but drowned out my last question and the lights in the carriage flickered.

‘Poor old Chelsea’, said Uncle Ratty peering out, not that there was much to be seen; the window was awash. The carriage had suddenly turned chilly.

The Chelsea Rat lived on the Thames not very far from Albert Bridge, Uncle Ratty said as he fished a disreputable jumper out of his bag and tossed it over to me.

It had been a veritable water-rat metropolis before that wretched embankment was built.

I was glad Great Uncle Mole wasn’t there to hear the word ’embankment’. We would never have heard the end of it. As it was, I thought Uncle Ratty was straying from the story, or at least from the questions that still hung in the air.

There’d been protests, he went on, but to no avail. The dredgers came in, a fascination to the nippers but a bane to their parents; burrows cracked and caved in. The great exodus began. Then the foundations were sunk and stone walls laid, blocking all the burrow entrances. Only a few stalwart families stayed on. Chelsea Rat’s family was one of them, his grandfather to be precise.

‘His Grandfather‘, I squeaked. ‘I want to know about Chelsea Rat!’

His Grandfather, Uncle Ratty continued, was a river-rat. He made quite a bit out of removals during the exodus, but after that trade went into a terrible slump and the family became penniless.

‘Chelsea Rat’, I said, pouting and crossing my front paws. If we didn’t get on with it we’d arrive at Paddington and I’d be none the wiser.

The long and the short of it, Uncle Ratty conceded, is that Chelsea Rat’s Papa had to take work on the canals in the north, and his Mama, who was the a poet at heart, worked as a char at at the Tate Gallery just up river; – which meant that on the night of the Big Thaw, the 7th of January in that cruel winter of 1928, Chelsea Rat, who was the eldest, was at home in charge of his seven siblings. And it was that night that the embankment collapsed. Chelsea Rat felt the ground give way, the walls collapse, the ceilings fall in. He herded his siblings into the highest, most inland chamber in the burrow, the larder, and waited for his Mama to come home. Normally, she would have been home well before midnight, but that night she had been corralled into rescuing the Turner drawings in the Tate basement. Chelsea Rat thought she must have drowned. The eight little nippers were discovered by rescuers the following morning. They were squashed together like sardines, no room even to sit down. The burrow, apart from the larder, had all but disappeared.

My moletum lurched as it had that morning when Great Uncle Mole was not standing on the platform, a horrible presentiment of impermanency.

The storm was positively biblical by the time we reached London and I can’t tell you the state we were in after we had trekked south to the Thames and were approaching the Apothecaries’ Garden where the original bolt hole of Chelsea Rat’s burrow was to be found. No water entrance existed now. Chelsea Rat was spooked by the merest drop of rain. We found the poor ancient rat quaking in the larder where he had taken refuge all those decades before.

The burrow I had imagined after Uncle Ratty’s tale, was a larder plus a few decrepit chambers propped up with stays, wallpaper water-stained and peeling; but it was a grand and quite extensive place, and even had its own library. Uncle Ratty managed to coax Chelsea Rat into the kitchen, brew him some oxo with a heavy dose of something from a flask; and we went to investigate. I have to say I was not feeling that brave. Uncle Ratty told me how far inland we were, how unlikely another flood was. He spoke with little conviction. We spent several hours moving books and paintings and even some furniture to the highest chambers. I moaned that my paws were tired and he reminded me that Chelsea Rat’s Mama had moved paintings all night during the floods of 1928. Still he sent me to the kitchen to sit with Chelsea Rat.

It felt like hours before either of us said anything. We sat, two fearful creatures, staring at the table. Then Chelsea Rat whispered hoarsely, ‘The press. Tell him to get the press.’ Did he mean the Evening Star, was he somehow confusing this flood with the last? I went to get Uncle Ratty.

I found him staggering up the stairs with a large oilskin-wrapped bundle; he looked exhausted. I felt horribly guilty about having deserted him. I gave him Chelsea Rat’s message.

‘Got it’, he wheezed.

Back in the kitchen the flask had done its stuff, emboldened Chelsea Rat to speech ‘The press. It must be made safe.’ Uncle Ratty said we could take it to Mole’s; that Mole’s burrow was the equivalent of a Mount Ararat as far as being above the flood level went. That, in fact, Chelsea Rat should come with us, just in case.

It was late that night that we got home. I was never, ever so pleased to be there as I was then. But try as I might I could not help imagining water filling the tunnels. I yearned for the return of Great Uncle Mole who, for all his fussing about, made the burrow a home, one that you could believe in forever.