Victory Loops

Once, a very long time ago – before I was even born, Uncle Ratty took his life into his paws and went for a jaunt in Sir Toad’s biplane. It nearly killed Great Uncle Mole. I know this, because the adventure was one of Uncle Ratty’s favourite stories (and had I not met the elderly Sir Toad, I might have suspected him of embellishment), but if ever he told me about it we had to be sure Great Uncle Mole was nowhere within earshot.

Toad piloted with more panache than skill. The higher the risk the more he revelled in it. He had no concept of tomorrow; caution bored him witless. Although a virtual novice he went in for victory loops and fancy spins, half rolls and crazy eights – he flew within a whisker of steeples and terrified cattle as he all but shaved their coats.

Of course the story would have thrilled any nipper but its real danger only impressed itself upon me one afternoon when Uncle Ratty and I had come in from a kite-flying expedition and, one thing leading to another, he began to regale me again with his death-defying adventure. As he flung his paws about describing the way the plane had appeared to be heading straight for the local library, nose first, there was a sudden crash from a darkish corner of the room, followed by a thump. The crash was Engineering in Ancient Greece; the thump was Great Uncle Mole from whose paws the volume had slipped as he slithered to the ground and joined it. Between us Uncle Ratty and I pulled him into his chair. His pelt already flecked with grey appeared to pale before our eyes.
I was sent to the cellar to retrieve the cognac.

Moles are most comfortable under the earth and close to home. The air is an alien element. Besides, I later discovered, poor old Great Uncle Mole had watched the plane and its antics from the from the ground, seen it flip and weave and then the finale when Sir Toad steered it straight for the river in an attempt, he later said, to fly it under the bridge. Great Uncle Mole had nursed Uncle Ratty as he recovered from a broken shoulder and three cracked ribs, but it was really he who had most suffered from the after-effects.

As if my intrinsic molehood were not enough to give me the wobbles whenever I board an aeroplane, Great Uncle Mole’s deathly visage tends to insinuate itself as soon as we bump along the runway.

But it didn’t happen when I took to the air a few days ago. For a while on this flight we were in the clouds, a space where neither what we had left nor where we were heading was visible. Above the clouds we were in a serenity of blue. And when we descended back down and the clouds gave way to a clear view of the world below I was not wobbled by the distance between myself and the comforting earth but awed by the view, as Uncle Ratty said he had been. Although he only spoke of flying as if his whole experience had been that first one with Sir Toad, I can’t believe that on that occasion he could have done anything beyond holding onto his seat and keep his internal organs intact. It must have a been on a different occasion, and certainly with a different pilot, that he had time to philosophise about being able to see the relationship between things, of being able to see Toad Hall and the forest and the snaking of the river and the railway line, the market towns and the city, and somehow being above rather than lost in what a chum of his called the kesselgarten, the hubbub on the ground.

It is so rare to get this overview. Within minutes of admiring the coast and the green hills and parched paddocks we were on the tarmac, and it came to me how very, very close to the ground we are, even on our hindlegs. And as I stood near the baggage conveyer I was reminded of how those of us who are short, and stout to boot, rarely get any line of vision at all. And how quickly on the ground we are reabsorbed into the minutiae of life.

I am back in my daily mole-self, in danger of seeing only the muddle in front of my snout. The earth is my element but something of the air lingers enticingly. Pen in paw, I think about this thing I am trying to write, lift myself a little above its individual words, see if I can imagine from the sky.

And perhaps with a victory loop or two.


On Enticing a Murmur

Sometimes a murmur comes to me almost fully formed. More often it is enticed by an overheard scrap of conversation, or a painting, or a word, or two: random words, weird words, archaic words, foreign words. Mid murmur my burrow is often strewn with open dictionaries, glossaries, lexicons, Dudens, larousses, etymologies. Or it may appear spectre-like while I am rummaging in the cellar where strange, half-remembered objects turn up in unexpected places.

At other times no murmur comes at all. There is no tickle in the snout as there might be were a sneeze to announce itself. There is no humming of the wires anticipating a telegraph or cloud that might augur rain. The murmur is nowhere within cooee. In my bleakest moments I wonder whether the murmur has wrung itself dry.

I go to my desk, sharpen my quill, grit my teeth – grind them even – with concentration. My paws are clenched with effort, a furrow of pelt has can be discerned along my scowl-line.

Please, I implore the murmur, please, please. Come ON, I urge, the ticking weight of a clock heavy on my shoulders. I fall to my knees in supplication. And when, finally, I feel as if I have exhausted all deities I struggle upright again.

Nothing. Nichts. Nada.

I pout. Blasted murmur. Where are you when I need you.

I stomp about a bit and hmmph.

Night falls. I tell myself, there must be a murmur somewhere.

Is it possible that it is not the murmur that is at fault. Maybe it had to leave the molebody to survive. Could it be that during the light, bright hot summer I have not provided the fertile ground a murmur needs in order to thrive.

There has to be a lightness of ear, of touch, of ear. It won’t do to look too hard, try too hard, want too hard. For once I have set that looking, trying, wanting too hard in motion I have the tenacity, less of a mole than of a terrier. I will clutch with such desperation at an idea that when the time comes to play with it I find I have throttled it with my bare paws.

If I am not being tenacious I lurch into the opposite extreme and find myself fidgeting. Almost any kind of distraction will do: worry distractions that roam pointlessly between the sky falling in and whether I will miss the post, or mind-numbing distractions like puzzles or checking the letter-box or adjusting my chair. The only distractions that work are those expeditionary ones that flow from an engaged mind.

I have to remove the ‘I’ for a murmur to be enticed. If a patience can be cultivated, a sense of timelessness, a murmur might nibble, and once it has nibbled only gentle attentiveness will allow it to flourish.

The equinox has come, the nights are longer, the air is cooler. I can feel in my mole-bones that the time for murmuring is returning.



Yesterday afternoon (although it may have been any afternoon, or morning, or evening; the phenomenon occurs with such quotidian regularity), I realised that I was finding it difficult to see the words on the page I was reading. It was as if something had come between me and the book; a sort of sea fog, except there was none of that salty dampness about it.

Only seconds before, it could have been longer — I did seem to have read four chapters in the interval — my snout was twitching with the aroma of a cheesy leek and potato pie.

My eyes began to smart, my throat was rough. The conductivity of the wires that connect my snout to my brain leaves a lot to be desired, but the blackening fog made reading impossible and I began to open my mind to the outside world.

It’s not just pies. I might be stirring a sauce and a thought will butterfly its way into my mind and I find I have teleported to the cellar and am reading letters from Mathilde’s Great Aunt. Or I’m running a bath and it is only when I see manuscript pages floating down the corridor that I am nudged away from a thesaurus and begin to register that once, a long time ago, I had started a process and this was the outcome.

My Mama, who was much less inclined to abandon the task in hand, had a battery of pingers that she would set to keep tabs on her various activities. There would be one ticking away for a cake in the oven, another for when one nipper had to be picked up from Kindergarten, a third for how long a larger nipper had to keep at his times tables, and a fourth for timing a telephone conversation. The days that were most dominated by pingers were those when it was our turn to use the washing machine. The laundry was in the cellar of our six family burrow and had a tightly regulated roster. The pinger on the three-weekly two-day allocations went off at 90 minute intervals.

In summer the laundry could be hung outside, but in the darkest days of winter it had to hang in the cold, windless drying rooms in the cellar. It was trickier to find a mnemonic that took in the measure of drying time. And being a foreign mole she was scrupulous about not exceeding her allocation — although she eventually took to slipping in a wash or two on Sundays which was strengstens verboten.

In her latter years, the pingers became bewildering: reminders that something needed to be remembered, but what that thing was losing itself somewhere in the ether. She devised a different system, sometimes involving the pingers, sometimes not.

If my Mama found thoughts and times and plans and decisions increasingly difficult she made up for it with an astounding visual memory, especially if that memory was geographically located. If you mentioned a stroll, undertaken once in an unfamiliar location, she could tell you about white fences, strange door handles, a holly bush, a yellow bucket and a woman singing and where they all were in relation to each other.

And so she devised a system of cards, favourites culled from birthdays and Christmases. Martini’s Angel of the Annunciation was placed on her pillow in her bedroom whenever something associated with the laundry had to be remembered. A Flemish still life, perhaps Brueghel the Elder, was placed on the steps in the kitchen as a reminder that the rubbish had to be put out. A Japanese woodcut on the chest in the hallway became the trigger that it was her turn to sweep the stairwell.

As I scrub the encrusted cinders from the saucepan of my most recent disaster, and remember a smokey, ashy meal, I wonder whether I could adopt her strategy; after all, this protracted post-disaster scrubbing eats into valuable reading time. Would I remember why I’d placed these cards in strange places? Would anywhere in my image-strewn burrow stand out from anything else?

Perhaps what I really need to do is nurture a habit of attentiveness.



I can’t remember quite why but the other day I had gone into the box room to see if I could find a map of Turkestan among the books I had brought back from Great Uncle Mole’s burrow, and John Wood’s A Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Source of the River Oxus(1841) almost fell into my paws. Not only that but it flipped itself open on the following passage:

The coastline is submerged at spring-tides when the delta of the Indus resembles a low champagne tract of verdure, with tufts of mangrove dotted along its seaward edge; and the approach to the embouchure of this far famed stream has an unpromising aspect.

As I read it I found that it was Great Uncle Mole’s voice that I heard in my head. When I was quite a small nipper Uncle Ratty often told me great stories of derring-do at bedtime and this got me so revved up Great Uncle Mole would come in and attempt to calm be down again by reading me passages from books he himself wanted to read and which he imagined I might bore me to sleep.

They often did but from time to time one would capture my imagination. This was one of them. And looking at it now I can see that it was partly the poetry of the language (that was so unlike the engineering books he often read to me) but also because I had put my own interpretation on one of the words that I didn’t understand.

That word was embouchure. Great Uncle Mole’s French was rather good, Mathilde’s drilling and bullying had made sure of that, but when I heard the word I thought it was a variation of ‘ambush’. Danger now lurked behind the tufts of mangrove and within the blink of an eye the landscape was filled with one of Uncle Ratty’s adventures. Sleep was further away than ever.

I must have heard Great Uncle Mole use the word later when he and Uncle Ratty had their great discussions about jazz in general and in particular the relative benefit or hindrance of Uncle Ratty’s overbite and Great Uncle Mole’s canines when they played the saxophone. Uncle Ratty’s playing was sublime, overbite and all – he breathed downstream into his mouthpiece and had a growly technique that made my tummy rumble. But he pronounced what I now know as embouchure as if someone had trodden on his paw with hob-nailed boots.

The French pronunciation of embouchure it is almost onomatopoeic: ’em’, the preparation, the moment before; then ‘bouche’, the gushing forth; and then ‘ure’, the resting before the preparation again. There is a current to it, and a rhythm. Now, seeing embouchure in the context of John Wood’s river mouth, however unpromising, I have the sense of nothing having a beginning or an end. The embouchure is a moveable beast, its measure imprecise, fluctuating between tidal limits, mud flats, and fresh and saltwater components, the dwelling places of salmon and eels. The embouchure of a river takes many forms – it may broaden to an estuary hundreds of miles wide, it may become a delta and span out into multiple fingers or networks of islets, or it may run almost straight into the sea.

As a mole, my pelt appears to contain me. Were you to look at me you would see a stout brown thing with tiny eyes and a snout, but there is much of the world beyond that penetrates this being, and some of that being that exudes beyond itself. I like to think that I have some kind of embouchure, a place where internal and external influences intermingle, a sort of creative filter that gives me the time and space to decide how I interact with the world, what currents of influence I allow to escape (or intentionally project) and which currents of influence I allow to come in.



Yesterday, had you been able to see under my pelt, you would have seen that my molechest was all puffed up – not with pride exactly, but with delight. I had reached the summit of Knocklofty after a break that I thought would last until Doomsday.

Great Uncle Mole was a great walker. He walked in blizzards and tempests, gales and scorchers. He would walk at least twice a day. On his early walks, three, four hours sometimes, he required solitude. But in the afternoons he required company and when I was staying with him I was the company he required, though often Uncle Ratty came too.

There was a time when I balked at these walks, his stride was so much longer than mine, his puff so much greater. But as I grew my wheezles lessened and I found I could ease from a canter into to a trot and still keep up. After a while I began to realise that not only had I reached his pace but that Great Uncle Mole was beginning to slow down.

When was it? I can’t remember the year but it was late one autumn, the snippid dankness of rotting leaves assailed our snouts, the acrid bite of woodsmoke caught the backs of our throats. I had arrived the evening before and it was our first venture out. We donned duffle coats and gumboots as we always did that time of the year, and grabbed umbrellas from the stand, just in case.

I didn’t really notice at first, we had been climbing a small hill using our brollies as Alpenstocks, had stopped briefly at the top to watch the 4.16 from Paddington wind its way through the valley, and were now making our way along the crest. It was our habit, or at least a habit that I had copied from Great Uncle Mole, to carry our closed umbrellas against our shoulders as if we were soldiers with rifles. But Great Uncle Mole was continuing to use it as a stock. At first I thought he was being absent minded, not that I’d ever known his mind to be absent; he was the most mind-present mole I have ever known. Then I realised he was leaning on the umbrella. In fact he had a distinct hobble. And now I came to think of it, he had not been out in the morning, or hardly anyway, only down to the newsagent to pick up a copy of Meccano Magazine, because he thought ‘d be interested in an article he’d seen about tunnelling under the Thames for the East Anglia Railway.

There were days when his gammy leg just seemed a nuisance to him, but on others it seemed to me that if I had been able to light up his body according to where his focus lay, I would have seen that it had been sucked from his head to feed the beast that his gammy hindleg had become. He was terse on those days, angry with himself (and anyone around), frustrated at not being able to walk further, get his mind back where it belonged and not trapped where it had no business to be.

My pleasure in walking has increased with age just as my physical capacity has declined. I hobble and limp; if it is not my hip then it is my ankle, and when it’s both I feel incredibly old, older than I ever imagined Great Uncle Mole to be. I feel as if I have grown into the kind of old that I drew when I was a nipper; old moles were bent double, wore spectacles and leant on canes. I felt defeated.

But then after months and months there is a glimmer that this might not be a forever and forever; it may be some of the time, even most of the time, but not all of it, not yet.

Gaining the top of Knocklofty I began to feel a sense of flow. The hours of walking loosened my thoughts, mulched the layers of debris that had sunk into my inner being, and allowed my imagination to wander free.

When I next went to stay with Great Uncle Mole his hobble was greater but his mood had lifted. He had gathered a collection of walking sticks, took pleasure in selecting the one he would take out on any particular day. He didn’t walk as far but had earmarked fallen logs, styes, low walls and large rocks where he could sit and ponder. I was no longer expected or even invited to accompany him. It was Uncle Ratty who told me about the resting places.

No nipper could resist the temptation of treating the information as if it were a treasure hunt. And it was much more of a treasure hunt than I had expected, because in each spot there was a cache containing apples or nuts or a puzzles, and in one even a small book covered in oilskin. I thought they were for me and stuffed them into the pockets of my duffle coat. But then I discovered one with a note from Uncle Ratty that was so clearly intended for Great Uncle Mole that I was mortified at having trespassed and I retraced my steps and put everything back.

I wish now I could talk to Great Uncle Mole about how he managed to get his mind away from his leg and back into its rightful place, how he found a way of being himself notwithstanding the shrinking of his horizons.


Breathing Space


Then Altjahrswoche, that oasis in which to reflect on the year that is coming to an end and to prepare for one ahead. But it passes with lightning speed.

Whizz, Bang – the old year is rung out, the new rung in. It is the first of January.

And I am not ready.

I feel like a molefish, tossed from my familiar surroundings onto an unknown shore. I am flailing. The wave that flung me here has broken, is now receding. There is no going back for me.

I have arrived in the future unprepared, but I am not a naked molefish on a deserted beach. My landing has been accompanied by a motley collection of my very own flotsam and jetsam, the debris from last year, the year before, my childhood, the childhoods of my molekin and all my mole ancestors.

Poor old Altjahrswoche. How can it possibly be expected to contain the expectations I have gathered for it? If I want to reflect, clear the old away, tie up loose ends, think ahead – how can also enjoy it as the time for pausing and breathing between what has passed and what is to come? It becomes overloaded, and is then out of sorts, and so am I. A week is not elastic enough for me.

Especially when it is hot.

This time of year it can be too warm to think, too bright to reconfigure my scattered molebits into a contained and recognisable molepelt. Our calendar did not evolve on this island or anywhere near it. The new year is more or less aligned with the sun’s move northwards, and hooray, I say, may it hasten to the northern hemisphere and bring more light to those who wish it.

But I am a mole. In order to gather myself for reflection, for listening to my true moleself, I need to go underground, find some dark, breathe deeply, gather myself in, close my ears and focus my eyes. And I need time.

So I do what I always do when I can feel a frazzle coming on. I pull down the blinds, turn on a fan, ensconce myself in Great Uncle Mole’s armchair and rest my hindlegs on his Egyptian pouffe. I light one of the cheroots he was so fond of, and I wonder what can be done.

Clearly Altjahrswoche needs to be longer. And if Altjahrswoche is going to be longer then New Year needs to be delayed. The 1st of January is much too soon after Christmas. Rauhjahr and Yuletide do stretch through to Epiphany on January 6th, but those six extra days still feel inadequate. The Chinese New Year – the Rooster, – begins on 28th of January which would give me more leeway. Medieval calendars in Europe began their years on the 25th March, close to the vernal equinox. It would, of course, be the autumnal equinox here, but what better time than the point when the days really shorten and cooler weather sets in for this mole to hunker down to do whatever it is that it has decided it does best.

That would give me a whole Altjahrs quarter.

This spaciousness will allow me a season for thoughts to float. The old can still drift about a bit, be gently left behind when it is ready. Loose ends can linger awhile and then be tied with celebratory bows. Those that remain persistent can be threaded into future ventures. I will have time to float new ideas, to experiment, to let go what doesn’t work.

Now I can feel my lungs filling with air again.

Murmurs of Mole will be appearing fortnightly from now on.


The Diaries

Five weeks have passed. Spring is gone. Summer is here. The days are long and bright and loud. Christmas is nearly upon us. My poor moleparts are scattered like pollen on the currents of our wild, island winds.

I have come to believe that the writing worlds I create are bounded by a protective crust of ice and require an external dark to bring out the internal light. In the sun and the heat the crust melts and the fragile interior world is bleached into non-existence.

And so these last few weeks I have retired from the constant patrolling of boundaries, the unequal battle between sun and ice, and have inhabited instead a world created by my late mama; a world contained in a little wooden box that contains the tiny leather-bound diaries she kept some seventy years ago.

It is an intimate space. I have to hold the pages close; the diaries are almost lost in my paws, the writing is small, the pencil faint and my mole eyes dim. Our proximity and my concentration remove the distance between me, the reader, and my mama, the author.

We moles hoard all manner of things. We like the material evidence of our lives within touching reach. But what do we expect after we die? I have no hesitation with the goods and chattels left for me by Great Uncle Mole and Uncle Ratty. Their riches live on in my cellar. I’ve always known that my life and theirs were and are inextricably linked. They planted the seeds in the stories they told, in the objects they showed me. It is my task, it seems to me, to pay my respects, nurture that inheritance, make it my own and then evolve and reproduce and disseminate that particular something that is peculiarly Moley.

But I have felt much less sure about my relationship to the letters and diaries left by my mama. She took her own duty as curator of heirlooms very seriously indeed, made sure her offspring were prepared for the baton. But she was reserved and private and there is something different about our written thoughts as compared to, say, a clock, a pair of sugar tongs or a swordstick.

My mama kept diaries, two or three sentences every day, for over sixty years. Her diary-keeping was quite public, two or three sentences every day, at a desk in the living room. The most recent one or two were kept in a desk drawer. Another fifty or so resided at the back of the cupboard beneath it, obscured from curious eyes by an assortment of maps, canasta packs, Scrabble, Snakes & Ladders and Happy Families.

But the very oldest diaries, half the size of the rest, lived in a battered brown attaché case behind the winter eiderdowns on the top shelf of the wardrobe in the spare room. They shared the attaché case with birth certificates, old photographs, passports, Niederlassungsbewilligungen, and a letter or two from her father.

It was both a secret place and yet not, and the diaries – well, I wouldn’t say my mama exactly stroked them when she happened to have the attaché case open on her lap, but she was attached to them in some way that was different to the relationship she had with their younger brethren. My mama singled out these diaries. She was proud of them, as well as secretive.

When do private papers become historic artefacts? Even while she was alive I had the feeling that these older diaries had in transitioned from the one category to the other. Still I felt an initial unease, a fear of being intrusive, that she would be displeased. But now, perhaps it is the passage of time since she died, those barriers have evaporated.

The diaries live on my dining room table. Every time I settle myself to eat or work or draw, there they are in front of me. In this fractious season of festivities and missing those who are absent, the diaries bring me back to my molekin. They sit there, a gift bequeathed to her offspring, a gift of a way of life that ended when I was born.



It all begins with a stroke of a pen.

No, no, no; it starts before that: a something out of the corner of your eye, a whiff, or a tingle. Then it sort of floats around for a bit and coheres with other whiffs and tingles, scraps of old photographs, castaway words or tales that have lodged themselves in your little moleheart.

The pen may not even yet come into play. It can be nourished with ink so that it is within your paw’s grasp. And perhaps it is not a bad thing to have some paper nearby, although it is safer at this stage to have a napkin, the paper bag that your elevenses was wrapped in, or the inside of the box that held your Assam tea. Anything that looks too serious and the whiffs and tingles either take fright un away or they stop their floaty existence and solidify; and once they are solidified into a settled and sensible existence they are no longer prepared to experiment or play and once that happens, well, you might as well be writing the terms and conditions for the General Post Office.

The time to take up the pen is when your mind is so swirled, your rat’s nest of scraps so high, and your paws so itchy that the pull between vision and paw, paw and pen, and pen and paper, becomes irresistible. The energy generated by this fusion is stoked by a conviction that somewhere in this swirling mass of impressions there is a story that will not rest until it has been told. It may be a struggle. There will be times when you feel that any amount of imagination and grit might fail to bring it into being, but even then you know, deep inside, that if only you persevere, the story will emerge.

But what if this is not how it happens? What if neither a whiff, nor a tingle appear? What if your little moleheart is closed and your mind, instead of being a colourful playground, is a concrete wasteland?

A while ago when I was bruised and empty and wanted more than anything to lose myself in the world of a a novel. If my heart was numbed, I thought, at least I could engage my intellect. I selected fertile ground, a time and place that had been barely touched by other pens, and scenarios that were, at the very least, intriguing.

I tried. I trawled through archives for unseen nuggets. Let myself breathe in brittle paper, faded ink and bureaucratic stamps, read of lives partly captured in the typewritten reports and correspondence of the archives. I watched jerky documentaries, fossicked through old photographs of cafés and stations and ruined cities; pored over maps and worked out train timetables. I thought that if I fed my fallow mind with these delectable morsels, absorbed them into my being, sooner or later something would fertilise.

I developed a premise, evolved characters, set them against each other. The words mounted, scenes added up. Oh, it has grown alright, often achingly slowly, one paw in front of the other. From time to time I have tried to breathe life into it by trying another angle, a different point of view, a different tense, a second timeline, an alteration in plot.

For so long I have been trying to drive this work by intellect alone – my heart has been woefully absent, just the occasional flutter in some scene or other.

The more I have worked on it, the longer it has become, the more time and energy I have invested, the less able I have been to acknowledge the possibility that it isn’t working.

And when I do I am reminded that the story has become alive to others, that in the snippets they have seen they see a spark, the potential; they imagine themselves into it and sense a whole that is allusive to me.

It is time to let it go for a little while, to see what happens when it is put to bed; to see what thoughts emerge when I am not facing it every day. Perhaps not thoughts but rather listening to the flutters of my moleheart.


Mole’s life is a bit topsy-turvy at the moment. Murmurs will be taking a break during November. Mole Out Loud will keep going.

Vale Boo 4th November 2016.



When I was a nipper I discovered I was privy to several personas. I’m not sure when this revelation first came to me, but I think it must have been around the time I found that if I stood on tippaws and stretched right up, I could reach the handle to Mama and Papa’s bedchamber. Just inside the door was a great big looking-glass that rested on the floor, and it was in front of this that I discovered my other selves.

At first I think it was facial expressions I experimented with, then gestures, then voices, all randomly, trying out my muscles. Gradually they became individualised: moles with secrets, moles with limps, moles who were flamboyant, or brave, or big, or tiny, or foreign, old or young or important or pragmatic or dreamy.Sometimes they were not even moles. I would practice the way they stood, held their heads, snorted, squealed, laughed. I would have arguments between these characters, rapidly changing from the one to the other, shrill arguments, reasoned arguments. By this time some of them had names, most were invented but some were inspired by people I had met: Herr Blini bit his nails like the refugee who played chess with Papa, Frau Schmutz had a limp and whistled out of tune like the school cleaner, Mademoiselle Chic smoked cigarillos like the supremely elegant mole who sometimes teetered into the Apothecary; Hans Peter smoothed the pelt of his head like the Lothario who rode his bike without using his paws.

And then there was Maud. I don’t know where she came from. Nor did she. Maud was a foundling. Pinned to her plain shift was a scrap of material, emerald and vermillion, raised velvet. It was all that she had of her Mama’s, nothing else, not even her name. She came to me fully formed, a tiny mole who stood very upright, arms crossed in front of her, ready to take on the world.

By now I no longer needed a looking-glass; these personas were part of me. Or at least they usually were. Somehow the me mole was always there, and although the others were all me as well, I came to realise they came from elsewhere, too. And that sometimes they didn’t. The times they didn’t were when I most needed them.

Like the day I lost my school bag and in it my homework and was too frightened to go back to school. On days like these I was numb; I couldn’t reach my feelers out – not even to Maud.

On the day of the lost homework debacle, when a return to either school or home felt fraught with likely recriminations, I headed for the nether regions of a bookshop in town where a kindred soul in the rather formidable guise of an autocratic dame, guarded the section that held reference works, English language books and esoterica.

Madame von Heldenberg was at her secretaire; beside her a tall glass of steaming dark coffee delivered by an Italian mole who ran the cinema next door. I was too young for coffee but when she saw my distress she sat me down and gave me a golfball sized, black and gold striped humbug from a jar that was refilled every time her son-in-law returned from a trip to England. And once I had my mouth full and couldn’t possibly answer her, she asked me what was the matter.

I had quite calmed down by the time the humbug had reduced enough for me to articulate my words, but what came out was still a jumbled muddle of losing my homework and my personas all at once.

‘Lost’, said Madame von Heldenberg as if that summed up the whole catastrophe. It did. ‘You know, words can take on a personal meaning that has nothing to do with etymology.’ I didn’t know what she was talking about, but she steered me over to the dictionary section. While she went upstairs with some orders, I was to find ‘lost’ in different languages. She gave me
a pencil and an old envelope to write down what I found.

I was soon in a realm quite unknown to me. Lost in English just meant lost to me, but in Latin amissum seemed to some up how I felt about the loss, as did verloren in German. The Icelandic missti did this, too, but also evoked the atmosphere into which my personas and my homework had disappeared. The Hungarian elvesztett and Slovenian izgubli seemed to identify with whom they had gone and the Maltese mitlufa suggested the possibility that they had gone of their own free wills which was not encouraging. Why would they want to leave me? It was the Sesotho laleheloa ke that restored my confidence. It sounded like a rallying cry, a word that would pierce the mists and call those miscreants back.

When I caught the tram home that afternoon, I was fortified by the two humbugs adhering to my pocket lining and I felt better able to face the music. As I squared my shoulders for the upcoming ordeal my antennae began to unfurl. I thought I heard a familiar squeak.

Maud. Good old Maud.

Before I had time to open my arms to her the conductor came to punch my ticket. He narrowed his eyes at me. ‘Aren’t you the young scallywag that left its schoolbag on the tram this morning?’ He shook his head at me and waddled his way back to the driver’s cab.

It was all there. My homework, my atlas, my pencil case and my Uufgabeheftli – the exercise book that I wrote all my deadlines in. It was this that I picked up. I opened its back page, turned it upside down and made a list:

Laleheloa Ke

I learnt the words off by heart, chanted them. Gradually my antennae unfurled fully, my personas returned and my grey world became colourful again.

To this day, when I lose my characters, I repeat the words, annunciating slowly as if I were listing railway stations or reading the shipping news, a steady hypnotic beat. They announce that my antennae are out, that I am ready to receive. The last word, though, is different. Laleheloa Ke is a call that has to be sung from the top of my burrow mound.


There will be no murmurs next week. Mole is on sabbatical



When I mosey down to my letterbox this morning I am almost blown off my hindlegs. The weather is wild today – snow on the mountain: a hiccup in the progress of spring, a treat for those of us whose heart is in winter but whose seasons are heading towards summer. I am taken back to the weeks of blizzard that swept through Europe some seven years ago, I was staying at the parental burrow, and while much of Switzerland hunkered indoors and dreamt of Sicily I, hardly believing my good fortune, rugged up and braved the elements.

It was dark when I left the burrow and I’d barely reached the garden path before my spectacles fogged up. Snowflakes settled on the lenses. Had I not trodden this route thousands of times before I might have regarded the adventure with more trepidation. But the lack of vision allowed me allowed me to imagine my surroundings the way they had been when I was a nipper more easily almost than how they were now. The flats on the corner dissolved returned to the paddock belonging to an elderly horse called Nobu; the derelict Hotel Krone returned to its prime and opened its skittle alley for wee moles on Sunday afternoon outings; the shopping and residential complex dissolved into the orchard that had surrounded the Waisenhaus whose orphans came to school wearing scratchy grey stockings.

Much of the time it was completely silent apart from the crunch of my paws underfoot, a moped or two, skidding and spluttering, the occasional rumble of the blue train.

Hearing the blue train, imagining it lit up with night workers returning home, reminded me of another cold winter’s night when Great Uncle Mole had taken me to a reunion of retired railway postal workers. It was held in an and old unheated Nissan hut that had been a sorting office during the war, and might have been a miserable affair had they not supplied us with hot toddies (even me, a mere nipper) and, on a rigged up screen, projected that wonderful 1936 documentary Night Mail. There were cries of ‘Cor! Remember those hoists’, and ‘Look at the face on old Harrison, always was a sour bugger’, and ‘Poor old Cecil, bit the dust in the Blitz’.

Now, or rather some seven years ago, on my nocturnal walk through the blizzard, it was the W H Auden’s poetic script for that film that was accompanying me. Its rhythm matched the sound of the night mail train running over points and somehow it was now infusing my hindlegs:
‘In the farm she passes no one wakes / But a jug in the bedroom gently shakes.’ Or the hypnotic recounting of the kinds of letters being sorted on the train:

‘Receipted bills and invitations
To inspect new stock or visit relations,
And applications for situations
And timid lovers’ declarations.’


‘The chatty, the catty, the boring, adoring,
The cold and official and the heart’s outpouring,…’

I was still walking this rhythm when I reached what had once been acres of allotments that allowed the residents of the neighbouring *Arbeiter Quartier to grow their own vegetables. It would have been poorly lit then, but now the streetlights were closer together, not floodlighting the building which emerges from the earth that had once nurtured cabbages and potatoes, but emphasising its importance. Adorned with the flags of many nations, this is UPU, the Universal Postal Union.

When I was a nipper, when the UPU was housed in a different quarter and the allotments remained undisturbed, I would have had no concept of the UPU had it not been for my very favourite monument in Bern. I would have taken you there, but the little park next to the Parliamentary Buildings is another twenty five minutes away, and my snout and paws are becoming numb. It is a splendid piece of work, bronze and granite, created by the Parisian René de Saint-Marceaux and brought to Bern in sixty railway carriages in 1909. Imagine a globe, the earth, the world, buttressed by a swirl of clouds and, at a jaunty angle, encircled by allegorical figures representing each continent. Each is handing another a letter. Before the UPU was founded this day 142 years ago, postage had to be negotiated separately for each of the countries a letter had to travel through to reach its destination.

Turning round now, heading towards the apple orchard belonging to the orphanage, I thought about the trunkloads of correspondence that filled every crevice of the parental burrow; and how this universal postal agreement of 1874, this extraordinary cooperation between nations, had held the far flung molekin together by conveying their letters.

My snout began to twitch. I breathed in fresh baked bread, then roasting coffee beans. Through the blur of my spectacles, I could make out lights. The Villettli loomed ahead. Two steps down, I reminded myself as I slithered one hind paw in front of the other. Not an eyelid was batted at the sight of this snowmole thawing into pools on the parquet floor. An espresso arrived, a basket of sliced Buurebrot. The blue train rumbled past, fuller this time; the inhabitants were beginning to wake up.

Night Mail

Universal Postal Union monument