Monthly Archives: January 2015

In praise of pondering

I am told that up there in the glaring light of day, where creatures of a less solitary disposition while away long summer Sunday afternoons around barbecues, an essential ingredient has been lost. No-one ponders anymore. Arguments about whether this is the hottest January ever are settled, just like that, by a little deciding machine. Labyrinthine discussions and absurd but entertaining wrong turns are in danger of extinction. The instant deciding machine allows no pause between question and answer.

Ponder has the same derivation as pound – a weight, used in the sense of weighing up one thing against the other. My own sense of the word veers away from either weightiness or fierce analysis. I see it rather as a loose consideration of something – and it is not to be hurried.

Is it any wonder that the preponderance of ponder-related words come to us from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Pondering flourished in the pre-industrial days of the Romantics, the slow traveling dreamers, naturalists and voyagers to unheard of destinations though not, alas, the poor peasant moles who spent their days and nights digging up the fields.

Great Uncle Mole and Uncle Ratty were great ponderers. Entire afternoons dissolved after some chance remark over lunch about, say, brickmaking. By evening all twenty-six of their soft-leatherbound encyclopaedias would be strewn across the Turkey rug. Uncle Ratty, glowing red from the fire and beads of sweat pouring down his brow would kneel among them, his paws separating the delicate pages between one entry and another. Could you just have a look at DEM to EDW, he might say. And see when the Doukhobors were banished from Archangel. Or Moley, do you have the volume with East Grinstead. By dusk, BIS to CAL in which the article on brick-making resided would be buried beneath the other volumes. And although the object of their search was by now mostly forgotten, the entire journey was laid out before them. The pleasures lay in the places travelled; the destination was irrelevant.

I do accept that my definition of pondering lacks the gravitas that the word suggests, but what it shares with its more sombre use is the importance it places on allowing time for a broad embrace of the possibilities.

There ARE still clusters of ponderers. On any Monday evening in the deep leather armchairs of pub across the road from the cathedral, a band of bellringers, paws nestling glasses of wine or quite excellent local whisky ponder medieval Popes and galaxies, the merits of egg sandwiches, ethics of property law, double helix staircases, ballooning belfries, Icelandic grammar, and James Bond films films. From time to time a little deciding machine will slither out of its case and make clear a point, but it soon tires of the inattention and goes back to sleep.


There are times, when I haven’t seen a soul for several days, that I wonder if I am really me. The puzzlement grips me most of all in the evenings when I have poured myself a smidgeon of cognac, settled myself into my armchair, and am resting my hind paws on Great Uncle Mole’s Egyptian pouffe.

This uncanny feeling has intensified since I ventured out of my own humble abode and headed for a burrow of magnificent proportions. The Museum of New and Old Art (Mona) is dug deep into the sandstone of a half island on Tasmania’s Derwent River. I spiralled down its staircase like poor Alice. At the lowest level, the cinema is hidden behind clusters of baroque chaises longues. Parting the crimson velvet curtains I tip-pawed through the darkness and lost myself in the generous upholstery of a seat. I held my breath.

The picture screening was the National Theatre’s Frankenstein. I knew the tale, of course but what thrilled my little moley heart about this version was not knowing who was being who. The actors playing Dr Frankenstein and the Monster changed places every night. So each time Dr Frankenstein is in a scene with the Monster, the actor within him is seeing the Monster being played differently from the way he, the actor now playing Frankenstein, played it the night before – and the actor within the Monster is seeing Frankenstein as a subtly different character from the one he, the Monster, knows him to truly be. My tiny eyes stretched trying to imagine this back-and-forthing between the two and just how wobbly it must make them feel.

I may not have mentioned Great Uncle Mole’s bequest. His death pains me still – even after all these years. What I never expected were the crates, trunks and hampers that arrived at my burrow one rainy afternoon. A water-damaged note in Uncle Ratty’s hand explained that there was no room on his houseboat, and besides it seemed more fitting that these things should come to me.

And it is on those special evenings when I dress myself in Great Uncle Mole’s fez and smoking jacket and rest my hind paws on his Egyptian pouffe that I am visited by the strange sensation that I am not really me.

Is it the jacket, the fez or the Egyptian pouffe? Or all three, imbued as they are with Great Uncle Moleyness?

Or is the scented cheroots I found in the jacket pocket and which I smoke on special occasions?

Ships of Time

Oh Lordy, Lordy. Here we are half way through January.

Just before bedtime, on the last day of every year, Great Uncle Mole used to take down the old calendar and replace it with a new one, which he covered with his handkerchief. And as soon as he got up on the first day of the new year, he would whisk the handkerchief off to reveal January and say, ‘There, now’.

When I was a little mole, and I was very little when Great Uncle Mole was still alive, I thought he meant that the big Now had arrived, there was no escape. Carpe Diem and don’t forget it. Now that I am nearly as old as he was then, I think it is was a sigh of relief that the old year could be put into mothballs.

I have followed his tradition, but when I take down the old calendar and look at the bare hook in front of me I want to pause – not just for long enough to hang the new calendar but for a very, very long time. I would like it not even to be called time; perhaps it could be a limitless suspension, ending only when I am completely ready.

The progression of year upon year, – days, hours, minutes accruing relentlessly are only made so onerous because of their domination by numbers. As soon as you have numbers you notice gaps if you leave any out. If I took the calendar for 2014 down and breathed and then put up 2016, I would know that 2015 was missing.

So I was wondering how it might be if, instead of numbering years, we named them like boats, the Florentine, for instance, or Esmerelda – though perhaps not Marie Celeste. You may think it odd for such a land-bound creature as a mole even contemplating ships as comforting containers of time, but if so you haven’t reckoned with the story-telling capacity of Uncle Ratty. He wasn’t really my uncle, but a very dear friend of Great Uncle Mole (actually, I’m not even sure Great Uncle Mole was a relation. We tend to all be called Mole which can be a bit muddling). When Uncle Ratty told his sea-faring stories, Great Uncle Mole would cover his ears with his paws, and tell him to stop before he scared the poor wee mole (me) to death. Not that Great Uncle Mole was cowardly by any means. He still had scars from the Siege of Toad Hall, and I think he may have fought with Garibaldi, but poor chap, he did shake at the sight of water.

I hope you will forgive me that little digression, but thanks to Uncle Ratty, I have no fear of water and Great Uncle Mole is no longer with us to tremble at the metaphorical ships I wish to use for my new concept of time. So let us imagine these ships, each a container, but none dependent on the other. The ocean itself is timelessness. The only time on the ships is a fullness of time. In the harbours there is a time of imagining – a before time when preparations are made for the voyage: maps and telescopes, warm blankets, cakes and port, a friendly crew and a fiddler. And there would be an afterwards. To be sure that would be a time for scrubbing the decks, mending the sails, splicing rope and resting in dry dock to have ones barnacles removed. But above all it would be a time for rejoicing in one’s adventures and telling tales to young moles and other creatures.

Oh Uncle Ratty, I do miss you.

Monsieur Boo

Sometimes in the small hours nature calls. I drag myself from the nest and pad down the hall tunnel in my pyjamas. I know the route blindfold and it used to afford no hazard.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before but I share my burrow with a creature called Monsieur Boo. He is white and fluffy and has a long black tail. But don’t be fooled; the soft toy exterior is deep cover.

In our time together, Monsieur Boo and I have expended a lot time squabbling over alpha status – especially who gets to sit on the typewriter, eat, or sit closest to the fire. Monsieur Boo outstares me every time. He is fearless.

Or so I always thought.

Until Ultra Alpha moved into the burrow.

Ultra Alpha arrived with an assurance granted to those of great antiquity, especially those who are well-travelled – and Ultra Alpha, who was over 250 years old had just voyaged half way around the world. He chose to position himself in the hall tunnel. He stood, and still stands there, tall, slender and sleek brown. His bronze, finial ears are always perked, his keyhole eyes keep a weather eye on Monsieur Boo’s food bowl in the kitchen beyond.

At first Monsieur Boo would pause at Ultra Alpha’s feet, glance up, then quickly avert his gaze and slink away to eat his meals. But that was when Ultra Alpha was silent; before he found his voice.

Voice is the wrong word – too gentle. Growl is better. Shortly before the hour, every hour, a long, deep growl vibrated from the bowels of Ultra Alpha. It was an otherworldly growl, resembling nothing so much as heavy chains grinding over cogs. the growl made Monsieur Boo sit up like a meerkat, but it was what came next that pierced his heart with such terror, he trembles now at the mere recollection. Ultra Alpha struck a chime so loud that it as good as banished the demons from the entire neighbourhood. And Monsieur Boo left the the burrow at lightening speed. He took up residence under a tree, and vowed never to return.

I reached an agreement with Ultra Alpha, that he would only growl on special occasions, and I negotiated with Monsieur Boo to return to the burrow – and all was well.

All was well, except…

In the pre Ultra Alpha days Monsieur Boo left the booty of a night’s hunting discreetly in the back parlour. Now it is placed at Ultra Alpha’s feet in the hall tunnel, an appeasement to the gods.

So I found when nature called in the night and I blindly groped my way down the hall tunnel, my paws would likely make contact with cold, stiff fur, or worse still the softer, sticky viscera of some mangled victim.

On the positive side, it has to be said that since the arrival of Ultra Alpha, my relations with Monsieur Boo have become tempered. We are both aware that there is a higher authority in the burrow.

And I now take precautions. If I get up in the night, I wear spectacles.

And I carry a lamp.

Giddy Heights

It is a rare thing to see a mole above ground. We don’t, on the whole, see any need to expose ourselves to the light of day. At night? Well sometimes. On the stroke of the midnight that bridged 2014 and 2015, you might have spotted me, not just at ground level, but at a giddy 139 spiral steps above it. I was the brown pelted one on tippypaws, snout peering out through the tessellations, sniffing at the cordite and sulphur. The explosions were so close, the fireworks so damned spectacular, I gasped and stretched my little eyes with every new burst. No words, no images can do justice to fireworks. They are of that moment only, holding us enthralled as the calendar year turns.

The tower, well yes. This mole is a bell-ringer. And New Year’s Eve is a great secular occasion. We ring the old year out with deliberate discordant vengeance. Every pull on the rope or sally purges a grudge or misery. Out with mole-catchers. Out with pestilence. Out with guilt and self-recrimination. Then we wheeze our way up to the roof. And after the last of the fireworks, when all that remains is a haze of smoke, we descend again and ring the new year in – melodiously.

There is something so liberating about this ritual. We can cut loose from the baggage we’ve been dragging behind us. Our minds are freed to reconsider how we want to live.

Perhaps even spending more time above ground.

Happy New Year!