Monthly Archives: February 2015

Arctic summer

I am always a slow sort of mole. Heat brings me to a standstill. Last Sunday was so hot, I couldn’t even attend the call of rotting fruit and wilting vegetables in the kitchen. What I needed were winter landscapes and cold fiction. I scuttled off to the cellar, a muddle of Great Uncle Mole’s trunks and boxes and the odd bottle. I had to climb onto a couple of trunks on tip-paws to reach the box of special winter postcards on the top shelf. But oh dear me, I had just got hold of its edge when a small book, wedged between the box and an old tobacco jar, launched itself at me. Hit me on the snout, if truth be known, and bowled me over. The box of postcards followed

I might have cursed, but there was something calming about lying on my back in a cool sea of snowy peaks and glacial streetscapes. And when I noted the icy blue of the offending book and the word ‘Arctic’ in its title it my ignominious tumble began to feel less like a calamity and more like serendipity. Here was something I could get lost in, lying in my hammock between the shady willow trees. I have no willows, nor hammock, but such is the power of imagination that I was transported to the Edwardian coolness of the Uncle Ratty’s favourite riverside haunt in the old country even while my stocky little legs carried me under the blazing sun to the dark shadowy interior of my shed.

It was not until I was curled up in the old wicker chair and the whirr of the fan was sending a cooling breeze over my pelt that I really looked at the book. The first pages dealt with a scrum of summer travelers at Basel station, and the main characters were not setting off for the North Sea Passage, but Italy. I checked the title again ‘Arctic SUMMER’. Inertia prevented me from crawling back to the burrow. I read on.

E. M. Forster began writing this novel not long before the Great War. His main characters herald a new age, a new generation: motors, aeroplanes, telephones. ‘My era is to have no dawn’, one says to his mother. ‘It is to be a kind of Arctic Summer in which there will be time to get something really great done. Dawn implies twilight and we have decided to abolish them both.’ The war cry of another was tidiness. Now that there were no new countries to discover, the task was ‘to arrange the old’. Romance ‘was a relic of the age of tidiness’

Endless days frighten me just as much as heat. Everything exposed, all the time. Nothing nuanced. I have seen how beaming a floodlight onto scenes or characters I am writing dissolves them into nothingness. They need to hover on the periphery; they come into being in the twilight. And as for tidiness, it stifles all those odd juxtapositions that spark the germs of stories.

Muddles are tricky and often overwhelming, and movements in the shadows may make this moleheart miss a beat, but they a part and parcel of the endeavour.

Forster never finished the manuscript. He did read a few chapters in the early 1950s at Aldborough and then he said that was all he was going to read, ‘because now it goes off, at least I think so, and I don’t my voice to go out into the air while my heart is sinking.’

On balancing tea cups – and bells

If you wake up particularly early and mosey down to your favourite park, you may notice a sea of small brown bumps on the lawn. Molehills, you might think, but no. You put on your spectacles, and moles come into focus; moles bent over double and wagging their tails. Maybe, as you wipe the early morning mist from your lenses, you see one bump that is rather less brown the others, rather more grey. That mole is me. This is a Qi Gong class.

Yesterday, we added an exercise to our repertoire: balancing teacups. Perhaps you know it? You hold a paw in front of you as if the answers to a tricky question were inscribed on its palm; but in fact you are imagining a teacup balancing in it. You then spiral the paw inwards towards your body and under your armpit and over your head until it is returned to its original position.

I got myself into a terrible pickle, and would have had a sodden, tea-stained pelt had the cup and the tea truly been there. And this is only stage one.

This feeling of bewilderment stirred a memory, not a distant one either, although it began some time ago. It was as if my mind was somehow not being able to curl itself around an idea or something seen, and then translate it into a physical movement.


Handling a bell is one thing: learning its weight, its behaviour, how to raise it onto the balance, and lower it safely, how to control the strokes into a steady rhythm. It took me long enough but I never felt I wouldn’t get there providing I persevered. But then came the counting, remembering what place I was in and, layered onto that, memorising the method – a graph of the pattern the bell is following. I can almost feel the lights go off in one part of the brain when I am required to illuminate another, as if my circuitry will only allow for one light at a time.

Countless young moles have joined the band since I began. Fearlessly, they go for the ropes and overtake me within months. They race through the learning stage, heaping complexity on complexity with their zippy neural pathways.

I have to confess that for a long time I felt my poor old moleheart sink. And I still harbour a faint candlepower hope that one day it will all fall into place.

On the other hand, perhaps not.

But although my cerebral flexibility may have gone, my curiosity hasn’t. Nor has the joy of the whole extraordinary evolution of ringing, or my awe of the enormous bells, or the company of the band.

As for Qi Gong, there are layers and layers of delicious meanings that are accessible to a curious and determined mind. And maybe one day I will be able to spiral my tea cup, or even two – brimful with hot tea.

On not knowing

We moles are half blind. Not so blind we don’t see shapes and movement, but blind enough to lose outline and detail. Some sharp-sighted creatures may think this a disadvantage, but I have come to realise that fuzzy edges have benefits of their own; that there is a slippery place between seeing and recognising where all things are possible. In the physical world of Knocklofty this may be a tree that for a moment or two is full of tiny birds, but then reasserts itself as a banksia with cones. Or I might stand still for a while, not wanting to disturb a baby wallaby – until the while has extended so long, I have to acknowledge that it is a charred log. The importance of this in between space is no less for our interior worlds.

Being a painstaking sort of a mole, I find that one of the hazards of writing stories set in places and times that are not my own, is that I am often visited by moments of self-doubt. If I don’t know whether what I am about to write next is strictly true, my nib hesitates mid-air. In an instant a light bulb illuminates the part of my mind that tells me I need to check my facts. It then goes on to warn me that if these facts are not checked, I shall find myself in a veritable rabbit warren of false assumptions and will never find my way out.

This lightbulb is a false friend. It leads down one of two dead ends. One is to the point and provides me with so much information, that there is no place left for my imagination to go; and the other leads not to a warren but a metropolis of intriguing historical facts that bare no relation to the story being written. In short, a mole loses the plot.

It is a perfidious lightbulb and it draws its power directly from the bulb that ignites creative ventures: the delicious full immersion research that engages the heart and tickles the imagination. This true bulb never switches itself on at moments of indecision, but in those moments my poor mind is infused by an amnesia.

What I need when my pen hesitates mid-air is not a lightbulb. What I need is a gently staying paw. I may squirm a little, but must not leave my chair, must wait out the urge to scurry down to the library to pin down hosts of facts as if they were poor struggling butterflies. I need to be led to that dreamy but sparky space that I had as a wee mole – before my mind was clouded by facts, when I had to gather all my senses together to view my scanty knowledge, take wild leaps and intuit a cohesive story.


It is hotting up – even in the depths of my burrow.

A dear friend and I were whiling away our lunch-time comparing notes about the phases we went through reading books that reflected a certain sort of mood; a succession, perhaps, of slow-moving long books, or a spate of pacy thrillers. The choices often balance out our non-reading lives – slow and calm when the world is whizzing too fast, or thrills to shoot us out of stagnation. Sometimes it is a place that grabs us. There is a bookshop in London that organises its entire stock geographically. If you are having a Spanish binge you will find paella cookery books, biographies of Franco, maps of the Basque country, Lorca’s poetry, wildflowers of the Pyrenees, histories of the Armada, phrasebooks, all clustered together.

With me there is a very definite phase I go through in summer. You can imagine what it is like , having such a thick velvety pelt on sweltering days. When I am prostrate in the heat with wet socks tied around my paws and tea towels around my neck and forehead, I yearn for snow. I feel the poetry of cold-weather words like dreich and smirr and snell slide around on my tongue like ice-cubes. I seek out books that are set in the Arctic circle, or at the very least cold, wet places: Simenon’s Paris in winter, Cold War books, Russian epics. I don’t stop at books. I wear out needle after needle on the gramophone playing Schubert’s Winterreise. The walls of my burrow are covered with postcards of snowy landscapes.

It has been a cool summer so far, but tomorrow we head for 33C – or 92F on Uncle Ratty’s old thermometer. But this year I want to leave a bit of the bah humbug behind and collect pleasures that are particular to summer: washing woollies and splashing dripping cold water on myself, warm sunny sheets on drying days, the cool blast of cleaning out the fridge,
puzzles that I had thought perfect for hunkering down in winter are just as perfect for a hot afternoon inside my shady burrow – especially with a gin and lime and tonic and ice, and the lightness of Satie or Chopin on the gramophone. And I can daydream about Great Uncle Mole and Uncle Ratty and their mild English summers: the creak of deckchairs, battered old badminton rackets coming out of their presses, and a shuttlecock being idly thwacked.