Monthly Archives: October 2015


I was lounging in a cane chair and nursing a glass of stout in my paws when the subject of railway tunnels came up. It was Monday night and we bellringers were gathered at our usual watering place, a kind of faux Raffles opposite the Cathedral. On the gramophone Vera Lynn was promising that we would meet again but I knew I wouldn’t be there the following week. I was heading off for a ten-day retreat.

One of our number had been traveling English waterways and was showing us photographs. Dead straight canals in the Fen country might have been lifted straight from Dorothy Sayer’s Nine Tailors, and the morning-mistiness of a lush river in Bedfordshire would have made Uncle Ratty weep, and me too, on his behalf. I don’t know whether it was the stout, or Vera Lynn, but when the very last photograph came to the fore and showed not a boat or a canal but the entrance to a disused railway tunnel, I was suddenly transported back to my youth and an outing with Great Uncle Mole.

I had rather been hoping to accompany Uncle Ratty who was sailing off somewhere with a chum to salvage bells and lamps (and treasure, I thought) from a village that had long been lost to the sea. Walking along a disused railway line with Great Uncle Mole seemed a very thin second prize, and I have to admit I was more than a little disgruntled.

We had been strolling for a couple of hours. It was hot and I was eying the old gas mask case he was carrying. It contained lemonade and madeira cake. I knew because I had seen Uncle Ratty pack it along with his own. Because I had already asked Great Uncle Mole once whether we mightn’t stop for elevenses, even though it was now well past noon I didn’t dare ask again. He droned on and on about the merits, or otherwise, of different gauges and the stability, or otherwise, of rolling stock. ‘One track mind’, I muttered. At that time puns seemed to me the finest form of wit.

Suddenly he stopped dead and poked about in the long grass with his walking stick. …’Aha’, he shouted with the enthusiasm of Archimedes. ‘Look, Moley, Look!’ What I could see was a rusty pipe like thing.

It was a switch, he said.

Oh, I thought.

But then as he told me what it was for and showed me how to throw the lever, I was no longer looking at bits of metal and difficult sums. I was on a train, travelling through the countryside. How would it be, I wondered, to be sitting with your bucket and spade and all geared up for a holiday in West Wittering and, unbeknownst to you, some trickster threw the points and had you hurtling towards Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum? Or, for that matter, how would it be if you were handcuffed between two guards and suddenly found yourself building sandcastles or collecting shells?

Oh to be that trickster.

How old was I then? Fourteen or fifteen perhaps. In those days the gleeful impulse to throw the switch would have far outweighed any thought of the consequences. Now that I am edging perilously close to Great Uncle Mole in years, I would have said my default position was avoiding decisions and sticking to the route I was already on; that I would not dream of throwing the switch on my track or anyone else’s. And were someone else to throw a switch on my track, I might have imagined myself clasping the plush seat with both paws, eyes fixed on the wrong landscape hurtling past the window, and worrying myself into ghee about all the implications, real or imagined, that this turn of events might have in store for me.

So I might have thought, but I find that I have greater equanimity than I expected. I had long been preparing myself for my retreat. I was anticipating with every hair on my pelt its silence, its attic room with a window overlooking the gardens, its beach, its all-meals-provided. I had well nigh packed, created a roster for watering, emptied the fridge, and organised a lift.

It was cancelled.

I didn’t collapse into a little mole-heap.

Instead, new vistas appeared before my eyes. My burrow transformed itself into a retreat. Coloured pens slipped out of their cases and wrote lists of small pleasures. The hands of clocks removed themselves so as not to be held to account. Cancelled appointments were firmly turned away from re-entering themselves into the diary. Knocklofty awaits longer walks at stranger times. At midnight tonight my contraptions will switch themselves off for the duration. Not even a murmur will be transmitted next week.

The switch was painless.

I Ching

Yesterday lowered. Grey cloud suffocated the landscape and held moisture like barely suppressed anger. It was one of those days that feels mis-struck and I was in a grump. I couldn’t decide what project to work on, whether any was worthwhile. I vacillated, berated myself for vacillating and vacillated more.

In the end I decided that as I was in a grump anyway I may as well do something I really didn’t want to do. The task I alighted on was one I had been putting off. It required a great deal of paperwork. And because I had at one point decided that the papers I now needed were history and had nigh consigned them to a bonfire, my approach to filing them had been so anarchic, even Kropotkin would have been impressed.

I set my snout into an attitude of pained martyrdom and set off for the cellar.

There is in my cellar a bewildering array of trunks and suitcases, Gladstone bags, orange boxes, crates and tea-chests. They would have to be clambered over and hunted under, and peered into. All of them – at least nearly all of them.

But not the box that I discovered behind Great Uncle Mole’s old skis. It wasn’t large, but what it lacked in size it made up for in ornamentation. In rather crude disregard for its fine detail, Uncle Ratty had stencilled M O L E X. I know it was Uncle Ratty because this was his nickname for Great Aunt Mole. Not my great aunt, but Great Uncle Mole’s. Great, Great, Great Aunt Mole to me – but well, that was too much of a mouthful even for Uncle Ratty. He called her Great Aunt Molex because she had been excommunicated by some of the more stodgy members of our family. The story handed down by the more liberal of my mole kin – who, it has to be admitted, were at times rather more inclined towards effect than gospel truth – went something like this:

One night during a storm of Biblical proportions, when Great Aunt Molex was quite a wee thing, there was a great thumping at the door of the parental burrow. When, after some to-ing and fro-ing about no mole in its right mind being out in such weather and the racket surely being thunder and wind, her papa grumbled out of his chair and went to investigate. He found a bedraggled shape in a sodden cape with what looked to be an enormous hump on his back. The creature was beckoned inside, his cape removed, a large box with brass fittings revealed. He was thrust into the chair just vacated and invited to warm his paws on the fire. Soup was produced. Molex’s mama went off to make up a bed. They all had a brandy, even Molex though hers was watered down. Now warmed and oiled, their visitor told them he was a traveling missionary raising funds for the China mission. And as he was clearly not going to reach the metropolis that night why didn’t he by way of thanks for their most generous hospitality, show them his lantern slides.

It was long after a wee mole’s bedtime, but Molex sat on a pouffe in the dark transfixed by the missionary’s sonorous voice and the lurid and graphic scenes of heathens unfolding before her. She was seized with such a passion that her future was sealed that fateful night. The years passed agonisingly slowly for Molex until, at barely eighteen, she ran away from home and boarded a ship for Macau.

Needless to say the box marked MOLEX was a good deal more compelling than the search for my papers and I carried it upstairs to my study. The lid was tightly fitted and it took some manoeuvring with the paperknife. As I prised it open the wood squeaked with such pain that some creature might have been trapped inside, but what escaped was a strange smell somewhere between musk and ginger. The few belongings that had been sent back were wrapped in emerald green silk and tied with a tassle. On top lay a black-rimmed card announcing her death in Canton. Beneath was a collection of coins, minutes of the 1876 and 1878 meetings of the Anglo-Oriental Society for the Prevention of the Opium Trade, some cuttings from The Friend of China, a dictionary, several notebooks and carefully wrapped in more silk, bound concertinaed bamboo slips. Between each fold was a sheet of paper filled with Great Aunt Molex’s sloping handwriting.

The Chinese characters on the slips were a mystery to me but I soon detected from Great Aunt Molex’s words that what I had before me was a version of the I Ching, and I remembered that it was not her disappearance to China that had caused Molex to be excommunicated, but her various acts of sabotage against British government officials sanctioning opium imports, and her abandonment of Christianity for Chinese philosophy.

The more I read, the more I became convinced that somewhere within this vast work of translation lay a message from the impassioned Great Great Great Aunt to her lily-livered descendent. I gathered the coins together, rattled them about in my paws, and placed them on around compass points: K’UN, then K’AN – combining to the hexagram SHIH, the army. Five yin lines and one yang: ‘Everything is correct. Nothing will go wrong if the leader is wise and experienced’. If. My line of change told me the army had incompetent leaders. Either the commander had lost authority, or the army has too many leaders, and chaos would ensue.*

I sat among the open trunks, the suitcases and tea-chests and their scattered contents, and pondered the effects of too many projects, over-reaching ambition, lack of direction. A small piece of paper, an offcut, fluttered from the folds of the bamboo slipped as I packed it back into its silk wrapping: ‘Do not rely on the confusing advice of many’.

Time to grasp this life by the mettle. Like Great Aunt Molex.

*Martin Palmer, Kwok Man Ho, Joanne O’Brien, I Ching (1986).


It must have been a year ago – almost to the day. Some chums and I were traveling through the countryside. The sun was shining, the fields were green and the hills a bluish purple in the distance. Our trip had been planned some months before; our destination was about an hour away in orchard country. An old apple pickers’ hut had been converted into a workshop and there were going to spend the day cutting away at lino and printing our images. There was a sort of end of term feeling in the car as we tootled along. We were chatting away when one of our little band said: ‘And look, all the Roadies are out’.

For a moment I thought that she meant the toads of this world, the gleeful speedsters and terrors of the road, although it has to be said that the other drivers seemed as sedate as we were. I waited for more context and soon gleaned from the opprobrium in her voice and the pleasure her comment was giving the others it soon became apparent, that the Roadies she was referring to were in fact rhodies, the rhododendrons that bloomed splendidly in the gardens we were passing. Forty years on this island and I still haven’t picked up the lingo.

I know it must have been a year ago because today on my stroll I saw a rhododendron in full bloom.

It took me right back to the first time I heard word ‘rhododendron’ – so grown-up and mysterious. It was taught to me by my dear Papa. We drew out its four syllables, as if it were a chant like the sinister ‘Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest…’, which was the kind of shanty Papa seemed to think was just the thing for small ears. We must have been staying at his parents burrow, I think, where the garden was filled with rhododendron bushes of every conceivable colour.

Although it was Papa who showed me how to enjoy the shape of the word, it is but a shadow of the memory I have of Grandma Mole when I see a rhododendron. Her name was Rhoda and her moleself and the flower are stored side by side in my mind. So they should be. Grandma Mole relished rhododendron colours: bright reds, oranges, pinks, purples. The primmer members of my family thought these colours clashed, but to Grandma Mole whose senses had been enlarged and saturated in Rajasthan and Kashmir, they became the expression of her liberated and generous heart. She wore big splashes of crimson and fuchsia and tangerine; adorned her walls, her curtains, her chairs and sofa with scarlet, magenta and lilac; poured Assam tea from a rose and carmine and gold teapot into matching cups. The magnificent rhododendrons in the garden brought Srinagar to their little Surrey burrow.

What these rhododendron bushes brought to me as a small mole was a place to go that was all my own, a sanctuary. All I had to do was part the dark the leaves with my paws, crawl inside and I was hidden from the world. When I was a little older and had discovered torches, I would head for a rhododendron bush with a book. It was dark and woody and often damp. It was heaven.

On not stopping

I awoke this morning to blackbirds chirping in the pre-dawn, a cool breeze gently disturbing the air in my bedchamber and stroking the pale pink flesh of my snout. It was an inviting day, a perfect going for an early stroll on Knocklofty kind of a day, the kind of day that would usually have had me out bed in a jiff. Before you could say Bob’s your uncle, I would be moseying up the hill to watch the dawning light pick out the grey trunks of the eucalypts. I would soak up the sense of calm and well-being that comes with fresh air and exertion, and knowing that a walk not only limbers up my hind legs but ignites my little grey cells. Not today, though. Today I just wanted to lie still and breathe. And I did.

These are the last days that I have the motor lent to me by a friend. It has given me the freedom to set out on my teepee adventure and it has spurred me on into making appointments across town, venturing out to locations off the bus route or after dark, and fetching and carrying plants, stationery, oats and what you will. It has meant being able to nip to places without a second thought.

Had I ever thought of getting a scooter, some chums asked a couple of days ago and the toad within remembered the exhilaration of riding Ratty’s Velosolex through France all those years ago. The Universe had other ideas. The very next morning, I was driving down my favourite avenue. Huge plane trees created a near canopy and the new leaves were dappling the surface of the road. The setting exuded calm. There was a chap on a scooter just ahead of me and I was thinking what an exquisite morning it was for riding one. We slowed down at the junction. I thought he had continued into the next street, but he hadn’t. There was an ominous thud.

He wasn’t hurt and nor was I, but the scooter was immobilised. At first my paws trembled and so did his, but our conversation was gentle and wove itself into realms that absorbed us both. We spent a couple of hours together on the grassy bank under the plane trees as we waited for the police and a tow-truck. There were moments when the unfortunate circumstances of our meeting faded from my mind, as did the likely repercussions. I almost felt relief that I wasn’t hurrying to my appointment, but more than this, I felt something akin to pleasure in this unlikely encounter between an ageing mole and a thoughtful doctoral student.

I am sure there will be a time when I hanker after wheels again. For the moment, though, my inner toad has deserted me. Having the car has made anything possible. Without it I will not be able to nip out at a whim. But I realise I feel a little fragmented by all the options laid before me. I like the way walking distances require me to defer and to plan ahead. It calms me to cluster tasks by location and carefully measure their timing. And I love the way walking allows me to slow down and breathe the space between departure and arrival.

I can encounter four-legged, two-legged and stemmed beings under less dramatic circumstances AND smell the blossom on the way.

Paw prints

In the late afternoons I often make myself a pot of tea and take a little pause in my work. On just such a moment last week, I was reclining on the sofa, drink in paws, my eyes feasting on the greenness of the new leaves bursting from the branches of the trees outside the window, when my ears tuned into a programme on the wireless.

It was about a ramble and it delighted my heart.

Uncle Ratty was the one who first introduced me to the delights of walking; not just putting one paw in front of the other, but noticing and imagining, and showing me how every single being experiences the landscape in a different way. Uncle Ratty’s sensibilities lead him to sniff out waterways, remember picnics and romanticise ports of departure. I, though, am more attuned to what is beneath the surface. As I scamper over fields, my mind’s eye traces the labyrinthine tunnels of other moles, I feel the dewy grass, and the contours of daisies, dandelions, coltsfoot and buttercups beneath my paws and, less often than perhaps it should, a shadow overhead reminds me of the perilous, nay fatal, adventure of the ancestor who was taken by an eagle.

In cities these layerings become more dense – so dense that they could become knotted and confused. But to me they are like an archive, a delicious trunk of papers – all muddled at first, but pick one paper, one thread, follow the clues and slowly each layer of the palimpsest is revealed.

Your little eyes re-imagine earlier inhabitants. Your little ears fade out traffic, and telephones, and aeroplanes, hydraulic drills and canned music, and take in older sounds the metal against cobble of horseshoes. Your snout exchanges exhaust fumes for the stench of horse manure.

In a strange place (or even a familiar one) I love being guided by a creature with a passion for a particular subject, and then again cover the same ground with another guide whose passion is utterly different. I have walked and re-walked the streets of Bern, guided by aficionados of diplomacy, folk musicians, espionage, migration, prostitution, literature, football, drainage, domestic service, landscape design and crime fiction. And after a while, solitary walks take on a a richness. Your little body feels it in its bones. The ground beneath your paws hums with those passions.

The programme I was listening to on the wireless the other afternoon followed a group of ramblers walking through Warnscale in the Lake District.* The guide has chosen this rugged landscape to create a walk that will provide deep nourishment to beings who are mourning their childlessness and the absence of a life event that they had anticipated. She has absorbed visual metaphors suggested by the landscape: a stand of dead trees, a fork in a stream, a cleft in a rock. She has fossicked through the diary entries of Dorothy Wordsworth, listened to the lore and language of locals, made connections between laboratory images of fertility and the minutiae of plants. She has drawn together features from personal maps created by childless participants. Each feature invites contemplation like the shrines along a pilgrim way where the walk’s duration, not just the features is a crucial element. The time taken and effort involved allows for the evolution of memories, feelings and thoughts of the future.

Listening to these ramblers, I felt something akin to a new dimension being revealed to me. The pause I was having in the late afternoon ventured into early evening. The green spring leaves might have ventured into autumnal brown if I hadn’t realised that my tea had gone cold.