Monthly Archives: January 2016


Rain! Glorious rain. Umbrellas up, gumboots on, thunder rolling, the garden looking sprightly for the first time this year. Long soaking rain overnight. A little respite in our droughty summer, or a glimmer even of the autumn to come?

It is the kind of rain that descended on the woods and fields and rivers around Great Uncle Mole’s burrow for weeks on end. It is the kind of rain that sent us scurrying off to pick blackberries, and it is the kind of rain I associate with mushrooming. The blackberrying might happen on the spur of the moment – a wet afternoon, the blackberries ripe. The reward for the scratches and the thorns in our paws would be Great Great Grandmother’s Special Crumble, a recipe handed down from molemother to moleson, and baked by Great Uncle Mole in the welcoming fug of the kitchen.

Mushrooming, on the other hand, was a rather more organised affair – not the meticulous, rule-following kind of organisation that Great Uncle Mole went in for (which is awfully useful when you are building a tunnel) but the planting of germs of anticipation that Uncle Ratty was rather a dab paw at. He’d lay the foundations with the brewing up of his personal stock. He never revealed the ingredients, but a day or two before our outings he would send me off on multiple foraging expeditions so that in a sort of pelmanistic way I now feel I could make a reasonable pawfist of reproducing it. Besides it was generic rather than exact – Uncle Ratty was incapable of creating the same thing twice. He would also spend hours in the cellar, emerging cobweb-coated and smug with a very particular kind of wine. Alas, I cannot remember what it was.

For weeks beforehand the two chums would go on long walks together, Uncle Ratty leading with his intuition and Great Uncle Mole trying to keep up with maps and the policeman’s notebook he kept to jot things down. In the evenings they’d pore over the maps, discussing copses and rotting logs, mossy banks and hedgerows. By mushroom day I’d barely be able to contain myself with the anticipation. Great Uncle Mole and I were the basket carriers. Uncle Ratty nosed them out, plucked them, twirled them in his paws, and named them. Oh, the names: Glistening Inkcaps, Big Ears, Scarlet Hoods, Powdery Brittlegill, Trooping Funnels, Hedgehogs, Slippery Jacks, Horns of Plenty, Judges’ Wigs. And the colours: purple and yellow and red, although it was often the brown ones like Wood Mushrooms, the Oak Boletes and Chanterelles that tasted best.

A couple of weeks ago I was seduced by the fungi stall at the market. These are Asian mushrooms- shitake, and delicate oyster mushrooms cultivated on logs, growing in clusters: pearly grey, yellow, white. I filled my basket.

Uncle Ratty’s risotto was so firmly established in my mind that my mouth was watering by the time I came back to my burrow. I laid my bounty out on the table and admired it but then, oh woe and dearie me, a great chasm opened between the vision and the reality. There was no arborio rice. There was no rice of any kind in my larder. Nor had I prepared a stock. I could forage it was true, but somehow I no longer had the heart for it.

I had been so fixated on the mushrooms and the vision of the Uncle Ratty’s risotto that I had not stopped to think about the less glamorous ingredients, nor the preparation.

Were I to take note, how often might I catch myself – in my work, in my quotidian life, – doing the same, being lured by an imagined perfection but not taking account of the ingredients, ignoring the groundwork needed to achieve that vision?

And yet if only I would allow myself plenty of time to sit down quietly and loosely, colourfully, plot things out: what are the ingredients? What is the sequence? If I would only remind myself that it is in the doing – the selecting, the measuring, the stirring, the sniffing and the tasting that the anticipation enters every cell of the molebody, and that the means and the end become one.


January is slipping by in summery non-time, and this mole is mapping out intentions, experimenting with rhythms for the coming year. One part of me is trying to disengage itself from the other which, for decades now – over half a century, has heroically, but misguidedly, been chivvying me along to match the ever-speeding pace of the external world.

When did this self-chivvying begin? The England in which I spent my early molehood was cracked and threadbare, exhausted still from the war. Trains were always late if they came at all. You would think my snailishness might have gone unnoticed. But no. Perhaps I had been gazing at the sky or was lost in some rabbit-hole of my own when the teacher called me to the front. She turned me round to face the class and wound a phantom key between my shoulder blades as if I were a mechanical toy. Oh the mortification! I can still feel it in my moleheart. Did I speed up? I don’t think so. But I did realise that I ought to. My inner Chivvy was born.

When we upped burrows and migrated to Bern I had no idea how regular I would need to become. The ancient clock, the Zytglogge, dominates the old town. Everything was exakt. At school, our slates had to be placed in parallel to the desk top and our chalk-pencils lined up one centimetre from their sides. In our six-family burrow we had a communal laundry which had a strict roster. Fortunately the muddiness of a seven day week could be controlled, because Sunday was snipped off. As the fugitive Axel in John le Carré’s A Perfect Spy remarks from the safety of his laundry hide-out:’In Switzerland everything that is not compulsory is forbidden.’ And it was strengstens verboten for moles to do their washing on a Sunday.

It was perhaps the decade that Switzerland was at its most punctilious. Hans Hilfiker’s iconic clock gleamed on every railway platform. It was uncluttered by numbers. The minute hand jerked forward every 60 seconds so that it was never dawdling in the anarchy of whiteness between the markers, but it was the second hand that took pride of place. Red and shaped like a guard’s baton it moved continuously, a fraction fast, so that it might pause for 1.5 seconds just before the hour – just enough time for the railway guard to slice his baton down and the train to begin to glide out of the station on the hour.

And yet, and yet, Bern has had its fill of artists, dreamers and wanderers. It’s inhabitants still gasp at the beauty of the alps on a clear day. Its language has humour and lilts slowly. Bern spawned Robert Walser, the most unpinnable and poetic of wanderers and Adolf Wölfli who created calendars with thousands of days and maps that conflated Bern and China, art, currency and music.

And it was in Bern, as he was travelling along Marktgasse on a tram that Albert Einstein looked back at the Zytglogge and got the first inkling of his theory of relativity. Time was not a fixed thing, universally applicable, nor was the experience of time universal. It varied according to where you were standing.

We may be bound by seasons, by night and day, but who is to say how we mere earth creatures arrange our time? Between 1793 and 1805, some parts of Switzerland found themselves being dragged into the radical calendar of the First French Republic. There were thirty days to a month split into three days décadi of ten days. Each day contained ten hours, each hour 100 minutes, each minute 100 seconds. It was configured by a committee of astronomers, mathematicians, politicians, a naval geographer, a chemist, an actor and playwright and a horticulturist. And so its metric precision was imbued with more than a nod at the natural world. The year began on the autumn equinox and was divided into seasons from thereon. The months had names that reflected the weather. We would now be in plûviose, the rainy season. And today would be perce-neige, or snowdrop, the saints having been dislodged by the secular government. Some days were dedicated to animals and agricultural implements like bale-hooks or watering-cans.

It is time to for this mole to challenge the Ancien Regime of the Chivvy, the rule of the second hand; time to be guided by my own rhythms, my own pace.


Mole has been exploring rhythm, time, and dancing to the beat of one’s own drum but has, it seems, failed to take heed of these ponderings. A glitsch earlier in the day and a sore paw spawned by the desire catch up, have combined to stall murmurs of mole. A snooze tonight, a rested body, and some gentle application in the morning will bring murmurs to your in-box tomorrrow.

Odd One Out

I am, on the whole, an early to bed sort of cove, but last night I started pootling about among the boxes in the cellar. I was looking for a piece of bone to replace the handle on a saucepan lid, but one thing rather led to another and I ended up discovering an untouched crate marked MOLEX. And, well, I couldn’t resist prising up the nails and taking a quick peak. Incense, trapped for a hundred years or so rose from the cracks. Folds of silk and cotton and sawdust spilled onto the floor. I peered at the papers lying at the top – something to do with Wu Xing. ‘Not now’, my Higher Self commanded as my paws itched to fossick. The chimes of midnight reverberated from the Grandfather clock upstairs, and with an enormous effort of will I hammered the nails down again.

I only tell you this because you would think that after such a late night, I would be as unwilling as a sloth to rise again in the morning, but – Oh blissful day. You should have seen the mole at dawn. I had barely opened my eyes before my paws were on the ground, the door of my burrow opened, the gate reached. The sun was shining but the air was cool – so cool I thought I might see snow on the mountain. I was, as you might imagine, in my element again. As I bounced my way towards Knocklofty I couldn’t help but remember the way I had waded, almost treacled my weary self up the same path the morning before. The air had been heavy with the heat of the previous day. An anticipated thunderstorm had broken spectacularly behind the mountain but left this side with a few drips of rain and the weight of unburst clouds. The reward silent stillness, only broken by birdsong, and the only other beings I saw were wallabies – and their innocent, not yet cautious joeys who were grazing at the side of the path.

Today there was not a wallaby to be seen. I had hardly embarked on the upward path when I heard shouts and grunts and the pounding of large human feet, and when I reached the first point where the paths intersect, I was confronted by a squad of footballers blocking the way.

When I am surrounded by men, en masse, exerting their physical strength, I feel like a very, very small mole indeed. I scuttled off the path to manoeuvre myself around them to move on and up and beyond, but their voices filled the natural amphitheatre of Knocklofty, and I knew that they might either catch me up, or round on me from the other direction and meet me head on. No wallabies were to be seen. Hiding behind trees, perhaps, holding their paws to their ears and quaking in mortal terror. I felt a degree or two separated from the element I had been in when I first strode out of my burrow.

It made me ponder about elements, not the Chinese ones, but the occidental variety: the figurative ones which give us such satisfaction to be in, and the meteorological ones we boldly choose to brave – and what happens to us if we are neither in them or facing them.

Some creatures seem to live entirely within their elements. I am sure that is one of the reasons I so often take my bearings from Great Uncle Mole and Uncle Ratty when I find myself out of sorts or too loosely scattered. Great Uncle Mole travelled from time to time but always underground; it would never have entered his mind to fly in an aeroplane. Uncle Ratty, on the other hand, strayed a long way from the riverbank but he was always at home wherever he went. He braved new elements and made them his own.

As a wee mole I was rather tumbled about by the elements, uprooted and plonked and uprooted again. The times when I was in my element could be counted on the claws of one paw, and perhaps you need to experience being in your own element to brave the others.

This morning, when I had reached the summit of Knocklofty, and was well beyond sight or sound of the footballers; when I was breathing the mountain air and eucalyptus, and was enwrapt in my element again, I came across a forlorn wanderer. ‘I’m lost’, he said, his lips quivering. ‘I don’t know where I am. I’ve never been here before.’ He was, he told me, from across the river, and had lost his team.

I was reminded that an element is part of a complex whole. I’ll not be able to look at a squad of footballers again without remembering the one who was so out of his own element when he was in mine. And in so doing maybe I can take a leaf out of Uncle Ratty’s book, and make more elements my own.

But now, back to the cellar.


Great Uncle Mole was a great one for rituals. Come hell or high water, every morning he would emerge briskly from his bedroom in a tartan dressing-gown and head straight for the kitchen. He’d fill the kettle and put it on the stove. Life was not worth living without an early pot of his own special blend of Irish Breakfast and Russian Caravan. The tray, or trays (should there be any other creatures staying in the burrow) were set up the night before, complete with a linen tray-cloth, a small tin of digestive biscuits, and a flower in a vase arranged just as his Mama had done many years before. This ritual was a solitary occupation, and if any small creature, up with the larks, ever dared follow him, they were scowled out of the kitchen and told to go back to bed. Nonetheless there were times I watched him from the safety of the hallway. There was something about the precision of every move, its quotidian invariability, that suspended time. One could not believe that there would not always be a Great Uncle Mole making morning tea.

While the kettle was occupied with the task of bringing the water to the boil, Great Uncle Mole pootled along to the vestibule where (in amongst the mufflers and sou’westers and oilskins, capes and ulsters, berets and flat-caps and gumboots, walking-sticks and snowshoes, straw-hats and umbrellas and badminton racquets), a pair of weather instruments, encased in oak, bravely stood their ground. He would tap the barometer first, and tap it again if he didn’t like what he saw. Then he would squint at the thermometer. The vestibule was dark and Great Uncle Mole’s eyes were weak. Sometimes he had to guess, but nevertheless, what ever he said he saw would hold for the day, the weather outside be damned.

One of the best things about this method was that the temperature was seldom more than a few degrees below and never, ever above 50F (or 10C) because it was Uncle Ratty who had attached the instruments to the wall and Uncle Ratty was a good inch or two taller; 50F was what was level with Great Uncle Mole’s eyes. Down in his burrow it was usually cool, and little could be seen of the world beyond, so it might as well have been true.

As the temperature heads for the 80Fs on this old imperial thermometer, and a hot spell is forecast for the next week, I wish Great Uncle Mole were here to fool me. I contemplate fooling myself by merely raising the thermometer higher on the wall, and removing my spectacles before taking a reading, but the sun penetrates this burrow of mine, fills it with heat and light. An extraordinary sleepiness overcomes me at this time of year. The days go on for ever and the short dark allows no time to restore and recover. Although the solstice heralded a welcome turnaround to shortening daylight, here in the southern hemisphere the evenings continue to lengthen for a further 29 days.

I look at sunflowers, daisies, marigolds and geraniums sturdily holding their own in the sun, while I wilt in the shade. In the mornings I can barely raise myself. Where is the mole who leaps out of bed on those dark winter mornings, striding up Knocklofty while others creatures are hibernating?

Am I alone in this desire to hide away from the bright heat? Very nearly but not quite. I find that rather than hibernate in the winter my friend the Malagasy fat-tailed dwarf lemur aestivates in tree-holes for the seven hottest, driest months of the year, but perhaps even closer to my heart is the only other known aestivating mammal, the nocturnal and solitary four-toed East African hedgehog. It has its very own mechanism for hiding away from the too-bright world. Its obicularis panniculi, the circular skin muscle in its soft belly contracts into a bag, a blissful dark place, into which the hedgehog withdraws, its spines erecting themselves protectively in the same movement.

Oh to be an East African hedgehog.

Ring in the New

Last night, had you been hovering in a balloon somewhere between Hobart’s city centre and the harbour, and had you been looking down on the scene below, you might have seen a small mole peeling off from the throngs of festively clad humans, moving purposefully towards the cathedral tower, key in paw, and quickly, silently slipping through its doors into the quite dark of the vestry. It was about ten o’clock.

At that point you would have seen no more except perhaps for the lights going on in the tower, but as I was that mole I can tell you that I climbed the spiral staircase, let myself into the ringing room, drew a rather rusty, faux Breuer chair to the round table in the middle and fossicked about for the contraption in my rucksack.

Ten o’clock was on the early side for midnight bell-ringing, but a dinner with chums had ended unexpectedly early, and here was a welcome little lull in a day that had been so full I hadn’t even had time to send my broadcast out to you.

And while I was tapping away the contraption suddenly pinged. A message came through from a dear neighbour of mine. She recalled bells in Edinburgh many decades ago and how the Papa of a friend of hers recited Tennyson’s Ring Out Wild Bells (otherwise known as In Memoriam). And this dear neighbour had carefully written it out in full for me.

Well, being a soul raised on diet of boxing day amateur dramatics (and having not had the opportunity to indulge in them since the boxing days of my youth at Great Uncle Mole’s burrow), I could not restrain myself. I rose up on the blue canvas seat and, drawing myself to my full (though not extensive) height, paw on heart, I proclaimed to the empty ringing room:

‘Ring out the old, ring in the new…’

I exhorted the ropes and sallies to let the old year go, to ring out grief that sapped the mind, the narrowing lust of gold, foul disease, the thousand wars of old, spite and the darkness of the land; and to ring in the larger heart, the fuller minstrel and the kindlier hand. I did the poem no justice but it so filled my small moleheart that when the others at last arrived; when we took our positions and began to ring, the words seeped up the ropes and into the bells and out into the night.

In the final days of the the Altjahrswoche, I had begun envisaging how I would prepare for the new year, so that when I awoke on the first of January it would be in crisp new sheets, to a clean and tidy house. I would leap up, fill my molelungs with early morning air on Knocklofty, return invigorated to breakfast, meditation and Qi Gong, and set myself to write. ‘Start as you mean to go on’, a voice, perhaps that of Mathilde had whispered.

Alas, ringing at midnight does not bode well for early rising; and the business of New Year’s Eve – all its shopping and preparing of food and wrapping of birthday presents leaves behind it a trail of chaos. I woke up late and I woke up to muddle and unfinished business.

And I woke up remembering the night and the ringing and the sense of farewelling the old and making space for the new, and I began to think that carrying this as an intention – as a way of being through 2016, was a much better idea for this clay-pawed mole.