Tuesday, 23 April 2019

The Questing Vole

The Prof and I have been visiting Mid-Wales at Easter, now, for over 40 years. Which is pretty much as long as we have known each other. Two children, several mortgages, and a lifetime of ups and downs later, this annual trip has been a constant, one which started simply because her parents owned a cottage up a lane just outside Presteigne in the Welsh Borders, which offered us a cheap break from our working lives in Bristol. I say "cheap": I can't imagine anyone would ever have paid to stay in the place. Tucked in a damp hollow next to a stream, it had slate floors set directly into the ground, and no heating other than a conventional fireplace and a couple of two-bar electric heaters. One of the first tasks on opening the place up, even in summer, was to prop up the mattress on the bed and steam off the worst of the damp with one of the heaters. It felt rather like camping in a poorly-chosen spot in a large, less than weatherproof tent, where the incessant babble of the stream through the night merely served to emphasise the clamminess of the bedding.

The whole area was seriously underdeveloped, then, and (rather like our visits to Northern Spain and the Basque Country in the years after Franco's death) it felt like going back in time, to the 1930s at least, and occasionally the 19th century. In the high streets of the larger towns you could still buy the sort of clothes worn by the extras in any period drama set between 1920 and 1950, and the junk shops were full of the wonderful Victorian and Edwardian bric-a-brac of farmhouse clearances.  Small accidents of geography have meant that, in the subsequent years, some valleys have thrived, while others have remained in the shadow of subsistence, abandonment, and dereliction. Naturally, the prospect of bargain-basement rural seclusion has attracted several waves of those seeking an alternative lifestyle, out of the censorious eye of "straight" society, and one constant over the years has been the reliable presence of wholefood shops and craft outlets for the makers of lumpy, crusty pots and improbable jewellery.

Anyway, the idea of constant return reminded me of a little story that happened in that Presteigne cottage some time around 1978. One Friday night we were sitting by the fire – just companionably reading, drinking, and smoking, as we both did in those days – when we noticed something odd. A very small creature, a vole of some kind, was making its way across the slate floor, presumably having entered the room beneath the door that led to the kitchen and the back door, and was headed, between our two chairs, towards the opposite door that led to the hallway and the front door. It seemed completely oblivious to our presence. Strange! Then, the next night, exactly the same thing happened: same time, same creature, same route, same indifference to our presence. We had to head back to Bristol the next day, but enjoyed the supposition that, that night and probably every night, the vole was making its round through the house in complete darkness, like a miniature security guard, gobbling up the odd beetle or slug on its way. The bold (or daft) little thing wasn't going to let unexpected changes of circumstance – like two enormous creatures, a blazing fire, or unaccustomed illumination by electric light – get in the way of its routine. A vole's gotta do what a vole's gotta do.

Which is a metaphor for something, I'm sure, but have never quite decided what.

Oh, and I nearly forgot:
To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still: three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride;
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turned
In process of the seasons have I seen;
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah, yet doth beauty, like a dial-hand,
Steal from his figure, and no pace perceived;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceived:
  For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred:
  Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead.
Sonnet 104
(Known to some as the "Carmen Miranda sonnet", because of that bizarre second line)
¡Feliz cumpleaños, señor Shakespeare!


Zouk Delors said...

I'm reminded of the disastrous production of Richard III that came to be known as 'Richard, ai,ai,ai!'.

PS That last photo ... caption competition, surely?

Mike C. said...


It's a very odd line, isn't it: hard to imagine Will looking at it, reading it out loud a couple of times, and thinking, "Yep, perfect, that's nailed it!"

As to the last photo, as with most caption competitions, it's probably funnier without than with... What a very long time ago that was.


amolitor said...

I think Bill just couldn't resist the chance to use the same word in two ways in the same sentence. "I just used 'eye' as a noun and a verb! go me!"

Mike C. said...

That, or the compositor couldn't read the manuscript...

"Aye aye, wot's this: 'When first your [...] I [...]'??"
"Dunno, but keep it clean, lad!"


amolitor said...

I feel like there's some sort of Dan Brown spoof novel, in which Shakespeare is revealed to be nothing more than an incredible sequence of compositor's mistakes and embellishments, which has been concealed by a murderous secret society of English Professors.

Mike C. said...

I think it may well exist, but I'm on a train so not well placed to check!