Three cheers!

The Woolwich Grand Theatre is Go!

Having had the planning meeting scheduled for the end of September and then moved to October, it was suddenly brought forward to earlier this evening.

And, earlier this evening,  the arts centre application was passed unanimously by Greenwich Council.

Thank you, Councillors and Planning Officers!

Hurray! Phew! Gosh! Eek! Now the fun really starts.

And something else I wanted to say…

You know how it’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind?

Well, I want to change my mind about the council. At least a bit. Recently, I had been feeling  that big business was their major interest, and the people on the Woolwich omnibus were not too high on the agenda, but I was so impressed by their efficiency, pragmatism and good-spiritedness at the planning meeting tonight. There were several applications under consideration and each was dealt with quickly and directly. All questions raised were completely appropriate and, if answered satisfactorily, then the applications were passed with no further ado. I don’t know why, but I expected it to be a much more adversarial process with all sorts of shillyshallying and bluster. There wasn’t any of that. At all. And the councillors even looked quite pleased when we all gave their decision a large round of applause.

Three cheers! Hip hip! Hurrah! Huzzah!

Permission granted!

Permission granted!

The Woolwich Grand Team

The Woolwich Grand Team

Prole’s-eye view

So, a quick update on the Greenwich Ministry of Truth’s progress in shoving recent events in Woolwich down memory holes.

I was at The Woolwich Grand (frustratingly, we’re still not quite able to open as the planning hearing date which was scheduled for later on this month has now been pushed back to October…) yesterday and had a conversation with Mike, the independent filmmaker who had filmed the riots from his balcony. He’d ended up on Australian TV talking about the riots, while broadcasters closer to home displayed far less interest.

Mike and his colleagues at Jellyfielders had been there at the inception of the Woolwich Wall, the outlet for local feeling on the boarded-up, burnt-out Great Harry pub. People of all ages and backgrounds wrote on this wall, expressing feelings from rage to sorrow to hope. And no-one stole the pens that were put there for common use. And Danny Mercer gave a brilliant interview beside it. But, hey, guess what, while Peckham proudly preserves its Post-Its, the Woolwich Wall is whitewashed. Well, wiped out by battleship grey.

You’d think that after a display of societal breakdown, community feeling would be encouraged and celebrated by the powers that be. Out here it seems that Greenwich Council just want to pretend none of it happened – even the good bits. They even pulled out of attending a public meeting about how to move on after the riots, and just held a private one for local businesses.

Hey ho.

Anyway, even if the council is determined to turn a blind eye to efforts of locals to rally round and build something good, the residents of southeast London are, frankly, so used to being ignored that they’ll just get on and do what they’re going to do anyway.

Provided they get the necessary planning permission…

Fingers tightly crossed for The Grand.

Oh, I wish you had seen this with me so we could talk about it

Snappy title, huh? But I do. I really do.

I’m a Chris Goode fanboy. I love him. I love his work (not unconditionally, and I haven’t seen it all, but I do love it) and no other theatre-maker has ever made me produce such a variety and quantity of bodily fluids in public. I do tend to leak emotions in liquid form quite readily, but grace à lui, I’ve almost drowned by inhaling my own giggle-snot, almost choked to death on my own chortle-phlegm and almost suffocated from trying to turn back a tide of molten sadness.Yesterday, I ended up with a soggy cowl neck jumper as it was the only handy absorbent material substantial enough to mop up the range of water-based feelings my facial orifices were emitting.

If you can, do see The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley at the Pleasance Baby Grand and, even if you’re less leaky than I am, I’m sure you’ll leave feeling different to how you went in. I’m simultaneously laughing with delight and holding back tears just thinking about it. It’s on tomorrow and Monday, so hurry!

And then we could talk about it.

Clearing the decks

A few weeks ago, before the mass rioting took grip of the country, before our Government decided to respond by donning jackboots and stamping rather than even attempting to understand why this eruption had happened, and before I went on an intensive driving course and had to leave early due to being generally impossible (*blushes*), I had a wee trip out to the sticks to do a spot of sorting and clearing.

I’ve spent a significant portion of the past year sorting and clearing and splashing industrial strength cleaning products about. There have been times when, standing atop a seemingly unclearable heap,  I thought it was never going to end. But progress has been made. We really are almost there. Or at least ‘there’ enough to be able to start picking up certain threads of my life’s rich tapestry from where I put them down a year ago. Phew.

There have been two houses to sort and clear and the snapshots below are of the second.

Compulsive hoarding is almost impossible to adequately describe to people who haven’t witnessed it first hand (I had a go at describing here, talking about the first house). I can see why it’s hard to understand just how horrific it is if you’ve not been in amongst the piles; a heap of stuff is just a heap of stuff, surely? The stuff itself is overwhelming, but the stuff is so much more than material objects – it’s memories and people and happy times and sad times and hopes and ambitions and love and anger and fears and regrets and intentions and failings all densely packed and congealed with remnants of rotten food, mysterious gungy matter and rat droppings. And even if the heaps are gunge- and dropping-free, they’re still great big immoveable objects that restrict access to sinks, toilets, bathrooms, cookers, chairs, beds, windows, doors, floors and living. How can you have visitors if all the chairs are buried? How can you get someone to mend the leaky sink if the kitchen floor is four-foot deep in stuff? How can you turn on the central heating if the boiler or thermostat is behind a two-metre high heap?

Fundamentally, if you’ve got really bad piles, then they dominate your life.

The farmhouse I was clearing up had been overrun by rats when my father was living there. My aunt had cleared out all the bags of rotting food (the top layer of ‘matter’, exactly the same as in the other house) a few years ago when it was no longer possible for my dad to live there. After that, the rats moved out and the burglars moved in, but they didn’t make much of an impression…

The first house took a long time to do. I’d started clearing up when my father was living there but then the clearing continued for a different reason, so it was hard to get rid of things at once. There are right times to say goodbye to things. Recently acquired objects were easy to throw away or take to the charity shop, but I needed a respectable pause before tackling the things that had been in the house for 30 years. (I don’t think this is a hoarding characteristic; I think it’s completely normal when dealing with the belongings of a family member who has died). However, almost a year on, I’d become pretty ruthless. For me. So I hired a big skip. (Yes, it is the width of the house).

Big skip

Big skip

I also took my camera with me as, over the past year, I’ve  found that one way of making mucking out a house easier is to take photographs of items that you would have liked to hold on to (for a little while, at least) had gunge, droppings, time and space not dictated otherwise. I now have several hundred digital photographs of things. But they take up no physical room.

And so the clearing began.

Well, once we’d hacked down a Sleeping Beauty’s forest of nettles in order to get to the door and then sledgehammered and jemmied and angle-ground the boarded-up and astoundingly strong remnants of the burglarised door in order to get in, the clearing began.

Kitchen

Kitchen

Kitchen

Kitchen

Sitting room

Sitting room

Scullery

Scullery

Front bedroom

Front bedroom

Landing

Landing

Master bedroom

Master bedroom

The job required gloves, masks and a gung-ho attitude.

What was in the heaps?

Off the top of my head: endless newspapers and magazines, books on every subject under the sun, stacks of videos, shelves of videos, telescopes, microscopes, chemical balances,  the cassette recorder from my childhood, the car blanket, the tent, drawings by a five-year-old me, mirrors, more mirrors, more and more and more mirrors, 1950s radio sets, wind-up gramophones, portable gramophones, weighing scales, paraffin lamps, hi-fis, typewriters, broken printers, ancient computer monitors, sewing machines, a broadsword, an epee, two pianos, one harmonium, one electronic keyboard, a piano accordion, a broken guitar, hundreds of framed pictures from charity shops, the odd airgun and shotgun or so, Fordson Major tractor manuals, the traditional car engine in the kitchen, shotgun cartridges in boxes, Ferguson tractor manuals, shotgun cartridges loose in unexpected places, air rifle pellets, Dyson vacuum cleaners, a Nazi armband, a gas mask, new telephones, vintage telephones, Pocahontas-shaped bottles of bubble bath, a whip, a remoska, boxes of pans, sheet music, cameras, miniature steam engines, warming pans, theodolytes, light bulbs, copies of the Magna Carta, a Millennium dome keyring, Christmas cards, framed photographs, model aircraft engines, model aircraft, model aircraft plans, model aircraft magazines, wine-making flagons, chunks of lead, a small bottle of mercury, thousands of semiconductors and diodes, drills, socket sets, drill bit sets, electric screwdrivers, electronic callipers, slide rules, thousands of old photographs, barometers, a three-in-one pocket voltameter, miniature brass cannons, yo-yos…

etcetera

etcetera

etcetera.

And a lot of that went into the ‘keep’ heap.

As for the rest, before the skip arrived, we created piles outside:

Starting to move 'rubbish' out

Starting to move ‘rubbish’ out

More for the skip

More for the skip

And more...

And more…

And some more

And some more

As we worked down through the layers, we exposed things long forgotten:

Kitchen table! (And cutlery drawer)

Kitchen table! (And cutlery drawer)

 

Chair!

Chair!

Cupboard and drawers!

Cupboard and drawers!

Fireplace!

Fireplace!

Floor!

Floor!

More floor!

More floor!

Not too sure what's in there...

Not too sure what’s in there…

 

Sofa!

Sofa!

Granddad

Granddad

Irony?

Irony?

We left the bathroom for another time.

Bathroom

Bathroom

Once the skip was full, my cousin made cunning use of a couple of big round bales and compacted the contents, giving us space for another third of a load.

Squashing it in

Squashing it in

Scrap metal went in a separate heap for a separate skip, but we didn’t even attempt to move the collection of broken washing machines in the undergrowth.

And, eventually, this is where we got to:

KItchen

Kitchen

Kitchen

Kitchen

Sitting room

Sitting room

Scullery

Scullery

Landing

Landing

Front bedroom

Front bedroom

Back bedroom

Back bedroom

Master bedroom

Master bedroom

And the sun shone through the rain!

And the sun shone through the rain!

There was a very good BBC documentary broadcast recently about hoarding and Jasmine  Harman, who tried to help her mum clear the decks in the programme,  has set up this excellent site for helping people with hoarding problems. The documentary was so good because it showed how ‘stuff’ can privately dominate a publically ‘normal’ family and how horribly painful it is for the hoarder and family to get to grips with the problem. Hoarders are undoubtedly impossible to live with and can be aggressive and hurtful if you pass comment or offer assistance, but they’re in a terrible muddle and, though the powers that be are still shillyshallying about classifying hoarding as a psychological condition, it seems logical that  there are reasons and triggers for this sort of behaviour, such as some sort of loss, be it emotional or physical. I think that it’s a very sad condition, as the objects sometimes seem to become substitutes for other things; emotions, interaction, people.

I remember a conversation about a decade ago, at the farm, while trying to help my father do a bit of tidying up. I went out on a limb and suggested that maybe we could throw some things away. This suggestion wasn’t received too well, so I searched around for a suitable, harmless object to use as a guinea pig. My eye alighted on a battered and broken peach-coloured lampshade.

‘What about this? We could throw this away.’

‘But it was my mother’s’

‘Yes, but it’s broken. You can’t use it any more. We can throw it away.’

‘But wouldn’t she be upset with me for throwing it away?’

‘Well, she’d be more upset to see the state of the house!’

And he looked so forlorn that I gave up and we just shuffled a few objects from pile to pile.

The lampshade has now been thrown away.

Incendiary

This, apparently, is not newsworthy.

Woolwich burns, 8th August, 2011

Woolwich burns, 8th August, 2011

It makes me want to weep.

And this makes me want to cheer –  and weep a little bit at the same time because it’s so gentle and heartfelt after the horror of scenes such as the above. (It’s a video, by the way, of Woolwich youngsters helping to clear up).

Brilliant work, guys – three cheers for you all. I think your work is eminently newsworthy – far more so than Boris with a broom.

*UPDATE* 11/08/011 The Guardian has finally added Woolwich, specifically only the burning of The Great Harry, to their incident map. However, they have omitted the Woolwich incidents from their new map which cross-references rioting with poverty.

Report from the invisible quadrant

I live in the part of London no-one likes to talk about – south east London. I have got used to the fact that this means many people think I don’t exist but, nonetheless, I’ve been furious at the lack of concern or interest shown by the major news outlets at the horrific riots that took place here last night.

I’d been working at The Woolwich Grand Theatre and had wondered aloud to Adrian, the creative director, if the north London riots might be replicated down here. Which they were.

Adrian had dropped me home at about 7pm, and by the time he had driven back into Woolwich, a riot had started and a police car was ablaze. He went back to the theatre and called me through the night with updates as the roiting and looting unfolded. I then timidly posted his information in the comments thread on The Guardian website as there seemed to be no other coverage of Woolwich. As I type this, after a night of fires and looting and a day of cordoned-off streets, The Guardian still hasn’t added Woolwich to their ‘riot map’. I can only imagine this is because they’re categorizing reports from Woolwich as ‘unverified’. I’m not sure how they verify their reports, but maybe sending a reporter across the river on the DLR would do it. Just a thought. It’s been odd watching the news focus change as riots started to happen in west London. Coverage of Clapham* and Ealing has been almost constant and, though the riots there should most certainly be covered, London does actually extend beyond Ealing and Clapham, and Guardian-readers and BBC-watchers do exist across the Prime Meridian.

To be fair, the BBC had a 5 Live producer on the scene in Woolwich last night, but his excellent audio report wasn’t repeated today anywhere as far as I can make out. The BBC chose to have a distressed shop-owner from Ealing and an angry Clapham resident on a loop. I’m not saying that these reports aren’t important – they clearly are – but when all major news outlets seem to be focussing on the same areas and you know that there are other areas being ignored, you do start to wonder what drives their choice of location and story. And whether it has anything to do with the number of journalists and BBC employees living in Ealing and Clapham. Cynical? Moi? No. I think I’m probably bang on.

So, anyway, fury at the newshounds’ ignoring of the area where I live aside, here’s what faced Woolwich residents this morning.

The streets were cordoned off and guarded by police. A burnt-out police car stood opposite the DLR station.

The main shopping street, Powis Street, was like a war zone. A war where glass, rubbish, fire extinguishers, rubble and mannequin body parts were the major weapons. I couldn’t see all the shops as parts of the street were totally blocked off, but this incomplete list will give an idea as to what it was like: Argos – looted; M and S – windows smashed and looted; all the mobile phone shops looted and smashed; all the pawnbrokers in the side streets – CashConverters etc and smaller independent jewellers-cum-pawnbrokers – smashed windows, forced security grilles and looted; New Look – windows smashed and looted (I thought it was really bizarre that all their window mannequins had gone), Burton – windows smashed and looted; Bon Marche – smashed and looted, video game shop – smashed and looted; a now-unidentifiable shop (possibly a mobile phone shop) – burnt to a shell with walls collapsing into the street and firefighters still putting out the flames; Natwest bank – smashed windows and looted.

Adrian had seen the Natwest bank being attacked. Inside, a very diligent cleaner had been vacuum cleaning, iPod earphone firmly in lugholes, completely oblivious of the baying mob smashing the plate glass frontage a few metres away from her. I hope she scarpered sharpish when she looked around.

Adrian and several other people reported a priest standing alone against the rioters, gently telling them all to ‘go home’. There had been some police present, but only a handful and, once the fires started, the police had had to provide an escort for the firefighters to stop them being attacked.

Riot Police in Woolwich, August 8th, 2011

Riot Police in Woolwich, August 8th, 2011

There had been least three major fires and other smaller ones. The new Wilkinson on the bus-stop side of General Gordon Square had been set alight. Wimpy (come on, what has Wimpy ever done to anyone??) had been smashed up and, possibly because it was below a CCTV camera, had been set alight – not all that successfully. Greater success had been had with the Wetherspoons pub on Wellington Street, on the other side of the road from the theatre. The Great Harry, scene of many a Woolwich Grand Theatre painting team lunch and named after a Tudor warship accidentally destroyed by, ahem, fire in 1533, was a burnt-out shell. The traffic lights next to it were melted.

This is the picture Adrian took last night before the flames fully took hold:

The Great Harry on fire, Woolwich, 8th August 2011

The Great Harry, Wellington Street, Woolwich, 8th August 2011

The pub had been set ablaze by rioters starting fires on two tables. Adrian and another man went into the pub to try to put the fires out before they took hold of the whole building. They couldn’t find the fire extinguishers (these may well have been taken by looters to smash windows with) and were forced back out after a few minutes because of the smoke. Firefighters lobbed bricks at the upper windows to smash them before they exploded and the place is now a shattered, ashen husk.

The rioters also did goodness-knows-what damage to the almost-completed, much-anticipated, refurbished General Gordon Square. I say goodness-knows-what damage because the Square was cordoned off today so it wasn’t possible to see what had gone on there. Adrian said he saw some kids trying to smash up the (admittedly horrific) Big Screen, but all this light in this picture looks like someone had turned on some of the workmen’s machines… or is the light fire? And yes, that sign does say ‘Investing in Woolwich’.

General Gordon Square, Woolwich, 8th August 2011

General Gordon Square, Woolwich, 8th August 2011

Today, we good burghers of Woolwich and environs wanted, like many other London residents, to help clear up the damage. Alas, no broom-waving with Boris for us southeastern types. The damaged streets were cordoned off all day, what with buildings still potentially about to collapse and, presumably, evidence to be gathered. Greenwich council also advised the organiser of a clear-up Woolwich facebook group that the cordons might still be up tomorrow and that they had their own team to do the clean-up anyway. If the area’s still dangerous, then fine, but if not, then letting willing locals clear up the mess – or even stand and hold things while official clearer-uppers clear up – would be a bloody good thing for morale. There is a strong community feeling out here (working on setting up the theatre has demonstrated that amply, with all the help we’ve been given and interest and support that’s been show), so why isn’t it being celebrated and encouraged at this dark hour? Maybe community clear-ups are only encouraged if the mayor’s popping down for a photo-opportunity.

And today, all the shops that had managed to open closed early and Woolwich was like a ghost town when we left the theatre at about 6pm. A ghost town with a huge police presence. As we were leaving, we saw 2 policemen on Polytechnic Street dealing with a drunk-seeming chap and dog multiply in a matter of seconds to a massive 18 boys and girls in blue. Possibly two or three times the number on the scene last night. So, fingers crossed for a peaceful night. I can’t smell any burning, so that’s probably a good sign.

Anyway. That’s my rambling report from this invisible quadrant. There’s also been massive pretty-much unreported vandalism and looting in the big shops – Currys, JD Sports ( the looter’s favourite) etc – in Charlton and lower-key trouble in Plumstead (including an unsuccessful attempt on the Tesco Express). I’m sure there are other areas in the UK that also aren’t getting coverage, so I reckon doubling or tripling the incidents reported by news outlets would give a more realistic picture of what’s happening in the UK right now.

Horrendous, non?

Hope that things are safe where you are and that this insane destruction stops soon.

Much love,

ctxxx

* A friend has pointed out that it wasn’t Clapham, but Clapham Junction, which is actually Wandsworth. Apologies. Much of the press has also decided to call the area Clapham for the duration of this event.

Getting there…

As the British Rail ads of the 1980s said, ‘We’re getting there’.

There has been quite a lot of house to sort out. Well, not so much house as contents of house. I started this operation last August and I’m very, very nearly there. Inside is pretty much done, and last week saw the removal of a local landmark that had been outside for 30 years:

Ivy-cladPoor Beetle

Beetles

It also saw the removal of an array of more well-hidden but equally long-resident objets du desir ranging from water-logged bags of fertilizer to sheets of asbestos and seven lawnmowers:

Lawnmowersetc

Stuff

I’d never seen the path free of vehicles before. As one neighbour said when the trio of ivy-clad cars went, ‘It’s rather sad, really.’

As free as the grass grows…

So, the mice have gone into the Big Wide Wood.

They're out there somewhere...

They’re out there somewhere…

Their departure was delayed by about a week due to the Curious Incident of the Mice in the Pear Puree, which saw said animals roll in said fruity mush and then lick it off each other with relish – and great chunks of each other’s fur, resulting in this kind of arresting look:

Baldies

Baldies

So their release had to be postponed until their fur had grown back.

Mind you, even if they hadn’t given each other rebellious teenager haircuts, their release would still have been delayed as I didn’t want to let them go when the temperature was still going down to feeezing at night, whatever the state of their fur.

Despite this, for two of them, release almost came a little early. One evening, I heard scuttling noises coming from the blanket box next to the mouse box, which I dismissed as my mishearing due to a cold in the head. The mice terrarium (large plastic box with a pair of tights stetched over a hole in the lid) looked secure, but the noises persisted in coming from about two feet to the left of where they should have been coming from. I opened the blanket box and lo!, two meecelets were having a lovely time dropping droppings on the pillowcases, having apparently teleported over there.

Oh, and there are so many other fond memories of the Great Mouse Adventure; working out the best way to mimic dew so they could get some water; waking up in a hot sweat having left the heating on to keep the teeny mice warm; going to bed in a jumper and hat having had the heating off for days to acclimatise the bigger mice to the outside temperature; laughing at seeing the mice try to escape down a leg of the pair of tights covering their box; and weighing them at about two weeks and finding them tipping the scales at less than 20g all together:

Less than 5g each!

Less than 5g each!

That was probably about the last time I managed to hold them all in my hand:

A handful of mouseness

A handful of mouseness

It was amazing how they grew so quickly from stumpy,

8-day old mice and a penny

Stumpy mice

to gangly:

Gangly mice

Gangly mice

Gangly mice encore

Gangly mice encore

Hungry gangly mice

Hungry gangly mice

Gangly mouse

Gangly mouse

to sleek and plump.

Sleek and plump, with regrown fur

Sleek and plump, with regrown fur

It was lovely making them different dwelling places as they got bigger. When I introduced them to the big homemade terrarium full of wonders such as soil and bricks and paving stones and twigs, it was stunning to see them instantly start digging, gnawing, climbing and making their own nest. They instantly became Real Mice as soon as they were given the opportunity.

Inside the homemade terrarium

Inside the homemade terrarium

Taking some bedding back to the nest

Taking some bedding back to the nest

Despite having stopped handling them and having kept the house cold for several days, I was still worried about how to release them. I wanted to give them a chance of not getting eaten while they worked out what the Woods were all about. A few days ago, I had a midnight brainwave and realised a little nesting box would be the perfect transitional residence for four orphan mice leaving their foster home to make their way in the world. However, at the pet shop, I found that nesting boxes are rather large and deluxe this season, but Pickle’s Cottage seemed a good alternative:

Pickle's Cottage - the Halfway Mouse House

Pickle’s Cottage – the Halfway Mouse House

I lined it with a cardboard inner box and nailed the roof down on one side, so curious foxes couldn’t knock it off, and put bedding in one side and a week’s worth of grub on the other. I put it in with the mice so they could get used to it. They jumped straight in:

Trying out the house

Trying out the house

But for their last night chez moi, they preferred their own nest.

Last night in captivity

Last night in captivity

When I looked in their nest the following morning, there were only two mice.

‘Oh, Sod’s Law’, I thought, heart sinking. ‘Why must you be enacted now, at the final hurdle of the eleventh hour, why?’

I couldn’t see any signs of escape and calmly, sadly concluded they’d teleported off again. To somewhere in my house. Where they would no doubt breed without restraint. Then I noticed two tiny, tiny holes in the layers of tights acting as a lid to the terrarium. What clever, persistent creatures to chew an escape route while hanging upside down from a 60 denier American Tan reinforced gusset! Reminding myself that lightning doesn’t strike twice, I looked in the blanket box, just in case. And there they were. Dropping droppings in the pillowcases. Much frustrated squeaking (mostly from me) later, I had caught the Houdini Mice and popped them, their more stay-at-home siblings and their nest in Pickle’s Cottage, shut the lid and put the other half of the roof on.

Thus at quarter to seven this morning, I found myself setting off to the woods, clutching a bag of mice and a trowel. I didn’t meet anyone else in the woods. Which was probably best.

Though their fur tends to look greyish in the snaps, these mice are actually the browny colour of dead leaves. So I thought I’d set them up where they would be well-camouflaged. In a suitably isolated part of the woods, I climbed off the path, up a slope and into a holly bush. There, I dug the house into the ground:

The release house

The release house

And then pulled the masking tape off the mousehole.

The boldest mouse catapulted out of the hole and bounced away into the woods.

A few seconds later, the second boldest mouse peered out of the window:

First sight of the world

First sight of the world

He considered the new situation for a few seconds and then bounced off into the woods in the opposite direction to his brother.

Then there was silence and stillness.

Suddenly worried that the other two might have died of shock on the way, I took off half the roof, opened the cardboard interior box and there they were. Absolutely fine. Making themselves at home. So I shut them up again, covered up the house with leaves and twigs and left them to live their lives as mice.

Going...

Going…

Going...

Going…

Still going...

Still going…

Gone.

Gone.

So I’m now suffering from Empty Nest Syndrome.

Good Luck Meeces!

Rooting for the runt

I side with the underdog.

When I was nine, I brought home an undercat.  In my memory, she was the most beautiful creature ever with silken fur and intelligent eyes. Adults who witnessed the animal at this time recall a thin, sickly, moth-eaten, fleabag of a thing. (Naturally, she grew up to be an undisputed Ubercat).

Recently, I forged a relationship with an undermouse.

Runty Mouse - about 10 days old

Runty Mouse – about 10 days old

The poor little Runty Mouse had been causing me concern for a few days. Whenever I rudely awakened the mouselets, three would be curled up together and poor little Runty would be out on his own, away from the warmth of his siblings. I would put them all back together every time, but he’d always end up on his own; pushed out of the nest, as happens to the runt in nature. The poor little thing was so thin. Skin, a little bit of fur and an oversized skull. (Now, see, here, I want to write ‘like a rodent Calista Flockhart‘ but I feel unkind doing that. Oh, I’ve done it anyway. Oops.) And a forlorn tail, thin as a thread. He was clearly having a bit of a rough time starting out on this old life business, and his brothers and sisters weren’t showing him much fraternal or sororital love. All because he was small. Now, I know this is what happens to runts in the wild, but life at Burlington-Taylor Towers, though generally unkempt and occasionally unruly, isn’t yet feral, so I stuck my oar in, hoping that Runty would grab it with all four feet and hold on tight.

When they were 10 days old, some sort of mouse-empathetic-supersense kicked in and I was certain that this particular day was make-or-break day for Runty; if he could just get through this day, then he might stand a chance. So, I kind of cancelled everything apart from feeding mice. Which, in retrospect, puts me firmly into Mad Cat Woman territory, even though this was a mouse-related issue. So, having rearranged a few things and called off seeing a friend (I somehow feel that  ‘I have to feed the runt’ is worse than ‘I’m washing my hair’), I braced myself for some intensive paintbrush action.

The stronger three got their usual 4-hourly paintbrushings, but Runty was fed every hour. For about 36 hours.

I made him a super-saturated solution of kitten milk. And squashed molecules of banana onto the paintbrush as well. He was probably cursing me for depriving him of sleep, but he most definitely perked up over the intensive feeding period. You could almost see him fattening up.

And heck, you think of all manner of odd things, sitting there in the half-light, stuffing a paintbrush into a mouse runt’s mouth.

But odd things aside, the thought that I kept coming back to, as we went through the Long Dark Night of the Runt, was a song sung at junior school. Hymns at my junior school (St Paul’s C of E primary in Wokingham) were interesting; Mrs Aveling ruled the musical roost and had an aversion to traditional tunes for anything, (which is why I associate ‘Away in a Manger’ with something that is basically a rock ballad) but, at the same time, this long-haired, flamboyant, moustachioed, brilliant woman seemed to love more modern, twee-er hymns, such as:

There are hundreds and thousands, millions of sparrows;
Two a penny, far too many there must be.
There are hundreds and thousands, millions of sparrows;
But God made every one and God made me.

Except  on this particular night, I was singing about millions of meecelets and how God loves every one including Runt-y. Genius, huh?

I’m not particularly into God, but you don’t need to be to have the sentiment that everyone and every one matters. Especially at five in the morning with a minature mouse gulping down hope for tomorrow from your hand.

And thus Runty got through the night to shed his runt status and become simply the littl’un.

The next night, he wasn’t pushed out by the others. Hurrah! He’d just needed that little extra boost to be deemed mouse-worthy by his siblings. And, putting my Carrie Bradshaw hat on for the moment (Heck – wouldn’t that have been a great show if she’d been writing about small mammals? Mice and the City? Sex and the Mice? No, no, that’s just all wrong. Anyway, Sex and the City was basically He-Man with cocktails – have a problem, have an adventure, learn something and tell us about it in a little moral coda. [Shhh, Claire, you’re supposed to be telling the mouse tale]) Ummm, where was I? Oh, yes, Carrie Bradshaw… yes…. We all sometimes need just a tiny little extra boost to keep going, and sometimes we’re lucky enough to get it. And, sometimes, we can be the ones to give it. That little boost, which is usually just a minor inconvenience for the giver (eg a cancelled date with a buddy; sorry, Carl), can mean the difference between triumph and disaster – or even  life and death – for the recipient. And, well, that doesn’t just go for meece.

 

Making mice at home

Small creatures of any kind need warmth, shelter and food. With regard to the Burlington-Taylor Mouse Quartet, shelter and warmth were pretty straightforward. I initially kept them in a small box in a larger box, with a hot water bottle under the small box. I got rid of their old nest and gave them a red flannel to sleep in with some pieces of toilet paper and torn-up newspaper as additional bedding. I kept the box on a chair next to a radiator until one of the cats became too interested, whereupon I kept the box in the cat-proof kitchen cupboard where the mouse nest had originally been found. I did chuckle at myself, earnestly taking a cardboard box of mice in and out of the kitchen cupboard (and putting an extra hot water bottle down the side of it…) but not for long – it’s a serious business, looking after blind, deaf, orphan mice.

The original mouse boxes

The original mouse boxes

The question of food was more problematic. After their initial apparent acceptance of the paintbrush, the mice seemed to start struggling to eat. So I went into mother mouse overdrive, trying all manner of things to try to make the process of staying alive easier, warmer or containing more calories.

I trimmed down a range of paintbrushes to see if a different shape or different bristles would be preferred. I kept the milk warm for the duration of each feeding session on a hot water bottle. I tried a piece of wool soaked in milk squashed to a tiny point by encasing it in a trimmed down straw – that worked for a few drops with the tiniest one, which felt like a major triumph. I went to the chemist and came away with a 10mm syringe and a small eyedropper. Both dwarfed the mice. Seriously dwarfed. Like a baby would be dwarfed by that giant escaped breast in that Woody Allen film. Trying to feed them with syringe or eyedropper would only end in drowning, so I persevered with paintbrushes. I went to the pet shop and picked up some powdered kitten milk formula (also good for baby guinea pigs, rabbits and other orphaned small animals). I explained to the lady behind the counter what I was up to and asked if they had any 1mm syringes as a paintbrush alternative. She immediately rushed out to the back and returned proffering a handful of tiny syringes and refusing any payment, which was very kind of her. Back home, I realised that the mouth of a 1mm syringe is the same size as the mouth of a 10mm syringe… At one point, at about four in the morning, when a mouse was struggling to accept the paintbrush, I thought of Harry Harlow’s Mummy Monkey experiments (Love is… something to eat and something to cuddle – especially something to cuddle) and did consider wrapping my hand in furry material, before the stickiness of the formula milk made me decide to hope that my inate spiritual soft-and-fluffiness would do.

And pretty swiftly, they became expert at accepting the paintbrush.

About 9 days old and a bit milky

About 9 days old and a bit milky

Then I asked the internet for its opinion on hand-rearing field mice.

Well, thank goodness I did. Baby mice need a bit of a hand (or, well, strictly speaking a tongue. A mouse tongue.) with the old excretion, so mimicking mother mouse washing them would be essential if they weren’t going to expire from terminal constipation. Mine didn’t seem to be suffering in that area, but, heck, that would be a horrendous way to go, so I followed the advice. A hot tip from the world wide web of field-mice rearing enthusiasts (mostly from the States) was to use a damp ‘Q-tip’ or piece of toilet paper, so that’s what I did and it worked beautifully. I appreciate that the word ‘beautifully’ may not be the first to spring to mind when considering the process of elimination in rodents, but I assure you, it’s appropriate.

To make sure everymouse was fed and, er, assisted each session, I put them into a separate tupperware box (on the radiator or hot water bottle) after they’d had their first go at the paintbrush. So the mealtime routine became:

  • Feed with milky paintbrush,
  • Stimulate bowel/bladder event,
  • Pop in tupperware box on the radiator
  • Repeat previous three steps with the other three mice
  • Feed with milky paintbrush
  • Place in nest box
  • Repeat previous two steps with the other three mice
  • Place all four mice in milky hand in the hope they’ll get some milk on their feet and fur and lick it off
  • Return to nest box

And then once a day, I’d add the following:

  • ‘Wash’ mouse with a larger damp, warm paintbrush
  • Replace in small tupperware box on radiator and rub gently with warm toilet paper until dry
  • Repeat previous two steps with the other three mice
  • Return mice to nest box.

It took blinkin’ ages.

The internet recommended feeding tiny mice every two hours. As the feeding process was taking about an hour, I upped that to every three to four hours, slightly less frequently in the day and slightly more frequently at night. They seemed to be doing OK. They were getting proper fur. They were starting to walk, rather than crawl or seep. They were demanding the paintbrush, open-mouthed like baby birds and then grabbing a firm hold of it with their front feet. They were amazing!

Mice - about 9 days old

Mice – about 9 days old