Carole Buckley Edwards, 29th March 1961 – 7th May 2021

For all old girls of Cleethorpes Girls Grammar School, fans of the Grimsby Guitars, music pupils, staff and students at Grimsby College, and all family and friends unable to attend Carole’s memorial service at Grimsby Central Hall on Tuesday 25th May, here’s a transcript of my eulogy:

We all have our own stories to tell of the unique and indomitable Carole Buckley Edwards; and as we remember and celebrate her life, I’d like to share mine with you. I hope you’ll enjoy hearing it as much as I enjoyed living it with her.

I first met Carole in 1972 at Clee Girls’ Grammar School, sitting on my right across an aisle on the front row of Form 1A (purely due to our surname initials, not academic qualities or naughtiness!). As I got to know her, I was a little awed by her accomplishments: already a competent guitarist, she also played violin in the school orchestra as well as the recorder we all learned. She may have told you the ghastly tale of our school concert, eagerly anticipated by 1A because we thought we had an unbeatable programme to win the first year prize: a silly play I’d written, an hilarious Keystone Cops sketch performed as a film clip in slow-mo, fast-forward and normal speed, and a mandatory song as grand finale. We chose ‘Lemon Tree’ (very pretty), accompanied by Carole on guitar – but when she struck the first chords, it had gone out of tune! Cue faltering voices and sidelong looks of horror. Time and shame have blotted out whether she stopped to re-tune or we just soldiered on. Either way, I’m sure it cost 1A the prize – and what no-one knew until I finally confessed at our school reunion in 2017 was that it was All My Fault for idly toying with one of the tuning knobs while her guitar was propped next to me. (When I realised, I desperately tried to put it back as before – sadly to no avail).

A happier recollection is Carole entertaining 1A on guitar. Like everyone else in class, she had the obligatory pop-star poster, torn out of Jackie magazine, stuck inside her desk lid – but having more sophisticated musical tastes than the average twelve year old, Carole’s was of Marc Bolan (the rest of us being pretty evenly split between Donny and David). I’m sure all our classmates will remember her in her white polo neck, navy gym-slip and purse-belt, performing her rendition of ‘Metal Guru’ – which seems like an apt place to pause for a musical interlude, and one of the songs CB herself chose for today: another T-Rex favourite, ‘Ride a White Swan.’

*Marc Bolan Interlude*

As well as a musician, Carole was always a promising seamstress, keen enough to take dressmaking classes at night-school, and helped by mum Betty, knocked up our uniform wrap-around gym skirt in no time (it took me more than a term).  She was also the first person apart from my parents ever to give me a home-made Christmas present. You may recall early Seventies bath salts came in plastic bags and a choice of pink or green (rose or pine) scent. Carole had carefully layered the two colours into a jam-jar, and decorated the lid with a silver star– simple but effective, an early facet of the immense creativity that would go on to adorn her home with everything from Christmas garlands to Roman blinds and re-upholstered furniture, and enrich her family and friends with lovely hand-made gifts from patchwork quilts and felted baby slippers to jars of bramble jelly and bottles of pontack. And naturally, she also made lots of clothes, including Hallowe’en costumes and prom dresses for the twins, a pair of saggy-bottomed MC Hammer pants for me in the Eighties, and her own spectacular green wedding dress.

Seventies Cleethorpes was a great place to grow up, and as kids we had wide social circles, plenty to do and plenty of freedom to do it. Carole and I loved poking round the old town and spent countless hours shopping on St Peter’s Avenue, or browsing for fabrics in Boyes on Freeman Street, or spending whole Saturdays in the new precinct, trying on clothes and shoes, testing perfumes, and spending our pocket money on records and make-up; I think she even worked up town at some point as a Boots Saturday girl. We went swimming at Scartho Baths or Clee Bathing Pool, together or with groups of mates, and on cycling adventures to Louth or Hubbard’s Hills. The last time we did that was 1976. As we set off from Braemar Road, Grandma Buckley said, ‘Have you got coats in case it rains?’ We rolled our eyes at yet another blazing, cloudless sky. Yeah, yeah, we’d got our kagoules (hers blue, mine orange) – like we were going to need them. Needless to say, that was the day the drought broke. Said kagoules were plastered to us by the time we ate our picnic in the pathetic shelter of a Louth alley. Rain continued to pour as we admitted defeat and rode home. We stopped outside a big pub on the main road and debated begging shelter, but at only fifteen, felt too young and embarrassed because we looked like drowned rats, and too frightened of making a mess inside because we were literally streaming with water. Instead we pushed on through the rest of the miserable, cold, endless 16 miles, and I was glad I wasn’t going home with her to face the inevitable smug grandma ‘told you so’s’.

Meanwhile Carole was becoming a regular fixture at Oliver Street – my parents loved her – as I was at Braemar Road. I recall watching Abba for the first time on Top of the Pops with her and brother Steve, and thinking that skin-tight satin trousers aren’t a good look even for slim Swedish blondes, (though I suspect Agnetha’s shiny sausage thighs made a different impression on Steve). We did our homework, revised for exams, listened to music, drank gallons of coffee – Carole so addicted she used to buy her own private Nescafe stash and eat granules straight from the jar – did each other’s hair and make-up, had sleepovers, and gabbed endlessly in one or other of our purple and white teenage bedrooms, or nattered with our respective mums while stuffing ourselves with their fresh baking… all good clean fun until September ‘74, when we started in Form 3RK at Lindsey Upper School.

The first big change was our morning routine. I started calling for her and we’d walk round the corner to Lindsey together, wheeling my bike – that is, when she’d finally dragged herself out of her pit. I remember fidgeting in the kitchen, making small-talk with Betty while glancing repeatedly at my watch and fretting about being late. No doubt many of you will recall Carole could sleep like the dead, if you’ll pardon the expression, and didn’t take kindly to being disturbed; on one notorious occasion when crashing with friends in Germany, she was offered a bed on condition that if its owner returned during the night, she’d have to vacate it. Needless to say, when that happened, attempts to wake and extract her initially found her unresponsive, then as consciousness returned, abusive and adamantly refusing to budge – whereupon said bed’s rightful occupant ended up kipping on the floor.

The other big change at Lindsey was boys. The five who’d joined us in second year when Clee Girls went comp didn’t count – they were only our age, massively outnumbered by girls, and generally docile and easy to manage. Fifth and sixth-formers were a different matter, and mixing with them opened doors to different things, including a whole new musical world of progressive and hard rock. ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ was a monster hit, played till we knew every note  – which probably represents the start of our divergence from the mainstream. We still wore girly fashions though, and Carole developed her first major crush on a handsome lad from Matthew Humberston, Paul St Pierre. Determined to bag him as a boyfriend, she made another ultra-sexy waistcoat and pencil-skirt suit in black velvet for an upcoming school disco (her first attempt was grey with pin-tucks), to wear with a scarf and an artificial flower on the bodice. On the night, she looked fabulous, all Farrah Fawcett flicked hair, smoky eyes, full glossy lips, seamed tights and stilettos, and figure-hugging black… so she was utterly crushed to discover that velvet set Paul St Pierre’s teeth on edge and he recoiled from its mere touch, rendering any close physical contact out of the question. I don’t think they ever dated properly.

Our friendship was never jealous or exclusive, and as mid-teens we always had our separate interests. For instance, Carole joined the school yachting club and learned to sail at Covenham Reservoir, which never appealed to me despite the opportunity to hang out with older boys. I preferred horse-riding, which never appealed to Carole after a single Saturday morning mucking out with me at Old Clee stables, and sitting on the dung-heap afterwards to eat our sandwich lunch. Then slowly we became ‘besties’, disaffected with politics and pop culture, anti-nuke, anti-Nazi, anti-hunting – Carole went vegetarian around this time, if not entirely for ethical reasons (she didn’t like meat). Increasingly scornful of pop, disco and Northern Soul, by seventeen we’d come out as fully-fledged hippy rock-chicks in cheesecloth tops, Oxfam Jesus sandals, and Mary Quant lipstick, festooned with silver chains and love-beads, and reeking of patchouli. Having seen it all before with my older brother, my folks were relatively sanguine; whereas Carole once had to stash her precious denim collection in my wardrobe because her dad was so sick of seeing his formerly feminine daughter in jeans that he’d threatened to bin the lot.

At the time adults often assumed, to my intense annoyance on Carole’s behalf, that because I was physically bigger, I must be the dominant party leading her astray. On the contrary, we were always equal partners in crime, and if there was any straying to be done or a wild side to walk on, we did it side by side, eyes wide open, and quite deliberately. CB, as she was increasingly known, turned me onto reggae by playing ‘Exodus’ relentlessly at me until I succumbed. We also got heavily into heavy metal – ‘The Wizard’ from Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow Rising album was a particular favourite, which despite its grandiosity still brings me out in goose-bumps. We admired bikes, and bikers in black leather, hung out with Tech students at the Blue Note in Grimsby, and sneaked into licensed gigs at the Winter Gardens to see bands like Thin Lizzy and Manfred Mann’s Earthband – unbeknown to us all at the time, Tim was there too on that night. I can still picture her in a home-made white lacy camisole top, and faded jeans with a red and white stripy belt, singing along to their recent chart-topper ‘Blinded By The Light’ – a classic we’re going to hear now.

*Blinded By The Light*

Inevitably, pubs – the Boat, the Sheaf, the Eccy, the Barge, and others too numerous to mention – played a growing part in our social lives, as did older men. A romantic disappointment for Carole at the traditional Wheatsheaf end-of-term bash in December 1978 led to some serious drowning of sorrows. Highly emotional, she threw up in the taxi on the way back to ours. Only slightly less emotional, I told the driver (with commendable presence of mind, I thought, but I doubt he was fooled), ‘I’m sorry, my friend has gastric ‘flu.’ Settled weepily in my bedroom and plied with strong black coffee, she threw up again in my bit-bin (luckily metal, leak-proof and indestructible – I still use it) – and somehow, all this drama took place with my mum downstairs knitting and watching TV, blissfully unaware. Our biggest stunt in that respect was our summer ‘youth hostelling holiday’ in 1978. We did spend a couple of nights in the hostels at Lincoln and Streatley – vivid memories of preparing and eating our carefully-selected Vesta meals in the communal kitchens – but only en route to the Reading Rock Festival. We blew our ticket money on booze – a distinct advantage of hanging out with over-eighteens – and never made it into the arena, just sunbathed and partied on the campsite and sploshed in the Thames. As far as I’m aware, our parents never knew a thing about that either, or sundry other escapades for which we gave each other alibis.

In 1979, by happy accident rather than design, we both chose to do our degrees at Leicester Uni. Studying German and archaeology, our lectures were on the same campus so we often met up; I remember near the end of our first term we were having coffee in the Charles Wilson when news of John Lennon’s murder came on the radio, stunning us both. We made new sets of friends, and embarked on major relationships, CB’s with John Dyas and me with Garry Phillips; and all socialised together at her place or ours, or went for blow-outs at The Curry Pot on Melton Road. An unforgettable moment from our end of second year party came when CB, JD, Annie Riddock and Alistair Graham made their way past a row of big British bikes and up into our first-floor living room to find it half-full of big British bikers in Leicester Rat-Eye colours. Eyes like green saucers, she pulled me aside and whispered in great consternation, ‘Helen, do you know these people?’ She thought we’d been gate-crashed by Hell’s Angels we didn’t dare evict, bless her, rather than entertaining friends from the uni bike club. Luckily, common ground was soon established, the two groups coalesced, and a rip-roaring time was had by all (Gaz and I knew they’d like each other, given the chance).

CB spent the third year of her four-year degree course in Germany, where she became fluent to the point of calling her camera a ‘foto-apparat’ the first time we saw each other when she came home because she’d forgotten the English. In the meantime we’d kept in touch with letters, and a weekend jolly in Amsterdam; luckily our friendship could withstand separations and pick up immediately where we’d left off, with barely a break in conversation (and barely a cross word, ever, much less a real argument). We confided all our relationship traumas, her break-up with JD and getting together with Riff – facilitated by an illicit night in my parents’ bed while they were away on holiday and I was working a night-shift at Wold Farm. CB and I both worked several summer vacations there, she in the canteen and me on Quality Control. She always hated chicken day, having to ask a succession of Grimsby ex-trawlermen whether they wanted breast or leg. Naturally, all the blokes chatted her up, leading to this memorable exchange: Bloke: I’m lookin’ forward to this weekend. CB: Why, what are you doing? Bloke: I’m off to Brid wi’ me mates, drinkin’ and oarin’.  CB, (a sailor, remember): Oh, do you row? Cue mutual blank looks until it registered that he meant ‘whoring’…

After uni, CB and Tim moved into the ground floor flat at 21 Oxford Street, and she worked in the bar on Cleethorpes railway station while she thought about what to do next. Meanwhile I’d started a 3-year post-grad sandwich course, which allowed us to keep up our student pattern of seeing each other at home during holiday times. A common feature of ‘mornings after the night before’ in Cleethorpes was taking her and Tim coffee in bed, then feeding the cats and making a start on the last night’s debris while they slowly came to – whereupon we’d start all over again. I well recall one day round at Gary and Jo’s, trying to watch Blade Runner while their evil black dog, with its unsettling ability to freak out people in a vulnerable state, walked about on its hind legs, grinning at us. I thought I was hallucinating – but no.

Taking on voluntary work led to CB’s career in local authority social services in Grimsby and Hull, and a private sector stint for a horrible useless boss who literally drove her mad – it was the first and only time I ever saw her depressed. Throughout, we kept in touch by phone and odd notes; I always visited at Christmas and Easter, and for parties and special occasions, just as she or they visited me in various places I lived – gregarious and great company, CB always revelled in entertaining, or being entertained by, her many good friends. However, things were about to change drastically; her phone-call to tell me of a certain unplanned but happy event is a vivid memory – as is a weekend we spent on my boyfriend Steve’s boat when her already ginormous bump threatened to overbalance her at any second. As guests, she and Tim got the luxury of the pointy end, basically one great big triangular bed, while Steve and I slept in the main cabin. It wasn’t long after we’d retired that the rocking began, gentle at first them gradually building to a crescendo with the boat’s rubber buffers squeaking rhythmically against the mooring. A comparatively recent couple, Steve and I were first amazed then deeply envious of their staying power, especially with CB in such a condition. I wasn’t surprised to see them looking smiley and satisfied next morning, which CB attributed to a splendid night’s sleep; she, however, was surprised  when I retorted sourly, ‘I bet’, and accused her of keeping us awake and resentful (albeit impressed) for half the night. We eventually established that it wasn’t rumpy-pumpy that had rocked the boat, but the wake of an enormous barge which took a very long time to subside.

The twins duly arrived, (not to mention several generations of kittens from matriarch Custard – I was particularly fond of Spike and Merlin). I first met Sally and Amy one sunny afternoon in Doncaster when they were just a few weeks old, CB still boggling at having produced two such perfect little beings; and felt selfishly pleased and relieved when she didn’t go baby-gaga, but retained her own life and identity as a woman as well as a mother. She and Riff turned from relatively affluent dual-income-no-kids homeowners to broke, frazzled parents overnight, of course; but the girls were tremendous fun, the first children outside the family I ever loved and regarded as friends in their own right. And it obviously did them good to have such a strong female role model and a male primary carer – look how well they’ve turned out.

Marriage came a lot later, and as a complete surprise to me. CB’s relationship with Tim had always seemed perfect as it was, and despite having known her so well for so long, I didn’t know she was actually yearning to be wed. But I was honoured to be asked to deliver the bride, stunning in her emerald green dress, to Louth registry office in 2004 for a lovely personal ceremony followed by an equally lovely party at the Crow’s Nest – the nicest wedding I ever attended apart from my own three years later!

To me, the crowning glory of CB’s professional career was her exemplary work for Grimsby College, turning an inefficient, moribund department into a huge, profitable success, and I felt very proud of her. Inasmuch as I thought about her future, I assumed she’d carry on in this, her last and best job (after a self-employed interlude teaching music, invigilating exams and marking papers), for a few more years; then retire on a nice fat pension to enjoy her beautiful home, husband and family, playing her posh new guitar with the Grim Gits, doing her handicrafts, walking with her ladies’ group, going to the pub, gym and pool, travelling and taking holidays with Tim, and staying with loved ones at home and abroad; and we’d end up as a pair of daft old biddies doddering along Cleethorpes prom in Afghan hats and baggy jumpers, or cackling over a bottle of wine while Bob shot the sheriff and we put the world to rights.

Prior to September 2019, CB generally enjoyed robust health – I seldom recall her suffering anything much more serious than a cold. So it was shocking to see her that Christmas in severe pain from her hip – and devastating to learn a fortnight later that it wasn’t curable sciatica after all, but incurable cancer with (as I later discovered online) a poor prognosis for long-term survival. Throughout everything that followed, CB amazed me with her philosophical, practical, positive attitude. ‘It is what it is,’ she repeatedly said, always making the absolute best of her good times, and lightening the bad with black humour. ‘I know I shouldn’t,’ she’d say, lighting another fag, ‘but what the hell, I don’t have to worry about cancer.’ I’ll be eternally grateful that, albeit unable to hug, we saw nearly as much of each other in 2020 as in an average year. A good response to initial treatment freed her from pain, restored full mobility and gave hope for a longer remission, enabling her and Tim to squeak in a weekend visit in early March, when for once they could stay in a room we’d refurbished largely for their comfort as our only regular overnight guests, and we went to see the fantastic Damien Hirst exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park; we also managed a summer picnic lunch between lock-downs before the next hammer-blow of bad news fell in the autumn and dashed our hopes – the cancer had escaped to continue its rapid, relentless invasion.

We began talking funerals. I offered to send a draft eulogy so she could read all the nice things I was going to say about her – an offer she didn’t take up, so I hope she’s listening in spirit today. She passed a series of milestones: Evelyn’s birthday, Peach’s birth, Christmas, New Year ‘21 and the anniversary of her diagnosis, Tim and the twins’ birthdays in January, and her own sixtieth on March 29th. We saw her for the last time at home at Easter shortly afterwards, looking frail but in typical good spirits and eating like a horse, trying to regain weight and strength for Sally’s wedding. My heart leapt to see those beautiful photos of the day with CB on her feet, stunning in a pale blue trouser-suit, looking so well that if I hadn’t known better, I’d have thought she was perfectly healthy, if thin; and I was glad to hear that after treatment to restore her in the wake of this supreme effort, she’d be leaving St Andrew’s hospice to spend her final weeks – maybe stretching to months – in her own home.

Then things changed with bewildering speed: no longer home but hospice, no longer weeks but days – make that hours. CB wanted to see me, and unlike too many relations and friends living further afield, I could get there in time. I walked in prepared to find her asleep or unresponsive; but she’d saved a huge amount of her last mortal energy to stay conscious and hold a conversation for three-quarters of an hour. It was intensely emotional with moments of joyous connection, completely unlike any harrowing or heart-rending death-bed scene I’d ever experienced or imagined. The physical shell was too ravaged to stay in, but the quintessential Carole, her spiritual presence, was still there in such full force and beauty she made my eyes boggle; not the remotest sense of her passively fading into non-existence, more actively gathering herself to float free and move on. We agreed to try and give each other a call once she got to wherever; I hope I armed her to go with all my love and blessings, as she armed me to stay and bear her departure twenty-six hours later without the utter, howling devastation I’d been expecting and dreading ever since her diagnosis. On the contrary, CB is, and ever will be to me, simply elsewhere now, differently alive. So I had a little party for her next day, drinking toasts, playing our old favourite albums, and dancing round the house wearing the ring she gave me at Easter. In the middle of ‘Satisfy My Soul’ I erupted in flurries of goose-flesh; I hope that meant she’d torn herself away from jamming with Bob, Bolan and Bowie, and come to dance with me in joy and relief that her earthly ordeal was over at last – a suitable point to break off for the second of her musical choices:

*Love Interlude*

According to the Greek philosopher Socrates, death is either the best night of dreamless sleep you’ll ever enjoy, or a reunion in spirit with your late loved ones – and either way, not so bad. A great sleeper like CB would surely agree – just as, if she could give you a last message apart from her love and farewell, it would surely be, as she cautioned me, ‘Do your poo tests.’ However, having had the extraordinary privilege of witnessing her in a process of transformation rather than cessation, I can only believe in the latter, and trust that she’s embarked upon an eternity of fun with all her beloved souls.

And that’s the end of my tale. But as I said at the start, you all have your own Carole stories to tell – so tell them. Cook up a feast, crank up the sounds, crack a bottle or three, and laugh about all the crazy, wonderful things you did together over the years. I can’t think of a better way to honour the incomparable woman who enriched us all so much, enjoyed life so fully, and engaged in it so wholeheartedly, to her very last day. Party hearty in Heaven, CB.

New Year, New Website: introducing herstorywriting.com!

Sometimes life obliges us to do something we hadn’t planned or particularly wanted to do; then it works out so well we’re really glad we did it – in fact we wish we’d done it ages ago!

Such was the case for me with my brand-new WordPress website, herstorywriting.com. I didn’t want a new website. I was happy enough with the simple, info-rich, advert-free old sites helencox-herstorywriting.co.uk and lay-of-angor.co.uk, even though, (as work-hungry web designers never tired of spamming to tell me), they looked stale and outdated. They’d been wonderfully easy for a complete novice to set up on what would become ‘Classic’ WebEden, and easy to maintain despite a few annoying glitches with the software which I learnt to work round. But they needed the recently-obsolete Flash Player to run; so in autumn 2020, like it or not, I had to review my options and get a new site built before Flash expired at the end of December.

One might think that a quick, simple option would be to import the content to the new WebEden platform. However, for reasons I don’t understand, this facility wasn’t made available to users. I couldn’t even add a New site to the account I’d held there for 10 years, but had to create another separate account (something which generated a flurry of complaint on the company’s Facebook page from other Classic users in my position). Well, OK… I wasn’t happy, but decided to give it a go for the sake of continuity/to save the time and bother of searching for a new provider.

The first issue I ran into was one I subsequently found to be a common one with build-your-own website providers: a bewilderingly huge catalogue of themes to choose from, but all very ‘samey’ and none especially appealing. On Classic WebEden, it had been easy to flick between them and compare. Not so on New. I eventually selected a design I thought I could work with, couldn’t make head or tail of the software, (totally different to/less intuitive than Classic); then when I decided I didn’t like the look of it after all, I couldn’t escape from the damn thing. I searched vainly for a command to go back, collapse, close, replace, exit etc etc, growing crosser and crosser until in the end I hit ctrl-alt-del. Talk about user-unfriendly! I thought it was an extremely poor advert for the company, and atop all the other frustrations and technical problems I’d experienced, made me unwilling to persevere with the impenetrable software.

The next most obvious solution was to build the new site here, where I have my blog and reasonable proficiency with the software. WordPress sensibly maintains a much smaller stable of themes with a bit more individuality and imagination to them, and I easily spotted a couple I liked; but what if there was something even better out there? After an hour or so searching on-line, I concluded there wasn’t; at least, nothing eye-smackingly wonderful enough to compensate for missing the convenience of having my main internet presence all under one roof, so to speak.

So back I came to WordPress, tinkered about on one template, decided it didn’t work, and lo! was able to import what I’d done into a design I liked better. Easy-peasy. Keeping my domains? That was harder. WordPress doesn’t support .co.uk domains, so I couldn’t transfer them as I’d hoped; I’d have retain WebEden as supplier, and map the site instead. But I could no longer log in to do so through Classic, because Flash Player no longer works – and then found I couldn’t log in through New, either! I tried every permutation of likely passwords, searched my diary in vain for the new log-in details, eventually admitted defeat and hit ‘forgotten password’ – and the re-set link failed to come through. (Twelve hours later, I’m still waiting).

That really was the final straw. The desire to keep my domains because all my publications sold or in stock carry the old .co.uk website addresses was outweighed by a sudden, overwhelming desire to ditch WebEden and all the hassle that goes with it. So I promptly launched the basic framework of the new site on WordPress as herstorywriting.com, trusting that everyone who wants to will find me when I’ve updated all the search engines and references. I must admit, I’m chuffed to bits with the fresh new look, revamped text and new images, and looking forward to building it up with all sorts of features, including slide-shows of my Sandal Castle, Battle of Wakefield and Battle of Towton tours. (One of these days I’ll get round to building a new lay-of-angor.com site on here as well). So do take a peek – I hope you’ll enjoy it and keep coming back to see my new blog posts and other developments!

Henry Wowler & the Cat of Christmas Past

Henry Wowler always liked a certain midwinter day when his Oomans fed him turkey, and treats, and gave him a fresh catnip mouse. But he preferred a day which came round a couple of weeks beforehand – a rare day when he could go UP. UP was Henry’s Most Special Place, right at the top of the house, under the roof. The Oomans worked in there sometimes, making it into a store for things they seldom needed but wanted to keep, like Christmas decorations. So they’d given UP a boarded floor covered with worn rugs and odd scraps of carpet, shelves along its sloping sides packed with boxes, books, games and old toys, and piled a great assortment of stuff, from electric drills to Henry’s outgrown cat-basket, on the floor underneath.

To Henry Wowler, UP was a magical kingdom, dark and mysterious despite its skylight window, full of hidden corners where mice might someday nest. Going UP to check for them was a rare treat which only happened when the Oomans decided to go UP themselves. And it was special because he’d made a nice comfy den there so secret that they could never find it, no matter how hard they looked. And so on a certain morning in early December he was excited to hear the tell-tale click of the loft-hatch being opened, a boinging of springs as the ladder unfolded, a creaking of rungs, then the sound of Ooman footsteps crossing the ceiling overhead.

Henry jumped down off the bed and went to watch from the doorway as his She-Ooman backed carefully down the ladder holding a box labelled CHRISTMAS, a string of fairy-lights round her neck and a roll of wrapping paper clamped under her chin. Then he darted past and quickly climbed the ladder.

“Oh no! Don’t do that, Henry Wowler! Oh, you bad cat!” She cried, putting down her load. Then, sighing, She followed him into the loft. Naughtily, Henry hid in the shadows while his Ooman dropped a giant carrier bag of gift-bags down the ladder, hung a sparkly bunch of tinsel over one arm, and collected a last box of trimmings. Then She called, “Henry Wowler? Come on down, there’s a good boy. It’s freezing up here.”

Snug in his thick furry coat, Henry Wowler didn’t care; and determined to stay and carry out his full mouse patrol, he crept behind the chimney-stack into the dark narrow gap beneath the eaves, hidden from view by a rolled-up mattress, and wriggled into the den he’d hollowed out in a heap of paint-spotted dust-sheets. His Ooman poked around uselessly, calling, pleading, growing impatient then angry. Then She stomped down the ladder, cursing Henry for making her leave the hatch open on such a cold day.

Meanwhile he set off happily to inspect UP’s every long-neglected nook and cranny. As usual, he didn’t find any mice; but he did find a big black hairy spider, which ran away when he poked it with his paw. Henry chased it out of the darkness and across the floor, swiping madly with his forepaw as it scurried up some bulky object draped in a dirty old sheet. His claws caught that instead of the spider, and dragged it down to reveal an ugly old mirror leaning against a stack of picture frames. It had a heavy dark frame, carved to look like twisted rope and dotted with woodworm holes, and dull, tarnished glass with big brown freckles where the silver had flaked off. Still, through a thick layer of dust and cobwebs, Henry could make out a dim, ghostly reflection.

“Hello?” he said, putting his face close to the glass, trying to see better. “MC? Is that you- achoo!” The dust, tickling his nose, made him sneeze violently, three, four times; and when Henry looked again, he saw he’d blown clear a circle just the right size for the Mirror-cat to peep through.

“Henry Wowler! How fortuitous!” MC exclaimed happily. “Do come over, my dear fellow. You’re arrived in the very nick of time.”

Henry frowned. “Nick of time for what?”

“No time to explain. Suffice to say you’ll enjoy it.”

The Mirror-cat didn’t sound quite like his normal self, thought Henry Wowler, more like a character from the old talking book his Oomans always listened to at Christmas. Feeling very curious, he took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and pressed slowly through to the Other Side. He immediately bumped into something warm and soft. “I beg your pardon, Henry Wowler,” it said, “but I felt obliged to stop you lest you step off the plank. For I fear the plaster would not bear your weight, and I should hate to see you fall through the ceiling.”

“Oh, er – thanks.” Henry opened his eyes and gazed round an UP very different to his own. Overhead, instead of neat white insulation boards there were only bare roof slates, with chinks of daylight showing and a cold wind whistling through. Underfoot were only bare wooden joists with strips of black sooty plaster in between, and several rough planks laid over them beside the hatchway. And this UP was completely empty but for cobwebs, wasps’ nests, and a few pieces of junk piled on its bit of makeshift floor – including the mirror, leaning against a wooden crate with a cat-shaped patch of dust missing from its surface.

“Brr.” Henry shivered. A cloud rose from his fur. “Achoo!” He shook himself to get rid of the rest, and sneezed again. “Achoo! Well, I’m not enjoying it so far. Please can we go somewhere else?”

“Yes, indeed,” said MC. “Permit me to conduct you to the parlour. You’ll find it far more agreeable – besides, our presence will be required there very shortly.”

He disappeared through a simple square hole with no trapdoor to close it, and bounced nimbly down a ladder; not a fixed, sturdy ladder like the one Henry was used to, with broad flat rungs and a thick carpet underneath to cushion his landing, but an ordinary stepladder propped on the hatch frame and standing on bare wooden floorboards. In fact the whole room below was very bare, Henry saw, peering nervously down. No carpet, no curtains, no paper on the cracked plaster walls. No cosy radiator, just a little black grate that didn’t look as if it had held a fire in years. No light fittings, even; and nothing in it but dusty suitcases, hat boxes, leather-bound trunks, and baskets and bags of every size and type stacked around the walls – and the Mirror-cat, of course, waiting expectantly.

Henry put a careful paw on the ladder. It wobbled. He gulped. Then gathering all his courage, he skittered down the first three rungs, took a flying leap from the fourth, and landed with a resounding thud on the hard floor.

Downstairs, a door opened. “Marmaduke?” a voice cried. “Master Carrot, is that you? Come here at once, you wicked cat!”

Marmaduke Carrot?” Henry tried not to laugh. “Seriously? Is that what MC really stands for?”

MC nodded. “It does here. Yes, indeed, Marmaduke Carrot, companion and assistant to the Widow Carrot – she’s a medium, you know – and honoured to be at your service, Master Wowler.” He bowed his head politely. “Now we really must go, or we’ll be late.”

Henry followed him out of the lumber-room onto a dark, gloomy landing with sludgy green walls, dark brown woodwork, and waxed floorboards with a strip of dull red carpet running down the middle and on down the stairs, fixed to each one by a shiny brass rod. At the foot of the stairs was a hall with black and white tiles on the floor, a red and white stained glass window in the front door, and six candles burning in a crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Its furniture looked very strange to Henry: a coat-stand draped in black cloaks and bonnets next to a big grey wrinkly animal’s foot with enormous toenails, and a walking stick and two umbrellas poking weirdly out of it; a big floppy plant in a green enamelled planter on a spindle-legged stand; a huge wall-mirror with two more candles burning in holders on either side of its heavy oak frame; and lurking in the shadows under the stairs, a very tall clock in a dark wooden case with a long swinging brass pendulum and a very loud tick.

Bing-bong! it said as they passed, making Henry Wowler nearly jump out of his skin and MC exclaim aloud, “Oh, my – quarter to, already!” He speeded up to a trot. “Make haste, Henry Wowler! We must be ready to start on the hour.”

Waiting for them in the parlour doorway was a She-Ooman in a dress of floor-length black silk, with a black lace veil over her bun of silvery hair, and a black lace shawl around her shoulders, pinned with a black jet brooch. “Oh, there you are, Marmey! Thank goodness! I thought you were lost. What a bad pussy you are to worry me so.” She plainly didn’t see Henry Wowler trotting close behind. “I do hope you’ll behave better for the Circle.”

Medium? She looks pretty small for an Ooman to me, thought Henry. And I wonder what a Circle is? Keen to find out, he followed them into another strange room lit by oil-lamps and a crackling fire, the daylight shut out by thick red velvet curtains. Crammed within were a fat cushioned sofa, two matching armchairs and a footstool, a round polished table with six wooden chairs, a massive oak dresser laden with porcelain dogs, blue-patterned crockery, and Toby jugs shaped like little fat Oomans in old-fashioned clothes, a glass-fronted cabinet full of curios and trinkets, a piano with sheet music heaped on the stool, a big gilded concert harp, a music stand, several stands of potted plants, and three tall ornament stands; a stuffed raven stood on one, a crystal ball and a pack of Tarot cards on another, and a glass dome covering a bouquet of flowers made of sea-shells on the third. The carpet was patterned with red roses and the wallpaper with red and cream stripes, largely hidden by paintings in fancy gold frames, brown-tinted photos in silver frames, embroidered samplers in rustic wooden frames, stuffed fish and bright butterflies in glass cases, and colourful pictures made from pressed flowers in all sorts of frames, large and small.

Rather stunned by it all, Henry Wowler sat down on the tufted rag hearth-rug. “Tell me, MC, why’s everything so weird here? Why does your Ooman wear such funny clothes? Why does She have so much stuff? And what’s happened to your voice? You don’t sound like you.”

“Old mirrors show old reflections,” MC replied simply. “I’m afraid I haven’t time to explain more until after the game. Speaking of which, do join in when it starts. You’ll find it highly entertaining, I assure you.”

“But I don’t know how,” protested Henry. “You haven’t even told me what we’re playing!”

“Oh, an easy, teasy game. There are no rules, we just make it up as we go.” The Mirror-cat’s eyes glinted with mischief. “I recommend you sit under the table to begin with, Master Wowler, until you get the gist of how it works.”

Henry Wowler couldn’t imagine what this game might be. Extremely curious, he perched on the back of an armchair, his eyes following the Widow as She bustled about, fussing with the musical instruments, adjusting her chair, and bending to feel the carpet round its feet, all the while glancing over her shoulder as if she felt someone watching. Then She turned the lamps down low and put a screen in front of the fire, making the room very dark. Finally She sat down, breathed out a long breath, and laid her palms flat on the table. Seconds later, much to Henry’s surprise, the piano went plink-plonk and the harp went twing-twang.

“Do we have any evil spirits here among us?” She asked in an odd, high-pitched voice.

A sound came from under the table. Tip-tap!

“Do we have any good spirits among us?”

TAP! said the table.

Nodding in satisfaction, Widow Carrot chanced to look in Henry’s direction at the exact moment he jumped down from the chair and ran to inspect the still-quivering harp-string. She blinked rapidly. “What- what was that? Did I see-? Is there a good spirit present? Ernest, my love, is it you here with me?”

Henry froze. “MC!” he hissed. “She saw me! What shall I do?”

Jingle-jangle-jing! said the doorbell before MC could reply. Footsteps pattered across the tiles as Janey the maid went to answer it. A babble of excited voices broke out as five members of Ethel Carrot’s Spiritualist Circle came into the hall, and began taking off their outdoor things for Janey to hang up.

“Oh my goodness! My ladies!” Forgetting Henry, the Widow leapt to her feet, grabbed MC, tugged a black velvet ribbon from her pocket, and tied it in a bow round his neck. Then leaving him guarding her chair, She went to greet her guests.

“Here come today’s players,” whispered MC as three heavily-veiled figures filed into the parlour. “May I present the Misses Blewitt, Faith, Hope and Charity. Their father Reverend Blewitt doesn’t approve of mediums, so they’re obliged to attend incognito.”

“In-cog-what?”

“Nito. Incognito. Anonymous. Not known,” said MC, when Henry went on looking blank. “So that no-one can see their faces and report them to the Vicar. And now here’s Miss Lavinia Crabtree, whose great-grandfather died at Waterloo. The battle, that is, not the railway station.”

Henry Wowler crept under the table to escape from their long, swishing skirts as a fifth She-Ooman entered, dressed all in black like Widow Carrot.

“Ah,” said MC, “and lastly we have Mrs Victoria Makepeace, named after the Queen, who can’t get over losing her husband, either.”

Bong! The hall clock struck one. “The hour is upon us,” cried Widow Carrot. “Take your seats, Sisters!”

Henry Wowler, crouched under the table, found himself hemmed in by a rustling wall of silk skirts from which wafted a riot of smells he didn’t recognise, although MC could have told him what they were: lavender sachet, carbolic soap, laundry starch, mothballs, button polish, shoe polish for high-buttoned boots, and damp leather footwear, all mixed together with dusty carpet wool. It tickled his nostrils. He rubbed his nose hard with a forepaw, trying desperately not to-

“Achoo!”

“What was that?”

“What was what, Ethel dear?”

“That sound.” Henry froze as Widow Carrot’s face appeared under the table, peered around, frowned at him, then withdrew.

“I didn’t hear anything,” said the other voice. “Did you, Faith?”

“Not I. Or, well, maybe a coal hissing on the fire.”

“Or maybe the spirits are with us already!” Black skirts shook as Widow Makepeace bounced with excitement. “Maybe my Fred’s come at last! Oh, please, Ethel, can we get on and find out?”

“Hush, Vicky dear. Do try to remain calm and receptive.” Widow Carrot settled MC on her lap. “Yes, we should make a start – let’s join hands, Sisters. We meet in this holy Advent season in hopes of communing with the spirits of our dear departed… hopes which will surely be fulfilled today, for I feel blessed with a powerful sense of their presence! So remember, whatever might happen, do not be afraid – and above all, do not break the circle. The circle. Ooh,” she began crooning in unearthly tones, “ooh, yes, the eternal circle of life, death and rebirth, endlessly renew-ooh-oohed.”

“Oow-ow-oooow,” MC crooned along.

“Into our own Circle we invite any and all benign spirits, and from it we banish any and all that are evil.”

Henry Wowler heard a faint rustle, and saw Widow Carrot’s feet poke out from beneath her black hem, and ease off her black velvet slippers.

Are any evil spirits here among us today?”

Her right big toe in its black silk stocking pressed twice on the centre of a red carpet rose.

Tip-tap! Henry Wowler flinched as two raps sounded directly above his head. The Circle let out a chorus of “Oohs.” So did MC. “Oow-ow-oooow,” he yowled.

“No! Heaven be praised! Yet we do have a presence among us, as we have heard and Marmaduke Carrot plainly sees. So tell us, Spirit – are you a good soul?”

Widow’s Carrot’s toe moved again. Henry Wowler looked up, just in time to see a tiny metal hammer, painted black, jerk downward then spring back to strike the underside of the table with a loud, clear Tap! Squinting through the dim light, his cat-eyes made out a thin black wire running from the hammer to the edge of the table, down the leg nearest Widow Carrot’s chair, and across an inch of floor to disappear into the rose. He crept over and sniffed the place. It smelt of Ooman toes. And there was something round – a button? – poking through a little round hole in the carpet. And all of a sudden, Henry Wowler understood the game. It seemed cruel. His tail lashed back and forth. He liked cruel games. And if Oomans could be so easily fooled, he wanted to play Circle with them!

“In that case, Good Spirit, we bid you a hearty welcome! Have you come to speak to any particular person-”

Henry Wowler trod hard on the button. Tap!

Widow Carrot’s foot twitched in alarm. “Er- yes, it appears.”

“Oh!” cried Widow Makepeace. “Is it me? Is it a message from my Fred? Or is this him? Is it darling Freddie himself?”

“Hush, dear! Do leave the talking to me. The poor soul can’t be expected to answer when you molest it with so many questions at once.” Widow Carrot’s left big toe inched towards a red carpet rosebud. “So tell me, Good Spirit: what would you like to say to this particular person?” Her toe pressed the rosebud, again and again.

Twing-twang-twing-twang-twong,said the harp.

“Ah – a musical soul, choosing to speak through an angelic instrument-”

“Oh, no, Ethel!” interrupted Miss Charity Blewitt. “Angels don’t play the concert harp.”

“No, indeed,” Miss Hope agreed. “They’re normally depicted carrying something much smaller, like a Celtic harp. Or a lyre.”

“Yow-owl,” MC added helpfully.

“Be that as it may, a concert harp is still a harp and makes heavenly music!” snapped Widow Carrot.

Henry Wowler picked that moment to rear up high on his haunches, come down fast, and smash both forepaws together, as hard as he could, onto the rosebud. The resulting TWANG! didn’t sound heavenly at all. It made the whole Circle jump, and several cry out in alarm.

“Wow!” yowled MC. “Jolly well played, Master Wowler! A most timely contribution.”

Shocked rigid, Widow Carrot stammered, “H-hold tight, l-ladies! D-don’t break the circle. Our spirit sounds angry… perhaps it didn’t like hearing us argue.”

“Quite. And you started it, Char, interrupting like that,” said Miss Faith. “So perhaps you should apologise to Ethel and our Good Spirit.”

Twing.

“There, see? I was right, it wants you to say sorry,” She finished smugly. “That’s why it spoke softly again.”

“Oh, very well,” said Miss Charity. “I suppose it was rather rude of me. Please accept my humble apologies, Good Spirit – you too, Ethel dear.”

Henry Wowler pressed lightly again on the rosebud. Twing.

Goodness me – apologies accepted all round, by the sound of it,” Widow Carrot said faintly. “So, er, may we continue? We have with us a good, musical soul who speaks to us through the harp and dislikes argument.”

“It can’t be Great-grandpapa then,” sighed Miss Crabtree, “unless the afterlife has improved him. I’m told that in this life he was tone deaf and exceedingly contentious.”

“As I was saying,” resumed Widow Carrot, “does that mean anything to anyone?”

“Well,” Miss Hope began hopefully, “our late Mother adored harp music-”

“Yes!” Widow Makepeace said over her. “My Frederick was a musician, and very mild-mannered.”

“Your Frederick played the trombone, not the harp,” Miss Charity objected.

“He might’ve liked playing brass, but he liked listening to strings. The fiddle, mainly. But he was fond of harps, too. So I’m sure this must be Fred-”

Twing.

Yes! It is him! Oh, my. I feel quite overcome.” Widow Makepeace snatched her hands back from her neighbours, buried her face in them, and burst into noisy tears.

“Oh, you poor dear. I know what you need – a nice cup of hot, sweet tea for the shock,” said Miss Crabtree. “I’ll run and tell Janey to make some.”

A chair slid back and a gap opened up in the skirts. Henry Wowler wandered out and saw Widow Makepeace rocking backwards and forwards, sobbing uncontrollably. On her left sat Miss Faith, hugging her shoulder, patting her knee, and saying, “There, there.” On her right sat Miss Hope, offering fresh handkerchiefs. Opposite them sat a pale-faced Widow Carrot, clutching MC on her lap, staring dumbly at her harp, with Miss Charity beside her, twiddling her thumbs and biting her lip with impatience.

“Bravo, old chap!” MC greeted his appearance. “You play remarkably well for a novice, if you don’t mind me saying. Moves timed to perfection.”

“Thanks. And you were right,” Henry replied, “it’s a good game, I’m enjoying it. So, what happens now?”

Charity Blewitt snapped. “For heaven’s sake! Vicky doesn’t need tea, she needs something stronger. Then perhaps she can pull herself together, and we can get back to the Circle.” Shoving back her chair, She marched off to get brandy and smelling-salts. Unfortunately, on the way, She tripped over Henry Wowler and fell headlong into the table with the Tarot pack and crystal ball. It overturned. The cards scattered harmlessly, but the heavy crystal, flung like a cannonball, crashed into the curio cabinet, sending broken glass and china flying everywhere.

“Ee-ooo-ow!” screeched Henry. Fleeing blindly, he ran smack into a tall, top-heavy plant-stand. It fell over onto the glass dome, shattering it and the sea-shell bouquet, and cracking the glazed planter in half. He made a flying leap for the piano stool to escape the dangerous mess of sharp splinters, shell flowers and soil. The pile of sheet music shifted under his paws. Panicking, scrabbling, he leapt again, dislodging a dozen sheets which wafted to the floor like autumn leaves.

Plink-plink-plonk-plank, said the piano keys he landed on; and plonk-plonk-plank-plink as he moved; and a long, resounding ploooom as he sat down at one end to get his breath back and plan his next move.

Janey and Miss Crabtree returned with the tea things at the very moment the piano began to play itself – not any sort of tune, but a random collection of notes as if an invisible cat was jumping about on the keyboard. They froze in the doorway, gaping. Then with a loud shriek, the maid dropped her loaded tray, threw her long white apron over her face, and scurried away at top speed to lock herself in the laundry-room.

Miss Crabtree’s horrified gaze swung from the piano to the spilt tea steaming from the carpet. For a few seconds she swayed; then her eyes rolled upward, her knees gave way and She fainted, collapsing among the scattered sugar-lumps, saucers and spoons.

The piano fell silent as Henry Wowler stopped prancing to survey the damage and chaos. I can’t believe I did all this by accident, he thought. A delicious naughty feeling, a familiar madness, ran through him. No rules, eh? Then let’s see what I can do on purpose…

Widow Makepeace stopped crying to watch open-mouthed as the parlour came alive, with a great stirring of air as if an invisible demon was racing round in circles, screeching horribly as it went. The fire-screen toppled down onto the hearthrug. The fire-irons fell with a great clatter and clash onto the hearth tiles. A row of Christmas cards, flicked by an unseen tail, sailed off the mantelpiece. The stuffed raven flew one last time as his toppling stand threw him into the air to land in a potted aspidistra, which fell off its plant-stand and broke. Cloths to protect the upholstery from hair-oil crinkled and slid about on the backs of the sofa and armchairs, and dents appeared in their plump cushions. The music stand fell, hit the harp with a loud TWING-TWANG-TWONG and bounced onto the floor. Two china dogs and a particularly ugly Toby jug flew off the dresser and smashed on the wreckage below. Then the Widow stood up and screamed at the top of her voice.

STOP! Oh, please, Fred, please, please stop!”

Henry stopped.

“I know why you’re so angry, and I know it’s all my fault. And I’m so, so, sorry, my darling, and I’ve been so desperate to reach you and tell you how bitterly I regret what I did.”

“What did you do?” Recovering from her faint, Lavinia Crabtree sat up shakily. “What have I missed?”

“I killed my Freddie, same as if I’d murdered him deliberate.”

“Oh, no. No, Vicky dear,” said Miss Faith. “You didn’t kill him! Frederick died naturally. His heart failed.”

“Broke, you mean! With him home alone while I gossiped with the chemist’s wife instead of coming straight back with his medicine! If only I’d done that, he’d still be alive… that’s why he lost his temper, and why all this mess is my fault. I’m terribly sorry, Ethel. I should never have come – but I’ve been praying for a chance to say goodbye, and tell Fred how much I’ll always love and miss him, and beg him to forgive me.”

A sweet, rippling sound filled the room as Henry Wowler drew a gentle claw over the harp-strings.

“Well, dear, there’s your answer.” Ethel Carrot smiled. “Frederick forgives you most willingly – and asks in turn that you forgive, and cease to blame, yourself. Only then can he truly rest, knowing that his beloved wife has peace of mind.”

The Circle left an hour later, babbling with excitement. “Incredible experience… conclusive proof… eye witnesses… report for the newspapers… greatest medium in England… thank you so much, Ethel dearest… goodbye and God bless… Merry Christmas… goodbye!”

While the Widow and Janey, (brave on medicinal brandy), finished clearing up the ruined parlour, the cats crouched on a rag rug in front of the kitchen fire sharing Marmaduke Carrot’s wages, a dish of boiled cod cheeks in cream.

“I always hated those china dogs,” said MC as they sat washing their whiskers afterwards. “I shall be eternally grateful to you, Master Wowler, for ridding me of their silly grinning faces.”

“My pleasure,” said Henry. “Although I never planned to do so much damage. It started by accident when that Ooman fell over me, then the rest- well, you know, it just happened. Things worked out fine in the end though, didn’t they? Everyone seemed happy, in spite of all the cleaning up they had to do.”

MC nodded. “That’s why I play the game. It comforts other Oomans, and makes them feel better when they’re sad. It isn’t all trickery, either – Widow Carrot gives wise advice and She really does have a sixth sense. It’s just not very strong, because She can’t sense Him. Ernest. The Constant Presence.” He rubbed his cheek lovingly against a transparent, faintly glowing hand. “Ernie was devoted to Ethel, and a dear friend to me and Janey, and so happy living with us in this house, that He says Heaven’s right here in His own home and so here’s where He’ll jolly well stay. She’d be overjoyed to hear it, and I’ve tried to tell Her many, many times– alas, thus far to no avail.”

“Well, keep trying.” Henry Wowler looked up at Ernest Carrot, who smiled and stroked his ears with a feather-light touch. “If She believes She brought the spirit of Fred Makepeace here today, maybe She’ll believe She can bring Ernest too. Then they’ll both be comforted, won’t they?”

“Ah, yes. I perceive you grasp the essence of this sacred season, Master Wowler,” MC looked at him approvingly, “as well as of the game. And I feel privileged to have played it with such a natural talent.”

“Likewise,” said Henry. “Although I’m not sure I want to play it again. No… the past has been very interesting to visit, but I think I prefer my own time. And now I think it’s time I went back there. No offence, MC.”

“None taken, dear fellow. Come, then. Let us leave Ernie toasting his slippers by the fire, and I shall escort you back to the looking-glass portal.”

Five minutes later, Henry Wowler bounced thankfully down off his own solid, safe loft-ladder, landing with a dull thud on a soft carpet in a relatively warm, comfortable room. He heaved a sigh of relief, glad to be back here and now, feeling the warm, glowy feeling that for once he’d managed to do something good – if only by accident, and at the same time as doing something bad.

Then his She-Ooman came out of the bedroom next door. “Henry Wowler! At last! You wicked cat,” she softened the words with gentle hands, rubbing the special place on his back, “upstairs feels like a fridge, thanks to you.”

Henry only had time for a last wistful glance before she folded the ladder away, shut the trapdoor tight, and made UP disappear until next time. He sat for a minute picturing Marmaduke Carrot on the Other Side, sitting on the lumber-room’s cold hard floor. And even though cats don’t really celebrate it, he said the words aloud.

“Merry Christmas, MC.”

Straining his big ginger ears, he caught the faint, ghostly reply. “Merry Christmas, Master Wowler! God bless us, every one.”

Right Royal Bedroom Makeover!

Hubcap and I often joke that we’re the king and queen of Helmickton-sur-Bois, a tiny kingdom we inhabit along with our cat-son, Prince Henry Wowler, and countless other citizens of the furry, feathery, buzzy or creepy-crawly type, (but no servants, alas, which makes us perforce extremely active monarchs). Accordingly, since our bedroom with its cracked ceiling and split wallpaper (courtesy of the 2008 earthquake) and sick-stained carpet (courtesy of Prince Henry) was sadly overdue for re-decoration, I wanted a new, opulent look to reflect our regal status. And I’m so delighted with the result that I’d like to share it with you, primarily to praise various companies we used for the excellence of their work and/or quality of goods supplied, and also to acknowledge the many friends whose generous gifts helped me to create my dream bedroom.

The whole design pivots around a reproduction of Graham Turner’s famous painting of the Battle of Towton, with the main colour scheme azure-and-murrey, (blue and deep red), the Yorkist colours.

Some people might think hanging an image of conflict and death over one’s marital bed is inviting bad karma, but for us the picture has far happier associations. For a start, it was a wedding present from our good friend Martin, reflecting our personal history: Hubcap and I met, and subsequently had our marriage blessed, at Saxton on the southern edge of the Towton battlefield; for many years we both sat on the committee of Towton Battlefield Society, and founded/ran its affiliated Wars of the Roses re-enactment group, the Frei Compagnie; and we’ve both ‘met’ some of the casualties as skeletons from the mass graves excavated in and around Towton Hall by another friend/Society member, battlefield archaeologist Tim Sutherland. So the men in the picture feel like friends (indeed, one archer in the foreground bears an uncanny resemblance to Hubcap in build and stance!); we’ve literally walked in their footsteps, remembered and mourned for them, and commemorated their lives as re-enactors; and that’s why it hangs in this place of high honour, reminding us not only of the dead but of our wonderful medieval wedding weekend at The Crooked Billet in 2007, and all the happy times we’ve enjoyed on Society re-enactments, especially the Palm Sunday events in the grounds of Towton Hall.

To set it off, I painted the wall in Indigo Flame silk emulsion from my favourite Valspar v500 range supplied by B&Q, mixed to order in store – superior paints giving excellent coverage and good value for money. One big advantage is that all the available shades are painted on cardboard swatches you can view under three light sources – simulated daylight, fluorescent and energy-saving – to see exactly how it’ll look/easily match it against samples of your wallpaper, carpet or whatever. Brilliant idea. Another is the interesting way the palest shades behave on a wall, changing with the light, looking practically white in full sun and deepening to gorgeous, subtle colours in the shadows. We already have the faintly pink Lip Gloss and greenish-gold So Close in the bathroom and office, and the one I chose for the other three bedroom walls was Wisp of Cocoa, a delicious weak latte brown, to tone with our wooden furniture and patterns of the carpet. Otherwise, bog standard brilliant white silk vinyl and gloss took care of the ceiling and woodwork, and contrasted nicely with the walls and major new installation, the fitted wardrobes.

Splashing out on this was part of my plan to future-proof the room by maximising storage space and getting rid of the horrible, hard to clean dust-traps around our old free-standing wardrobes. Looking on-line for a local company, I found Hammonds in Leeds and requested their e-brochure, which arrived immediately; and even as I was browsing it, a sales-lady called me on my mobile. We arranged for a survey on the spot, and Phill the surveyor couldn’t have been more helpful or proficient in translating my ideas into a design, giving me loads of useful information and tips without any superfluous sales-talk, then advising me on how to save money and willingly re-doing the whole thing when the style I first chose proved to be outside my budget. (Ironically, I prefer the cheaper version he suggested to my original choice!). Everything then went exactly as arranged: a second, more detailed survey to check measurements/confirm details; the fitting itself, with a lovely fitter who worked his socks off to finish it in a single day; and an aftercare call to check that I was happy (I was, very). Absolutely impeccable service from beginning to end, and the beautiful wardrobes, with their soft-close doors, pull-out trouser rail and oodles of space meet our needs perfectly.

Hammonds is one of the best companies I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with, and I can’t recommend them highly enough – we’re certainly planning to use them again when we re-do our hobby-room next year.

Much the same can be said about the carpet. Again, I decided to splurge on a quality, traditional wool like the indestructible Axminsters and Wiltons my parents used to have, a carpet which would easily outlive me; and patterned rather than plain, to disguise the fact that the Helmickton royals are three messy, dirty beings. After a lengthy on-line search I was beginning to despair of finding what I had in mind, until I discovered the New Barrington Axminster range made by Hugh Mackay Carpets. The design ‘Kashmir’ literally made my jaw drop, and I knew straight away I had to have it. It has a vaguely Arts & Crafts feel, with dark red flowers to match my velvet curtains, and shades of tawny brown to go with the furniture (and the cat, who will no doubt shed copiously on it).

I duly contacted The Carpet Man, who’d made a grand job of supplying and fitting our new office carpet last year – and who was honest enough to say that it was too specialised a job for him, and refer me to Wakefield Carpet Specialists. I found WCS to be another faultless firm: the friendly, helpful staff did everything from ordering the carpet, storing it until the room was ready to receive it, then fitting it perfectly; they would even have shaved a millimetre off the bedroom door and re-hung it if I’d wanted to stop it brushing the pile. Just like Hammonds, WCS provides an old-fashioned personal service, with staff who clearly take pride in their work and seemed to genuinely enjoy supplying (quote) ‘a beautiful piece of carpet’ – definitely the go-to guys for specialised carpeting jobs in our area.

To complete the look, I treated us to a few luxury items in some of my favourite styles and themes from history, including the reproduction Tiffany stained-glass light fittings ordered on-line from Iconic Lighting.

Top marks again for quality, service and value for money: this ceiling lampshade and side-lamp arrived promptly, extremely well packed and intact, and look utterly delightful, especially when lit and the dragonflies’ eyes glow!

I’m also happy to commend the Belgian company Yapatkwa Tapestries for the fabulous throw and cushion cover which enabled me, at last, to dress my throne, (a magnificent folding period chair thoughtfully presented to me in my arthritic days by the Frei Compagnie, to spare my aching back on events), in suitably regal fashion.

The design on the heavy Jacquard throw is taken from my favourite Medieval tapestry, ‘La Dame et la L’Icorne‘, a copy of which I bought from the Musee du Moyen Age while on a culture-vulture tour of Paris in 1988, and now have framed on the wall alongside; the cushion cover is a Tree of Life by William Morris; both are sumptuously coloured, superb quality, a joy to behold and worth every penny.

Altogether it’s created a cosy Medieval-style reading corner, overlooked by another wedding present from Frei Compagnie friends Stu and Dawn: a portrait of King Richard III, whose fascinating story led me to Towton in the first place and who, in effect, introduced me to my husband!

The only slight disappointment was my ‘Strawberry Thief’ bed cover from the William Morris Company, supplied by Debenhams. There’s nothing wrong with the quality: it’s a stunning fabric, reversible, extremely well-made, and lightly quilted so that it’ll serve equally well as a heavy bedspread for the depths of winter, or by itself as an ultra-light duvet for summer heatwaves. No, the problem is the size: ‘Double/Kingsize’, which may be a tad small for the latter, but is WAY too stiflingly big for the former.

There’s no other size to exchange it for except Single, which will be too small; nor do I really want my money back, because in other respects I love it. So loath though I am to mutilate the most expensive piece of bedding I’ve ever bought, my only option is to cut it down to a sensible size for our standard double bed, re-hem it, and roll up/stitch the remnant to make a matching bolster cushion. Ah well – at least it’ll give me a project for those long winter nights!

Finally, a word on the other artworks, none of which are new and all of which have special meaning. The beautiful bronze-and-wood icon was a gift from my sister-in-law Anita, and sculpted by her late father, Willi Soukop, the prancing Balinese temple horses formerly hung in my parents’ hallway and were bought by Anita and my late brother John on their Far Eastern travels in the 1970’s; and the Ingres-style pencil portrait of a twenty-something me was drawn by my accomplished American friend Jim Fay in 1987, while I was living and working as an antiquities conservator in Baltimore, Maryland.

It’s lovely to sleep in such a rich-looking, comfortable and well-appointed room, surrounded by precious and beautiful things we’ve amassed over the years or had given by our loved ones; an eclectic mix of favourite periods and themes akin to the ‘pick and mix’ approach I took in creating the fantasy world in The Lay of Angor. I find it particularly satisfying that it allowed us to support a number of deserving businesses, at home and abroad, pumping some welcome cash into the economy in this uniquely difficult year. I can’t say how grateful I am to all the tradesmen and surveyors who continued to work during the second lockdown, enabling us to complete Project New Bedroom on time and according to plan, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about it as much as I enjoyed making it happen. And while you may not care for my choices, if you check out the company websites, you’ll see they supply a wide range of quality products in many different colours and styles to suit all tastes. Well worth a look if you’re planning your own right royal make-over!

Hedgehog Lives Matter

Now is the time of year you’re liable to see small hedgehogs bumbling about in the daytime (and all too often getting squashed on the road). These unfortunate youngsters, born late in the season, haven’t had enough time to fatten up sufficiently for winter, forcing them to forage in daylight, and making them vulnerable, in their weakness, to disease and pest infestation. So the hard truth is that most won’t survive hibernation – especially sad given that this iconic British animal is now an endangered species due to habitat loss, deliberate human cruelty and misplaced human kindness (never, but NEVER, give hedgehogs bread and milk! They’re lactose intolerant and it kills them. Don’t give dried mealworms, either, only meat-based cat-food – not fish – and biscuits, or special hedgehog food).

So yesterday afternoon at Beckside, Hubcap wasn’t entirely surprised to see a young hedgehog wandering about in the open, being plagued by a swarm of green-bottles (‘fly-strike’, a horribly apt term). Needless to say he retrieved it, shooed off the flies, and brought it home in a bucket of hay.

Neither of us had great hopes for its survival. Although we couldn’t see any obvious wounds, it was covered in fly eggs (plus a couple of ticks), lethargic, and small; we hoped it was just cold, hungry, thirsty and disoriented rather than sick. We knew from experience, (having found a young hog of similar size but in even poorer condition a couple of years ago), that our local vet couldn’t do anything for it. Luckily, as we have resident hedgehogs in the garden which we house and feed year-round, we were reasonably well-equipped to try some DIY; so rather than risk Hoggie dying before we could get it to a sanctuary, I Googled ‘remove fly eggs from’ and ‘emergency first aid for’ hedgehogs and acted on some refreshingly simple information I found on britishhedgehogs.org.uk.

First I prepared a bed in an old washing up bowl, lined with a warm hot-water bottle wrapped in a tea-towel, topped it with a pad of hay, and laid the patient on it to start slowly raising its body temperature. Then I assembled my instruments: a small artist’s paintbrush, cotton wool swabs, and tweezers and forceps from my old museum conservation toolkit; set up the illuminated magnifying glass Hubcap uses for tying fishing flies; and with some trepidation, set to work. Bar the odd flinch, poor little Hoggie was too exhausted and torpid to protest, which made it relatively easy to spread its bristles and find the disgusting yellowish-white masses of fly eggs laid close to its skin; luckily these stick together and can be extracted in big clumps, (as satisfying as squeezing pimples!), rather than picked out individually, which would have taken all night. As it was, I spent the best part of an hour tweezing out all but a couple of stubborn single eggs adhering to the bristles – by which time I (and probably the hedgehog) had had enough, and I hadn’t yet found, let alone removed, any ticks; but hadn’t seen any fleas either, which was good news.

While I’d been thus occupied, Hubcap had sorted out a recovery ward in a large plastic storage tub lined with newspaper, with a pile of hay and bits of old sheet for bedding, a dish of water, and a dish of Henry Wowler’s chicken-flavour cat-food. In went the hog, on went the lid, and we left it in peace and warmth in front of the stove.

A couple of hours later it started scrabbling around and polished off the cat-food – an encouraging sign. I gave it some more, plus some dry hedgehog kibble. It liked that a lot, proved by the soon-emptied dish. I gave it some more. Meanwhile I’d found lots of excellent advice from Hedgehog Bottom, Berkshire’s Hedgehog Clinic, a voluntary group whose delightfully witty website https://www.hedgehog-rescue.org.uk/ is worth reading purely for information and enjoyment, and resolved to put it into practice ASAP. 

And contrary to our initial gloomy predictions, Hoggie did last the night, alternately stuffing its face then sleeping it off tangled like a teenager in a horrible mess of bedding; and by next morning, curled adorably on its side like a tiny bristly cat, looked bright-eyed and remarkably perky. We duly went straight out to buy pet-safe disinfectant, proper food bowls, a bag of hay, (Hubcap cursing because we’d just had a field full at Beckside, but not foreseeing a need, hadn’t processed any for storage!!) – and lots more hog-food. Then, as recommended by Hedgehog Bottom, while Hubcap did the mucking out I popped Hoggie onto my digital kitchen scales: only353 g, at least 250 g below the minimum for successful hibernation. That answered our first question: yes, we need to keep it indoors and let it pog until it’s practically doubled in weight, when we can move it out to a luxury wooden Hedgehog Hotel, complete with bed compartment and dining area, under our new lean-to in the garden. I also tried to find odd fly eggs (or, God forbid, maggots) and the ticks Hubcap mentioned – but by now the full and feisty Hoggie had enough strength to ball up tightly, contracting its skin and pulling the bristles together wherever I probed. I’ll have to keep trying this every day until, hopefully, it becomes sufficiently accustomed to handling to relax and let me examine and treat it properly. Meanwhile my best hope is that the loosened eggs fell out and were thrown away with the soiled bedding!

Finally, we installed hog-home in the hobby room and put it in as recommended, with chopped-up old fleece and shredded newspaper for nesting. Looking in an hour later, I saw it snugged into a hollow in the hay, sound asleep, breathing deeply – completely transformed from yesterday’s limp scrap into a warm, fed, watered and healthy-looking (if no doubt highly bewildered) little creature. It was a joy to see, especially knowing that Hoggie would surely have died in this big, cold, wet storm if Hubcap hadn’t found it; and even if it doesn’t survive till next spring, we’ll have the consolation of knowing that its days ended in comfort and safety.

But so far, so good – a cycle of eating, sleeping and evacuation has been established, with an immediate and very noticeable improvement in Hoggie’s energy and appearance, (needless to say, if we’d seen any sign of disease, like crying or wheezing, we’d have taken it to the nearest hedgehog specialist). Hopefully this regime of warmth, restricted movement and plentiful food will allow it to gain up to 10 g per day (indicative of good health) – in which case it could be outside in the Hotel by November, with a chance to hibernate naturally, find food nearby if it wakes, and be restored to Beckside next spring to help raise a new generation of these delightful creatures.

In short: if you find an ailing hedgehog, don’t panic! Look up and apply the emergency first-aid procedures, they’re quite simple. Then if you can’t provide the requisite ongoing care, contact the RSPCA or your local hog sanctuary – because every one matters, now more than ever, and we need to save their precious little lives wherever possible.

The White House Farm Murders

In the early hours of 5th August, 1985, a horrible gunshot massacre took place at White House Farm in Essex. The killer apparently planned to despatch householders June and Nevill Bamber, and their six-year-old twin grandsons Nicholas and Daniel Caffell, asleep in their beds. As a precaution, the kitchen phone was left off the hook to disable the upstairs extensions and prevent calls for help. Then, using a ten-shot rifle fitted with a sound-moderator, (‘silencer’), a single close-range shot was fired into the head of each child. Both died without waking. The remaining eight rounds were emptied into their grandparents. Both initially survived, obliging the assailant to run downstairs to reload, pursued by a badly injured Nevill Bamber. While June, shocked and bleeding, struggled to reach the telephone on her husband’s bedside table, he was in the kitchen, fighting desperately for possession of the gun. Struck repeatedly with the barrel, he tripped and fell awkwardly by the Aga, where he was executed by four shots to the head. Rifle fully re-loaded, the murderer returned to the master bedroom and killed June Bamber with three shots to the head and neck, then pumped another six bullets into the twins. The rifle was subsequently found lying on the body of Sheila Caffell, the Bambers’ adopted daughter and mother of the boys, who had died from two shots to the throat.     

Local police were called to the scene by Sheila’s adoptive brother, Jeremy Bamber – according to whom Nevill had phoned around 3 am to say that she was ‘going mad with a gun.’ Officers arrived braced for an armed siege, only to find an apparent murder-suicide. The resulting investigation was biased towards supporting the senior officer’s unshakeable belief that Sheila Caffell was responsible – notwithstanding her unusual double wound, the absence of trace evidence/blood other than her own on her nightdress, the paucity of her fingerprints on the weapon, and complete lack thereof on the bullets. Opportunities were therefore missed to seek vital evidence, such as blood- and gunshot residue-spattered garments worn to commit the murders, or signs that she had ‘ritually cleansed’ herself after shooting her family. Furthermore, the question of whether it was physically possible for her wounds to have been self-inflicted was – and never could be – convincingly answered, because the bodies of Sheila and her parents were cremated soon after the inquest.  However, forensic evidence suggests otherwise, since the rifle had to be re-loaded again, and the sound-muffler removed, to inflict her second, fatal wound.

Today, matters would be handled very differently – partly as a result of the painful lessons learned by police after the debacle of White House Farm. Firearms involvement would mean an automatic presumption of homicide, and the victims’ bodies would be retained accordingly. A thorough search of the crime scene would reveal clues overlooked at the time, including the bloodstained sound-moderator put away in a downstairs cupboard, and Nevill’s bedside telephone hidden under a pile of papers in the kitchen. Ballistics, forensics and blood-spatter experts would minutely reconstruct the course of the shootings. Jeremy Bamber, as the last person to see his parents, sister and nephews alive, face-to-face, and having ample means, motive and opportunity, would be the prime suspect. His clothing and body would be examined for trace evidence and signs of injury from fighting with Nevill. His car, cottage, (where June’s bicycle was found), and the likely routes between his home and the farm, would all be searched; as would the home of his then girlfriend Julie Mugford, who might have told the full truth from the outset rather than risk being charged as an accessory. DNA analysis of the sound-muffler might conclusively show the presence of Sheila’s blood, thus (since it was not found with her body) proving that she was murdered. Conceivably, faced with such a strong prosecution case, Jeremy Bamber might have pleaded guilty (and would probably be time-served, rehabilitated and free by now); otherwise, the weight of evidence would likely have ensured a unanimous verdict from the jury, and provided better closure for the bereaved families and friends.  

As it was, a month later and following the break-up of their relationship, Julie Mugford cracked under the strain of a terrible secret. In a shocking statement to police, she revealed how her ex had discussed plans to kill his family, and had long known a way to enter and leave the apparently secure farmhouse. Her information, combined with additional physical evidence, led to further investigations by a new, more rigorous team and the subsequent arrest of Jeremy Bamber; tried and convicted of all five murders by a majority 10:2 verdict in 1986, he was duly sentenced to life imprisonment.

Bamber has stayed in the public eye ever since, protesting his innocence, backed by many supporters who believe he has suffered a gross miscarriage of justice. However, his defence has yet to supply any fresh concrete proof, relying instead on nit-picking irrelevances, (like the play of light on a window which caused a twitchy officer to briefly believe he’d seen movement – ‘evidence of life’ – inside the farmhouse), searching for legal loopholes, accusing the police of everything from incompetence (valid, up to a point) to corruption and evidence-tampering, and the prosecution witnesses of being mistaken, if not lying outright.

Most recently, the case came to renewed, wide public attention thanks to a major TV series, White House Farm, starring Freddie Fox as Jeremy Bamber. It fired my own interest to such an extent that I bought Carol Ann Lee’s book on the case to find out what had really happened, and whether the drama had portrayed events accurately (it had).

Having previously read One of Your Own, Lee’s biography of Moors Murderer Myra Hindley, I was not disappointed by The Murders at White House Farm. Just as meticulously researched, scrupulously referenced, and narrated in the same lucid prose, it sets the scene with a prologue describing Colin Caffell’s ominous journey to take Sheila and their sons on what would be their last visit to his former parents-in-law. The main narrative then opens with a family history which goes some way to explain why either of the young Bambers could have been driven to murder: a troubled background of well-intentioned but inadequate parenting, emotional repression, recurrent mental illness, and excessive, controlling religiosity. On the face of it, Nevill and June should have been ideal parents. An attractive, intelligent couple, each had a distinguished war service record and devout Christian faith, and enjoyed a prosperous business, a comfortable home and a well-off middle-class lifestyle. But at the time of their marriage, post-war society was extremely conservative, with any deviation from the norm disapproved of, or even – like homosexuality – illegal. Divorce was frowned upon, as were pre- and extra-marital sex, and illegitimacy was considered so disgraceful that many single women were forced to procure illicit abortions or give up their babies for adoption. Even infertility was a stigma, with childless women the objects of pity, suspicion and scorn, and a pain deeply felt by June when the longed-for babies failed to arrive.

She received medical treatment for the resulting severe depression, which was in some ways exacerbated rather than cured by the adoption of two new-born babies. Although the children were desperately wanted and loved, the Bambers remained painfully conscious that they were not biological parents; and while they enjoyed relaxed, natural relationships with their nieces and nephews, (of which Sheila and Jeremy were deeply jealous), June remained insecure and awkward as a mother. Ever fearful of censure by the adoption agency, she may have raised her daughter and son literally by the book – the notorious Dr Spock method of strictly regimented routines – explaining Sheila’s early memories of being left to cry for hours in her pram in the garden, watched over only by the family dog. And ever anxious to give their children every possible advantage, she and Nevill packed them both off to boarding school at a relatively young age – another baffling rejection to compound the abandonment by their blood-parents. Predictably, both suffered; Jeremy was bullied by his schoolmates as ‘the bastard’ and by his cousins at home as ‘the cuckoo.’ The resulting low self-esteem arguably contributed to Jeremy’s psychopathy and Sheila’s mental breakdown, especially as June’s religiosity increased; dismayed by an increasingly permissive society, she was terrified of the male attention attracted by Sheila’s growing beauty, and applied every kind of pressure to control her daughter’s sexuality (and her son’s, to a lesser degree). Predictably, in their teens, both rebelled against parental strictures and expectations, and struggled to live their own lives – often with painful consequences all round, including an abortion for Sheila and problems thereafter with carrying a baby to term.

The second section examines the eight months from New Year 1985 to the night of the murders, by which time Sheila’s marriage to Colin Caffell had failed and her mental health become precarious, while Jeremy tried to reconcile himself to farm work and eventually succeeding Nevill in the family business. Meanwhile, finding Sheila’s mental state hard to handle, resenting the financial aid June gave to her and the Church, he began thinking, and talking to his girlfriend, about how he might become sole inheritor of the estate. Sheila’s arrival with her sons provided the opportunity he had planned and waited for, and the section closes with a description of the family’s final hours on the evening of 4th August: an argument, causing Nevill and June to sound tense and distracted when talking on the phone; and Jeremy roaring home in his car at 9.30 pm, then phoning Julie to tell her words to the effect, ‘It’s now or never’.

Part Three picks up with Jeremy’s report to police in the early hours of Wednesday 7th August. Allegedly woken by Nevill’s panicked phone-call, abruptly cut off, Bamber rang Julie Mugford at around 3.15 am before calling local police rather than dialling 999. He then drove so slowly that the police overtook him and arrived first at the scene. According to Jeremy, he’d been afraid of what he might find – thereby removing an automatic degree of suspicion, with police to witness that he did not enter the property, find the bodies or tamper with evidence.  Based on his story, the lead officer became so focussed on the murder-suicide scenario – despite peculiarities like the two shots needed to kill Sheila – that he failed to pursue the only other obvious line of enquiry. Luckily, others kept more open minds, working with relatives and uncovering further clues until Jeremy could be arrested and charged on all five counts of murder.

The fourth and final section, from 30th September 1985 to July 2015, covers the trial. Bamber’s defence maintained that Mugford, and other prosecution witnesses who gave evidence of Jeremy’s dislike of his family, were lying, and otherwise relied on some highly doubtful speculations: that Julie Mugford, while visiting White House Farm with Jeremy, had discovered for herself a faulty window which could be locked from the outside by banging the frame; that Sheila Caffell, (only known to have fired a gun once in her life), had developed a proficiency with the murder weapon to the extent of knowing how to fit the sound-moderator, clear a jammed cartridge, and reload repeatedly under stress; that despite the debilitating effects of her medication, she entered a homicidal frenzy so unstoppable that she could overcome the wounded Nevill Bamber in a physical fight, and execute her entire family by shooting them in the head; and finally shot herself not once, but twice, in order to take her own life. Defence witnesses were obliged to concede that none of these things were impossible, no matter how unlikely they seemed individually, or how ludicrously improbable when considered all together. The jury eventually reached a majority verdict of guilty, and the remainder of this short section gives an outline of the aftermath, Jeremy Bamber’s life in prison, and his ongoing campaign for release, steadfastly proclaiming his innocence as the only means of getting what he wanted from the start: family money.

The epilogue rounds off the story with a summary of what happened next to various people whose lives were deeply affected by the tragedy, including Julie Mugford and Colin Caffell (whose impassioned plea for Bamber to remain incarcerated appears as Appendix 2), while Appendix 1 gives the best reconstruction possible, based on all the evidence and expert opinion, of the murders as carried out by Jeremy Bamber.

What the book doesn’t – and has no reason to – do is examine the alternative scenario which Bamber and his defenders would have the world believe: that while her family were sleeping, a deranged Sheila Caffell rose in the small hours, stripped naked, (explaining the absence of high-velocity blood spatter or gunshot residue on her nightgown or any other clothing), went downstairs, loaded the rifle and fitted the sound-moderator – having first put on gloves, since none of her fingerprints were found on the cartridges, and none of her long nails were broken or unduly chipped. Leaving the kitchen phone off the hook, she then crept upstairs to remove her sons from June’s baleful interference, and save her parents from the misery she felt responsible for causing. After failing to kill the adults outright, she fled downstairs and was in the midst of re-loading when Nevill staggered into the kitchen. Shot twice in the mouth and jaw, he nonetheless managed to ring Jeremy, without getting blood on the phone, to say that she had ‘gone crazy’. With the gun partially re-loaded, Sheila (a slender 5’ 7”) then got into a violent fight with her father (a robust 6’ 4”), overturning furniture and taking a gouge out of the Aga surround as she beat him around head and shoulders with the gun-barrel – all without sustaining a single detectable injury herself.

After executing Nevill then fully re-loading, she cleared a jammed cartridge on her way back upstairs, finished off June, and fired six more ‘overkill’ shots into the bodies of Nicholas and Daniel. For some unaccountable reason she then hid Nevill’s bedside phone in the kitchen, ‘ritually cleansed’ and dried herself thoroughly, put her nightwear on, and returned to her parents’ bedroom. Lying on the floor with June’s Bible beside her, she shot herself in the throat with the last bullet. The clumsy shot was not immediately fatal. Sheila recovered, removed the moderator and put it away downstairs, loaded another bullet, returned to the master bedroom, shot herself again under the chin, and died.

It seems incredible that a woman sufficiently disturbed to murder her whole family could be, at the same time, so coldly calculating – and an amazingly good shot under high-stress conditions, hitting a target with all but one bullet. Jeremy Bamber, on the other hand, had learned to shoot at school and was a proficient, experienced marksman, familiar with/having access to a murder weapon purchased at his instigation; he stood to inherit an estate worth more than £1.5 million in today’s money; and knew how to get inside the locked and bolted farmhouse at a time when all the people standing between him and a fortune were together under its roof. He therefore had more cause to lie than any witness, could easily have provoked a family argument to cause tension on the eve of the murders, and fabricated ‘Nevill’s phone-call’ to add plausibility to his account and place the blame on Sheila.

His guilt seems inescapable when Lee’s book is read in conjunction with one of her primary sources, Colin Caffell’s moving memoir In Search of the Rainbow’s End. Like Lee’s book, this is divided into chronological sections, although Caffell’s boundaries are looser and his narrative flows back and forth in time between chapters. In Search opens with forewords from the two editions, (1994 and 2020), and a prologue summarising his early life, meeting and love affair with ‘Bambs’, and impressions of her parents. Part One then begins on 7th August 1984 with the immediate aftermath of the murders, and Caffell’s painful recollections of the last time he saw his ex-wife and sons: Sheila medicated and monosyllabic, vegetarian Daniel afraid of being scolded for not eating his meat, both twins anxious about being forced to kneel and pray – and both so desperate not to be left at White House Farm that they seem to have had premonitions of disaster. A second short section covering the lead-up to Bamber’s arrest describes Jeremy’s grossly inappropriate behaviour, sniggering over (then trying to sell to a tabloid) explicit nude photographs of his late sister, and stripping out the twins’ room in her flat/dumping the contents into bin-bags instead of offering their father the chance to carry out such a sensitive task. Caffell endured the further pain of seeing Sheila’s name dragged through the gutter press with wild and lurid speculation, then the sickening discovery that he had been deceived and bereaved by Jeremy, the brother-in-law who once callously referred to his beloved boys as ‘millstones round his neck.’ The third section continues the story of Colin’s life with and without Sheila, as he strove to come to terms with his overwhelming loss and gradually reached a place of spiritual calm and deep philosophical acceptance. Reserved, ladylike June Bamber emerges as a terrifying ‘house monster’ in a series of disturbing drawings – only described by Lee, but reproduced here – by Daniel Caffell, to illustrate a (sadly forgotten) story. The twins loved, but were also clearly frightened of their grandmother, disliked her preaching and forcing them to pray, and were upset by her distorted mind-set which perceived their naked bodies as ‘dirty’, and the innocent fun of their bathing together as ‘sinful.’ Colin Caffell’s observations flesh out his son’s portrait of a repressed, unhappy woman feverishly pursuing good works to the detriment of her family and health, to atone for her own sterility and the sins of her adopted children; furiously puritanical and beset by harsh concepts of sin and punishment; frequently cruel and manipulative towards Sheila; and unhealthily preoccupied, to the point of obsession, with controlling the sexuality of others while Nevill stood by, a hapless pig-in-the-middle. The toxic emotions Caffell experienced within this ostensibly ‘normal’ middle-class family make it easier to understand why White House Farm became the breeding-ground for a psychosis which resulted in such appalling tragedy. The last two brief sections tie up loose ends, and conclude on a positive note with Colin Caffell, having come through his traumatic ordeal as a stronger, wiser, more deeply enlightened and compassionate person, now happily remarried and established in Cornwall as a successful sculptor and ceramic artist.

Because Caffell writes from personal knowledge rather than objective journalism, his book fills in gaps and answers questions left by Lee. Two highly significant revelations are the reason for Nevill Bamber’s uncharacteristically low mood towards the end of his life, and why he began putting his affairs in order: he feared that Jeremy planned to kill him in a ‘hunting accident’, and may have been compiling a dossier of supporting evidence to present to police; and an anecdote from someone who saw Jeremy trying (and failing) to persuade Sheila to load the new rifle, presumably to get her fingerprints on the ammunition, a clear indication of pre-meditated, first-degree murder (subjects omitted from the trial as hearsay or too prejudicial). Subsequent spiritual revelations suggest that Nevill feared only for himself, not suspecting that other family members were also in danger of death; and whether or not one believes in communication with the spirit world, this is entirely consistent with Nevill’s reported actions and state of mind during his last months.

The combined effect of these two fine publications leaves me firmly convinced that Jeremy Bamber is guilty of the murders at White House Farm. I find it impossible to believe that Sheila Caffell was mentally or physically capable of doing half the extraordinary things she must have done in the murder-suicide scenario – and given the way it was staged, there is only one other viable suspect. However, I’m equally convinced that Bamber has suppressed the memory of his crimes to such an extent that he genuinely believes himself innocent – the comforting fantasy to which he must cling in the hope of release and recompense for thirty-five years of wrongful imprisonment. In this respect he is like Myra Hindley, unable to accept that the only path to rehabilitation and release is full confession, co-operation, demonstrable remorse, and efforts to atone; and I trust that as long as he persists in this futile denial, he will stay locked up where he belongs.   

REFERENCES:

Caffell, Colin, In Search of the Rainbow’s End, Hodder & Stoughton, 2020

Lee, Carol Ann, The Murders at White House Farm, Pan Books, 2020

Plastic Pollution: how one household can make a difference

Once upon a time, the weekly supermarket shop often sent me into meltdown. The weird woman sobbing in her car on Asda car-park, or on her front drive the second she got her ton of bags-for-life home? Yup, that was me. I never quite fathomed why it upset me so badly…  that is, until Hubcap and I ‘woke’ to the issues of plastic pollution, palm oil, and the havoc that gross over-consumption is wreaking on the planet (not to mention human health).

So, determined to reduce the amount of non-recyclable packaging we used and the amount of palm oil we ate, we did a shopping review.  As committed long-term micro-consumers and recyclers, we’d always felt pretty smug about our frugal housekeeping and wholesome, largely home-cooked diet; but that soon changed to horrified shame when we realised what bad habits we’d fallen into, the staggering amounts of palm oil we were inadvertently ingesting, and the equally staggering amounts of avoidable waste we were generating, week in and week out. For instance, we’d developed a routine of Tuesday Kit-kats and Friday night treats consisting of a bag of crisps or nachos and a confectionery bar  each; and since discovering Hubcap’s gluten sensitivity, had both become addicted to ready-made gluten-free cakes and biscuits, (essential high-calorie additions to the snap-tin of a labouring bloke) – much of it laden with palm oil and wasteful packaging.  For our lunch sandwiches, I bought tubs of hummus and packs of sliced deli meats, plus disposable bags to put them in, supplemented by individually-wrapped and boxed fruit/nut/cereal bars, multi-mini-packs of raisins, ‘shot’ tubes of nuts and seeds, and individual bags of pulse- or corn-based savouries.  Around the house, we routinely used plastic bottles of hand-wash/cream and body-wash; and I’d  taken to buying those seductively convenient disposable wipes for the kitchen and bathroom, (even flushed some of the supposedly flushable ones down the loo). And so it went on…

Gulp. At least now, having recognised the extent of the problem, we could do something about it – PDQ. The first, and simplest decision, was to kick out all the palm oil. That knocked a huge range of items off my shopping list in one fell swoop: almost all the big-name confectionery products, breads, gluten-free baked goods, cereals, margarine, solid vegetable fats and gravy granules, to name but a few. It was well worth making lifestyle changes to eliminate this noxious, environmentally-damaging substance from our diet; I duly switched back to good old butter and lard wrapped in paper or foil, and made time in my schedule for baking. Ever since, instead of plastic-packed, mass-produced stuff containing a list of additives as long as your arm, we eat flapjacks, biscuits, scones and buns freshly-made from a handful of traditional, wholesome ingredients – much cheaper, better tasting, better for us, and makes the house smell like heaven!

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Then, bidding a sad farewell to our beloved Nakd and Palaeo bars, we kicked out all the individual packaging. I bought plastic containers for lunch-box portions decanted from single large packs of salted nuts/pulses, dried fruits and unsalted nuts, jumbo tubs of yoghurt and so on; made my own hummus using fresh lemon and garlic, and chickpeas and oil from recyclable containers; and substituted childhood favourites like Spam, potted beef and Sandwich Spread in tins and glass jars for the plastic-encased sliced meats (I find a single tin of thinly-sliced Spam does us for a whole week’s butties). To eke out my home-baking, I made delicious, economical and relatively healthy rice puddings, jellies with home-grown berries or tinned fruit, and chocolate blancmange from semi-skimmed milk, cornflour, sugar and Fairtrade cocoa powder. To our mutual surprise and delight, I discovered that baking gluten-free bread is a piece of cake, (so to speak), with results infinitely superior to – and far cheaper than – the dry, cloying, badly-mixed mass-produced brands. I religiously saved all film and polythene bags for re-use as sandwich wrap, bit-bin liners or when I went shopping for loose fruit and veg, (the latter supplemented by as much organic produce as we can grow or glean). Instead of taking away, we took to dining in the restaurant (more fun and less washing up); and for our regular Saturday ‘convenience’ stir-fry, I substituted hand-chopped loose veg for packs of ready-shredded, dried rice noodles (two servings apiece in a small packet) for fresh noodles (one serving apiece in a large pack), and sauces in glass jars (or home-made) for plastic sachets – and by doing so, found I could make two nights’ dinner for the price of one. Even Henry Wowler did his bit, happily switching from plastic pouches, expensive (and useless) ‘lite’ biscuits in a plastic sack, and plastic-bottled spring water, to tinned cat food, bog-standard biscuits in paper sacks, and rainwater from the water-butt (when he’s not drinking soiled muck out of the bird-bath, that is). The garden birds were also happy to help by changing from commercial to home-made fat blocks (lard, flour, crushed peanuts/sunflower hearts/mealworms and nyger seed, melted together and poured into plastic moulds saved from the mass-produced versions)!

Around the house, we’ve gone back to paper-wrapped soap and old-fashioned washable flannels and dish-cloths, with coir or loofah scrubbing pads to replace synthetic sponges; and are phasing out toiletries in plastic bottles or aerosol cans in favour of solid shampoo bars, eco-friendly deodorant sticks in cardboard tubes, tooth-powder in glass jars, hand-cream in tins, bamboo toothbrushes, and traditional razors with disposable/recyclable metal blades. For the laundry, I abandoned plastic bottles of eco-liquid and invested in an Eco-Egg containing mineral pellets, supplemented by a small amount of washing powder in an economy-size cardboard box (lasts at least a year) for large or heavily-soiled loads; I also wash some small loads by hand using old-fashioned soap flakes. As for the washing up: we don’t (and never will) have any dishwasher except our own hands, which now use concentrated eco-liquids we dilute in re-usable bottles, or solid dish-washing soap.

And lo! Within a week, our household waste output fell by two-thirds, thanks solely to a little more thought and planning and some minor housekeeping adjustments. I saved so much money by making more vegetarian and vegan dishes from scratch, and cutting out plastic/palm-oil infested snacks and unnecessary disposables like the ubiquitous wet-wipes, that we could afford to buy pricier eco-products, occasional treats like quality Fairtrade chocolate wrapped in paper/tinfoil and local free-range meat, and get milk and juice delivered by a milkman – thereby supporting local farmers and reducing our waste even more. (It’s wonderfully encouraging to hear that milkmen are making a huge comeback everywhere, with a correspondingly huge drop in our national consumption of plastic bottles and tetra-packs).

The other instant result: no more crying in the car-park.  The weekly supermarket trawl immediately turned into an interesting (if often frustrating) challenge, rather than a depressing burden, a satisfying lifestyle hobby of seeking ever more ways to reduce our carbon footprint, and shop more ethically and sustainably. Although we’re still far from zero-waste, I’m thrilled and amazed by how much we’ve achieved over the past three years for very little effort and no real sacrifice; I don’t even miss former favourite chocolates, Nutella and biscuits – in fact now I’m ‘woke’ to their flavour of orang-utan blood, rain-forest smoke, the sweat of child slave-labour and the tears of indigenous peoples, I find them more repellent than tempting.

Best of all, it’s not rocket science. Although the compromises involved in making the most ethical shopping choices are often highly complex, you can make a massive difference to your consumption/waste output simply by reverting to traditional ingredients in minimal/recyclable packaging, and doing things in traditional ways (like carrying a re-usable container of squash instead of buying a can or bottle of soft drink every time you go out!).

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And to illustrate just how massive that difference can be, I’ve quantified these examples of plastic packaging our small household now saves per annum:

Cat: 365 pouches, 12 sacks, 12 bottles = 389 items

Birds: c. 300 fat-block trays

Chocolate/confectionery: c. 100 Kit-kat/200 other wrappers = 300 items

Savoury snacks: c. 400 crisp, nacho and ‘shot’ packets

Sweet snack bars: c. 1000 packets

Ready-made hummus; c. 100 tubs

Margarine: c. 12 tubs

Deli: c. 150 meat packs/50 pate tubs = 200 items

Individual yoghurt/dessert pots: c. 500

Gluten-free biscuit/cake trays: c. 100

Gluten-free bread bags: c. 75

Takeaway containers: c. 50

Stir-frys: c. 50 sachets/100 bags = 150 items

Shampoo bottles; c. 10

Toothpaste tubes: c. 12

Hand/body wash or lotion bottles: c. 30

Wet-wipes: c. 24 packets/1000 wipes = 1024 items

Synthetic sponges: c. 50

Laundry liquid bottles: c. 10

Washing up liquid bottles: c. 10

Milk bottles: c. 120

Grand total: c. 4842 items

Whew!  That’s a lot of wheelie-bin-loads. So if you loathe wasteful consumerism as much as we do, take heart: you could make many of these improvements too, with or without the support of your nearest and dearest. And next time someone says, ‘Oh, there’s no point making an effort, one person can’t make any difference’, you can respectfully contradict them by sharing this blog!

 

Shadow King: the Life and Death of Henry VI

Shadow King: The Life and Death of Henry VI by Lauren Johnson
Head of Zeus Publications, 2020, paperback, 700 pages, £12.00
ISBN 978-1784-979645

Henry VI has gone down in history as one of England’s worst kings. Not for being cruel or despotic; on the contrary, his nature was kindly and pliant, peace-loving and deeply devout – qualities that made him likeable as a person but hopeless as a monarch, a faint wavering shadow of his shrewd, martial father. His life would have been very different, and he may have become a better ruler, had he grown to manhood under the guidance of Henry V, this perfect model of the medieval warrior-statesman. Instead, by the latter’s untimely death in 1422 with his French kingdom far from pacified, the infant Henry only received the dire legacy of an unwinnable war, and perpetual bitter conflict between members of his family over the implementation of the late king’s will and their respective powers on the minority council.

Such is the context for the opening chapters of Lauren Johnson’s sympathetic new study, which sets out to ‘explore Henry VI as an evolving individual struggling in an extraordinary situation. In short, to consider him as a man.’ Recently released in paperback, Shadow King is a handsome volume, illustrated with 24 colour plates, family trees of the Houses of Lancaster, Beaufort and York, and three helpful maps, (France 1415 – 53; Wars of the Roses battles 1455 – 71; and 15th century noble landholding in England and Wales).

The well-referenced text falls into logical sections: Henry’s minority 1422 – 37; adult rule to 1453, including his marriage to Margaret of Anjou; political and mental breakdown, culminating in his deposition by Edward IV at Towton in 1461; his fugitive years, short-lived re-adeption, and eventual fate in the Tower of London. A brief ‘Afterlife’ and epilogue conclude the sad, strange stories of this unfortunate king and his queen, followed by two appendices, ‘Where did Henry VI die?’ and ‘Key Characters’, 68 pages of notes, and an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

Stylistically, some passages read like an historical novel: ‘The inky waters of the River Thames rippled and slid beneath the wherrymen’s oars. In places the peaks of the waves glistened, light falling from the windows of Winchester Palace as bursts of laughter and music echoed out.’ (Page 45). Such imaginative touches bring the text to life for many readers, although my own preference is for Johnson’s straight prose, which I found admirably clear and refreshing. Why gild the lily?

As for content, I particularly enjoyed the first two sections. Johnson makes excellent use of some seldom-used sources to paint a convincing, detailed picture of Henry’s early life. Her exposition of the complex political situations in England and France, (riven by its own civil war between the Armagnacs and Burgundians), and the equally complex personal war between Henry’s kinsmen, is lucid and easy to follow; and she offers some perceptive analyses of the likely effects on an impressionable child of having to perform the rituals of royalty surrounded by such constant conflict and tension. Theoretically wielding absolute power but practically powerless to control his feuding councillors, it’s no wonder that Henry grew up hating discord, and wishing only to please and appease the people closest to him, emotionally or literally.

However, as the story moved into more familiar territory, I felt some disappointment. Plainly no fan of Richard, Duke of York, Johnson gives short shrift to his justifiable reasons for expecting a primary place on Henry’s council/in his confidence, and justifiable chagrin at being passed over for lesser men. York’s assumption of pre-eminence was based on his royal pedigree: descended from the second and fifth sons of Edward III via his mother and father respectively, he was one of England’s wealthiest magnates with a claim to the throne arguably stronger than Henry’s. This was not lost upon the king’s beloved Beaufort kin, a legitimated line sprung from John, Duke of Lancaster’s affair with Kathryn Swynford, who, (along with sundry other jealous rivals), persistently undermined York in Henry’s malleable affections. Had Henry managed to keep his powerful cousin on-side, the Wars of the Roses might never have happened; instead, he progressively alienated York, and wounded his pride, by showing an unfair and obvious partiality for the base-born Beauforts . It seems a shame that Johnson doesn’t extend her even-handed approach to Duke Richard, or treat him as another ‘evolving individual struggling in an extraordinary situation’ who, no less than Henry VI, deserves to be viewed ‘as a man’ trying to do his best for his country, his family and himself.

I was also disappointed by the brief, conventional accounts of the battles of Wakefield and Towton, the great Lancastrian victory followed shortly by the catastrophic defeat which cost Henry his crown, changing his life – and the course of English history – forever. In a work of this magnitude, it’s inevitable that some areas will be less well researched than others; nonetheless, for such a crucial episode, it was frustrating to see some old Wakefield myths perpetuated and enlarged. Like other commentators unfamiliar with the place, Johnson describes Sandal Castle as ‘majestic’ when, as castles go, it’s quite small (Sandal would fit inside the truly majestic Pontefract Castle several times over) and utilitarian. Interestingly, the ‘meagre’ household expenditure of £4 6s 7d for the Christmas – New Year period is cited to show that the castle was poorly provisioned, whereas to me it says precisely the opposite: it was already so well provisioned that little further spending was required. (I say ‘little,’ but the sum in question represents around 18 months – three years’ pay for a labourer, or six months’ pay for a liveried archer – it’s all relative!). This debatable interpretation is then used to present a version of the battle of Wakefield which simply doesn’t make sense: York, Salisbury, Rutland and their men, driven by hunger to hunt in the deer-park ‘north of the River Calder,’ ambushed by the Lancastrian army and slaughtered. Said deer park wasn’t just north of the river – it was the Outwood, some three miles north of Sandal and two miles north of Wakefield city, with its chantry chapel of St Mary perched on the Calder bridge; an unnecessarily long way to go when Sandal Castle had its own deer-park to the south, literally on its threshold, and miles of nearby river for fishing and wild-fowl hunting. (For my personal take on the battle, see http://www.helencox-herstorywriting.co.uk/publications/4539280721 ) I also found her treatment of Towton somewhat superficial, and lacking reference to more recent studies such as those by George Goodwin and Tim Sutherland.

Suffice to say, if I wasn’t such a pro-Yorkist anorak about this period in Wars of the Roses history, these criticisms wouldn’t have occurred, and I would have read the whole book with the same relish as I devoured the earlier sections! So, on the whole, I’m happy to recommend Shadow King as a worthwhile read, an enthralling tragedy which left me moved and thoughtful, and which will make a valuable addition to my bookshelves.

Amazingly Fat Cat

This week saw our Henry Wowler’s least-favourite day of the year: the day he gets poked about by a stranger then jabbed in the neck. Yes, it’s annual medical time!

We heaved his cat-basket into the van with considerable effort, braced for a scolding about his heaviness; and in the vet’s waiting room I read a poster, ‘How to Tell if Your Cat’s Overweight.’ Can’t feel its ribs? Check. Saggy dewlap? Check. Lack of interest in playing? Check – sort of. As soon as Henry learnt to kill things, he went off toys, although he still enjoys savaging his Christmas catnip mouse, playing ‘knock on the patio window then run away when they open it,’ and chasing the odd leaf or twig round the garden; but on the whole, if it doesn’t bleed, he deems it not worth bothering with. Lazy and lethargic – um, how do you tell with a creature that spends 18 out of 24 hours asleep?

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With Wowler, it depends on the weather, (when it’s fine, he spends more time outdoors doing cat stuff ), and whether anyone’s at home, (Mummy and Daddy-cat’s arrival means dinner, irrespective of how early we finish work – cue for him to wake and start prowling round hassling for food). So no check here – I’d call him averagely active for a cat of his age and temperament. Hesitates before jumping up onto furniture? Check. Mind you, Henry does like to consider the pros and cons – often at some length – before he acts, to avoid any taint of slavish obedience when invited to jump on the bed or onto Mummy-cat’s lap for a cuddle. I’m not sure if that counts as ‘hesitation’ – he’s perfectly capable of jumping without it when the occasion demands, and agile enough to make a standing leap onto the kitchen worktops (attested by the trail of small muddy rosettes I find after rainy nights). And he still has a visible (if substantial) waist, and no problems with flexibility or grooming his hard-to-reach areas. How overweight can he be?

We soon find out – 6.9 kilos! Amazingly, despite receiving exactly the same diet all year – a half-tin of meat and two handfuls of biscuit a day, plus his ration of toothy-bics (ie the dental-care type) – he’s gained 500g since his last weigh-in. Oops. Henry Wowler is, once again, officially Too Heavy; although to my great relief, he hasn’t topped his highest weight of 7.2 kg, recorded three years ago. But despite being a big, solid cat, he should weigh nearer six than seven kilos; so we discuss his intake with the vet, who recommends that I weigh the handfuls and cut back to no more than 30g of dry food per day.

OK. Next morning I duly chuck two heaping handfuls onto the scale, nervously wondering how much we’ve been over-feeding him. It weighs 35g. In other words, the absolute maximum he’d get on the rare days he succeeds in whingeing extra breakfast out of Mummy-cat and conning his bedtime biscuits out of both cat-parents, is a paltry 5g more than the vet’s recommendation. I reduce it to 25g, which looks more like his average daily portion. Phew. I’m delighted that we generally give him less than the recommended 30g – but amazed that, notwithstanding, he’s still managed to put on a pound. How did that happen?

Um. I guiltily recall the odd scraps of Spam or chicken he gets off our plates; doesn’t happen often, but that’ll have to stop – as will giving him any chance to steal scraps I put out for the birds. Plus I suspect he recently went through a phase of pinching a feline neighbour’s food, because he kept coming home in the afternoon looking smug and suspiciously fat, (but still demanding his usual dinner). Luckily, if that was the case, I think the neighbour must’ve got wise and either stopped leaving food outside, or started locking the cat-flap when they feed their own cat. And we can’t control the number of rodents he pogs overnight, (or even necessarily know about it, unless he leaves bloody remnants in the kitchen) – but however good the hunting, it never stops him demanding his full daily ration of cat-food. (Perhaps he thinks mice contain no calories, like chocolate eaten in secret).

Whatever, the upshot for Henry Wowler is no more unscheduled treats, and no more than a measured 25g biscuit and 12 toothy-bics with his meat every day. I’ll also try to make him run about a bit more, (although that only seems to sharpen his appetite). Then I’ll keep my fingers crossed that when we take him to have his teeth cleaned in the New Year, the vet will find our amazingly fat cat has shed a few ounces…

Animal Costumes = Animal Abuse!

Imagine I have a small child who can’t communicate with me verbally, or prevent me from physically abusing them. Imagine I buy that child a hot, uncomfortable, ludicrous comedy costume for my personal entertainment. Imagine I force it onto the child’s body, and when they wriggle and struggle and cry, I say, ‘Oh, never mind, you’ll soon get used to it.’ Imagine I then take photos of their baffled, miserable little face, or videos of them struggling to move around in said ludicrous costume. Imagine I splatter these all over social media, inviting the whole world to mock and laugh at my child, and inspiring others to torment their own helpless children in similar fashion.

What would you think of that? You would, I hope, be horrified and disgusted, report me to social services, get my child removed to safety, and me banged up in prison.

Now substitute the word ‘pet’ for ‘child,’ and suddenly it’s all OK. ‘Oh, how cute, how funny, how precious!’ you may cry when you see images of unfortunate pets suffering in ludicrous costumes. ‘Just look at the expression on its face! Oh, I must share this with all my friends! I must torment my cat/dog/hamster with one of these ludicrous costumes so I can get lots of likes on Facebook and YouTube!’

Well, you certainly won’t get any ‘likes’ from me – in fact, if costuming pets to make them a laughing-stock is your idea of fun, I want nothing to do with you. I deplore, loathe and detest this stupid fad. It may be pretty low down on the continuum of grotesque cruelties humans inflict on animals every minute of every day; nonetheless, it is a cruelty, part of a mind-set that believes animals exist purely for our pleasure and entertainment, so it’s fine to do whatever we want to them irrespective of the effects on their well-being.

Don’t get me wrong: I completely approve of clothing and/or shoeing animals when it’s necessary for their warmth or protection, or as part of their work. But this silly, growing dressing-up trend has nothing to do with animal welfare, and everything to do with human whimsy and fundamental misunderstanding of animal needs and rights.

For instance, yesterday I was particularly appalled to see a Hallowe’en costume for cats that makes them look like a giant spider. Sure, on the most superficial level it does look very funny, and lets you play hilarious practical jokes on people; but if you stop to think from the cat’s point of view, it’s a total disaster. Even if the cat is placid and doesn’t overtly object, once it’s been put in this costume, it’s stuck. It can’t scratch if it gets itchy. It can’t groom without choking on synthetic fibres. It can’t remove the ludicrous costume when it gets too hot. And if (like the cats in the advertising video) it’s allowed to go out and about, it’s in constant danger of getting caught up, injured or killed – especially if someone freaks out at the sight and attacks it. What a great Hallowe’en decoration: your cat-tarantula kicked to death on the street outside your house, or dangling, strangled, from a tree in your garden – just imagine how your kids would love it!

No. Animals are animals, not small furry people; they deserve to be respected and treated according to their nature, not hurt and held up to ridicule. Animals don’t want, don’t understand, and seldom need, clothing. Animals don’t ‘get into the spirit’ of human festivals; they don’t understand what’s going on, and are more likely to be frightened or agitated than to enjoy wearing a festive sweater or having a pair of foam reindeer antlers strapped to their head. They don’t understand – nor do humans who dress up their pets understand, or apparently ever stop to think – that apart from being uncomfortable, these ludicrous costumes are terribly dangerous, that they can catch on objects, or brush against candles/heaters and burst into flame. Imagine how well that’d go down at your birthday party: a terrified, agonized cat in a blazing tutu doing the wall of death round your lounge, or your dog’s elf costume snagging on the Christmas tree and pulling it down in a great smash of baubles on top of itself and your children.

And I don’t understand why anyone would wish to torture a beloved animal companion by inflicting this kind of thing on them. Animals are, in their own right, beautiful, cute and frequently very amusing; they need no artificial embellishment. As readers of my blogs and Facebook posts will know,  I love to share the doings of our Henry Wowler with the world, and many people seem to enjoy hearing about them – but it’s all his own, pure feline behaviour while he is, and always will be, dressed only in his own fur (oh, and a microchip, the only thing we’ve ever succeeded in making him wear – he won’t even tolerate a collar). I mean, look at him: I wouldn’t dream of insulting such a perfect being, demeaning his natural dignity, or making him unhappy/uncomfortable, by forcing him to wear some ludicrous costume for foolish people to laugh at.

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Last but not least are the environmental considerations. While our planet is on fire and we’re facing a massive global climate crisis, pet clothing companies are wasting untold resources of energy, water, petroleum by-products etc on producing this pointless, non-biodegradable novelty tat for people with more money than sense. It’s the kind of consumerism that has GOT to stop if humanity, collectively, wishes to survive into the next century.

So I implore you: please, please, if you care about your pets, don’t dress them up! Boycott these harmful, wasteful products, delete images of them from social media, and discourage other people from buying them. If you’ve got that sort of money to spare, give it to an animal welfare charity instead – and do join me in campaigning to at least raise awareness of the dangers and undesirability of pet dressing, and at best, getting these horrible products taken off the market altogether.