Literary molehill

Marc Hamer, a retired mole-catcher and tweed-wearing existentialist, has led an unusual life and still isn’t quite sure who is he today

Books
The little gentleman in black velvet: (Mick E. Talbot CC BY-SA 3.0)
Those familiar with the process of creating a magazine cover will be aware that, when it comes to cover lines, “reader benefit” is king. Whoever concocted the title for Marc Hamer’s debut nature book, which is punctuated with poetry and woodcuts, has come up trumps.

Green-fingered readers, whose gardens are being ravaged by “the little gentlemen in black velvet” as we learn they are known, should order a copy immediately; as a guide to catching the pests, it is thorough and readable. Regrettably, though, if it’s the subtitle you’re drawn to and you fancy finding “yourself in nature”, you’re going to be disappointed because this isn’t a book about you. It’s about Marc Hamer, a retired mole-catcher and tweed-wearing existentialist who has led an unusual life and still isn’t quite sure who is he today.

It begins at daybreak. “I am cold like a spider this morning. It is still very dark . . . but sleep’s no longer my lover. I have lost her forever. She rejects old people like me.” On first reading, the strength of Hamer’s musings about sleep passed me by as I was so hung up on the gawkiness of his spider analogy. This instance of fine writing butting up against hamfistedness is certainly not the only one, and after tripping over a few of these, you find yourself scrutinising every flight of literary fancy. I’ve still not quite made up my mind about “I am a working man who lives by the spade.”

When Hamer was 16, his father told him he was “surplus to requirements and should leave”. Tragically, he recalls having no sense of being cared about and obeyed “the call of the void”. He now refers to his adolescent homelessness as a time of “sleeping with the birds” and as he meanders around topics including love, cancer and tree pruning, memories of that period are dredged up.

“The homeless of all species are predated,” he writes in reference to young moles who leave their subterranean homes. A few chapters later he expands on this when he recalls slipping away from “the paedophiles who hung around the towns and sniffed around me like charming rats”.

But his time on the road was not entirely unhappy because it was there that he fell in love with the natural world. In one of his poems he writes: “I’m tired, I’m hungry too and as the sun breaks/through/and lights the drips on crisping leaves/small birds begin to sing.”

Finding solace in the pastoral eventually led to him becoming a gardener. He assumed, initially, it would be a “nurturing occupation” but soon learnt that pests were part of his responsibility and that “for some people much of gardening is about killing things”. There was a time when Hamer wondered if killing moles would help him understand himself. “The best place for a trap is in a main tunnel,” he writes. It’s a barrel trap you want, the “most expensive you can find” but beyond mechanics catching moles demands spiritual sensitivity. “There are subtle cues” to locating their tunnels “too subtle to describe — more a feeling: a tiny difference”.

Over the years, he has become a font of mole facts. “The female has a clitoris which is as large as the male’s penis,” is a particular favourite. Both appendages are 4mm and pop out when you squeeze the animal’s velveteen belly. But then everything changes: Hamer has to beat one of the creatures to death after a trap hasn’t quite killed it and his emotional response makes him realise his mole-catching days are over. Some chapters previously, foretelling the Damascus moment, he writes: “There is a bittersweet state of existence that all natural things go through, a stage when they stop being what they were and start being something else. I think I am at that point.”

Hamer thanks his agent for helping him to develop his “idea into something somebody else might want to read”. Somebody  else might but I’m not sure how much I gained from Hamer going round and round like a Minotaur in a maze (his analogy not mine), looking back on a “misty and incomplete history of broken family and relationships”.

There is a fine tradition in rural writing of publishers and patrons searching for original voices. How To Catch a Mole was salvaged from a slush pile and then snapped up in a furious bidding war by someone who reckons Marc Hamer is “a brilliant new nature writer” who sees the world through a “unique prism”. I see a publisher trying to convince the market that a literary molehill is a mountain.