Now that the politicians have all buggered off for a well-earned summer break from the mentally exhausting work of turning this country into an irretrievable state of anarchy, I find myself turning to more important and more welcome matters to write about.
For my first subject I have chosen hedgehogs.
For those who live outside this island, I should explain that the hedgehog is a rodent with porcupine-like spines that is genetically related, or so I have recently learned, to the much smaller and non-spiky shrew. A rodent with spines sounds like an unappetising creature, though up to the last century people living in more rural parts of the country were known to eat them as something of a delicacy. Nowadays those few hedgehogs that are left are regarded merely as cute and amusing little creatures that live in our gardens, eat slugs and worms, and cleverly roll up into a ball when disturbed.
The reason I have chosen this topic is that last week something odd happened: my wife and I went to our local village hall to attend a lecture on – yes, hedgehogs. It was to be given by a lady who, either as a hobby or perhaps as a religious calling – I suspect the latter, having met her – looks after these endangered creatures in the name of conservation. Her name, as she introduced herself, is Hedgehog Sue. But I was a little put out when she told us with a certain relish that she had persuaded her husband to give up his study to accommodate her growing brood of hedgehogs, which at her last count numbered fourteen.
Now, before you start muttering about how I must have taken leave of my few remaining senses, let me explain how this hedgehog business came about.
Last Christmas, my three-year old grandson – or rather his parents on his behalf – bought me as a present a hedgehog house. This is an igloo-shaped wire structure that I am supposed to place in a shady, secluded spot in the garden where it will provide a temporary home for any wandering hedgehog (they do a lot of wandering, apparently) and might provide a permanent home.
Then, a few weeks ago, my wife was thumbing through a local magazine when she spotted an ad for a hedgehog lecture, to be delivered in our local village hall. “Why don’t we go,” she said. “It could be interesting, and you might learn how to use your hedgehog house. Anyway, it’s about time we supported some of these local activities.”
Now, I can’t say, hand on heart, that I jumped at the chance to expand my knowledge of hedgehogs, as lovable as they are, and familiar as they were to me in my childhood years. In fact, I was so astonished that I was orally immobilised for several minutes. But having recovered my composure, I agreed to go. Anything for a quiet life, I thought. And my wife was right: we do need to get more involved in our new local community. More to the point, I also reasoned, it might avoid my being dragged off to sit through two hours of actors who can’t sing resuming their mangling of Abba songs on a remote Greek island in Mama Mia! Here We Go Again. (It happened a week later anyway, and my advice to husbands everywhere is this: “Don’t let it happen to you.”)
Going to a hedgehog lecture is one thing. Attending a full meeting of the local branch of the Women’s Institute is quite another.
On arriving at the village hall I peered through the open doors and saw about sixty women arrayed on folding chairs listening intently to a speaker who seemed to be in charge. Assumed I had come to the wrong place, or on the wrong evening, I backed away. But then a booming, commanding, mannerly voice demanded to know who I was. “I’m sorry,” I sputtered, “I’m here for a hedgehog event.” “Well,” she said firmly, “You’ve come to the right place. So, please stop hovering and come in.”
I soon realised that I was the only man present. “I hope you won’t be shy,” said the fierce lady. “Not at all,” I replied, before realising that sixty pairs of eyes were examining me from head to toe, presumably to determine whether I was of WI material, wondering perhaps whether I might be an example of the gender-flexible people they had read so much about. They were a fierce-looking lot, even when they returned my polite smiles and nods. I would put their median age at sixty but I wouldn’t bet against them holding up a Russian armoured division with saucepans and rolling pins.
At least, I muttered to my wife who had now joined me (she had been parking the car) we might get to sing Jerusalem (England’s alternative national anthem in the event the monarchy is overthrown) as I assumed WI meetings always did. “If we don’t” I whispered, “I may just strangle you in the car park.”
Disappointingly, Jerusalem was not on the agenda. “Don’t believe everything you saw in Calendar Girls,” said the fierce lady when I asked her about it afterwards. “We’re no longer the sponge-baking, jam-making battleaxes of popular legend. Now will you and your wife at least stay for some tea and cake?”
Anyway, to get back to the hedgehog lady, better known as Hedgehog Sue, the theme of her address was that hedgehogs, once a common sight in English gardens and hedgerows, are fast becoming an endangered species, their numbers having fallen from something like thirty million to one million in little more than a decade. For once, farmers are not to blame. That makes a change, since farmers are known to kill anything that moves, regardless of the numbers of legs, on the grounds that it might conceivably if not evidentially be capable of a) eating their crops; b) infecting their herds; or c) causing any manner of mild inconvenience – the three categories combined taking in just about every living species on the island except budgerigars.
No, the natural enemies of hedgehogs are not farmers but foxes and badgers, or so the hedgehog lady pointed out. But hedgehogs have a far more serious problem from an unnatural source, she added. Its principal nemesis by far is the automobile. Hedgehogs, as is well known, like to cross roads, and crossing a road is a dangerous thing for all animals to do, including humans, but especially for the less fleet of foot. Hedgehogs are far from fleet of foot and moreover have an unfortunate habit of stopping in the middle of the road to indulge in a leisurely scratch or a stretch, or perhaps to pick up a stranded worm.
At least hedgehogs die happy. Sadly, they die happy by the million each year.
Oh, I nearly forgot the highlight of the lecture. The hedgehog, it seems, has a particularly long and flexible male organ, which it can extend right up to its face and beyond. The hedgehog lady went out of her way to point this out, using a live model (called Percy no less) with an apology to me lest I be embarrassed in front of all those demure ladies. Not in the least embarrassed, I told her (proud of myself for refraining from joking that I could do the same kind of thing with my own member).
Now, I wonder, how that would have gone down with the WI in these ‘Me-Too’ days?
Anyway, having become something of an expert on the subject, I can now look forward to installing my hedgehog motel at the bottom of the garden.
I thought you all ought to know this, because for me the evening was something of a seminal moment. I doubt that I will ever again, in the short time left to me, be attending either a hedgehog lecture or a WI meeting.
Just goes to show, doesn’t it – every day can bring a new experience.