Wednesday 21 February 2007

The Industrious Mole

A report by our roving reporter, Bogus Cognomen.
(This being mainly a story for children)

Just North of Banbury, and a little to the left of Bicester, in the county of Oxford, England, lies a small and isolated village, bypassed by the main roads, and stumbled upon but accidentally by our correspondent in these parts.
This village has a population of 96 moles and seven dragons. Its name, though you’ll have a hard time finding it on any map, is “Much Scrabbling ('Neath the Turf)”. At the Northern end of the main street is a small thatched pub, the “Shovellers Arms”.
When our reporter entered the pub, he found, much to his surprise, a dragon in working clothes sitting by the window, toasting a cheese sandwich with gentle and judicious puffs, and opposite the dragon, a small mole, with dirty arms. Yes. At last our correspondent had tracked down the proprietors of the famed “Spinning Mole’ Pottery”.
Almost the entire adult population of Much Scrabbling (Neath The Turf) is employed by the Spinning Mole Pottery.
So he was very lucky to find Elijah Muldwarp and Llewellyn the dragon taking their lunch break.
After a few toasted sarnies- in fact rather a lot, as Llewellyn enjoys toasting sandwiches even more than he enjoys eating them - we were privileged to learn the economics and methods of the pottery.
The main workshop isn’t in a house as we know it, but rather in a bank.
No, not a Barclays Bank, nor a Lloyds, nor even a Williams and Glyns, but an earth bank, which is a fine place for a mole to live.
Outside in the sun a lot of freshly made pots were set out in the sun to dry. Elijah seated at his wheel explained the need for only the best clay.
Well, asked our writer, what is the best clay? The very smoothest replied the little mole. The very smoothest, and from each place comes only a little, for although humans use great machines to tear great pits deep into the earth, the moles are able to use only their small hands, and tiny shovels made from ground down tea-spoons. So they can’t go very deep, also moles are great perfectionists, and only the best will do, so they range far and wide, taking but a tea-spoon here, and a tea-spoon there.
“Where do you find the best clay?” “Oh well, hard to say really, but as a rule of thumb, stoneware clay for big pots is often to be had near river banks, under meadow fields, whereas porcelain, that now, there’s a difficult one. Almost always underneath cricket pitches, tennis lawns, that sort of thing. ‘Course, you have to tunnel a fair bit, and even then you might not get any,
Best to take all your diggings up top and make a nice neat pile, then you can sort through it and see what you’ve got. If aught looks promising, you stick another candle stump in your hat and down you go again. Scrwrawp, Scrowp, Scrawp, ‘till your barrow's full, then off down the passage-ways, till you can dump it onto the “Much Scrabbling Underground Railway”.
The railway runs from the village to workings all over the country, and for almost all of its length it runs underground. Using it, all the digging moles can leave home after a leisurely breakfast, do a full days work far from home, and be back with a cheery whistle (Wheep! Wheep! Wheep!) in time for tea. Of course, working underground as they do, there is always plenty of coal for the engine, but to stop the tunnels from getting dirty, and making one cough, the engine carries a large supply of paper bags - like vacuum cleaner bags - to fill with smoke. This way they can put all their smoke in the dustbin on a Friday for the bin men to take away.
When clay reaches the pottery, it is made into pots of many shapes and sizes by Elijah Muldwarp, and, as we have previously seen, the pots are set out in the sun to dry.
When dry the pots are carefully inspected for cracks, spider foot prints or other faults and coated with a mixture of powdered rocks, (which are collected and crushed from untidy places like rockeries, and the edges of garden paths), and then just as carefully, the pots are loaded into the kiln.
“The Kiln”, I said, but like most potteries, the Spinning Mole has more than one kiln.
For ease and clarity I have shown the small cross draught kiln. This one has the door bricked shut every time. Very time wasting, but, whatever was good enough for the moles grandfather is good enough for him. Actually he’s too busy, or too lazy to set to work and make a hinged steel door packed with fireproof bricks. A much bigger sort of kiln (as seen below) is built on the side of the nearby hill, it’s like a lot of separate kilns joined together, each one a little bit higher than it’s neighbour. So flames put in at the bottom travel through not one but seven separate chambers, which means that every chamber has a different heat, which means that the moles can make a lot of different glazes work in one kiln. This one is what is known as a “Noborigama”. In Japan and China there are Noborigamas that have been in use for over 500 years
The moles favourite kiln, though, is yet another design, it’s called an “Anagama”, which may give you the idea that it’s like the last one. Well it is, a bit, in that it’s built on the side of a bill, and has a long sloping roof above it to protect it from the rain, but an anagama has but one big chamber. In China, these are known as Dragon Kilns, and they were sacred. Anyone who damaged a dragon kiln could be thrown into prison for ever and a day.
This is where the Dragons work, Llewellyn is the leader of the group, and he does all the fire for the anagama on his own. It's hard work for a dragon, because you have to keep the flames going for 22 hours or more. Some of the Chinese and Japanese anagamas had teams of dragons working day and night puffing fire for up to seven weeks at a time, but mole size pots don’t need so long. The dragons start with a gentle flame but, as they go on, they take snacks of curry paste, jalapeno peppers, cough sweets, fuel oil, all sorts of hot things, even whisky. Of course most of these things would make a human very poorly, but for dragons they’re a different matter altogether, they even like the scrapings out of the bottoms of burnt pans. After puffing fire all day it’s quite common for a dragon to be a stone or more lighter, and very tired and weak- usually they just go home to their caves, drain culverts, castle dungeons, underneaths of beds, broom cupboards, etc, and sleep for three or four days at a time.
Dragons sleep very loudly, as you may have noticed.
Some towns have bylaws forbidding dragons from sleeping under people's beds. Which isn’t really such a mean idea as it sounds, because dragons under beds are a fire-risk, especially if there’s a lot of fluff that hasn’t been cleaned in a while. It has been known for whole houses to be burnt down because of dreaming dragons igniting carpet slippers and dustballs under the bed. The flames and smoke destroy the house, but the dragon snoozes right through it all, thinking what a nice warm snoozy place he’s got.
However, kiln dragons rarely do this, because after a firing their flame is so used up, they don’t have enough spark to light a candle, which state they are in for about a week.
After the dragons have fired the kiln, they sleep for three or four days, until the alarm clocks shrill and clatter, (usually at about 5 o’clock on a Thursday, just after the sun comes up). All the dragons stretch, polish their scales, gargle with fire water, and rush down to the pottery, where they mill around in excitement, as Llewellyn carefully takes the first bricks out of the door. As it’s still quite hot, the dragons all work together to start with, and unpacking a kiln is usually an exciting job, so you can imagine the scene. Seven dragons delving into a hot dark space and handing out their finds, bowls, bottles, cups, vases, teapots, casseroles, plates, all manner of new pots, all in bright colours and 100% clean and clear - cleaner than any washing up liquid, or even a washing up machine can make them. In the fire, that clay and covering of crushed rock has turned into something completely new, pottery that rings like a bell when you tap it with your finger.
Usually they do this bit early in the morning, before the moles get up, and the dragons chat happily as they go along.
Then at 8:15, after breakfast, the moles arrive and set to work to sort everything out, check for seconds, break any pots that aren’t up to standard, and pack other pots up to take to market.
By four in the afternoon all the pots are out of the kiln and some of the smaller moles go in and set up candles on the shelves while they check for glaze spots on the shelves, cracked bricks and so on, and generally clean any dust and grit out of the kiln interior.
They then start to fill it with pots for the next firing. whilst other members of the mole community take the pots off to market.
Pots are sold to all sorts of creatures, rabbits, voles and even stoats, weasels, foxes and badgers. Otters like long oval casseroles to do fish in. Bears, mostly the teddy variety these days, buy mostly honey jars.
Paddington bear owns a specially made marmalade jar, and a specially made square sandwich plate. Pigs buy decorated troughs and a very special part of the pottery's work is in decorative porcelain horn tips for Unicorns.
Unicorns are prone to poking and digging with their horns, and it does tend to make the ends rather tatty, but with porcelain all their troubles are over. Mostly they’re very vain, so its not unusual for one Unicorn to own over 50 different decorative horn tips.
This sort of Unicorn is nearly always late for appointments, due to the time spent in deciding which tip to wear.
Dragons, of course, require all their household crockery to be flame proof. This is a problem, but largely solved by the use of clay which, with mixed in talcum powder (Lily of the Valley smell), fires to produce cordierite, a material that can be taken off a red hot cooker and dropped into cold water without cracking.
So, now you know why cricket pitches, lawns, and tennis courts often have little heaps of carefully shovelled earth dotted about them, and if you ever hear scrabbling underneath the soil, and faint steam engine whistles, you’ll know what’s going on.
And this, for the moment, is the end of my story.