The quest to find the black squirrels of Cambridge

As soon as I heard that there were black squirrels in Cambridge, I knew that this was something I had to see. The only time I’d ever witnessed one before was in Belgium, of all places, and at the time I thought I was going mad. In fact, I’d spent hours convinced it was some sort of small, squat pine marten until I found out that black squirrels were a thing that actually exists. Then I started questioning all squirrels I saw, which I’d never really paid attention to before. Had grey squirrels, for example, suddenly started having white tummies, or had I only just started noticing them? Needless to say, I was eager to go through this harrowing and existential experience once again.

My informant told me that black squirrels can be spotted at two Cambridge colleges: Churchill and Girton. But how did they get there? Well, as a “melanistic” mutation of the Eastern Grey Squirrel, it made sense to assume that they can be found anywhere that grey squirrels exist.

Grey squirrels, as we all know, were brought over from the Americas as a fancy pet and proceeded to drive out our smaller, cuter reds. Given their reputation as invasive “tree rats” nowadays, it’s hard to believe quite what a highly-prized status symbol they were at first. One of the things that’s always driven it home for me is a fancy oil painting in Wolverhampton art gallery, displaying a family of Georgian nobility decked out in their finest attire. And right at the centre, there’s a grey squirrel on a silver chain:

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The Family of Sir Eldred Lancelot Lee, by Joseph Highmore, 1736 – can you spot the grey squirrel?

Little did we know that Cambridge’s squirrels would turn out to have a rather more intriguing past…

And so, on a sunny Saturday, me and my trusty Executive Squirrel Assistant set out to the first of the squirrel-heavy locations.

1. Churchill College

Named after the stalwart prime minister who shepherded the UK through the blitz, you would think the college would look a little less dystopian and futuristic…

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But it still had its fair share of nature and rustic features, so we kept a beady eye out for any shadows moving among the trees…

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We did hear a few skittering sounds and spotted a couple of grey tails whipping through the branches, but as we made our way past the oddly picturesque compost bins and out to the final line of trees at the end of the college, we still hadn’t seen any of the promised sable beauties. I was fine with this – I didn’t actually expect to spot any, and was just happy to have an excuse for a quest. But then we stumbled through the trees, we found ourselves somewhere entirely different…

2. The Astronomy Department

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Tall, ivy-clad domes loomed over us and we realised we had wandered in among the uncanny observatories of the Astronomy department. And here, there were far more grey squirrels, who were unnervingly tame. We even managed to photograph one…

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And where there are higher numbers of grey squirrels, there must surely be more chance of spotting a black one. Spurred on, we made our way through the towering pines and redwoods, but it wasn’t until we were finally attempting to stop trespassing and exit the site that I saw it – not one, but TWO beautiful black squirrels, streaking up the tree in front of us.

I was absolutely delighted! Especially since I’m NEVER the first to spot things – that’s why I’m not into birdwatching, despite writing for a bird charity. But this time, I’d done it! Sadly, they were too fast to photograph. My Executive Squirrel Assistant left a handful of presciently-purchased cashews on the edge of the table and we waited for a while, but they didn’t return.

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And so we set off towards our next destination, passing through one of the strangest places in Cambridge:

3. A brief detour to Eddington

This is one of the most sinister places I’ve ever been. It’s a brand new village on the outskirts of Cambridge, built specifically as overspill housing for academics. Much of it is still being built, creating a bizarre vista when you look out across cranes and skeleton apartments to the countryside beyond. Much of what has been built is still empty, and even for those poor souls who have already moved in, there must be something very odd about living in a village designed from scratch all in one go, rather than springing up organically over centuries. A strange shrimp kite – or was it a squid? Fluttered from a tree as we approached the village, and I attempted to appear three times in a panoramic vista.

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But soon enough, we shrugged off its sinister atmosphere and set off to our second destination:

4. Girton College

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This is like an adorable version of the Blair Witch Project

-Executive Squirrel Assistant

I really really love this college. It’s so harsh and Victorian! It’s just how I imagine the desolate boarding school in the middle of a moor that Eustace and Jill escaped from at the start of the Silver Chair. It’s also the closest anything has ever come to the building I dreamed about in my song “School for Lost Souls”.  And there are so many ravens! It’s just great.

After a brief detour to their orchards for some scrumping and a packed lunch of peanut butter and crisp sandwiches, we set off through its grounds, seeing nothing at first. But then, suddenly, while my Executive Squirrel Assistant was taking a photo of something completely different…

I mean, you still can’t see any of the squirrels – but at least you can see our reaction to them. And with the lens flare and the shaky camera, you certainly can’t say it isn’t atmospheric!

Oh, all right, fine. We did manage to get a sneaky photo of ONE:

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Can you see it?

And after that, we started seeing absolutely loads of them! About 20 or 30 at least, frolicking alongside their grey fellows. And that’s when we started noticing strange things about them. For example, they seemed bigger than their grey counterparts. Surely this couldn’t be possible if it was just a colour mutation? Maybe the fact that they were black just made them stand out more and their outline look bigger? Not only that, but they were different shades – some were solid black (reminding me of the Black Rabbit from Watership Down – maybe they were there to ferry the souls of the grey squirrels to the afterlife?) – but others seemed more of a brown-black – and I could have sworn one had a tan tummy. This required further exploration…

The true origin of Cambridge’s black squirrels

My research took me to places I never could have imagined. Firstly, I found that black squirrels aren’t just a rare mutation of grey ones – in fact, in some places they used to be the main colour morph. In the deep, dark forests of the Eastern United States, for example, their black fur used to give them an advantage over greys – but now, deforestation is overturning this trend. And not only does the mutation make them have a higher concentration of melanin pigment in their fur – it also makes them bigger, better at defending their territory and more attractive to females. No wonder it had spread so fast at Girton!

In fact, I found that at Girton, three quarters of the squirrels there are black! No wonder they were so easy to spot. I felt a little less proud of my observation skills, but no less intrigued. And then I found out something else – scientists had analysed the genes of Cambridge’s black squirrels, and found that they were actually more similar to modern squirrels living in America than they were to the ones in this country. So they aren’t actually mutant local squirrels. Instead, the story goes that, thanks to novelty of their monochrome fur, some black squirrels were captured from America and displayed a fancy menagerie at a posh manor house, from which they escaped.

And so history repeats itself once again…

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In Search of Evil

I spend quite a lot of time thinking about the concept of evil. I’m not really sure why. Of course, everybody loves a good villain. But it’s deeper than that – how do we define evil? By actions or intentions? Is evil circumstantial, or objective and immutable?

I seem to be one of the few people who still suspects that some people are simply born evil. I don’t know why, I just get the feeling that there are people who, regardless of circumstances or the era they’re born into, will default to evil acts. Obviously, there are also thousands of people out there who are forced into evil acts by their circumstances (as the recent and controversial Derren Brown episode, where ordinary, law-abiding citizens were manipulated to the point where they would push a man to his death, will attest – although its authenticity remains suspect in my cynical eye). But there are also people who seem to perform evil acts out of some deeper urge. So how true is my assumption?

Sweeney Todd

Historically, the idea that people are evil simply because they’re born evil was by no means unusual – in fact, up until the early 20th century, it was the default. It’s only recently that the idea of the sympathetic villain has come to the fore – in the past, this would have been seen as scandalously morally ambiguous. Contrast the original “penny dreadful” serialization of Sweeney Todd, “A String of Pearls”, with the modern-day Tim Burton film adaptation. The Sweeney Todd of 1846’s motivations were seemingly limited to greed and the sheer joy of being evil. In a predominantly Christian society, there was an obvious moralising purpose to this: he was simply a force of the devil, over which the force of good must (and invariably did) prevail.

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But, without the knowledge of genetics and psychology that we take for granted today, there really was an idea that people were born to an evil “type”, and this was often associated with physical appearance. In the 1840s crazes such as phrenology were all the rage, and the shape of the head was meant to reflect traits as far-ranging as secretiveness, parental love and the perception of colour. Sweeney Todd himself was described as “a long, low-jointed, ill-put-together sort of fellow, with an immense mouth, and such huge hands and feet, that he was, in his way, quite a natural curiosity.” Such unrefined features were commonly associated with evil (which had ugly connotations regarding race, social class, and a whole host of other pre-Victorian prejudices).

(As an aside, Dracula caused controversy by being one of the first attractive villains – although the deeply homophobic author, Bram Stoker [who, incidentally, stole Oscar Wilde’s first girlfriend, Florence Balcombe], appeared to have scored a bit of an own goal there. The sensuous, beguiling depiction of Dracula that has set the hearts of readers fluttering ever since was originally intended as a portrayal of unattractive, immoral un-manliness.)

The modern film adaptation of Sweeney Todd concocts a sympathetic back-story for our antagonist, involving an evil, wife-stealing Alan Rickman and 15 years of forced labour in an Australian penal colony (which would certainly explain Jonny Depp’s preposterous accent). With psychologists like Freud introducing the idea that past experiences build who we are today, modern audiences see a sympathetic villain as more believable. And, I suspect, we like to feel the thrill of moral ambiguity that comes with sympathising with man capable of slicing the jugulars of unsuspecting customers with a shaving razor and then baking them into pies. Such a questioning of morals would be unheard of in the Victorian era.

In fact, I’ve always thought that the Victorian view of evil was less moral – if someone’s evil out of the sheer joy of being evil, it implies that there’s joy to being evil, and maybe even that that’s what we’d all become if we yielded to our temptations or “let the devil in”. It gives evil an attractive allure, something that Robert Lewis Stevenson captured all too well in Jekyll and Hyde. A tortured, unhappy antagonist gives a far superior moral message. But that’s not the pure, unadulterated evil that I’m talking about.

The closest real-life example of pure evil in today’s society is, of course, the psychopath, whose absence of fear and empathy is caused by an underactive amygdala (the region of the brain responsible for memory, decision-making and emotional reactions). Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test suggests that this ruthlessness is what enables business and political leaders to rise to the top. In fact, the book estimates that people in positions of power are four times more likely to be psychopaths than the average population – in other words, those responsible for shaping society and building the world we live in are not the same kind of people as us – society is disproportionately geared towards psychopaths. (No wonder I feel so discombobulated all the time.)

“Aha!” I thought, flicking through its pages, “I was right! Some people really are just born evil!” But what the book doesn’t mention is that even a condition as extreme as psychopathy can be brought about – or at least exacerbated – by early childhood experiences. One of my friends knows a social worker who is under strict instructions to keep an eye out for any babies or young children not receiving enough physical affection – because apparently, a lack of hugging can turn you into a psychopath! I always knew hugging was good for the soul.

So why do I still believe in the idea of pure evil? Maybe because I find it so impossible to empathise with unrepentant evildoers, or even to see them as real people like me. As first, I was worried this failure of empathy meant that I myself was a psychopath – but Jon Ronson’s book was quick to reassure me that if I was worried I was a psychopath, that meant I almost definitely wasn’t one – because if I was one, I wouldn’t care. And that’s what makes them so scary: it’s like there’s no way you can reach them. If you try to tell them they’re doing wrong, they don’t believe you, and even if they do believe you, they don’t care. As Neil Gaiman said in his latest anthology, Trigger Warning, “the people who scare me are the ones who are certain of their own rightness”.

Making Stupid Art

My mom, who is an accomplished jewellery maker, gave me the idea for this post when she attempted to get back to her work after two weeks on holiday. “Before I went away,” she bemoaned, “I was coming up with some really good ideas, but now I’m making nothing but stupid art!” She’s back on form now, as is clearly evidenced on her Etsy shop, but it did get me thinking.

Around the same time, I was clearing out some old things when I found a home-recorded DVD with the ominous title “A Matter of Mike and Death” scrawled across it in my own spidery hand. Intrigued, I decided to watch it, and broke into delighted laughter when I recognised a short film I’d made with some uni friends more than half a decade ago, and completely forgotten until now. It’s probably one of my last examples of wilfully creating Stupid Art.

A Matter of Mike and Death is an American high school movie version of Macbeth, where a popular girl attempts to help the new guy, Mike, rise through the ranks by causing those of higher status to commit “social suicide”. It’s a funny idea, along the lines of 10 Things I Hate About You (the American high school movie version of The Taming of the Shrew), but the short film itself is frankly ridiculous. It takes the form of a spoof trailer for the overall film idea, and was made to be entered into a local short film competition as a joke. (Looking back, I can’s see the logic behind entering something into a competition as a joke – they’re just going to watch the first few seconds of it, think it isn’t very good, and discard it, and then you don’t win the competition. How hilarious.)

Still, it seemed a good idea at the time, and gave rise to some utterly ridiculous footage. To protect the innocent, I’m not going to upload the film, but the following stills will give you a good idea of the acting and production quality (and, for anyone involved, do let me know if you want me to send you a copy!)

Looking back on it now, what surprises me most was the sheer number of people who agreed to be involved in such a ludicrous scheme. It’s not like we had unlimited time on our hands – we were all doing degrees, after all – and it’s not like we had any pretensions that the judges would unexpectedly label us secret geniuses – so why did we do it? Just for the hell of it, it seems!

But even A Matter of Mike and Death had a sort of excuse for making it, albeit a flimsy one. I’d have to go back a long time to find something that was made for absolutely no purpose at all. Even my infamous Nuisance Letters were written with half an eye on performing them at open mics, or getting them printed in magazines.

In fact, the last truly Stupid Art I can remember making with my friends was a series of spoof mash-ups of blockbuster films at the time – “Darth of the Rings”, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of the AzCarribean” – which were recorded on a proper hand-held video camcorder, so that must have been a long time ago! We’d laugh our heads off writing the scripts and using deliberately ridiculous “special effects” like “flying” objects suspended on fishing wire, or filming with the camera on its side to imitate climbing up a vertical cliff. We didn’t want it to go any further than that – in fact, the idea of anyone else seeing me dressed as Harry Potter in a wet suit and flippers horrified me – the joy in making it was enough.

But, with time, the pressure to be doing something useful – something productive – takes hold, especially in art, which is typically taken less seriously. And soon, all the plays I wrote were written to be performed, all the songs I wrote were written to be released on albums, all my craft projects were made to be sold. Which isn’t an intrinsically bad thing – you can’t make a living without turning your skills to useful ends – and many people would say that it’s the Stupid Art that builds up experience and gradually evolves into the more “serious” and formal art I create now. In fact, perhaps Stupid Art is the transition between the make-believe games of childhood and the formally structured contexts of professional art.

In 2013 took part in a scientific survey on imaginary friends, run by doctors Karen Majors and Ed Baines of the Department of Psychology and Human Development, University of London. I can’t find the original study online, but this article is what inspired me to take part. The research group were setting out to prove that, contrary to previous assumptions, children with imaginary friends were not the stereotypically introverted outsiders but, instead, naturally sociable children who, because of their gregariousness, felt the need to create imaginary playmates when real ones weren’t available. This tied in with my own childhood experience – I loved playing with my friends, but as an only child, I also spent a lot of time alone.

The results, when they came out, were very interesting. As well as 66% of imaginary friends acting as a playmate when real ones were absent, 20% of imaginary friends served the purpose of wish fulfilment (I really, really wanted a horse, as my invisible Shetland pony Bree would attest), and most interestingly, 7% of imaginary friends acted as an accessory to creative expression. As some of the anonymous participants stated:

‘I often included my imaginary friends as characters in stories, poems, comic strips, pictures and other creative pursuits.’

‘Looking back now it feels like a prelude to the fantasy role-playing and creative writing I moved onto.’

As a child who needed a outlet for my very active imagination, these statements chimed strongly with my own experiences, and even to this day the characters from my novels often feel like real (albeit imaginary – it’s complicated) people.

So play, and Stupid Art, are for many people natural predecessors to more “real” art forms. But it’s a shame that one has to give way so conclusively to the other. What happens to the urge to create Stupid Art when we enter adulthood? What makes it disappear? Is it time constraints, the pressure to be “normal”, or simply growing up? And are some genres more welcoming to making Stupid Art than others? In comedy, for example, is there an easier transition between playing around and creating workable content? What do the comedians out there think?

For me, the real reason I’ve stopped creating Stupid Art is the idea that everything I create needs to be for a purpose. As someone who hasn’t had the most successful of career paths so far, I spend a lot of my time worrying about the need to be useful, and to spend my time in a productive way. Whenever I have an idea, I spend a lot of time worrying about the most worthwhile form in which to execute it, so that the time I spend creating it isn’t wasted. Once I’ve created something, I tend to measure its worth by how far it goes when released into the world – how many people listen to it, buy it, read it or come to see it. But any artist will tell you that art still has value, even if it’s seen by nobody at all. In fact, creating things for the sheer joy of it can make you a better and more accomplished artist in the long run.

So if we get any time at all over the Christmas break, let’s all make a pact to create something useless, worthless, daft and pointless, and to enjoy ourselves immensely while we do it. Let’s make Stupid Art.