Clive Bond walked in with pupils as big as saucers.
“Has he been on the tea again?” Phil asked.
The cat stared at him. Or rather through him. What passes for Clive’s mind was somewhere else. He was gone, baby, solid gone.
Everywhere he goes, the small black puma who haunts the house gives the distinct impression of being energised so that every atom of his little quivering body is exciting all the others. He is a phenomenon of natural electricity, a storybook character from the same pages as Frankenstein, a conduit of electromagnetism.
It’s not the tea. I am meticulous about making sure Clive’s beverages are water or milk based, and we are getting very good at removing the mugs of tea before he can sample them. No. It is Spring: despite the torrential rain we in Britain are walking about, sniffing tentatively, taking long drafts of air and telling each other we can smell Spring. It’s in the air. It’s on its way.
The light may have something to do with it. I sit here writing at 7:07am, and daylight has fully arrived. It will stay until six tonight, and even on a workday the dog can have a decent evening run in the forest without bumping into any stray trees.
And we are all a little like Clive. The mild-mannered people of this set of islands, the same people who are renowned for queuing meticulously and taking afternoon tea, these same have a dangerous light in their eyes; and it is possible the light has been borrowed from the stealthily returning sun as the globe tilts imperceptibly, by tiny degrees, in our favour.
It is, I feel sure, where the Mad March Hare came from. The hares, Durham University researchers found, do not begin boxing in March; it has been happening under cover of darkness before we even looked out of the window. Contrary to popular folklore, the male hares are not boxing; rather, the females are rebutting the unwanted advances of the males in a way which leaves no room for doubt.
The concept of a mad March hare is an ancient one.
One of its earliest mentions comes from someone who, one might argue, has a lot to atone for: for he was Henry VIII’s tutor.
John Skelton was his name, and besides his teaching post to the young Prince Henry, he was a clergyman, and poet laureate to Oxford, Cambridge and Louvain. His poetry – and reputedly his life – was constantly laced with barbed wit.
His work is sprinkled with references to our March hare: in his Replycacion, 1528: “Aiii, I saye, thou madde Marche Hare”; and in Magnyfycence, 1529: “As mery as a marche hare”.
There is something of the March hare madness about the man. Like us right now, he had one foot in the dark, born in 1460, in the aftermath of the middle English world of Chaucer ; and one in the light, the glare of the printed word, and the foreword to the reign of Bluff King Hal. Printer William Caxton knew and recommended him, and he was the first poet widely circulated using the printed word.
Though a clergyman,there is much unpriestliness about this man. Tittle-tattle of the time betrays shady stories of kept concubines, illegitimate children and jesting of rare wit and considerable eccentricity. His works, always blunt and outspoken with a meter which cudgels, sometimes preach, sometimes leer. Typically outspoken is the couplet Skelton circulated when Wolsey removed the right of bishops to meet at St Paul’s Cathedral:
Gentle Paul, laie doune thy sweard
For Peter of Westminster hath shaven thy beard.
A strange, clever and complicated character, a mad March hare, Skelton was buried at the high altar at St Margaret’s, Westminster. But the scandalous tales continued to populate local folklore for years after his death.
Like Skelton, we stand at a crossroads between what is masked by darkness and what is revealed by light, with a mad light in our eyes.
And the light encroaches a little more every day.