Magazine article The Spectator

The Loveable Creatures to Be Found on the London Tube (Not Humans)

Magazine article The Spectator

The Loveable Creatures to Be Found on the London Tube (Not Humans)

Article excerpt

London mice are smarter than Derbyshire mice. The observation will be unwelcome in the Peak District where I live, but time spent back home here has proved what I have long suspected.

Above the barn where my poultry live is a storage room in which my friend Andrew stores bits and pieces of the church organs it is his hobby to rebuild. These contraptions, a miscellany of wood, leather and electric circuitry, offer mice a treasure trove for their nests.

I like mice, energetic and ingenious little creatures. As a boy, pet mice were my passion. I hate killing them and would be happy to share my outbuilding with a few, but you cannot do deals with rodents: mice are either retreating or advancing. Punctured leather organ-bellows, some mischievously reorganised circuitry and a despairing Andrew persuaded me to act. Poison is a last resort, but 'humane' traps (which simply capture the mouse) have seldom worked for me; so Andrew bought some standard mousetraps and fetched some cheese. I gave him chocolate, which mice prefer.

Success was swift. Every time Andrew set a trap a mouse would walk into it. It was too easy: set trap, depart barn, snap, return, retrieve body. When the traps stopped yielding up their tiny corpses it was because there were no more mice. Mission accomplished, but the mousehunt had been no fun. There was no thrill to this chase, no sense of man pitting wits against mouse. My poor Derbyshire mice were just too trusting, their reactions too slow.

As London readers may know, in London this is not so. The Londoner returns to find his trap empty, deftly robbed of bait. I have written about this before, calling for the postgraduate research which would turn anecdote into theory - for I am convinced that two millennia of urban warfare with humans have bred the Cockney mouse, by a process plain to any Darwinian, into a superior breed: die Ubermaus. Streetwise, agile and super-circumspect, the Artful Dodger of the rodent clan survives where his gullible and slow-witted country cousin perishes. For a captured Derbyshire mouse we did once contemplate transportation to Wapping, delivering an Oliver into Fagin's gang - but it would have been too cruel: these mice are hard.

The acme of Cockney mousehood is the Tube mouse. These shy dwellers on the London Underground, whom I have for years studied during idle moments on the platform, are well on their way to emerging as a distinct subspecies. This is no horrorfantasy - no James Herbert's The Rats but a serious observation.

Common English wild mice are grey. The Tube mouse is almost black - a dark, sooty hue, like the species of moth on London plane trees which had evolved into a darker shade of grey before the Clean Air Act and is now evolving back. Short of shampooing a Tube mouse, I cannot be sure that their darkened coats are natural rather than just dirty, but I suspect it: underground at the Docklands Light Railway station at Bank (where the shocking infrequency of evening trains makes a big contribution to my mouse-studies) the Tube mouse stays sooty, though his DLR environment is clean new concrete.

The Tube mouse has a shorter tail than common house mice - about two thirds the length. Perhaps tails are chopped by trains but the more likely explanation is, again, Darwinian: in a world of moving wheels, live rails and switching points, his shortened tail increases life-chances. He is also untroubled by the deafening noises above him - whereas other mice are highly sensitive to sound. …

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