As lockdown continues, Ian Preece battles a roof-full of raving squirrels.
1940s eastern gray squirrel postcard, via eBay
The first Monday morning of the lockdown, March 23rd, we were woken up early by something scuffling about in the loft – it sounded like a trapped bird. After about 20 minutes it seemed to break free. A few days later, Saturday morning – the same thing again. In the interim the next-door neighbours had shared with us the good news that their broken sewer pipe had been fixed: the gaps in the pipe under their kitchen floor where the rats had previously been escaping were now sealed. Sunday morning, more 7 a.m. scrabbling about before, heart beating, I climb the ladder into the loft. There’s a faint scratching in the far corner. Whatever is trapped in there is between the loft floor and our bedroom ceiling.
Monday 30th March. There’s a small footnote in my book detailing how, on a warm summer morning with the kitchen windows open, a squirrel skanked along the top of our garden fence to a subaqueous speaker-shredding dub track off Lee Perry and the Upsetters’ Sound System Scratch: Dubplate Mixes, 1973–1979 (Pressure Sounds), before heading over to next door’s cherry tree to hang upside down and suck out the contents of their bird-feeder. One week on from the initial scuffling in the loft it seems my friend is back in time to celebrate publication. In fact, here he is, blazing along the top of the fence, head nodding to his own personal gabba soundtrack, then enacting a kind of action-movie mid-air leap onto next door’s pebbledashed wall, up over their satellite dish, along the guttering and straight into the flue pipe below their roof like a bullet train entering a tunnel. I say ‘him’… I’ve witnessed the ‘boxer position’ – up on hind legs, tail flicking back and ‘teeth chattering’ – identified by Irenäus Eibl‐Eibesfeldt of the German Max Planck Society as typical of the male of the species.
Saturday 4th April, 7 a.m. Thunk, thunk, thunk, scrabble, scrabble, scrabble, drill, drill, drill, then the sound of something heavy(ish) flipping over. More woodpecker-style drilling. By now I know the routine and can do it half asleep: climb the stepladder, open the wardrobe, start thrashing about with a velour-covered Matalan coathanger (so as not to further damage any paintwork). Thump the ceiling. Return to bed. Do this a couple of times and we might get another hour or so of sleep.
Sunday 5th April, 2pm. I’m on the computer in the loft. I’m used to hearing pigeons, magpies, blue tits – crows, even – skittering or flapping about on the roof just above my head. But there’s something heavier about the footsteps on the roof tiles. I yank open the sloping Velux window – normally birds would take flight at this. Instead, there’s silence. I lean over my desk, stick my head out. Nothing below. I screw my neck backwards and look up into the sun. I’m staring into the deep black pool of the squirrel’s eye. Just the one eye, because he’s looking at me side-on. He twitches, hops backwards and adjusts to face-on. Then back to the gimlet eye. He seems to be smiling.
Squirrel: ‘Whassup? You my new flatmate?’
Me: ‘Cmon, man. Just let us get some sleep. It’s difficult enough these days.’
I’m so close I could grab him. Then thoughts of Rod Hull and Emu and television aerials flood my mind. Even if I did get hold of him by the neck and run down to Wanstead Flats, the British Pest Control Association point out on their website that’s it’s a violation of the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act to release grey squirrels into nature. JG Pest Control (head office in Uxbridge), while talking about tennis-ball-sized holes being gnawed in fascia boards, and hundreds, even thousands of pounds worth of damage to loft insulation, also note it’s illegal to capture squirrels for release in the wild. ‘He is very frolicsome and loquacious,’ wrote John Burroughs in Squirrels and Other Fur-Bearers in 1875. ‘The appearance of anything unusual, if after contemplating it a moment he concludes it not dangerous, excites his unbounded mirth and ridicule, and he snickers and chatters, hardly able to contain himself; now darting up the trunk of a tree and squealing in derision, then hopping into position on a limb and dancing to the music of his own cackle. There is something very human in this apparent mirth and mockery of the squirrels. It seems to be a sort of ironical laughter, and implies self-conscious pride and exultation in the laughter. “What a ridiculous thing you are, to be sure!” he seems to say.’ JG Pest Control are trained in ‘dispatch’.
Monday 6th April: 7 a.m. Thunk, thunk, thunk, scrabble, scrabble, scrabble. Squirrel incisors never stop growing, apparently. I’m up the ladder hitting the metal rails and glass and wood panelling of the wardrobe to whip up a cacophonous echo. Such is my frenzy that I break the coathanger.
Tuesday 7th April: 9 a.m. Thunk, thunk, thunk. There’s something a bit Brexity about a few of the pest control websites. Few seem unable to resist pointing out that the grey squirrel is an alien invader to these isles. Sciurus carolinensis was introduced by the Victorians from America in the 1870s. However, as the BPCA point out, largely ‘as ornamental additions to high-class estates and country homes’. Look at a map of the squirrel population of the UK in 1945 and it’s practically all red. By 2010 a grey tide has swept north, engulfing the country right up to Cumbria. The red wall has completely crumbled – largely the result of a frivolous ornamental novelty introduced to stately homes, no doubt championed by the nascent Daily Mail.
Wednesday 8th April. The Germans seem to know what they’re doing. We redeploy the battery powered Mäuse-und Ratenfrei Mobil in the corner of the loft. Random ‘interval switching’ of electromagnetic sonic pulses, indiscernible to the human ear, means the piercing frequencies never settle into a consistent enough groove for ‘bad-tempered pests’ to become used to them. It’s a bit like continually stopping and starting a loop of Alan Silva & the Celestial Communication Orchestra’s The Seasons, or Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, all day and all night. But this sonic warfare can take a couple of weeks or more to kick in. And these squirrels probably dig Alan Silva.
Saturday 11th April: 5.30 a.m. More thrashing, drilling, knocking, burrowing. What the fuck is going on up there? It’s like a squirrel Berghain – an extended Jeff Mills or Richie Hawtin set, for squirrels. Putting the broken coathanger aside, I lean into the wardrobe and listen carefully beneath the ceiling. There’s definitely more than one of them partying. John L. Koprowski, leading expert on squirrel ecology and conservation at the University of Kansas, has observed ‘bachelor groups’ of squirrels involved in ‘nest-sharing incidents’. Squirrels like to chill in each other’s dreys, it seems. Some studies have found up to 20 squirrels chilling in a drey at one time. Sometimes they construct fake dreys in trees to throw the authorities off the scent. This would explain the day-tripping and run of two or three quiet mornings. Our loft seems to be a weekend retreat/hangout. Social distancing? Travelling to second dreys during the lockdown? – ‘Fuck that,’ say the squirrels (but then again, there’s conflicting scientific research into Covid-19 squirrel-to-squirrel transmission rates).
Sunday 12th April: 3 a.m. Squirrely squirrel. He’s got tricks up his sleeve/Most bad guys won’t believe/a bulletproof coat/a cannon hat…Secret Squirrel…shhshhhhh. Squirrel Bait’s ‘Sun God’ from the Louisville, Kentucky post-punk/math-rockers’ Squirrel Bait EP features both Britt Walford on drums and Brian McMahon on guitar, both of whom went on to be not only in Slint but also the slow burning, moody bass and languid drum outfit The For Carnation (Kim Deal and Noel Kupersmith guest on their eponymous second LP). David Grubbs, later of Gastr del Sol, was in Squirrel Bait too. Squirrel Nutkin narrowly escaped being skinned alive. More freaky lockdown dreams: I’m hunched over, bent double in a hospital ward, soiled bedsheets and beds everywhere, painfully trying to regurgitate…my watch strap.
Monday 13th April: 7 a.m. There seems confusion and conflicting advice on various internet squirrel control websites as to whether squirrels do or do not like strobe lighting and loud radios. Strobe lighting seems a little difficult to organise. Faced with the choice of hearing Michael Gove defending the government’s response to coronavirus on the Today programme coming from a transistor placed inside the wardrobe, or the destruction of a loft cavity, I know which I can live with.
Thursday 16th April, 2 p.m. Joggers – get out my fucking way. I need to fashion myself one of those jumbo office watercooler bottles to wear over my head for an essential trip to Boots to pick up my prescription (glaucoma) and a fresh batch of ‘Muffles Wax Earplugs’. Following years of practice I can now mould these wax globules almost perfectly to induce a sub-aquatic state of hearing. This new set seems pleasingly pliable but dense. Forget lightweight sponge plugs – next to useless.
Saturday 18th April. Uh-oh, Margaret Atwood’s got squirrels in her loft in Toronto. Not only that, she’s written a piece on ‘lockdown culture’ in the Guardian that includes a joke about falling off a ladder while beating a metal bowl directly beneath where the squirrels are ‘gnawing’.
Monday 20th April, 5.30 a.m. End of weekend rave feels a little muted. Scuffling, a bit of scraping and drilling, but it’s half-hearted. I think I might be able to hear squeaking, too. I need a haircut. I needed a haircut before lockdown. Rocking the Frankie Carbone look from Goodfellas (with centrifugal bald patch) can only last so long.
Monday 20th April, 2 p.m. An unbelievable increase in squirrel traffic backwards and forwards across the roof all morning. Including, at one point, a squirrel repeatedly circling the loft window, looking for a quick route in. It’s a warm sunny day, but I have to seal the window shut. This really is ‘lockdown’.
Monday 20th April, 4 p.m. I’m sitting in a deckchair in the sun reading Harvey Swados’ Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn. Periodically a young squirrel rockets along the fence, leaps into the conifers behind the shed then shoots back along the fence, leaps across onto next door’s wall and up the pebbledash. I notice they’re now racing over the top of the roof. For the umpteenth time I sprint from the back garden, through the house and out the front door to try to catch where they’re heading once they disappear over the ridge by the chimneys. I think I’m going to have to set up surveillance in the street instead. It’s necessary to build a picture, to scope-out the environment, to track and trace – think about it for 3 seconds, and you realise this is just common sense if you want to get to the root of the problem. I’ve been standing directly in front of our house, staring up at the roof, on and off for four weeks now. I walk into a front garden about two doors up and stand at a very tight angle, 5 or 10 degrees, to our roof. Head-on, from the street, all you can see is guttering. From this angle, there’s a large gap in the fascia. A bit of the board has been kicked out.
Monday 20th April, 5 p.m. Our next-door neighbour bangs on our front door before running back out into the street. The neighbours the other side come out too. Everyone is standing in the road (while maintaining social distance) and pointing at our roof. Three small squirrel heads are nodding and jerking just above the gutter. After a bit of laughing and partying the squirrels head back inside. We live in a normal residential street, but this feels a bit like a squirrel re-enactment of Flowered Up taking over Terry Ramsden’s mansion in south London for a week-long rave in 1992 – just before the police arrive.
Monday 20th April, 10 p.m. There isn’t a squirrel protection website covering east London that we haven’t checked out. We’ve narrowed it down to a couple of more friendly-sounding places in Bow and Chingford, who seem to prioritise flushing out and boarding up rather than ‘dispatch’. We’ll put the call in in the morning.
Monday 20th April, midnight. On the other hand, Tim Parks, at the end of the exemplary Italian Ways – his journey round the fraught Italian rail system; full of difficult encounters with capotrenos; the Italian psyche as refracted through Trenitalia (i.e. British Rail) – comes to conclude that to take a train is to ‘open yourself to humanity as it is’ – not necessarily how you wish it to be. It’s about living with inconvenience, accommodating life, making the best of a bad deal, tolerating.
Tuesday 21st April, 9 a.m. An unbroken night’s sleep. Silence. No sign of activity in the drey. It feels like they’ve done a runner.
Ian’s book Listening to the Wind: Encounters with 21st Century Independent Record Labels is out now, published by Omnibus, and is available here, priced £22.99. You can read an extract on Clay Pipe Music here.