HOLY MOLEY! What a beguiling mix of philosophy, autobiography… and mole-catching

How To Catch A Mole

Marc Hamer

Harvill Secker £12.99


Publishing crazes come and go. Remember the misery memoir? Back in 1995, Dave Pelzer wrote A Child Called It, which chronicled horrific physical and verbal abuse at the hands of his mother. This pioneering misery memoir sold more than a million copies, which encouraged Pelzer to write roughly the same thing, over and over and over again.

Hundreds of other misery memoirs followed, with titles such as Tears Before Bedtime, Damaged, Wasted, Don’t Tell Mummy and Please, Daddy, No, each grimmer than the one before. Before long, W H Smith was to introduce a new category on its bookshelves called Tragic Life Stories.

Though we like to think of the gentle Mole from Wind In The Willows, his real-life counterpart is rather closer to Hannibal Lecter

Though we like to think of the gentle Mole from Wind In The Willows, his real-life counterpart is rather closer to Hannibal Lecter

Time moved on. Books about the natural world – birds, whales, clouds, ancient pathways and so forth – grew steadily more popular, and seemed to be overtaking the flagging genre of the misery memoir. Then, five years ago, Helen Macdonald published the hugely popular H Is For Hawk, which combined the two genres, interweaving the misery she felt at the death of her father with the emotional release she found in training a hawk.

Small wonder, then, that publishers have since been on the lookout for more books that somehow meld the popular ingredients of wildlife and self-pity.

At the beginning of last year, a sharp-eyed literary agent noticed a short manuscript that had been sent in, unprompted, by a professional molecatcher from South Wales. Recognising its worth, the agent sent it out to publishers, and it was soon snapped up by the grand firm of Harvill Secker for what has been described, appropriately enough, as ‘a whisker under a six-figure sum’. It has now been published in an attractive little volume under the title How To Catch A Mole, with the subtitle And Find Yourself In Nature.

When I first read the author’s biography on the back of the book, I felt a twinge of scepticism.

‘After spending a period homeless, then working on the railway, he returned to education and studied fine art… he has worked in art galleries, marketing, graphic design, as a magazine editor and taught creative writing in a prison before becoming a gardener.’

Oh, yes? Was this really a molecatcher, or just an author pretending to be a molecatcher? Turning detective, I googled ‘Molecatcher Llandaff’. Up popped ‘Mark the Molecatcher’ described as ‘Traditional Molecatcher in Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan’. He is, we are told, ‘experienced and qualified. He carries full public liability insurance and can provide references’.

There is even a picture of a white van with ‘Mark Hamer Gardening Services’ on its side. So he is the real thing, after all, though for some reason, he is Marc with a ‘c’ on the book’s cover: perhaps his publishers think it will appeal to the more airy-fairy Hampstead book-buyer.

How To Catch A Mole is a beguiling mixture: part autobiography, part handbook, part travel book, part philosophical treatise. I’m happy to report that it succeeds on each level.

Hamer clearly had a miserable start in life, but he recounts it sparely, and without self-pity. When he was aged 16, his mother died. ‘At the beginning of the following spring, my father told me that I was “surplus to requirements” and should leave. I had no sense of being wanted or being cared about, and so I agreed with him. I packed my rucksack and left early the next morning. I didn’t announce it. I didn’t leave a note… I left my key on the table and closed the door quietly so I wouldn’t wake anyone.’

He got a job working in a steel shop on Wigan pier, but soon became restless and decided to go walking, sleeping in hedges, in woodlands and on riverbanks. ‘I kept walking for about 18 months. I left no dust behind, no trails, tried to leave no memories in other people’s minds.’

Throughout the book, he returns over and over again to this time in his youth spent walking. ‘Everything fell away: all the small nonsenses of life that had seemed so large. My identity destroyed. My individuality killed as I became one with everything… After a week or two I became just a movement in the air.’

This surely must have had something to do with his father declaring that he was ‘surplus to requirements’, and wishing him gone. But at no point does he spell out the connection. Unlike many books of this sort, he favours reticence over psychodrama. Indeed, he strongly believes that human contentment lies in the loss of self, and that walking is the best way of making the ego disappear. ‘Not knowing, not thinking, is for me a most desirable state of awareness.’

And where, you may well be asking, does the molecatching fit in? Hamer has been a molecatcher for years, and at least half the book is given over to a no-nonsense, practical guide to the mole, and how to catch it.

I found everything he had to say about the mole’s lifestyle completely fascinating. It has hands as wide as its head, each with two thumbs, and is unbelievably strong. ‘A living mole can easily peel my closed fingers apart and escape.’

Its coat of dark, blue-black hair brushes just as easily backwards, forwards and sideways, so that it can travel backwards in any tunnel. It can dig 20 metres of tunnel a day, pushing the soil ahead of it, until it all gets jammed up, at which point the mole has to make a diversion and push it to the surface – hence molehills.


In parts of the country a molehill is called a ‘wontytump’, while ‘mole’ could come from ‘moldwarp’ – literally ‘earth thrower’.

The mole needs to eat more than half its bodyweight a day, and exists largely on a diet of worms. Though we like to think of the gentle Mole from Wind In The Willows, his real-life counterpart is rather closer to Hannibal Lecter, with an underground larder composed of live worms, with their heads bitten off. Nor is he remotely chummy: if he meets another mole in his tunnel, the two of them will fight to the death.

Courtship is perfunctory – in the breeding season of February, the male sniffs out the female, hotfoots it to her den, mates, and then nips off without a backward glance to find another mole to mate with. Three or four baby moles – kits – are born a month later. When they are five or six weeks old, the mother chases them out of her tunnel – like the young Hamer, they are surplus to requirements. They then wander blindly on the grass, looking for food, most of them destined to be eaten by birds.

It seems that molecatching is more a matter of instinct, of letting the mind roam, of thinking like a mole, so as to work out the direction in which it is travelling, and then laying the trap as quickly as possible, before the tunnel gets flooded with fresh air. Hamer is paid per mole he kills, but doesn’t say how much. Sometimes, I wanted a little more detail, not only about his livelihood, but about his childhood, too. I am able to fill him in on one detail, though. At one point, he says: ‘Apparently moles are not pleasant to eat, but of course I have never tried.’ Well, a friend of mine, Pascal Khoo Thwe, born to a jungle tribe in Burma and used to eating virtually everything that walks, crawls or flutters, says that moles taste absolutely disgusting.

Hamer has been a vegetarian for 40 years, and believes strongly that all lives are equal. ‘I am just another animal, another tree, another wild flower in the meadow among billions of others.’ In many ways, he makes the most unlikely molecatcher.

He even raises an eyebrow at those who fret when molehills appear on their lawns. ‘Apparently sane people lose sleep over the chaos moles create,’ he notes. In an ever-changing world, neat lawns become symbols of order and stability: ‘Ownership of things that appear permanent gives us a sense of permanence.’

Towards the end of this brief and beautiful book, he reveals that, in old age, he has finally come to the end of his molecatching days. His wife worries that something will happen on his wanderings, and no one will be able to find him. ‘The closer things are to being nothing, the more tender they become, and the more tender are the feelings they bring out: a newborn child, a hatchling, a dying old man.’


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