It’s just after sunrise on a late spring morning and Alan Mathie is on his hands and knees, looking for that exact spot somewhere deep in this English country garden where there’s a mole.
The dew still clings to the grass, spiders’ webs still thread over the bushes, and somewhere here in the hedgerow in this rural corner of Warwickshire, it’s Mathie versus the mole.
And the mole nearly always loses.
Not that the Talpa europeastood much of a chance anyway. The odds are always stacked against it when there’s a member of the Guild of British Molecatchers literally on its tale.
I was 15 when I went to the Apollo in Glasgow to see the Ian Gillan band after Deep Purple broke up. Deep Purple are my favourite band ever."
The Guild of British Molecatchers? You’ve got to be kiddin’, Alan?
“No, if you’re not a member of the Guild of British Molecatchers, you can’t call yourself a mole catcher,” Mathie tells Weekend Review in his broad Scots lowland accent.
Moles don’t generally live in the UAE, or anywhere else where’s its dry. No, these little underground critters love the wet, where soil is dark and wet, and full of earthworms, their main food source. Fact is, moles are very common across Britain and the northern Europe.
“The guild estimates that there are 450 million of them living in Britain at any one time,” the 53-year-old explains. “If you consider that are about 3,000 mole catchers across the United Kingdom and we each take about a thousand of them every year, that’s only about 3 million. We’re not even making a dent in their population.”
Right, so it’s not as if they’re hard to catch, like, there’s so many of them.
“Actually, they’re very intelligent mammals,” he says. “They spend most of their lives tunnelling underground in search of earthworms and other grubs and they are very prolific when it comes to the amount of ground they cover.”
For most people, they only become aware they have a mole problem when they suddenly see little hills of mud and dirt appearing on their manicured lawns and grounds.
Historically speaking there is evidence of molecatching going back to Roman times in Britain, with clay-pottery mole traps recovered by archaeologists that used water to trap the critters.
“I visited one property here in Warwickshire last summer and I was met be the head groundskeeper,” Mathie says. “I asked where the problem was and he told me it was over on the croquet lawn, beside the helicopter pad.”
So, moles are more of a problem of aesthetics?
The English countryside here retains the same natural habitat and landscape that would not have been unfamiliar to William Shakespeare in the 16th century. The playwright’s father was a glovemaker in nearby Stratford Upon Avon, and moleskins were commonly cured and used to make gloves. Moles too are now unlike shrews — hence Shakespeare’s Taking of the Shrew, perhaps?
“The fur itself is remarkably soft and shiny, not at all what you would expect from an animal that spends its entire life burrowing through soil and mud,” he says.
Moles have large front paws that allow them to move vast quantities of soil in a motion not dissimilar to the way a swimmer uses the breaststroke to move through soil. They’ve got poor eyesight because they’re underground most of the time, but they make up for that with highly developed senses of smell and hearing, and they can hear when earthworms break through the tunnels that they’ve dug in the soil. And they are incredibly good swimmers too, able to cross canals and rivers.
“Mole hills are actually when they are clearing out their burrows,” Mathie says. “Most people seem to think that the mole hill is where they enter the tunnels, but that’s not the case.”
That’s where the secrets of the mole catcher come in, using detective skills to figure out where to place the trap.
Right, these moles are so smart that Mathie relies on some of the tricks of trade of his previous career. No, Mathie wasn’t a miner. Too obvious, right?
“No, not a miner,” he teases. “A Scene of Crime Officer!”
A SOCO? You mean a forensics expert, one of those guys in white suits that goes around on their hands and knees looking for clues?
Yes, one and the same.
“It was actually very interesting work and, believe it or not, a lot of the same skills that I used as a SOCO I now put to use catching moles,” he says.
Really? Mathie out in a field with a magnifying glass collecting mole DNA samples and lifting mole prints?
He laughs. Not at that level, but certainly trying to figure out escape routes, where the mole perpetrator might be hiding, powers of deduction and all of that. But he really did track down murderers and criminals, just like on CSI and CSI Miami and all of those shows on television?
“Absolutely,” he says, “Just like that.”
Except not like that really.
“Every Scene of Crime Officer will cringe when we watch shows like CSI or CSI Miami,” he says. “I’m looking at it and you see detectives enter a house or a murder scene with no gloves, no protection, cross-contaminating the crime scene. That’s an absolute no-no.”
And crimes don’t get solved in 40 minutes either. And nothing was more frustrating that listening to people who gathered at crime scenes offering their advice and banal comments like they saw how it was done on television, on CSI.
It’s not like that. Not at all.
Mathie trained at the state-of-the-art National Forensic Crime Centre in Newcastle in northern England and spent a lot of his time initially on low level crime scenes, things like burglaries where he looked for DNA and lifted fingerprints.
“It’s all very detailed and careful work, but also work that’s immensely satisfying,” Mathie says. There’s a professional camaraderie among all members of the police services, not just the front-line officers, but detectives, investigating staff, analysts, backup staff, people at all levels of policing that take great pride in what they do, value public service, are willing to put their lives on the line in the service of others, and who want to make a difference in their communities and put bad guys behind bars.
“Some of the cases pretty much solve themselves,” he says. “I had one case where a young woman was going out for a night on the town. She was very heavily made up, her face was plastered in cosmetics. She took a car that she wasn’t insured to drive in. The car crashed, and she denied being involved or driving the car.”
So, bring in Inspector Morse or Sherlock Homes? Whodunit?
“When the air bag went off it hit her in the face,” he laughs. “It was like the Shroud of Turin. It had her image plastered in makeup on it.”
But there’s also a gruesome side to crime scene analysis, one that requires a black humour among staff to maintain their sanity in the face of some horrific scenes.
“I had one case when a student got drunk and used a path through the countryside to get home,” Mathie says. “He fell and was unconscious on a road. A car came along and drove over him.” Sparing the gory details, the car was found, and Mathie spent hours with a tweezers recovering tissue samples from the wheel well for hours.
“That can be depressing,” he says. “And that’s where the dark humour comes in.”
Really. You’d need a good way to blow off steam, then, like playing five-string bass guitar in a heavy rock band?
“Absolutely,” Mathie says. Mole catcher by day, rock guitarists by night.
“Rock ‘n’ mole, baby! Rock ‘n’ mole!”
So, let’s backtrack a little, to the early 1980s. Here’s young Mathie growing up in Motherwell in Scotland, where the Ravenscraig steel works employed 32,000 at its height and everyone who’s anyone is working there or is in a job associated with the plant. Along comes Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wanting to break the power of unions and make Britain more efficient and productive. And the plant closes.
“Aye,” he says. “She really did a number north of the border. I mean Scotland today is still only recovering from the damage that was inflicted upon its traditional industries. Entire communities and towns were gutted by her.”
Mines closed. Shipyards. Steel plants. Heavy industry. All shuttered in a drive to make the UK more productive and more modern — and to end the power trade unions.
“It really was a depressing time,” Mathie recalls. As a teenager, heavy rock music was one way to get lost in the anger and social angst of a communities and towns under siege. Well, it was either heavy rock or punk. The new age romanticism of Adam and the Antz or Culture Club didn’t quite capture the pain of 32,000 people and more losing their livelihoods when the steel plants, shipyards and mines were closing.
“I was 15 when I went to the Apollo in Glasgow to see the Ian Gillan band after Deep Purple broke up. Deep Purple are my favourite band ever.” They were also iconic heavy rock bank who, along with Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath were considered to be the holy trinity of heavy rock bands, forging a thumping, high-voltage screaming place in British music folklore that endures to this day.
“John McCoy was playing four-string Fender Precision bass that night and he literally changed my life forever. I was mesmerised by his playing, by his sound, by the way he dictated everything. People dance to the bass, and with the five-string bass — much more so than the regular four-string — you get depth and range that’s far superior.”
That’s when Mathie decided he was going to be a bass player.
Another trip to Glasgow, emptying out the savings account, and a four-string bass guitar was ready for plucking. Only thing was, there wasn’t enough money for an amplifier. Well, that’s why his sister’s old record player had to be sacrificed, its little speakers soldered up for a sound that would be as deep as a hoarse duck quacking.
There were years spent playing along to tapes of the classics, Alabama, Status Quo, anything to hone his skills. Sure, it was all very playing in his bedroom by himself, but no one ever saw him do it in public.
“I’m actually quite a shy guy and I honestly didn’t think I was any good,” he says. “I always dreamed of playing a gig but never had the confidence. It was just a hobby, something that I practised. To this day, I still can’t read music.”
Come on now, Mathie, it’s not as if you need to know how to read when you’re simply plucking away, setting the tone and keeping tempo with the drums? Much like he did through a string of jobs in logistics and warehousing, secure, married, sleepwalking through life as many of us so often do.
The real life-changing moment was when he met his second wife, Ceri — Welsh, who was living in Warwickshire and a big a rugby fan. But she got him, knew what made him tick. Loved him. And believed in his bass desires, as it were. And he fell in love with rugby too.
“She made me videotape myself playing a few tracks, then we watched it back on the telly,” Mathie recalls. “I actually began to believe that I was good, and that maybe I could do it.”
Life is full of coincidences, strange turns, like how does a forensics officer end up catching moles?
“The force was going through some rationalisation and I always fancied working for myself,” he says. He took a redundancy package and after some months talking to friends — a couple owned a pest-eradication business but didn’t want to do the mole-catching angle any more — he thought he’s give it a shot.
It worked out, and there was no stage fright, not like being a closet bass guitarist without the confidence to perform.
But even that was about to change too.
The seminal moment was Welsh’s 40th birthday celebration and she booked a band. She arranged with them for Mathie to perform two tracks. That turned into six when he got up to play, with the band’s bass player conceding that Mathie was a far better player than him.
Then there was a couple of mates with a drum kit and a guitar, and another guitarist added, and then Eight Ball was formed to gig in local bands. They fell by the side of the road and now Mathie is rocking away a couple of nights most weekend, playing the pub and club circuit around Mercia and Warwickshire. Good fun on the road with the members of Skrood who belt out the rock classics with Mathie on five-string bass, living the rock ‘n’ mole dream.
How down to earth is that? Rock on, Alan. Rock on.
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News’ foreign correspondent based in Europe.