The post-Christmas days had been crisp and peaceful but on New Year’s eve I heard a rustle beneath the front door and a weird scratching beside the outdoor flowerpot. I found I had a crumpled letter. Here is what it said, and I promise I deciphered it correctly. ANIMAL SINNOD. u r INVITED. LOWLY SHED. 10PM TODAY. NO TRAPS. SIGNED TB.
TB? Perhaps you remember that memorable attack on the former prime minister, Tony Blair, in parliament as the holiday season was about to begin and a memo had gone round his Labour ministers asking for “eye-catching initiatives”? It was a free gift to William Hague, then leader of the opposition, who ridiculed a leader who could offer the country only “blood, sweat, tears and eye-catching initiatives signed TB”. Ten years later, was Blair touring my area and trying to ramp up support for a New Year’s return to power?
I then noticed the paw marks. Whatever you may think of Tony Blair, he does not yet have claws and furry feet. TB? Why, it had to be my Trusting Badger, the co-resident of my garden who is still living beside my garage and, being gay, has requested the reading of banns in the church next door in order to legitimise his relationship. If I were a badger, TB is not exactly the monogram I would choose while the TB-related cull of British badgers is beginning. However, the paw marks fitted the badger-prints in my ISpy Guide to Animals. At 10pm I trudged down to my garden shed, the one which the animals, cheekily, consider to be “lowly”.
On graduation days in my university I have seen some fairly scary crowds. They are nothing beside my area’s “wildlife” when ill-met by moonlight. I recognised the roe deer, of course, but it took a snarl to identify the mink and a squeak or two to signify the water-voles from the river nearby. I am never sure which is a stoat and which is a weasel but both were out in force. A new breed of super-rats was holding the lanterns and for once the grey squirrels looked sweet on their hind legs. Every species was pressing round a central pair of throne-like seats, one of which was empty and on the other of which the badger, TB in person, was sitting cross-legged in triumph.
I then had a big surprise. Like me, you may have been wondering what happened to all those copies of Pippa Middleton’s book Celebrate, the ones which her publishers optimistically printed but which failed to turn up in our Christmas stockings. The answer is that the animal kingdom has rescued them. According to Pippa, “When night begins to fall, there’s nothing quite like a good old sing-song to bring people together.” The animals had shredded her text and passed round the words of her song called “Under the spreading chestnut tree”, the one which goes on, “Where I held you on my knee”. Pippa then tells us to see how many of the words in this song “we can replace with actions”. Several of the foxes were only too good at it. They had arrived at the synod with a banner saying “Fox’ll Fix It” and indeed I have a big old chestnut tree just by the shed. They bullied two fluffy young rabbits into going into the laurel bush beneath it, what they called the “Green Room”, and to judge from the scuffle they certainly matched their actions to their words.
On his throne TB then began the synod’s business. The first item, to my amazement, was a vote of censure for the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury. Apparently the archbishop has a carved animal figure on the episcopal staff which he is bringing down from Durham, but it is the figure of a weird rock badger. When did you ever see a rock badger anywhere near an Anglican church? In the book of Leviticus, admittedly, this indigenous animal of the Palestine area is banned from the Israelite’s table because it “chews the cud but does not part the hoof”. TB had an excellent point here. If someone is the first bishop of England, surely he should replace this rock-intruder with the features of a stripey British brock? The proposal went through on a unanimous show of paws.
Only then did I notice that the empty throne beside TB was marked with the letters RB. Had there been a rock badger in my garden, the first to be sighted in Britain? I then remembered that the synod is the synod of the Chipping Norton chapter, representing the environs of my local town, much cited this year in the misbehaviour of the British press. When a mole respectfully laid tangerine skins from my compost heap on the empty seat, I realised why the seat was empty. “She’s unavoidably detained,” the old barn owl whispered to me. Why, it was the throne of the Queen of the Beasts, the lady whom her tabloid rivals gleefully styled “the tangerine dream”, Rebekah Brooks herself. For years she has been the chapter’s honorary president.
“A new president … ”, TB reminded his audience. Charmingly, one of the ponies proposed our local heroine, the aptly named Charlotte Dujardin, gold-medal winner in the Olympic dressage for this year’s mounted Team GB. Who else is more in harmony with the mood of the animal kingdom?
Not even in Canterbury have I heard such a swell of coordinated prejudice. A theatrical claque of stoats started hectoring the meeting with quotations from scripture. “If man is created lord of the beasts, it is out of order,” they clamoured, “for a woman to be made their lord instead.” They then chanted “Lord of the beasts” in evangelical unity and some of the flopsy bunnies began to mumble that women were such tidy gardeners that it might be better anyway for wildlife to have a messy old man in charge. Alan Titchmarsh lives just outside the chapter’s border, so two intimidating weasels proposed that the synod choose a member of the royal family, especially after the Jubilee year. On the grounds that there is only one member who shows “animal spirits”, heaven help us, they forced the election of Prince Harry.
Synods are synods, a cynical old sow grunted to me, so what else can you expect? Horrified, I learnt what I could expect next. After midnight the entire animal synod was to hold its own year-closing event in tribute to this year’s Olympic opening ceremony. They were to begin by rolling up lumps of turf off my lower lawn, behaviour which they have manifestly been rehearsing all year. They would then applaud while a barrow-load of non-native mink and red-legged French partridges arrived to find a friendly home in Britain. The centrepiece was to be a tableau on the founding of the RSPCA. Thereupon a buzzard was to tweet a Jenny wren and the two of them were to go out on a blind date which would probably end in his making a meal of her. Then they would run wild through the flower beds to welcome 2013.
I could not bear to watch it. According to a fragment of Pippa’s Celebrate, which a partying dormouse pressed into my hand, “A New Year’s eve celebration always comes with huge expectations which explains why it can so often be a real anticlimax.” There was no animal anticlimax on my lawn. Since Tuesday I have been clearing up the mess but at least it was a synod whose mess can be binned and cleared away.