At an English village hall in Bentley Heath on a recent Saturday, the Central England Mouse Club was holding its Annual Open Show, just one of several dozen mouse events to be found most any Saturday or Sunday in the Midlands, or in the steep mill valleys of the North and West of England. In fact, November marked the seventy-sixth anniversary of the first Fancy Mouse showing.
In its early days the mouse fanciers tended to collect in areas where the work was nasty: around the mines and mills. In those days they met and showed mice in a free room at the local pub, in exchange for the profit on the beer they drank.
Now, the supposedly affluent London area has a lively and growing mouse club, and holds an annual London show at Alexandra Palace.
The mice we saw on this particular Saturday bear about as much resemblance to the house or field variety as a poodle does to a wolf—evolution goes a bit quicker with mice. On the entry list at Bentley Heath were some twenty-five colors and varieties of markings: white, red, blue, black, cinnamon, silver-tan, champagne.
By 11 A.M. the hall was pretty full, say about fifty exhibitors and their assorted families. We watched the first judge at work for a while. Wordlessly he picked up two blue-blacks by the tails and held them, feet windmilling, to the daylight. After examining their soft dark bellies for a few seconds, he shifted them to the palms of his hands and viewed them head on. Their petal-shaped ears, translucent and alert, took some serious attention as they vibrated and twitched at him.
The judge, who turned out to be a chemistry teacher from a college a hundred miles away, kept this up all morning, and he and his two colleagues managed to finish the job by teatime, nearly 5 P.M. They worked their way through fifty-odd classes of mice, different colors and patterns, ages and sexes.
At the benches constant rapt conversation, jokes, and arguments kept the day in motion. As we listened, the credibility gap widened.
“ ‘Ere Bert, what would you call this mouse, a black-eyed dove?”
“I wouldn’t go ravin’ mad over that little ‘un,” says Bert.
“I’ve got the little oatmeal here today too,” says Alan. “It’s a sort of a dilute lilac-chinchilla.”
“It’s a very dilute chinchilla,” Bert snorts without much enthusiasm.
Down the hall a busty blonde is unpacking a box of mice and showing them to her friends. “Here’s my little Siamese; I made that variety, you know.” Doreen, daughter of one of the Fancy Mouse’s founder-fathers. Jack Watts, has the distinction of having invented a new variety and having had it standardized by a twoyear process of establishing the true breed. She found an odd brown mutation with “points” rather like a Siamese cat. Deliberately she set out over the generations to lighten it until it was exactly like a Siamese cat in color and marking. Here it was, the Siamese mouse ready to sweep the boards in the Any-Other-Variety class.
Unfortunately it bit the judge. But Doreen has three hundred mice at home, and she will go on showing them despite her husband, who says “she’s bloody crackers.”
Jack Hartley is in fine form today. His red won Best-in-Show last week. Why was the red so good? “Well, you know, every man has his day: that mouse is just right. They don’t last long, you know, a few weeks and they’re over the hill, but he was just right, it was his day, and I think he’s still on top.”
So delicate is this balance of good mouse condition that if an exhibitor puts too much hay in the box when the mouse travels to the show, it may sweat and ruin its fine coat.
Handling is a fine art and must also be carefully timed. A man may have a hundred mice in “’t shed at back of garden,” but if he does not pick the right mouse on the right day, he does not win. Many’s the mouse-breeder who remembers the time the Best-inShow champion jumped down off the stand, ran away, and was never seen again.
I listened to a conversation between Jack and Doreen and some others about one of the mousebreeders’ greatest problems: disposal. A doe produces up to eighteen babies at one go, and the skillful breeder knows, after a day or two, which are worth keeping and which must be got rid of so that the doe can feed the select ones.
“Just knock ‘em in the neck, Doreen.”
“Eee, I could never. I’d sooner keep them all and feed them too.”
“They only last about five seconds,” said Jack, “I couldn’t do what Bertie does, bang their heads on the table. I just chicken out.”
“Why don’t you use a killing bottle and chloroform?”
“How can you be sure they’re dead?”
“Toilet and chain, that’s the best method.”
Back at the judges’ table, a very tense lady named Jean Hallett is biting her fingernails. Mrs. Hallett, in partnership with her husband, runs a large mouse stud, so winning some firsts is always important business to her. “With nine mice entered that’s near enough to a pound to get back at two shilling an entry, and the prizes only run six shilling, four shilling, and two, with eight for the Bestin-Show, so what with the traveling and all, you hope to get some of it back.” explained Mrs. Hallett. “I’m one of the lucky ones; I usually do get it back.”
Jean and Tom run their own mouse show back home in Lancashire in a tent at the annual agricultural show. “Oh, it’s a job.” groaned Mrs. Hallett, a neat cardiganned housewife in her late thirties. “First you’ve to get out the notices, keep track of the entries, collect the stock at the station . . .”
“What, collect the mice, you mean?”
“Yes, the mice come by rail on their own in boxes, and the stationmaster rings up to say he’s got some stock and you go down and collect them. They start arriving Thursday, and you’ve got to keep them and feed them and put in some hay and send them back on Monday.” This explained why there were 670 mice being exhibited at Bentley Heath but only 120 or so owners present.
“British Rail are pretty good, although there have been mice as got lost,” said one owner. Another tells about the time the bottom of his box fell out and the stationmaster rang up to say there were mice running about all over.
“Have you found out how mad we are yet?” said the wife of the club secretary.
“It’s either that or the rest of the world that’s mad,” said a voice behind her.
“You know, you’ve got something there,” said Alan Raice, a mousebreeder who is also deep in the dog business. Alan works as a laborer and makes a little on the side with his kennels of twenty West Highland White terriers plus boarders, his eighty-two mice, his gerbils, his cat, kittens, and budgies.
“There is something very different about breeding mice. At dog shows the talk around the benches is all about how much money someone’s got or what clothes they’re wearing— there’s no interest in the dogs. Here its all about the breeding. There’s endless interest in it, so many varieties; you can ‘make’ new mice, you can do so much in a short time . . .”
One of Alan’s favorite tips: “Keep as few as possible. If you keep too many, you don’t get to know them. Whenever you see an animal you must speak to it.”
Margaret Pearce, a breeder of two years’ standing, and a housewife in her spare time, was showing her “variegated” mouse to an old man who has been breeding mice for sixty years. This is an extinct variety, with colored spots spread over the animal’s back like spots of ink splashed from a pen. The old man hems and haws and deftly handles the mouse. “It’s not the variegated yet, but it has some good spots at ‘t back,” he pronounces. and then goes on to describe his early mousehood: “I were brought up with it. Me elder brothers were in pigeons. We all worked in the mines in Derbyshire, and I got into mice because it’s cheap, you don’t want the room, you get results quicker than in breeding any other animal, and there’s all the fascination—you know where you’re going.”
Most mouse-fanciers keep them in a shed out back, often on the brink of a steep mill valley, a railway, or just up against the next suburban backto-back. An attic, in fact, is recommended in the mouse handbook. Looking after them can take fifteen minutes a day or three hours—it is up to the breeder. Fur and Feather, the weekly newspaper of the small-stock breeder, reports a steady circulation of 12,000 or so since 1884. Clubs come and go depending on whether there is a secretary willing to do all the work, or two people willing to share it, or two factions arguing. Many women get up at the same cold, wet 5 or 6 A.M. summer and winter to get in the van with their husbands and come dish up dinners, tea, and gossip at the shows.
At the annual mouse dinner dance one old-timer remarked, “Not many as brought their wives, and those as haven’t are having a better time.”
If the mouse people are a little wary of strangers’ laughter, they have their own laughs too.
“In a way,” says Alan Raice, “it is the very triviality of what we are spending our time on that makes it so satisfying.”