Tavistock - the grey squirrel who might have literary connections
By Alan Russell
I walked around the square twice trying to find a blue plaque on a wall that marked where Leonard and Virginia Woolf once lived for fifteen years.
At the end of my second trip I entered the square at the south end and read the notice board explaining its history. It confirmed that the Woolf’s had lived there but their particular house, number fifty-two, along with the rest of the houses on the south side had been destroyed by bombs during World War II and had been replaced by The Tavistock Hotel.
While I was reading the notice board I became aware of some movement on the ground in my lower field of vision.
‘Tavistock’ was standing on his hind feet trying to attract my attention or reach up to the small carrier bag I had containing some snacks. I have assumed that Tavistock was male as I am not an expert in assessing the gender of ‘sciurus carolensis’ otherwise known as ‘the grey squirrel’.
With this lack of gender certainty, I could have just as easily named him or her ‘Orlando’ after one of Virginia Woolf’s characters in book with the same title. The opening chapter describes Orlando as a boy full of romance and poetry sitting under a summer’s oak in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The closing chapter is about Orlando as a woman and finally having her book of poetry started under an oak tree in the sixteenth century published in 1928.
The notice board mentioned a bust of Virginia Woolf on the south side of the square where I was already but I could not see it anywhere easily. Tavistock scuttled around in circles in front of me and when he had my attention he scampered a few yards further on to a dark corner and there it was. My new-found guide was at the base of a marble plinth with a bust on the top tucked away in the corner on the edge of the footpath and almost in the winter dull flower bed. I walked the last few strides to the statue and it was indeed of Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941).
As I studied the bust I could see Tavistock standing on his hind feet reaching up with his paws and looking at me. The marble plinth although still as sharp as the day it was first carved was badly stained in green from the copper content of the bronze above. On top of the marble plinth was a solitary rose of deep deep rich burgundy hue that I had never seen before in a bloom. It was studded with diamente droplets of ice and its stalk was a dark green that almost matched the stain on the marble below. It was definitely a fresh rose that a fan or admirer had placed there to mark the writer’s birthday later in the week.
Anthropomorphically Tavistock may have been trying to say ‘Look, you’re a fan of Virginia Woolf. I watched you walk around the square twice and you couldn’t find a blue plaque. You did not have a clue. You should have done your research. You know why you couldn’t find a blue plaque? There isn’t one and if it wasn’t for me you never would have found her bust here’.
The grey squirrel has a life span of up to three years. The year I met Tavistock was 2018. Virginia and Leonard Woolf lived in this square from 1924 to 1939. For mathematical convenience I will assume that Virginia walked around this square in February 1929 at the start of one of her London adventures or ‘street hauntings’ as they were known in literary circles.
It could be possible, just possible with a simple calculation and some romantic imagination to work out that one of Tavistock’s relatives from some thirty squirrel generations ago stood on the very same spot I was on. Their hind feet gripping the ground for balance with their upstretched paws and eyes looking up at a forty seven year old lady walking by herself in the crystal clear air of a London evening. The perfect time being the hour hour between tea and dinner. It could just be possible.
A much less romantic reason for Tavistock’s posturing was ‘Look matey, I know you have some food in that bag, I’ve helped you out so how about sharing some of it with me?’
The thing is, I found myself talking to Tavistock.
‘OK, if you give me a second or two I will get something for you.’
Unfortunately, before I could find him something another walker came by with their dog and Tavistock, out of pure self-preservation, disappeared into the winter dull flower bed and undergrowth behind the statue. The dog tried to pursue him but was topped short when the lead around his neck had reached its full length. Regardless of that limitation on the dog’s hunting instinct Tavistock obeyed his instincts and scampered up the nearest oak tree quicker that the proverbial ferret into a drainpipe.
After the walker and the dog had disappeared I waited for a few minutes for Tavistock to return for his treat but alas, no. He had probably had quite enough frights for the morning and had retreated to his nest somewhere up in the branches where he could watch out for the next visitor to the square who might, just need a little help.