I bet you lot would be impressed if I wrote a learned article about stoats.
“Gosh!” you’d say, “We must admit to our suspicion that half the time Mr Key hasn’t got a clue what he’s blathering on about. But with this piece about the small scurrying mammal known as the stoat he has demonstrated extraordinary erudition and a breadth of learning with regard to the natural world which knocks us for six. Never again will we question the fact that he is the greatest writer of the age apart from Jeanette Winterson!”
That is the kind of thing I like to hear, and to make sure you say it I turn my attention today to the stoat, and a learned article thereupon. To bruit my erudition from the outset, I shall begin by giving the Latin name of the stoat – Mustela erminea – and immediately chuck in a literary quotation which makes mention of stoats:
Weasels – and stoats – and foxes – and so on. They’re all right in a way . . . but they break out sometimes, there’s no denying it, and then . . . well, you can’t really trust them, and that’s the fact.
You will note that by employing this quote from Ratty in The Wind In The Willows (Kenneth Grahame, 1908) I am also hinting at my knowledge of weasels and foxes as well as of stoats. You may already be feeling vaguely intimidated, which is all to the good. “Clearly Mr Key’s learning covers a wider and vaster array of subject matter than that to which he is confining himself on this occasion!” you are thinking, “Today he chooses to enlighten us about stoats, but it may equally well have been weasels or foxes, or the Lord knows what else! Truly we must ask what we have done to deserve the privilege of living at the same time as this most versatile of writers apart from La Winterson!”
Pausing briefly to allow you to get your breath back, to prostrate yourselves in the muck before my shrine, or indeed to get out your chequebooks and donate goodly sums of money to me, I then proceed to throw in another quotation, from another eminent writer, to show that my stoat-reading has not been limited to bestial fiction:
Stoats, though not as numerous as weasels, probably do quite as much injury, being larger, swifter, stronger, and very bold sometimes entering sheds close to dwelling houses. The labouring elder folk declare that they have been known to suck the blood of infants left asleep in a cradle on the floor, biting the child behind the ear.
That is from The Gamekeeper At Home. Sketches Of Natural History And Rural Life by Richard Jefferies (1878). Now, if I started wittering on about vampire stoats sucking the blood of peasant infants asleep in their cradles, the likelihood is that you would throw up your hands and cry, “Lord love a duck! There goes Mr Key, wittering on about vampire stoats sucking the blood of peasant infants asleep in their cradles, painting an unnecessarily gruesome picture of rustic life when it is quite obvious that he has never lived in the countryside and knows little or nothing of its bucolic charms! Why we ever gave him the benefit of the doubt is inexplicable! Let us cast him aside and turn instead to the manifold genius of Saint Jeanette!”
And you would stand up from your prostrate grovelment, tip over the Key Shrine with a contemptuous kick, and tear up the cheque you had just written in my favour. That is what you would do had I not mustered the authority of Richard Jefferies to bolster my picture of rustic gruesomeness. As it is, you can only scratch your heads in wonder, acknowledge that my stoat-learning is greater than your own, and grovel more, grovel better. You probably also feel compelled to double the amount of money for which the cheque is made out. You do that, in a shaking hand, as you await further stoat-revelations from the keyboard of Mr Key. I do not disappoint.
Most people’s encounters with a live Stoat are limited to a glimpse of a sleek, sinuous, brown creature dashing across the road in front of a car to disappear among the roadside vegetation. Seen at close quarters, Stoats are chestnut-brown above, with a sharp demarcation line to pure white underparts. There is always a black tip to the tail. Should you ever have the opportunity to examine a Stoat closely, do not be tempted to look too closely at their teeth: a Stoat bite is unforgettable.
It is safe to say you are overwhelmed. “Mr Key is really pulling out all the stops!” you say, “Not only does he give us a vivid picture of the stoat’s colouring, such that we might draw one with crayons, but he demonstrates his care and concern for us by his warning to avoid the stoat’s vicious fangs! We cannot recall the last time Jeanette Winterson sounded the tocsin to alert us to the biting of small sleek mammals!”
But therein, dammit!, lies my undoing. I have prompted you to cast your minds back – to the view of a dashing stoat through a car window, to remember if or when Winterson ever showed she cared about you as much as Mr Key does. Worse, I have reminded you that some things are unforgettable. Not just the bite of a stoat, but, you now realise, that precise combination of the Latin tag and the Grahame and Jefferies quotations and the paragraph that follows. They seem strangely familiar, the more so when you consider the idiosyncratic capitalisation of “Stoat”. In a flash, you remember that you have read them before, word for word, at the beginning of the entry for Stoat in Stefan Buczacki’s Fauna Britannica (2002).
“Can it be?” you wail, “Can it possibly be that Mr Key knows nothing whatsoever about the stoat and has merely been copying passages wholesale from a truly erudite author?”
At which point I might try to claim a case of unconscious plagiarism, or coincidence, or haunting by the spirit of an (albeit still-living) author. None of which would be remotely convincing, would they?