The QT

Tuesday 18 June 2024

Squirreled student memory brought back by auction

The (bushy) tale of Tony Henderson’s search for a very special squirrel – and the surprise which lay in store. 
A recent auction offered a happy ending to a decades-long story

More years ago than I care to remember, I took strong drink one carefree afternoon in the Post Office buffet establishment in central Newcastle.

The next day I was due to leave for Norwich where, at the time, I was in exile in Norfolk.

I was young and daft, which is by way of sort of explaining what happened next

Emboldened by the booze, I rang a local newspaper and dictated an advertisement which had popped, uninvited, into my head. 

It read: ‘WANTED: Stuffed squirrel. Must have surprised look on its face.  Contact  Mr A Henderson’ (followed by the family address in Hebburn).

Despite decades of musing, I have never been able to come up with a motive for this bizarre behaviour.

What I do know is that at the time I did not give a single thought to the consequences for my father,  who was also Mr A Henderson.

These become apparent some days later, when my mate Jimmy rang me in Norwich after innocently calling at the Hebburn home to see if I was still around

He was met by an incandescent  Mr A Henderson. “You’d better not go back for a few months,” said Jimmy. “Your fatha’s hopping mad.”

He had been besieged in his own home by a queue of reporters from virtually every national newspaper, plus the TV and radio, who understandably had picked up the scent of a quirky tale and were all eager to hear why anyone would want a surprised squirrel.

Tony Henderson during his student (and squirrel-searching) days

The encounter with the first tabloid caller had done the most damage. I mean, if someone arrived on your doorstep out of the blue and asked about your taste in squirrels and their facial expressions, how once the disbelief and bafflement had abated, would you respond? ‘Pardon?’ would not suffice.

Each subsequent and quickly following  media inquiry only added fuel to the fire.

The years rolled by. Then recently the past came back with a bang. Casually perusing the sale catalogue of Wooler auctioneer Jim Railton, there it was staring back — a stuffed squirrel with the necessary quizzical face.

The chance to complete the circle in a long lost quest was too good to turn down. It was fated.

United at last, after all these years,

And, at an estimate of £20-£30, eminently affordable. The Victorians and Edwardians  loved  taxidermy. They stuffed everything and anything.

 Not least a ‘tea party’ arrangement of kittens in dresses in the collections  of the Great North Museum: Hancock  in Newcastle , which would amuse or repel visitors, depending  on their sensibilities.

But generally, stuffed creatures  are not exactly chic in today’s minimalist, white-painted homes.

However, not to let this one-off opportunity slip away,  I left a bid of a whopping £50.  Surely nobody except me would be willing to shell out that much on Tufty.

Oh but there was, with a vengeance.

The only other individual out there who was in the market for a squirrel at all costs had been willing to lash out a mind-numbing £170.

After coming briefly into my orbit, the squirrel had spun away, Although  I had enjoyed the joke decades ago,  the gods had now had the last laugh.

As a Thomas Bewick-style tailpiece. Forestry England that very day reported that Kielder Forest in Northumberland was now home to 51% of the nation’s endangered, unstuffed native red squirrels.

Which was a surprise.


A Roman writing tablet unearthed at Vindolanda fort in Northumberland uses the derogatory word brittunculi, which translates as “wretched little Brits.”

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