I am shown into a small space that seems part office, part lab and is characterized above all by a very strong smell of mice. The sense of smell, we remember, from Galileo on, is reputedly generated entirely in the head, it doesn’t actually exist in the world, yet my head certainly hadn’t been producing this phenomenon just a few moments ago. Nor is it enjoying what it is producing now. The mouse odor is not quite a stench, but getting there, and along with it, instant and unbidden, comes a memory from perhaps fifty years ago of the time when I used to keep mice myself. A pet shop in North Finchley had sold me two innocent white mice in a small wooden cage. Originally, I had meant to keep them in my room, but very soon the smell began to bother me, so that after some negotiation with my parents I moved them into the outside boiler room of our sprawling Victorian vicarage. Here, in no more than a few months, the original pair had multiplied dramatically, gnawed their way out of the cage, and were scampering in their dozens in and under the synthetic lagging around the house’s ancient oil-fired boiler.
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