‘He’s not a well man, isn’t Danny’, Alan cheerfully volunteers as soon as we start talking. ‘Danny’s had major surgery’.
Danny was the first man I spoke to – a large man with no hair and a warm scarf shouting ‘Breakfast. Breakfast.’ on the path at the bottom of the park. The shoppers who were cutting through the park to town (it was Saturday) were pausing to gather around Danny, who was handing out peanuts to another, smaller crowd of squirrels that had gathered at his feet. Shoppers would halt to take a photo, the more intrepid ones would take one of the peanuts that Danny offered them and feed it to a squirrel. The squirrels would come up to take the dropped nuts, the more intrepid ones would take them directly from human hands. For wild animals, the squirrels were tame.
I ask Danny if I can talk to him for a minute or two, I say that I sometimes interview people who work with animals, and Danny immediately defers to Alan as if Alan was his line manager. ‘Alan’s been coming here much longer than me.’
‘Talk to me’, says Alan. ‘Danny’s not a well man.’
Alan is smaller than Danny, he has a brown hoodie, a pair of glasses that he wears on the end of his nose, a flak-jacket (pockets full of peanuts), wild greying hair, wild greying beard and a baseball cap that says RENAULT Team. Because of the way that Danny refers me, I assume, wrongly, that Alan worked with animals. ‘Good god no, I worked in IT. I was an IT professional before I took early retirement though I used to walk through the park on my way to work, that was how I got to know them – not that I know them all, there’s three or four we know by name and the rest we call A-N-O; most of them here are less than a year old, you see, so you never really get to know them, not to really know.’
Danny and Alan come to feed the squirrels every day they can, health and weather permitting. I don’t ask what’s wrong with Danny but I ask whether he finds it palliative, coming here to the squirrels. ‘Yes, I should think so’, says Alan ‘it’s incredibly calming. There’s all sorts coming to feed the squirrels – people come in on the weekend, from all over – from Leeds. Quite a few of them are, what’s the way to say it, educationally disadvantaged. It’s better than tranqs and daytime TV. Everyone gets something from it.’
The squirrels certainly get something from it. I come through this park often and I see a lot of people feeding them. Expensive things. Cashews, pistachios, Luxury Jumbo Nut Mix. (Alan and Danny have plain monkey-nuts in carrier bags.) These are healthy squirrels. Two enormous beasts crash body-to-body in mid-air when Danny drops a nut. The squirrels bounce off one another rubberily, squeal and retreat.
‘Squirrels are fat’ Alan says ‘- at this time of year they put on weight anyway, even out in the wide and wonderful, but here especially.’
I ask whether they’re putting on weight for hibernation.
‘These grey squirrels, they’re from Canada originally. A much colder climate. This is nothing for them. You get a few cold days with snow and frost where they might disappear inside but they don’t hibernate, no. I don’t know if they remember this more extreme cold consciously, like – but maybe an ancestral memory. In their bodies.’
A squirrel is approaching him, slightly coy, head coquettish and aslant, and Alan breaks off from talking to me, bends down to offer a peanut. ‘Come on then here we go.’
‘Breakfast!’ shouts Danny.
Somebody in the crowd passes me Danny’s book, a collection of pixelated colour-saturated paper printouts of his own images of the squirrels that he’s filed, with attentive care, in a white plastic Paperchase binder.
I wonder what Danny’s shout – Breakfast – means to the squirrels, and what it means to the humans.
‘They recognise our voices’ says Alan. ‘They couldn’t recognise our appearance because it changes. Humans, like many animals, change appearance in winter. Me here in my coat and scarf, that’s different to what I look like in summer. So it’s our voices and the smell of our hands that the squirrels recognise. They prefer a naked hand to a gloved hand, I don’t know why, perhaps it’s the smell. You try it.’
It’s true – the squirrels refuse the peanut offered from gloved fingers but they all run over immediately when the gloves come off. ‘They recognise the smell of our hands’, says Alan, pleased that I’ve seen the truth of what he was saying. ‘Incredible sense of smell. You’ve got to look out for their sight, though. A fingertip can look like a peanut to a squirrel.’
There is a clear hierarchy among the men who feed the squirrels. Danny defers to Alan and Alan defers to Pete. Pete is in his late eighties and sits in the upper part of the park. He’ s been coming here for decades to feed the squirrels.
Much more recently, when Alan started to come daily, he used to stand by Pete, until one day Pete said: ‘Look, why don’t you go away down there. This is my place.’ Alan wasn’t offended. ‘We get on well now like, perfectly well now.’ It was just a territory thing. ‘Pete’s been coming here for years, though he doesn’t come down so often these days. He fell recently and broke both his wrists.’
‘Are squirrels territorial?’ I ask Alan.