The Ferret & the Egg: A Close Reading of Aldous Harding

What are the peaches, really? Claire Mabey tries to get to the bottom of Aldous Harding’s songs, starting with ‘The Barrel’.

Claire Mabey didn’t set out to write a series of close readings of Aldous Harding lyrics. She just wanted to think about them in a forensic way for a bit. Then it got serious and out of hand. So, here’s an introduction and the first of a few essays trying to get to the bottom of Aldous Harding’s songs.


I was slow to love Aldous Harding. But now her songs have sunk into my bones and reside there. Sometimes I think loving a particular artist is weird human quirk. It’s like being obsessed with William Morris prints and having them all over your house. Or like my Uncle who has an Elivs cave/shrine in his house and is a successful impersonator. Or how the events in Anita Brookner novels that you’ve re-read so many times start to mingle with your own memories. Art and artists influence what you do and how you think.

Musicians like Aldous Harding achieve a rare and particular alchemy. The lyrics, the tunes and the artist’s voice and their very themness make a complete, affecting spell that fans and neuroscientists and mystics and critics all try to explain. This is the kind of art that wends through your life like a supernatural companion and so becomes part of your story. It’s not a bad situation, it’s one of the extremely lucky parts about being human. But it’s still a strange phenomenon, this art and the body and the memory.

The thing about Aldous is that there is not one Aldous.

The thing about Aldous is that there is not one Aldous. Across her albums, the stories, the voices, and the musical ideas push each other along so that the songs each burst out of the ground as different creatures. Listening through her albums feels to me like reading through books of collected folk tales cherry picked from different ages. The danger, surrender, abandonment, jealousy, teasing, cool resentment: all of the games of love.

Harding’s songs are luminous and alive in the way that Emily Dickinson’s poetry and letters were luminous and alive, in the way that Katherine Mansfield and Gertrude Stein were, and in the same way that poets Tayi Tibble, Tusiata Avia, Hera Lindsay Bird are for us now. We’re not going to run out of things to talk about and read into any time soon. The images, metaphors and small hard details share aesthetic moments from some kind of collective cultural history and place them alongside contemporary, and personal, scenes and experiences. Harding’s multiple voices speak together, like a choir, like a collage.

I started with ‘The Barrel’ because the ferret and the egg captivated me at a time when I needed captivation.

Here are the lyrics for ‘The Barrel’ in full if you’d like to read before going down the rabbit hole.


‘The Barrel’ was released when my child was a few months old. I remember floating around our lounge, the tiny baby in his canvas-wood bed/bouncing thing, lifted up out of the motherhood fug. The ferret and the egg and the peaches danced with me and I felt happy in the way I always feel when music arrives at the time that you really need it. The song also sent me a story that I could turn over in my mind at all hours of the day and night.

The Barrel in this song is a vessel of potential love and potential danger floating in a sea of potential pain. The protagonist is talking herself out of a mistake having learned from past disappointments: ‘I know you have the dove’ but ‘it’s already dead / I’m not gettin’ wet’. She is not going to be caught drowning in promises of peace or floating in a false sense of security.

Like shells on the shoreline we can be rubbed and tossed into pieces by relentless waves. Love can really fuck you up so why knowingly dip your toes back into that wild surf? The trouble with knowledge is at the heart of this song. We’re asked to think about knowing versus not knowing, about childhood versus adulthood, and about temptation battling with wisdom:

When I was a child, I never knew enough
What’d that do to me?

Youthful naivety is often talked of with a mix of pleasure and pain: it’s glorious to be oblivious to the brutal bigger picture and it’s painful to grow nostalgic for youth when that bigger picture starts to edge into your vision. But what does that transition really do to us? What does not knowing mean to a child and what does knowledge mean to an adult? When you haven’t yet learned danger signs you enjoy yourself freely but you’re always on the cusp of disaster. I think about my toddler now, barreling along through life eager for every experience. He is in a precarious pattern of self harm and I’m in a constant state of watchfulness. I think about my own scars - the things I did before I knew I shouldn’t have done them. The wrong boyfriends, the wrong kind of adventure, the repetitive behaviours I didn’t see coming.

But there are other possible meanings for those two lines: what does happen when you always feel like you don’t know enough? When you feel out of the loop you crave to be in it. All children want to know what is up. They want to understand everything and so seek out knowledge as soon as they’re aware it’s there, no matter what the consequences.

Aldous’ storyteller is relating to us this very conundrum:

Rushed in to hold down your page

And now I sleep ’side words you do not read with me

I hear a song from inside the maze, the very one you made

You shook at the ivory mantle

As a poet, I knew to be gentle

When you have a child, so begins the braiding

And in that braid you stay

Our protagonist once ‘rushed’ in to join her object of desire’s study, seeking to learn from the same page and be in the same loop. She describes the object of desire (OOD) as impatient or even aggressive; someone who ‘shook at the ivory mantle’. This brings to mind the ivory tower and attempts to penetrate or unsettle it. There’s something attractive about someone wanting to shake out knowledge and who is disruptive and fiery. We can see why our protagonist wanted in.

But this verse is a tiny fable, a warning: go gently or you could fight yourself right back out of the loop. The gentler way, the poet’s way, has resulted in our protagonist now reading alone: ‘And now I sleep ’side words you do not read with me’. She has found close companionship with the world outside of her OOD and is quietly prodding at the ivory mantle her own way, with her own voice and style. And the object of desire? They’re stuck: ‘I hear a song from inside the maze, the very one you made’.

We are celebrating the freedom of a good decision and we’re harvesting the fruits of that wisdom.

Trapped inside a tricksy path of your own making doesn’t sound great. Our poetic protagonist is on the outside of the struggle, now wary and empowered having found her own way forward into experience. The final lines of the verse ‘When you have a child, so begins the braiding / and in the braid you stay’ mirror the maze image and return us to the issue of the way we acquire knowledge. The bringing together of different threads makes a tough, difficult-to-undo, whole. This idea of various threads weaving around a child suggests something of Larkin’s ‘they fuck you up, your mum and dad’ (from ‘This Be The Verse’). We’re all pretty much tangled up in the braid that our adult influencers weave around us: and you either strengthen that same rope or fight against it the rest of your life. Those final lines read like a judgement call that our protagonist is making on her OOD: she can see that the maze-singer is trapped within an engrained set of ideas/values/habits.

So what about the peaches then? Peaches are symbols of fertility, immortality, ripeness, desire and sex. They’re a joyful, tasty and nourishing fruit and we harvest them up in Summer and celebrate the bounty we’re given. In this song there’s a change of heart about this peachy harvest. The first verse says:

Look at all the peaches

How do you celebrate?

Can’t appear inside of nowhere

And the second one says:

Look at all the peaches

I want to celebrate

I can appear inside of nowhere

The phrasing has switched focus to an external question ‘how do you celebrate’, to an internal or self-focussed affirmation ‘I want to celebrate / I can appear inside of nowhere’. This is reinforcing the idea that our poet is resisting a passion of one kind and replacing it with another. She’s said no to the hand arching out of the barrel (the past mistake, the dude in the maze), and has said yes to herself. You do you girl.

We are celebrating the freedom of a good decision and we’re harvesting the fruits of that wisdom. Our poet has considered that walking knowingly into a sea of potential pain is not going to happen. She’s not going to dip her toes in but she’s also not losing out because she’s holding the pages, she’s intimate with knowledge and now also the fruity bounty - the potential for other kinds of deliciousness.

But the kicker, the sticker, is the ferret and the egg. This image is so surprising and sneaky and vicious. The idea of it fits so beautifully with peaches, barrels at sea, mazes and scholars shaking at the ivory tower. This is the finishing touch on an Aldous Harding folktale, a modern myth braiding in symbols and images that evoke, to me, touches of Medieval and Renaissance symbolism.

Ferrets eat eggs for treats. They’re a predator to burrowing birds whose eggs are vulnerable and all sorts of effort goes into preventing ferrets from tucking in. But here we’re handing over the treats. Kill it, she says. Give that harbinger of mischief what it wants and end it here and now:

Show the ferret to the egg

I'm not gettin’ led along

Our poet is asserting her intentions with tiny teeth. The whole verse is of mounting decisiveness: She knows there’s a gesture toward her ‘you have the dove’, but there’s no way it’s being accepted: ‘I’m not getting wet / Looks like the date is set / Show the ferret to the egg / I’m not getting led along’

The final line of the song (before the refrain) is: ‘But I saw a match struck outside the barrel’

The wave of love is a transient hurt

Water’s the shell and we are the knot

But I saw a match struck outside the barrel

This is perhaps the most riddlesome line of the song. It leaves us with ambiguity. The two lines ahead of it repeat the idea that we are subject to the forces of love as pain that pushes and prods us (knots to be untied or hacked at by the sharp ends of shells). But, there’s a ‘But’.

The lighting of a match outside the barrel could refer to a few things. Let’s start with the most likely if we follow the thread of the lyrics which take our poet from resisting temptation, asserting her own knowledge and then celebrating that freedom and reaping the juicy rewards. Striking a match outside of the barrel could then be a final act of destruction. The hand that arched out of the barrel has been rebuffed by our poet and the metaphorical egg of possibility has been snaffled by the ferret. The dove is dead. This match is a final razing - to be thrown into the barrel and left to do its work while our poet swims off to eat more peaches.

The other possibility is that this match is symbolic of the flame of desire. Is our poet committed to her decision? Has the ferret actually finished all that egg or is there a wee bit leftover? Are we being given an uncertain ending, a possible wavering? The big pause in the song before the final refrain feels like a reinforcement of hesitation. A hint to a mischief of another kind.

But, I don’t think our poet goes down that sorry road. I think the poet is badass: She’s going to taste that peach of celebration and going back is just not an option. She might listen to the song coming from inside the maze but she’s not going to go in there and help the dude find the exit. She can appear inside of nowhere because her nowhere is herself.

I worried for a while that once I’d attempted to unravel meaning from this song it would lose something for me. I wouldn’t get the same physical shiver. But it’s all ok. That hasn’t happened. Love it more than ever. I’m going to go have a dance now, thanks Aldous.

Originally published by Verb Wellington.

Read by Category

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

Your Order (0)

Your Cart is empty