'Within the pages of this book there is a story told
Of love, adventures, fortunes lost, and a jewel of solid gold.
To solve the hidden riddle, you must use your eyes,
And find the hare in every picture that may point you to the prize.
During the night of August 7th 1979 artist Kit Williams, in the company of TV personality Bamber Gascoigne (always known in our house as Ban the Gas Gun, back in those days when you used such a thing to light the cooker...sorry it was daft, just one of those family word things) buried a jewel-encrusted filigree gold amulet, encased in a wax within a clay casket. Six weeks later Jonathan Cape published the picture book of fiendishly ambiguous and equally well-buried clues about the golden hare's whereabouts for the rest of the world to solve, and, as Kit Willams later agreed, the world went crazy.
What followed might have been the biggest mass dig of the British countryside since the wartime Dig for Victory campaign, as tens of thousands of people caught the treasure hunting bug, bought a shovel and went-a-looking.
Of course those tens of thousands included Bookhound and I, though of course we were never within two hundred and fifty miles of finding the thing at Ampthill in Bedford, but lots of us had metal detectors back in the 1970s, and our best days out were with the headphones, the machine and a couple of spades as we unearthed a lot of very unimportant rusty tin cans and the odd penny here and there. We know how to have a good time here in Devon and our enthusiasm wasn't helped by an art college friend of Bookhound's who had discovered a treasure trove of Roman coins, if it could happen to Derek surely we weren't going to be far behind.
Sadly no joy.
The metal detector was sold, Masquerade went back on the shelf and we took up rowing (as in 'on river' not arguing) in our spare time instead. I never parted with the book and had been poring over it again only recently, because perhaps lost in the excitement of all that clue-cracking was the exquisite magic and precision of the art...so easily overlooked when all you want to know is where to dig...
There were shoals of red herrings and false trails and riddles, and far more required to solve the mystery than we had ever dreamed of. Kit Williams, writing some years later in a little book that offers a few clues, revealed that each picture was 'like a big fat novel,' with plots and sub-plots and more going on than is first apparent, as well as some secret jokes and covert hints.
My first begins first and I am myself second. My
next is the end of ends, followed by the beginning of
Now put me on one line, and you will find my name,
I live my whole life outdoors, but never feel the rain.'
Me too back then, today I'm reading it as I type it and the answer is suddenly as clear as day..you'll find it. There is also a really excellent website here which has accumulated a huge number of clues and information
The treasure was eventually found, though not by someone who had properly solved the riddle, and not before half the country had been turned over in the UK's biggest unofficial archaeological dig.
It was chaos.
Some poor woman in Tewkesbury had her garden invaded when people spotted a topiary hare ...you'd have its ears off and turn it into a hedgehog pronto wouldn't you.
Someone else from Switzerland spent his life savings coming to England convinced the hare was buried on Cornish cliff. It wasn't and he had to be rescued when he got cut off by the incoming tide.
Yet another false trail began when some clever clogs realised that Kit Williams' name was an anagram of 'I will mask it.'
We just dug up Mount Edgecumbe in the vain hope.
...and by all accounts Kit Williams' quiet unassuming life, already that of a semi-recluse, became a misery of invasion and harrassment accompanied by 30,000 letters, whilst he ultimately also became the victim of some deception.
Interesting too that the symbolism of the hare, whilst embracing fertility, prosperity and good fortune, can also denote delusion, deception and many layers of meaning and the eventual discovery of the buried amulet proved to be tainted, with subsequent events in 1982 making for very sad reading. I can only think how Kit Williams might have felt on the day the hare was eventually put up for auction in 1988, because in trying to buy it back he was forced to drop out of the bidding at £6000 and watch as the price soared to over £30,000. The good news is that apparently the hare is in safe and treasured albeit anonymous hands and is much-loved, which is a heartening end...
Except the story of Masquerade and the hare is not quite at an end.
I love hares for all their symbolism, and made the young gamekeeper promise me many years ago that whilst I understand his job does involve killing things, he would never kill a hare...and he promised because he knows we have hares in many and various forms around the house...
and especially knitted ones...
and I think perhaps it all began with the magic of Masquerade, but the book and the hare meant something incredibly special to Australian playwright and actor Kate Mulvaney too.
As a child fighting cancer back in1979, Kate Mulvaney found herself transported by the book; the entire ward, the doctors and the nurses all captivated by Masquerade and Kate herself escaping on flights of imagination towards healing.
The story comes full circle with Kate Mulvaney's current production of Masquerade being premiered at the Sydney Opera House this month, and you can read the story of her fascinating journey to find Kit Williams, and then persuade him to agree to the play, in a heart-warming article the Sydney Morning Herald here, and I would love to hear from anyone who might have been to see it. Thirty-six years on it seems like a wonderful and happy conclusion for Kit Williams's brilliant idea and for his hare too, and it would seem that Kit Williams agrees...
'It has been a deeply moving experience for me to realise how a book I wrote so long ago lit a spark in the heart of a very sick little girl in hospital on the other side of the world and our two stories have interwoven like the ribbons on a maypole to create a dance that brings to life and age-old story and a life-questioning drama.'