The Literary Cure

I set up this blog intending to write about stuff that interested me and obviously that I hoped interested others. But for the past few weeks, basically since setting this thing up I’ve felt basically so bleurghkh. I spend whole days in exhaustion or catching up on sleep that feels long-lost and dearly recaptured. I don’t know why. And the dreaded Craving is coming back, the craving for all things stodgy and sweet.

I have bags and bags of rubbish I’ve bought to try and interest myself in something… Mostly CDs and DVDs. I long ago gave up on books after filling shelves with stuff I want to want to read, but don’t actually want to read. I do love books, just not the kind of books I had been buying… yeah, yeah. Doesn’t make sense, I know. It’s the same with the DVDs, they’re films I might like to watch on telly… or I might have wanted to watch in some times past… but not now. Not any more. I don’t subscribe to mega-multichannel television, but all television is digital and multichannel these days. So I get way more than 100 channels. And still there hardly ever seems to be anything worth watching!

A lot of it comes down to “mood,” I suppose… mood, the predominance of a person’s feeling over a particular timeframe. I’ve had bad moods, extreme moods, going back years.

I actually prefer writing to reading nowadays by a long way. A few years ago I had a breakdown that left me in smithereens. The good thing about being broken to bits is that you can take those countless little pieces and reform yourself into anything you desire, at least that’s what I tried to do. I have always had the ambition to be a writer. Note I didn’t say I’ve always wanted to write a book: just about everyone who’s literate has wanted to write a book at some point in their life. No: with me, I have always wanted to be a writer my whole life through. There were times when a lot of other stuff got in the way. (And a lot of that stuff you could categorize as illness ― and illness can shade off into excuse-making, pure and simple… How are you supposed to know how ill you are when you feel crappy pretty much all the time?) So instead of looking at things that way, I turned them on their head. If you’re feeling none too brilliant, that can be a great time to put the fabulous worlds you have created on paper. So that’s what I decided to do.

And I did have those fantastic worlds, and it was fantastic worlds I wished to write. Instead of writing about myself, I took to writing children’s books, children’s adventure novels set in the world of animals. One thing that did weird me out about writing for children ― and I’m talking about older children here ― is that the general intellectual level of a children’s book is pretty much the same as adult popular fiction. Which is kind of scary, when you think about it ― how un-grown-up most adults actually are…!

Writing gave my life a form and meaningfulness it had never had before. In fact writing my first ever proper completed decent novel marked the first time in my life that I had set a goal and actually realized it more fully and completely than I had planned to. I got totally swept away by the whole process of writing. It wasn’t (unfortunately) as if writing somehow healed the rest of my life and made me better. It actually made me more single-minded than before which is not necessarily a good thing. But I am really glad I created things I actually consider to have value ― more value than me, in a way.

So the next stage is actually getting this stuff out into print. And I don’t know what to do!

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I Think It Was Real Depression

Listening to Prozac, famous pro-Prozac book written by a psychiatrist. Tellingly enough the cover depicts someone losing their head!

This is a follow-up to my last post when I asked, “Is my depression real (clinical) depression?” If I sound like a big whining hypochondriac I should explain I’ve been dogged by depression on and off and to a greater and lesser extent since childhood. When I left home and went to university aged 19 I went really downhill and my life turned into a real mess. Although I was seeing a doctor, a counsellor and a psychiatrist (usually two out of three at any one time) and although I was being prescribed horrible-sounding horrible-feeling early 90s British versions of psychiatric drugs including old-style antidepressants with names like Gamanil and Prothiaden, I got precious little “pastoral” support from the actual university and ended up in in such a mess, I felt the only thing I could do was drop out.

This was after a semester and a half of me basically not turning up for half the course and not engaging with the other half of it that I did attend. I was in no state to be wading through degree-level textbooks or literature written in foreign languages, literature that was presumably written to entertain or enlighten its readers, not torture them. And nobody from the academic staff ever really tried to help me. They did ask what was wrong a couple of times. I remember my course tutor writing an accusatory letter about me to some other academic saying she had checked with the student counselling centre and despite my claims to the contrary there was no record of my ever having gone for counselling. That’s because I got my counselling down the medical centre, not the student centre. Dur.

Looking back I feel I was let down by the university, although at the time I just thought it was all my fault. It wasn’t till decades later that I saw something on TV about students and depression and thought “well I never got treated that well!” That depressive episode lasted somewhere between 18 months and 3 to 4 years, depending what you want to count as “depressed”.

Later in the 1990s I remember reading Listening to Prozac (published 1993) an extremely popular book of the era. (Prozac/fluoxetine was of course one of the many medications they gave me over the years). The book’s author, a psychiatrist named Peter D Kramer, talks at some length of “cosmetic pharmacology,” (to achieve the desirable-sounding state of being “better than well”. He explains a then under-recognized condition called dysthymia (dys– as in disordered; thymia meaning mood). Dysthymic disorder is a long and lingering state of depression, often without any dramatic or telling symptoms. A lot of people experience dysthymia as a constant low-grade misery. In 2013 the DSM-5 renamed the condition persistent depressive disorder (PDD). Because millions more suffer from dysthymia than full-blown major depression this has been a boon for the medication manufacturers and it’s mostly to treat this condition that pills like Prozac, Paxil (Seroxat), Zoloft (Lustral) and the like have been dished out in their billions over the years.

What I remember best from Listening to Prozac was a condition the author called double depression where dysthymia worsens into a state of true major depression. Or major depression lifts but doesn’t totally go away, leaving this “dysthymic” state. For years I never wanted to admit this had happened to me, but looking back, maybe I did have this double depression. Yuck.

I’m really hoping all my depressive crap really did end last week. There’s another clue in one of the embedded tweets where I claimed the situation had been going on for several weeks, not just one week, which is too short to be clinically depressed, at least by the official diagnostic criteria.

Another weird thing that happened, though I didn’t particularly notice at the time: my insane craving for sweets and biscuits. Usually I avoid sweet foods because they’re not that good for you ― but I was going through a packet at a time, then wanting even more. Why is that? Oversleeping and carbs craving ― and by this I mean massive oversleeping for hours and hours and massive carbs craving. I know I’m not unique in this; I know it happens to other people. But why should that be? I even heard somewhere that sugar has some sort of morphine-like effect on the brain. I saw a video on it on Youtube somewhere. The doctor who made the video said that most drug addicts are also addicted to sweets and this is why their teeth are so bad… is that true?

Okay I’m going to have to wind this up here. So the depression disappeared about a week ago. I don’t feel so good today. I’m hoping it’s just an off-day and not yet another down-swing, but who knows? I wish this depression would just disappear and never ever come back!

Aha! Stop press 04:12 hours Sunday,19th September. I think I’ve found the video I mentioned, it’s by Dr Tracey Marks who is probably the best Youtube psychiatrist out there. If you’re interested in increasing your mental wellbeing (or understanding mental unwellness) her channel is well worth following:




Is My Depression Real Depression?

Is It a Real Depressive Episode?

Seaneen Molloy, famous mental health blogger

Back in the day I used to read a famous mental health blog called The Secret Diary of a Manic-Depressive by Seaneen Molloy who’s actually so famous now she has her own Wikipedia page! In one of her many mental health and mental illness-oriented rants and ramblings Seaneen (pronounced “shuh-neen“) expressed the view that despite all her years of mental illness, she thought that she had probably never been clinically depressed in her whole life.

This is someone who spent years going in and out of hospital while living on sickness benefits and diagnosed with type one bipolar disorder at one time and borderline personality disorder at another ― and she’s saying she thinks she’s never been clinically depressed. She’s not saying she’s never felt depressed or severely depressed, she’s not claiming never to have felt paranoid and suicidal, all she was saying that she had never been depressed for long enough for her symptoms to warrant validation by American psychiatrists as “major depressive episode” under the DSM’s hallowed diagnostic scheme. I know how she feels, because depression can be the most deceptive of conditions.

Depression can fill you with guilt. It can turn mental suffering into physical pain (pain so real that some depressed patients are convinced their problem is physical…) The more maximized it becomes, the more it minimizes itself, convincing you that feelings don’t count, that you don’t count… everything is hopeless, everything pointless… nothing counts anymore…

I had really been feeling crap when I twittered this, even though it’s presented almost as a “joke”

I felt lousy all last week. And I don’t know if I was clinically depressed, either. For years, my own depressions have tended to take a seven-day formation. Sometimes this means a depressive attack comes out of the blue, lasts exactly one week and fades as fast as it appeared, vanishing forever, never to return.

Canadian postage stamps worth approx. 84 US cents each

But more often than not, that seven-day pattern is more like a serration and part of a much larger pattern. Sometimes it’s as if I’ve had multiple seven-day depressions joined together like a wave going on and on. Other times I’ve gone into a kind of cycle where I spend one week very low and then another week not quite so low; the week after I’m very low… and so on, and so on… on and on it goes for weeks on end.

The artist Vincent Van Gough was repeatedly hospitalized for manic-depressive episodes

The bigger picture is something we’re not usually permitted to see when we’re right in the middle of it.

DSM-5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th edition (2013) the American psychiatrists’ Bible

According to the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition, better known as the DSM-5, the American psychiatrists’ Bible, a depressive episode must last a minimum 14 days or it doesn’t “count”. Interestingly on the bipolar side of things the time limits are considerably shorter: to be officially “hypomanic” (mildly manic) you need to be elevated in mood (or else really angry and irritable) and hyped up for 4 days non-stop minimum to “officially” count as hypomanic. Full-blown mania requires a 7-day minimum unless you’re admitted to hospital, in which case there is no time limit. This isn’t to say that you can’t be hypomanic for 2 days or manic for 6; psychiatrists and their patients are well aware that the DSM doesn’t hold up a mirror to reality; in fact, many psychiatrists say the DSM authors are crazier than their patients. It’s quite possible to be depressed for 13 days, especially when your mood is cycling up and down and round and round and faster and faster and faster ― and I’m pretty sure this is what Seaneen was getting at when she said she’d never officially been depressed.

And it means that I could claim not to be depressed, because I only felt totally lousy for about a week. I feel much better today than I did yesterday. But where is the cut-off point? Because 2 weeks ago I wasn’t exactly feeling that brilliant. I haven’t been really okay for a long time… Oh and then there’s the trauma factor. Bereavement. In less than a year I lost my mother and my best friend. In fact, the three closest people to me are all gone now. So maybe I’m just “mourning”… except it doesn’t feel like mourning, it feels more like melancholia. I don’t know where things are going from here.

When I mention 2nd class mail I’m not just trying to be dramatic; we really do have 1st and 2nd class mail in the UK. A standard 1st class stamp costs 76p ($1.05 US); 2nd class is 65p (90 US cents). So it’s hardly worth saving 11p (15 US cents) to send someone a “your mother just died” card. Unless you’re desperate to make a point.
Sacrifice. A beautiful rendition of the Elton John song by Sinéad O’Connor
Mental illness can be a real-life highwire act…





Red Squirrels!

Until the middle 19th century all the squirrels in Europe were Eurasian red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris). This changed when certain rich aristocrats took to importing eastern grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) from America to their vast country estates. Having grey squirrels on your land in the 19th century went along with the other exotic species the rich liked to keep as exotic pets and livestock: Egyptian geese, Chinese pheasants, Indian peacocks and so on.

Over time of course the grey squirrels moved on from the aristocrats’ stately woodlands and colonized almost the entire British mainland as well as vast swathes of Germany, France and other parts of Continental Europe.

When I was little we were told that grey squirrels out-competed the reds by grabbing all the food ― being slightly larger and more bold and daring ― qualities that endeared them to the 19th century aristocrats who kept them as exotic pets. But this doesn’t explain why red squirrels almost died out in Britain.

The real reason is that the greys carry squirrel pox, a disease to which they have a natural immunity but red squirrels don’t.

By the late 20th century the only places where red squirrels survived in Britain were the Welsh island of Anglesey and several Scottish pine forests. Red squirrels can live in pinewoods, but greys can’t.

More recently, scientists have isolated the pine marten factor. A pine marten looks like a giant red squirrel from hell. Pine martens are omnivores with a distinct preference for squirrel meat. But whereas red squirrels are naturally wary of the malicious martens and adept at outmanoeuvring them, grey squirrels are not ― and in areas where the martens abound (thanks to bountiful reintroduction programmes) the less cautious grey squirrels get slaughtered in vast numbers while red squirrels thrive!

The marten-ridden pinewoods of Scotland are full day’s car ride from Southern England. So when a Londoner like me wants to see red squirrels it’s often easier to fly over to Germany to see them than to take a 12-hour+ drive up to the Scottish Highlands*!

(*There are red squirrels to be found in Lowland Scottish woodlands, but if I’m going to Scotland I’m stocking up on haggis and single malt and going to the highest of the Highlands on the Highland Chieftain (8-hour direct train ride London Kings Cross to Inverness!))

The Red Squirrel Project is a scheme for moving red squirrels across Scotland into new habitats where they could survive. (Documentary: 7 mins)

Grey squirrels don’t just spread the pox, they also steal toy aeroplanes like this one here…

German documentary “The Crazy World of Squirrels” (43 mins) English subtitles available

UK postage stamp worth approx $1.18 USD


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Golden Hamsters in Syria

Golden hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus) have been in the pet trade for about 90 years after a mother hamster and a nestful of babies were dug up in Aleppo, Syria by zoologist Israel Arahoni in 1930.

The furry refugees were taken to the University of Jerusalem where most managed to escape. But the few that survived had more babies, and descendants of these first captive hamsters were shipped to Britain in 1931.

Golden hamsters were put on display in London Zoo in the early 1930s. By 1937 hamsters had reached private hands, and by 1942 they had been exported to the United States.

In the early days hamsters were generally considered a children’s pet, gradually increasing in popularity over the decades. By the 1990s hamsters had become fashionable with apartment dwellers.

Contrary to popular belief, Syrian hamsters are not desert creatures; they tend to prefer agricultural lands.

In Syria they have long been considered an agricultural pest with the government providing farmers with traps and poisons to help wipe this most iconic rodent out of existence!

Golden hamsters are officially listed as “vulnerable” in the wild. Thanks to government-sponsored eradication programmes Syria’s national animal is no longer easy to find in its native land.

Thankfully, however, millions of golden hamsters live happily in captivity across the world, nibbling their cages, making nests in toilet tubes and rambling on their exercise wheels night after night ― the most popular small pet on the planet!

Golden hamsters in Syria: a string of short videos by the Rodipet company investigating the hamsters’ Syrian homelands…

Golden Hamster: Rebel on the Wheel (47¾ mins) detailed documentary about the life-cycle and lifestyles of hamsters in the wild. This is the only proper full-length hamster documentary out there and I have looked! Subtitles available in 100+ languages.

Hamster-and-carrot Croatian stamp, worth approx 49 US cents


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A Long History of Depression

The term “depression” was coined in the late 19th century by the great German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin who spoke of depression as a polar opposite of excited manic states. Before Kraepelin, severe depression was generally known as melancholia and what we today call “bipolar disorder” (with manic and depressive phases) was generally termed “circular insanity”. Kraepelin used the term “manic-depressive insanity” to mean any full-blown mood disorder whether manic, depressive or both. Not everyone diagnosed with “manic-depressive insanity” 100 years ago would be diagnosed as “bipolar” today; some of them simply experienced repeated episodes of depression.

“Melancholia gravis” ― severe psychotic depression

The difference between the diagnostic categories of 1921 and those of today is that today’s clinical depression encompasses a far wider range of severity than manic-depressive insanity ever did. Depressed patients with manic-depressive insanity really were, in the terminology of the day, “insane” ― too sick to work, too sick to cope with the demands of daily life, too ill often to partake in extended conversation and sometimes incapable of speaking at all. In today’s jargon they all had severe depression, and most of them were psychotic, often deluded and experiencing auditory and visual hallucinations.

Symptoms that most people associate with schizophrenia today were relatively common in depression back in the days before antidepressants or antipsychotics or mood stabilizers or ECT. Here’s Dr Kraepelin’s own description from 1913 of some of his most extreme cases (published in English 1920):

Abundant hallucinations appear. The patients see evil spirits, death, heads of animals, smoke in the house, crowds of monsters, lions’ cubs, a grey head with sharp teeth, angels, saints, dead relatives, the Trinity in the firmament, a head rising in the air. Especially at night extraordinary things happen. A dead friend sits on the pillow and tells the patient stories. The patient thinks that he is on a voyage; God stands beside the bed and writes down everything; the devil lies in wait behind the bed; Satan and the Virgin Mary come up out of the floor. God speaks in words of thunder; the devil speaks in church; something is moving in the wall. The patient hears his tortured relatives screaming and lamenting; the birds whistle his name; “Do away with him, do away with him,” “Now she’s coming, now there’ll be blood again,” “Now we’ve caught her nicely,” “You have nothing more,” “You’re going to hell.” A woman is standing at the door and is giving information to the persecutors; there is a voice in his stomach, “You must still wait a long time till you are arrested; you are going to purgatory when the bells ring.” The patient is electrified by the telephone, is illuminated at night by Röntgen-rays, pulled along by his hair; someone is lying in his bed; his food tastes of soapy water or excrement, of corpses and mildew.

Kraepelin, E Manic-Depressive Insanity and Paranoia (1920) Chapter V, p89

“Periodic depression after isolated manic attacks” p141

Of course milder depressions were recognized 100 years ago, but went by different names: neurasthenia, hypochondria, “psychogenic depression” or simply “moodiness”. Back then many who were tormented by recurrent “moodiness” simply had to get on with life.

Dr Emil Kraepelin, legendary German psychiatrist (1856-1926)

People with money tended to visit resort towns to attempt to refresh themselves with mineral springs and mountain air. When the attacks became more chronic or severe they were apt to fall into the hands of quacks who treated them with anything from hot cups to magnets placed on the heart to tinctures of opium, this last treatment of course being highly addictive. But conveniently enough (for the quacks) there was no requirement back in the day to list ingredients of patent medicines, meaning once hooked you could only be assured of relief by purchasing supplies of the same branded mystery medicine, not even knowing it was in fact opium you were addicted to. Then as now, only the worst cases of depression were treated in mental hospitals, often after years of suffering, failures and disappointments.

Antidepressant prescribing in Britain from 1998 onwards, showing the general upsurge

Nowadays we have antidepressants, so everything’s so much better ― isn’t it? Not necessarily. Since the introduction of SSRI antidepressants in the late 1980s (drugs in the Prozac family) antidepressants have been prescribed in ever larger quantities for ever-milder states of depression. This coincided with widespread publicity about the addictive properties of anti-anxiety medications like Valium, so doctors simply switched from dishing out one kind of pills to another. Between 2007 and 2017 antidepressant prescriptions doubled in the UK, reflecting an increase in popularity worldwide. Nowadays almost anyone who visits the doctor saying they’re feeling down and not sleeping is likely to walk away with an antidepressant prescription.

However antidepressants are not equally suitable for all types of depression, and that includes severe depression. It’s now accepted that in bipolar disorder antidepressants are highly likely to cause a “manic switch” ― either into full-blown mania or a nasty mixed state where manic and depressive symptoms combine. This is a problem, because in the early days of anyone’s mental health “journey” it’s not always clear who is bipolar and who isn’t. It’s common for bipolar patients to experience repeated depressive episodes for many years, sometimes decades before mania ever appears. About half of all people who get recurrent depressions are bipolar to some degree.

Bipolar rapid cycling mood chart

On top of this, researchers have noticed that along with the upsurge in antidepressant prescriptions there’s been an upsurge in bipolar rapid cycling. Once considered a relatively rare phenomenon, rapid cycling means bipolar disorder with four or more manic, hypomanic, depressed or mixed episodes per year ― although most rapid cyclers experience far more than that.

So what’s the answer? When a patient is known to be bipolar they are almost never given an antidepressant without a mood stabilizer ― either lithium, carbamazepine, valproate or lamotrigine, sometimes a combination. Many patients are now given antipsychotics as a primary medication because these drugs also have anti-manic properties, can stabilize mood and are said to be valuable treatments for bipolar depression even without other drugs.

For anyone dogged by depression or bipolar disorder, the situation today is brighter than it ever was… there are many treatments but still no cure. For the doctors and the drug companies this is a great thing. It means their multi-millions of mood-disordered patients will be coming back for more pills for many years to come!




Amazing Birds

This is a baby bluetit, most beautiful of all the common British garden birds

Oystercatcher drills into a stubborn shell

European jay is almost too shy to eat from a hand… (as featured in yesterday’s European jays post)

A gaggle of assorted lovebirds

Tiny Pacific parrotlet stands his ground against a giant lovebird

Charlie the Pacific blue parrotlet fills his treasure chest

Tame budgies park themselves on the windscreenwipers, Australian Outback

Oriental mandarin duck shows off his exotic plumage next to an American wood duck

American wood duck takes to the air…

And last but not least, not exactly a bird but she can still fly ― giant European hornet buzzes away from a potful of regular wasps…


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European Jay

The European or Eurasian jay (Garrulus glandarius) is a shy and retiring bird with a higgledy-piggledy hotchpotch look about it. They’re related to other jays from the crow family, but are far shyer than, say, the American blue jay. They’ll hardly ever let you get near them, and when you do, you’re likely to see little more than a flash of bright blue and a flurry of disappearing feathers!

European jay in German garden, displaying typically shy behaviour…

Fledgling jay chick with a punk-rocker hairstyle frolicking in a French birdbath…

Talking jay! Talking German and I can’t really follow the words, but he’s having a good try!

Tame enough not to fly away, and yet still extremely shy...

This jay is not shy and fearlessly packs its crop (a bird’s equivalent to a hamster’s cheekpouches) in public

Fearless American blue jay proudly pecking the tomatoes and not caring





Cheeky Chipmunks

Chipmunks have giant pouches ― even so, this tiny critter looks more like he’s trying to smoke a cigar

Seeing a chipmunk emerging from underground can be a bizarre experience

Chipmunks only live in burrows during the winter, like this Siberian chipmunk who sleeps deep beneath the snow where temperatures are actually warmer

This happy chipmunk appears totally oblivious to the furious squeals of the shrew who pops out from under the rock saying, “Begone from here, foul monster!”

Pygmy chipmunk kisses a rabbit

This is a great video about an American chipmunk named Charlie who appears to understand when told what to do.

Here’s the full chipmunk-and-shrew video…

Cute! A Hopi chipmunk (Neotamias rufus) from the Southwestern United States

See the full videos on Youtube:–P0,,,


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Save the Giant Hamsters of Europe!

The giant European hamster (Cricetus cricetus) also known as the common European or black-bellied hamster is the largest hamster in the world, weighing as much as 450g ― one pound!

The 1ft (30cm) long giant hamster was thought of as a plague only fifty years ago as hordes of the tubby rodents went ploughing through farmers’ fields everywhere from the Netherlands to Kazakhstan causing havoc with their cavernous burrows and mega-stores of “stolen” grain!

Sadly the giant hamsters are now rare across much of Europe, except for a few hamster hotspots. They famously abound in the graveyards of Vienna where they are popular with residents and tourists alike.

Giant Hammy runs rampant in the Viennese graveyard…

But the only place these giant black-bellied hamsters are still found in abundance seems to be Russia where many locals call them “rats” and consider them pests for burrowing into their vegetable patches and causing uproar among the carrots!

Like many burrowing rodents, the giant black-bellied hamster is shortsighted. In days gone by “mouse sight” was an alternative term for shortsightedness. This means they are vulnerable to predators (not to mention farmers who used to trap them and poison them in vast numbers.) One big reason they’re dying out, according to experts, is giant areas of monoculture ― fields planted with the same crops for miles around, meaning the hamsters have little to eat once those crops have been harvested. Unless something is done soon, these giant hamsters won’t have a life anywhere outside zoos and wildlife parks!

Giant Hammy plundering strawberries among the pigeons!

Hamster expert Victoria Raechel on giant hamsters

Is this the end for Germany’s giant black-bellied hamsters? Watch the video now (4mins)… Save the tubby hamsters!

Giant hamsters are threatened with extinction. German news report (6¾mins)

THE GOLDEN HAMSTER ― REBEL ON THE WHEEL 47¾ mins. Golden (non-giant) hamsters in the wild! The Syrian hamster (Mesocricetus auratus) is better known as the tubby pet that likes to sleep all day and then run nonstop for hours on a squeaky wheel at night. The Latin name translates as “medium-sized golden hamster”.This film tells the torrid tale of passion between Fritz and Milly, a pair of golden hamsters who strike up a sizzling affair after sniffing out each other’s scent marks in the shimmering deserts of Western Syria.