disappointed me. The people seemed angry, not proud, and at twenty-five I had
my expectations. At twenty-five, nineteen seventies London seemed old and
stingy really – to a young man from Australia on his world adventure.
But not in Hampstead, as it happened.
In Hampstead we were poor but we walked in blustery weather on Hampstead Heath,
seeing the drizzle-clad city far below us. In Hampstead the landlady was high-born:
she served the supermarket butter on family silver; and she smoked cheap
menthol cigarettes through an ebonite holder, clenching it between her teeth or
holding it obliquely, beside her elegant face. We talked into the early hours,
the landlady and I. Never mind how old she was, I fell in love. And London disappointed
her too, she said. Nowadays.
That was years ago and the particulars
of the afternoon I want to tell you about occurred despite her really, as I
remember it now. Its excitement, still remembered, occurred despite her being
responsible for the circumstances of the occasion. She merely poured the tea,
while the interest for me was masculine, boyish perhaps, independent of her
grandeur and sexuality.
It was one of her guests who
enthralled me that afternoon: an old man of nondescript demeanor – grey haired,
his tweed jacket brown and worn. He slurped his tea, and I shared the battered
chaise-longue with him, and wondered what to talk about. The floral pattern on
my china cup had ceased to be of interest to me, and I was bored, I suppose,
and not much company for him. Yet he wanted to talk, and that is the point I
want to make: he had something to say.
He told me that he had long since
retired from his university post but that he still continued his researches,
undeterred. He still studied the world-wide distribution of insects and the
messages from the ancient past that distribution might encode.
‘Often,’ he said, ‘I don’t sleep for
nights on end, my head is so full of fleas and ants and dragonflies and
beetles.’ His eyes shone. ‘They are my darlings,’ he said. ‘I have adored them
all my life.’
Eons ago, he told me, a great
continent broke apart, and its parts moved about the surface of the earth. They
coalesced to form new continents, and then they too broke up. Those parts
regrouped to form other continents, and eventually to form the continents we
know today. That breaking up of those great plates, and their movements about
the globe, were events of infinitesimal slowness as millions upon millions of
years accrued. The time is beyond our imagining of it, he said, so great was
its stretch, so gradual those events.
Yet the insects were there. So vastly
more ancient than ourselves, the insects lived and multiplied and adapted to
change. And the insects’ living space broke up too and reformed and broke and
grouped again. Each continental plate a raft of primeval life slipped and
turned and slithered about the globe, and the insects of the current world
carry the evidence for all that then occurred.
‘Often,’ he said, ‘I don’t sleep for
nights on end, my head is so full of the pieces of that great jigsaw puzzle of
insect-bearing plates.’ His eyes gazed into mine. ‘Compare,’ he said, ‘the
ladybirds of the west coast of South America, with those of east Africa, for a
start. See how the mouth parts have modified and colours merged with the
vegetation, yet ancient clues persist. See the Egyptian hammer fly and the
central Asian night wasp.’
‘I’m from Australia,’ I said,
desperate to add at least something of my own.
‘Most wonderful, to come from
Australia.’ He seized on my meager contribution like a new discovery. ‘And do
you know,’ he said, ‘Australia is an entire continent today, separate from the
‘Of course I know…’
‘But do you really know that? As I
know it? Do you?’
‘Well…’ I began.
‘I’ll tell you,’ he said.
‘I suppose you will,’ I said and then
regretted my rudeness.
‘You think I’m an old show off?’ he
We both laughed.
‘I’ll tell you something else I can do
too,’ he said, by no means offended. ‘I can recognise instantly where any
insect comes from, from anywhere on earth.’
‘That’s impressive. How?’
‘When you are as familiar with the
little darlings as I am, it’s easy of course. Whether they are ants or ticks or
cicadas, the African ones have an African look to them, the Chinese ones look
Chinese, and the Australians are clearly from Australia. It’s all obvious to
me, you know.’
‘How do you mean, they ‘look African’
or they ‘look Chinese’?’
‘Like the landscape. Or the
vegetation. They look the same as other elements of the total scene. In
whatever part of the world they come from they resemble their surroundings in
that way. They’ve evolved that way.’
‘But why should they?’ I said. ‘Why
would they evolve to look like the landscape or the vegetation?’
‘Of course they do. It’s simply a
matter of Mother Nature having a sense of style.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I see.’
I don’t know now whether anything the
old professor said was the truth about the ancient happenings to which he
referred. He may have made it all up. As for ‘Mother Nature’s sense of style’,
I will leave it to you to decide what you think of that. You can see things how
His claims passed untested by me, of
course. I had no Australian grasshopper in my pocket at the time, or South
American stick insect, or Arabian gnat that I could whip out and say: ‘So where
does this come from?’
He told me nothing I now believe and I
never met him again. Yet I remember forever that occasion in disappointing
London long ago.