Image copyright: C / Sun Dried Sparrows
In the early ’70s my parents occasionally went out on a Friday or Saturday night, perhaps to eat cheese fondue with friends. Mum would dress in a kaftan-style maxi dress and dad would wear a wide and garish purple tie that she’d chosen for him, though I know he wished he could stay at home and fiddle with his radiogram in his socks and sandals instead. My big sister would go to the local Granada cinema with her boyfriend to try and sneak in to see the latest X-rated film, so there was nobody home to look after me - but there was a women’s teacher training college in town and my parents hired babysitters from there.
My memories of those babysitters was that they were, unfortunately, mostly rather sour-faced girls who brought their non-communicative boyfriends along and watched TV all night in the hope that I wouldn’t interrupt their covert groping with requests for Ribena or stories or any kind of attention at all, really. With the exception of one: a warm and smiley young woman who found that we had an area of common interest, then promptly indulged it for the whole evening and inspired me so much I just can’t forget her.
I think it all started when she found my ‘Ant and Bee’ library books. The conversation turned to the subject of little creatures, not just ants and bees, but also millipedes, woodlice and moths, etc. It was nearly time for bed but she helped me into my dressing-gown and black plimsolls and, just before dusk, took me outside and up to the top of the long, high back garden, where the compost pile was. Gently she poked and sifted through the rotting vegetable peelings and garden cuttings with a stick, whilst I crouched attentively at her side, and uncovered creepy crawlies and slimy things of all descriptions, telling me enthusiastically a little bit about each one. I was mesmerised. I had no idea that in this mound of dead things there was so much life.
An interest in wildlife of all shapes and sizes, but especially the miniature and winged versions, has stayed with me since and my chance to indulge it even more now comes at the end of each May with what has become something of a British TV institution, BBC2’s ‘Springwatch’. I’m no fan of reality TV but this is something quite different – where ‘Four In A Bed’ relates to blackbird eggs in a nest, and ‘Come Dine With Me’ is footage of a mole feasting on worms stored in its underground larder.
Spring is perhaps the best time to observe so much of this other world. My own environment is teeming with life at the moment – judging by the sounds they’re making the bluetits are about to fledge from the nest box, and I’m starting to feel like an excited mother myself, just waiting. Yesterday I picked up a cockchafer (yes, really) which had flown into the house by mistake – a large, clumsy-looking flying beetle with feathery antennae that looks like a mint humbug with legs and is only seen at this time of year. It played dead when I handled it, but soon returned to normality when placed on a hollyhock leaf, where it got itself into gear for take-off by flexing its flight muscles with a loud hum.
To add to the reality outside my window, ‘Springwatch’ offers amazing privileged views of barn owls, dragonflies, osprey, garden birds, snails and many other beasties and their babies with an intimacy we’d never usually witness. To top it all we now have the added value of Chris Packham presenting: somebody I started admiring a few years after my babysitting experience because he was a bit of a punk. With his spiky peroxide hair and a leather bike jacket he was an appealing and relatable alternative to the more geeky wildlife programme presenters I’d grown up watching until then. Now he hasn’t even changed all that much – plus he knows how to tap into those of us who share his musical/cultural background as well as love of nature. This year phrases such as ‘cygnet committee’ ‘prettiest star’, ‘be my wife’ and ‘starman’ (amongst many others) are being casually dropped into the commentary. It’s a subtle game he plays with those of us who want to join in, so I’ll be listening out for more Bowie song titles (in previous series it was the Smiths and the Cure) as I learn about pine marten faeces and dormouse whiskers. It doesn’t get much better.