My daughter made a new friend at school today.
But her fresh acquaintance was not gifted with the standard two legs: rather, it had six, and a hard shell.
A shield bug came to visit her during a national test.
It’s a spindly legged leaf-chewer with a shield-shaped set of boney wings, and a cheeky-chappie attitude .
Every child in their sixth year of schooling must take standard assessment tasks this week, and today it was the turn of the mental arithmetic paper, during which time is short and concentration is king.
Apparently the bug tried some blatantly attention seeking behaviour, wandering onto the space where Maddie was just about to put a 5.
It gazed engagingly at her, and won her young heart. If it had been a frog, and she a princess, this could have been the beginning of something big; but bugs just don’t have the same kudos as frogs, which is saying something because frogs are generally considered something of a mythical eyesore.
The bug’s lack of charisma was underlined later: much later, as the class were about to go home for the day and my daughter was bidding farewell. A peer in a not particularly engaging class exclaimed in loud disgust on beholding my daughter’s new friend, and trod on it before anyone else could fraternise with it.
Poor little living thing. Its path to princedom, or at least a happy bug life, brought to a sudden halt. Because few of us can admit to having a true regard for insects.
There are those who adore them. The composer, Harrison Birtwhistle, for one. This week I listened to the most extraordinary radio programme inspired by moths, those buzzing night-spirits which get trapped in our hair and our nightmares.
It was called Requiem for a Moth.
It seems that some find them quite beautiful. Birtwhistle has become entranced by the creatures and their fairy-tale names.
As a child he ordered silk-moth eggs. He put them in a drawer over the winter. One morning, nine months later, he woke and the whole wall was covered with hundreds of baby silk-worms, moving in a fan up the wall.
Do you love them, asked the gifted presenter, because they are despised?
It’s partly the mystery, and their names, Birtwhistle told him. Umbra, woodiana, prolita, green-brindled crescent, beautiful arches, lunar underwing. Their names read like a poem, he says.
He talks about imagos, the last stage of development into an insect. Some composers, says Birtwhistle, come into the world fully fledged imagos, with technique and memory: all one needs to be a composer.
“I’m not like that,” he adds. “Everybody’s better at doing things than me. Life’s not been like that for me. Maybe I’m in the larval stage right now.”
His orchestration and sketches for his Requiem for a Moth are full of mystery and winsome beauty worthy of these winged wraiths.
Our children’s stories are peppered with caterpillars turning into butterflies, bad-tempered ladybirds, wise spiders and engaging ants. Our youngsters love insects. But somewhere along the line between childhood and our adult years we grow a revulsion.
There is one overriding example of sympathetic adult writing about an insect, and its circumspect perceptiveness both enchants me and breaks my heart.
It’s not a novel one is naturally drawn to, this short offering by Franz Kafka, ‘Metamorphosis’ because it’s about hard-working young man, Gregor, who wakes up one day to find out he has turned into a very large insect.
Don’t stop reading. Our revulsion kicks in at such a basic level it is easy to close the book and walk away. But it’s so very short, and written with true genius: a matter of fact account of how it feels to wake up and realise one is two hours late for one’s train into the city. What is more, one is unable to get up because one is lying on a hard shell for a back.
It is the detail that captures us right at the outset: the absurd juxtaposition of his boss coming to the house to see where he is, and his family knocking on the bedroom door; and all the time his speech is now that of an insect, and they cannot understand a segmented syllable he is saying.
And then as time wears on and it becomes clear his state will never change, his family can only view him as a burden who repulses them and frightens away paying lodgers.
His beloved sister, for whom he had such plans when he was a human, loses her self-control and rants to the family: the insect is no longer Gregor, their brother. If it had been, he would have left long ago to save them the heartache and inconvenience of living alongside an insect.
The following dawn, Gregor decides without rancour, he must go. And as the sun rises he chooses to breathe his last.
He is an outcast in a desolate, uncaring world: not a million miles from those moths, or my daughter’s little bug today. Gregor’s death is met with relief. What a clever metaphor for a young man to choose, to show utter dislocation from a loving, caring world.
No point in being naive about these little creatures: they can defend with every millimetre of their being with stings and antlers and body armour a-plenty.
But it’s as well to remember they, too, have earnt their place on this planet.