My grandmother was no philosopher, but she had firm beliefs about human limitations. When her grand-daughters, nieces and nephews exceeded their breeding and went off to get PhDs, Rhodes Scholarships and high-paying jobs, she expressed cautious pride. When we came back each summer and reverted to the feckless, aimless and graceless creatures we were before we left home, she hooted: ‘You can take a donkey travellin’, but it won’t come back a horse.’
She fought to convert us to the Southern faith that ‘manners are more important than brains’. I still hear her saying it. That and ‘Don’t bang the door, dammit’. The door was the screen door. A real screen door with a wooden frame and wire mesh that kept out mosquitoes, wasps, bees, hornets and flies. The windows had screens, too, ingenious inventions that enabled us to enjoy a bug-free breeze created by the attic fan with blades like spare parts for a B-52.
Forgive this nostalgic ramble, but I’m so homesick for the bang of a screen door that I could weep. Not only for the music of the double-bam, but the rusting wire pooching out from the wooden frame where so many hands had pushed it open and the little plug-holes of cotton wool.
The person who invented the screen door deserved a Nobel Prize and yet, here on the Suffolk plains, there isn’t one to be seen or heard. Google ‘screen doors in the UK’ and you come up with 419,000,000 results, not one worth a buffalo nickel. You’ll find flimsy metal doors that slide, chains that look like kit for fetishists and plastic strips like something out of a Pagnol movie, but nothing that would keep the flies out of a tough juke joint on the edge of a Louisiana swamp.
Actually, this is about flies. Or rather, *@%& FLIES! We’ve never had a summer like it. Flies everywhere. I leave the overhead fan in the kitchen on day and night, light lavender candles and collect fly-swatters the way I buy those off-the-peg reading glasses, so I can see to swat in every room.
When company comes, I explain that the flies are a ‘country thing’, part of the organic pastoral experience, but the conversation hits a lull as I hop up to swat. Although Rachel Carson is my patron saint, the Rentokil man has been here so many times, he’s threatened to bring his sleeping bag if I don’t get one of those mounted fly-zappers that electrocute fly families night and day. I started to say no on aesthetic grounds, but then I looked up.
Dangling from the kitchen ceiling is a quartet of waxy strips, disgusting and mesmerising, the day’s pile-up of flies in the fly-glue graveyard. My grandmother would gasp at the redneckedness of fly strips, but she was spared this indignity by the efficacy of her screen doors.
My husband blames the cows, but we’ve had sheep and horses here for years. I blame the ‘composting facility’ in the village, located on the old wartime airfield. Supposedly ‘good’ compost made from ‘Green waste’. This summer, the company is guiltily offering ‘free fly strips to every resident of the village’. Suffolk County Council is considering locating a ‘major waste disposal plant’ beside the composting plant, complete with 295ft chimney and capacity for ‘processing a minimum of 100,000 tons a year of municipal and commercial waste’. We all say no, no no, but the council has powers that pass all democratic understanding.
We were taught that, during the Spanish-American War, 4,000 soldiers died, but that typhoid spread by flies killed more than 5,000. Flies also spread malaria, yellow fever, cholera and sleeping sickness. We became expert little fly-killers, carrying out our patriotic extermination campaign with Maoist zeal. Who knows if there’s a connection between house flies and swine flu, but, just in case, I’m making a screen door in green Suffolk oak. I’ll know it works if I hear a heavenly ‘dammit’ when it bangs.
* To read more spectator, subscribe and save