They always recognise us in our local Chinese restaurant. ‘Hello, how you?’ they ask, smiling (or possibly smirking). This is not because we’re regulars, but because, a few years ago, my husband, Hew, caused a great and obviously memorable kerfuffle one night. We were quietly eating our Peking duck when another diner began to wave his arms about and shout. Not the sort of thing you expect in Islington. A waiter came out of the kitchen with a rolled-up newspaper brandished in his hand. There was something amiss.
Then, my husband saw that the drama was being caused by a large moth. Diner and waiter were intent on killing it with napkins and newspaper. Hew, among other fine characteristics, loves insects (except cockroaches) and, when he saw that the insect involved was a red underwing (Catocala nupta, a marvellous large moth with a wingspan of 3in) he, too, saw red. The last time he had seen one, decades before, was on the outside of his prep-school window when he was being bathed by matron. Say no more.
He couldn’t let such slaughter happen and sprang to the moth’s defence, causing mayhem in the dining room as he scattered chow mein and sweet and sour in an attempt to catch it alive. Finally, he trapped it in his cupped hands, evading the staff and customers, and raced to the front door, where he liberated it into London’s night sky. The whole restaurant applauded. A memorable evening was had by all. And the moth lived to tell its offspring about its escape.
The red underwing and other spectacular moths are treated like killers because people don’t realise that it’s only the two types of clothes moth (Tineola bisselliella and Tinea pellion-ella) that chomp on our cashmere. Others are harmless-indeed, they’re beautiful and rare. They should be loved, not persecuted.
I found a tiger moth (Arctia caja), a wonderful confection of cream and scarlet with black spots and stripes, clinging to a nettle in Co Durham. Its caterpillar is the cuddlesome woolly bear. Its looks outdid for me any patterns found on the show-off red admiral butterfly. And as for the swallowtail-just over the top, darling. We found hummingbird hawk-moths (Macroglossum stella-tarum) on the flowering lavender in our Suffolk farmyard behaving just like the real humming-birds I once saw hovering over my rum punch in Tobago. Unlike many moths, it loves the sun. Its long tongue extended, it seemed suspended in space, its wings a blur, millimetres from the nectar, supping with fervour.
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I’ve never seen a death’s-head hawkmoth (Acherontia atropos) the largest British moth, with a wing span of up to 5in, on whose back the pattern of a skull is eerily evident-but, if you can see a red underwing in a Chinese restaurant, you never know where you might expect to see the death’s head. Highgate cemetery, perhaps, next to Karl Marx? Added to its looks, if you handle it, it screams.
And spare a thought for the cinnabar moth (Tyria jacobaeae), another beauty, with lower wings the colour of Chinese lacquer and upper wings brown with a single red stripe and two spots. Its caterpillars prefer a tasty snack of ragwort, which people seem intent on eradicating. I know the weed is a danger to horses, but it should be left to flourish in horse-free areas purely to encourage the lovely cinnabar. And we do.
And moths have such splendid names: the hoary footman, the great brocade, Barrett’s marbled coronet and the scarce dagger could have come out of a Georgette Heyer romance. Or, less aristocratic, there are the northern drab (a bit Andy Capp), the obscure wainscot, the anomalous and the uncertain moth. The cosmopolitan (visions of Noël Coward cigarette holders and languid limbs) was, according to my moth book, seen in 1908 ‘flying wildly over rough herbage at dusk’ in Ireland. Just as the large red underwing was seen flying freely over Islington in 2008.
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