Works in the Herald 1934

Today I found the first green aphis on one of my rose bushes. I promptly blew tobacco smoke in his face until he fell off his perch looking very sick and disgusted. I felt more than a little sick and dizzy myself by the time it was done, so I was able to sympathise with him as he breathed his last, dreaming of the couple of million offspring that now would never be his.

It appears that some gardening genius once upon a time discovered that aphides are prominent members of the Anti-Tobacco League and straightaway took a mean advantage of the knowledge, greatly to the discomfort of the aphis nation.

I, too, have frequently and meanly used this knowledge to rid my rose bushes of their myriads of happily grazing aphides; but I always do it with a certain reluctance, firstly because the aphidian attitude to life seems so closely allied to my own.

They are such placid, unemotional creatures, who do not spend their time rushing about to catch trains or bolting a meal in order to be in time to get a good seat at the football match. They just sit dreaming in the pleasant sunlight, tranquilly absorbing nutriment, and let the mad, uneasy world drift by. I rather admire their poise and unconquerable aplomb.

Secondly, to realise that I am depriving some hard-working ant of vast herds of milch cows is not a pleasant thought.

In these days of widespread nature study, every schoolboy knows how ants employ the aphis as man employs the cow, shepherding and caring for those domestic beasts so that their milk supply shall provide luxury for his cohorts and colonies.

Well, the other day, when I was seated in the garden in one of my dreaming and more or less creative moods with my eyes closed and my work -- or, anyhow, the materials for it, resting on my knees, it seemed to me that I heard a prominent cattle-owning ant remark to another ant:

"That's him! That big lump of cheese sitting there half-asleep in the canvas chair. Fat lot of use he is to the world. Last summer I had close on a million fat springers grazing on that Golden Emblem, besides about six hundred thousand stores doing well on the Paul Scarlet.

"One way and another I had the makings of a pretty good dairy herd. Then what does this lumbering hunk of meat do but go and squirt them all over with a lot of dirty tobacco water. Just for fun, I suppose.

"I'd like to give him tobacco water! If I wasn't so busy, I'd climb up the leg of his pants now and give him a couple of quick shots of formic. It would be worth it to see him spring off his tail: the big, hulking cattle-duffer!"

With lively memories of my last recovery from unconsciousness after an ant sting, I opened my eyes at this point and hastily moved my chair to another part of the garden. The doctor told me I have a strange idiosyncrasy for ant poison. I am prepared to believe him without further experiment.

But it was not of ants that I intended to write, nor of aphides so much as of their insidious enemy: the Old Clothes Man.

I know him by no other name, though I have no doubt he is quite well known to entomologists.

He is a furtive and rather filthy-looking creature and I doubt that he ever takes a bath. About the same size as a well-developed aphis himself, he is not greatly unlike one, except that his back is covered with a number of sharp, thorn-like spikes, and he wears the evil expression of a bowel-less, kidnapping gangster.

Of his opening gambit, when he fares forth undisguised for his morning meal, I have no knowledge; but I have watched him at work later when, with a few empty aphis skins slung on his thorny back, he strolls casually among the aphides crowded thickly upon a rose spurt, with his shrewd eye peeled for the juiciest and fattest of them all.

"Any ole clo! Any ole clo!" one imagines him shouting as he sidles up to a fine fat milch cow. "Good morning, madam. A beautiful day. Might I enquire if you have -"

Then, without warning, he seizes her, sucks her dry, slings her empty skin across his back for further camouflage and strolls on shouting his call -- the meanest, craftiest, most unclean and hypocritical murderer known to me in insect life.

But withal, he is an interesting blackguard; and next time I meet an unoffending entomologist I mean to corner him and find out all that is to be known about that devious old humbug, my Old Clothes Man.

Herald, 12 September 1934, p8

Copyright © Perry Middlemiss 2003