RICHARD WILLIAMSON: Appreciation of moths is music to my ears...


On my way up the M25, I heard an interview with Sir Harrington Birtwhistle on my car radio.

The day was hot, the traffic horrible, the concrete stretched to infinity.

Oh help, thought I, can I cope with a discussion on 12-tone music as we crawl towards the Dartford tunnel? Lads with thumping techno dazing the senses from their Sierra windows crawled by on either side. I turned up Sir H in self-defence, or was it revenge?

He was talking about moths. The ghetto blasters and the tunnel disappeared. I had no idea the elderly composer was aware. His interviewer was not. “Moths! You’re not talking about the ones which chew through your clothes?”

“No. There are a thousand species in this country and only two of them damage clothes.”

He had written a very modern piece of music to be given its premier at the Proms, about all those big and beautiful denizens of the night which had become extinct. Then his piece of that music was played. Well, it could have been a description of the end of the world as far as I was concerned, for I am 12-tone deaf.

I can appreciate that bending of harmony at the end of the Jupiter symphony when Mozart foresaw a new dimension, but never lived to explore it. I go along with Messian and his Catalogue d’Oiseaux, which is obvious if you know any birdsong. That’s all. But how my heart warmed to Birtwhistle on the M25.

Gradually the world is learning about insects, and how we need them. Butterflies are no longer just pretty trinkets of the countryside. Their presence spells our health and safety, like the canary down the coalmine.

The short-haired bumblebee gets no sniggers from TV presenters nowadays. People realise these insects make food production possible.

One day soon people will appreciate the work the insects in my picture here, taken in the summer near Midhurst, do for the human race.

They are hoverflies, drinking the fire of the sun. They too pollinate our crops. Some say they are better at the job even than bees, because there so many of them and they do not collect pollen on their leg sacs, but just spread it from flower to flower.

In some years Sussex has swarms of them flying across the Channel from their breeding grounds down south, when they land exhausted on the beaches. I have had them land on my head when I was swimming off Church Norton.

I have seen people swiping at them in fear, thinking they were wasps. But they make no sound, and are harmless. They might be attracted to yellow clothes, thinking these were flowers, or that your jewellery or glasses were moisture they could imbibe.

If only I were a composer. Hoverfly harmony could calm the fevered brow beset by motorway madness. Over to you, Sir Harrington.