Wednesday, 19 April 2017

House of Ladybirds

Opening the door, I am greeted by a small, black-spotted, blood-red blob, slowly
crawling along the carpet; a glance to the left reveals a clot of dotted shells glistening on the
skirting board.  And facing me like a tiny, glossy brooch, as if pinned to the white border of the door,
a lucent oval, purplish scarlet, darkened by two deep black blotches, like a pair of panda's eyes.  It is
early spring - and the ladybirds have returned.

When I moved into my current flat in 2015, I was warned by my neighbours who occupied the ground floor that "we're over-run with ladybirds here," and immediately entertained notions of a full-scale invasion: beetle battalions pouring through the letter box, a red-and-black menace gradually devouring the house and all its fixtures.  Would the insects gag and bind me in my sleep?  Would I return from work one day only to find that the building had been pounded into rubble by millions of writhing ladybirds, a Coccinellid calamity which carried no survivors? 

Little was I to know, in those early ladybird-laden days, that it would not be these diminutive, dominoesque, dotted domes who would pose problems at the house - but the neighbours themselves.  A population of ladybirds, I was to find, was a pleasant addition to the building.  It was like entering a fairytale house, the surprise of them winding their solitary ways across the door handle, or the occasional glimmer of a vermillion voyager tickling its way across the carpet on a hot summer's afternoon.  The ladybirds caused no trouble, unlike their chaotic human counterparts, who lunged from one cider-splattered brawl to another, and whose antics eventually earned them their marching orders. When these booze-brained vandals finally slunk off to wreak havoc on some other unsuspecting street, appropriately departing on Halloween, I was delighted to be left with ladybirds as neighbours.

Facing the canal, the pavements below my balcony attract scores of frogs; Red Admirals and Cabbage White butterflies sail through the garden, and my stone-straddling flowerbeds are home to wide diversities of slugs and snails.  But the ladybirds, seemingly addicted to the herbs alongside the frontage of the house, mill around the doorway and prefer to edge their way inside, establishing small colonies, or turning up on my kitchen floor like polished badges. 
My exposure to these unusual animals casts my mind back more than thirty years, to the glass tanks ranged upon a table of my primary school classroom, where I would watch with an uneasy mixture of anxiety and fixation the multi-coloured progress of dozens of ladybirds, climbing up the glass, bearing their thin, tinselly wings, oozing sticky substances which dribbled down the glass.  Nowadays, I would struggle, morally, to accommodate this sort of exercise, and prefer to admire these magnificent, jewel-like creatures in the great outdoors  - or in my own house, at their convenience.

Image result for LADYBIRD BOOKS

This newfound proximity to ladybirds has caused me to reflect on the poetry in which they have featured, not least the famous nursery rhyme, Ladybird, Ladybird, which can be taken as a sad, sinister, 16th Century allusion of persecution:

Ladybird, ladybird
Fly away home,
Your house is on fire
And your children all gone;
All except one
And that's little Ann,
And she has crept under
The warming pan.

According to the journalist Emma Clayton, The rhyme is said to originate from the practice of calling Catholics (ladybird being a derivative of "Our Lady") to Protestant services in the 16th century, when priests were burned at stakes for holding Mass.
In a less gruesome, contemporaneous variation, farmers were said to cry out the verse before burning fields after harvests, to protect the ladybirds which reduced pests in their crops.

Similar ladybird nursery rhymes and folk songs abound throughout Europe, and I have copied below a Polish variant, with the English translation:

Mała Biedroneczka siedem kropek miała,
Na zielonej łące wesoło fruwała.
Złapał ją pajączek w swoją pajęczynę
- uratuję Cię Biedronko, a ty mi coś przynieś.
Biedroneczko leć do nieba, przynieś mi kawałek chleba.
Little ladybird had seven dots,
She was flying over a green meadow.
A little spider caught her in its spiderweb
I will set you free, little ladybird, and you bring me something.
Fly to the sky, little ladybird, bring me a piece of bread

When I first watched ladybird larva massing on the stems of sedum in the rockier reaches of my garden, I wondered if I had stumbled upon some new species of Lilliputian reptile.  Slowly bending squiggles of black plates, they slowly twitched and twisted along the stems and soil, their bodies longer than would be their eventual carapace-cocooned forms as ladybirds. 

Surprisingly, given its prominence in folklore and the rhymes of old, the ladybird has featured little in
the literature of the last couple of centuries.  In DH Lawrence's First World War novella The Ladybird, the insect features ominously as the coat of arms of a German officer, arranged as the centrepiece of a thimble that he once gave to the married woman who would become his lover while he convalesces at the home she shares with her husband. Australian poet Clive Sansom declared that there was No tenderer creature on earth; but the best known poem to eulogise the ladybird is surely John Clare's Clock-a-Clay.  Taking its name from a common early 19th Century Northamptonshire term for the ladybird, Clare's poem perfectly evokes the ladybird's clandestine, grassy habitat, its mystery and surreptitious wanderings.  I can imagine Clare, the peasant poet, quietly passing through the hedge-lined farmlands of Glinton, watching the rooks and starlings pirouetting through the rain, or trudging, destroyed by love, ninety miles from High Beech asylum, all the way back to his childhood village of Helpston, unnoticed and quietly determined as the clock-a-clay, bending at the wild wind's breath


In the cowslip pips I lie,
Hidden from the buzzing fly,
While green grass beneath me lies,
Pearled with dew like fishes' eyes,
Here I lie, a clock-o'-clay,
Waiting for the time o' day.

While the forest quakes surprise,
And the wild wind sobs and sighs,
My home rocks as like to fall,
On its pillar green and tall;
When the pattering rain drives by
Clock-o'-clay keeps warm and dry.

Day by day and night by night,
All the week I hide from sight;
In the cowslip pips I lie,

In the rain still warm and dry;
Day and night and night and day,
Red, black-spotted clock-o'-clay.

My home shakes in wind and showers,
Pale green pillar topped with flowers,
Bending at the wild wind's breath,
Till I touch the grass beneath;
Here I live, lone clock-o'-clay,
Watching for the time of day.

And now, beneath showers of April rain, as the skies are slowly brightening and the fields and woods are glittering with bluebells, blossoms, ripening and dancing with the sunlit shimmer of buds and bugs, the ladybirds are back.  Back to colonize my home once more, to nibble and skedaddle along my walls and skirting boards, turn up uninvited along banisters and beam like blotchy bubbles along the woolly desert of the carpet.  Back to greet me as I turn my key into the door.  More welcome than the bills and bank statements, the local rags and Lidl leaflets hanging from the letterbox.  More welcome than the cavalcade of politicians now poised to explode upon me at the onset of seven weeks of torturous electioneering insanity, and infinitely more so than the hideous, inverted parody of a media which, as we speak, prepares to twist their every word as deviously as possible, and unleash a tornado of hatred and lies. All I can hope is to be left to make my choice in peace, and awake when the whole ghastly saga is concluded, alone, with the ladybirds that are slowly devouring my house and all within it.


This is a house of ladybirds.

On the doorstep
soot-and-lipstick-coloured balls,
each the size of a baby's fingernails
crop up in one's and two's,
gollywog faces glassy as the surfaces of ponds.

Twist the key and you'll see,
in the corners of the staircase,
little seven-spotted troupes,
baubly bubbles,
tiny solo voyagers
treading on wire-thin legs
into the mouth of the letter-box
or the black hole of the lock.

Our dreams are dotted with them,
in the early hours as we sashay through sleep
we see their rosehip domes
skimming through the fog, 
their eclipse-like discs 
murky-mottled by spider-black spots;
soft-crawling through the corridors of our cobwebbed minds.
We glimpse them, half awake, 
as we stretch into the polished glaze 
of lukewarm ladybird days,
as winter burbles into spring, we find them
clinging to the twigs of hardy shrubs
or lifting wings like dicey doodlebugs,
 slipping upwards in a silent glide.

We've come to expect them now,
as the larval-like months of moving in 
have melted into everyday normality:
we think nothing of noticing a ladybird
sliding over surfaces, dancing on a tap,
if we open up the bread bin, we expect
a ladybird or two to come rolling out,
like guilty drunks caught in the act,
and sure enough, out they tumble
tails between their legs,
all mumbles, fumbles and sheepish grins.
The other day I found one in the pantry
scoffing through the crumbs,
and even in the fridge we see them now - 
their black spots frosted over, 
wriggling polar-beetles, 
as if raindrops had frozen and the ice
was drizzled by trickles of blood.

Gone are the days we might have tried to stop them.
Indeed, the building seems more theirs than ours - 
the post arrives addressed to them - 
packets of pollen, drugged greenflies, postcards
from forests fat with fungi.
I'm sure I saw one, just this morning,
as I left the house - 
as I turned down the street towards the station
an enormous domino-spotted oval pulling the curtains
decisively closed, to shut me out.

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