Inventing Creepy-Crawlies

Great Britain, The Arts
Stag Beetle (Lucanus cervus) male.

Stag Beetle (Lucanus cervus) male.

When I was a little boy, living near Greenwich Park in a suburban London street, we were surrounded by creepy-crawlies, the best being the prehistoric but weirdly adorable stag beetle. You could tie cotton to its legs and make it drag things. Then came daddy-long-legs (legses?), and you could pull all its legs off to leave a circular body, and a variety of earwigs, large spiders, bees, frogs, toads, wasps, crane-flies, moths, caterpillars (occasionally forming invasions) and even – on very hot days – the odd lizard, small, brownish, a bit too London-looking.

Carrying a copy of Gerald Durrell’s ‘My Family And Other Animals’ about, I could identify these urban creatures. Yet going back 10 years ago I found nothing, not even a London sparrow. The odd pigeon and some seagulls, the social lepers of the bird world. No ants even. Sprays and pollution were to blame.

Cut to today. I live on a canal, so in addition to swans, geese, herons, moorhens, ducks and fish we get (on the fifth floor, mind) a multiplicity of spiders, bright-green shield bugs, very large dragonflies and the odd confused-looking squizza.

Apparently bugs are back in London, not just for this autumn but in general, due to rising temperature levels. Oh, and according to the Times, almost one third of all dogs were found to be carrying ticks. But the wonderful stag beetle, the UK’s largest ground beetle (ranging in length from 5cm to 8cm) only exists in South London, not on the North side, and has been most spotted in Southwark, well-known for its gyratory system but not exactly for its dead wood.

The other ubiquitous creatures are foxes, presumably thanks to KFC. The excellent podcast Radiolab ran a programme about monkeys that switched from woodland foraging to feasting on thrown-out hotel food. They lost all their alpha males, became very peaceful and then mostly dropped dead.

Inventing new creatures is tricky; I’ve tries a few times in short fiction, but this summer I’ve been working on my first proper fantasy novel (you could argue I’ve stepped into the arena before with ‘Calabash’, but that was nowhere near on the same scale) and I needed a couple of good believable creatures, so I was careful to restrict myself to the real world.

Fantasy novels have strict rules too, and I wanted to create a world that felt both dangerous and exciting. But there was another rule I chose to hold myself to; that everything would take place in a single location. I didn’t want armies galavanting off on horses for months at a time, and besides, the shadow of ‘Game of Thrones’ is long and deep.

Well, the book is finished now, creatures and all, and while I’m not quite sure what it is that I’ve created, I feel it’s an exciting place I’d love to learn more about. Whether anyone else agrees with me, we’ll see!


4 comments on “Inventing Creepy-Crawlies”

  1. John Howard says:

    Who knows, some of us might buy it.!
    As for the stag beetle tale, probably around the time of your reminiscence, I was living on the outskirts of Portsmouth on the Portsdown Hill and about a 10 minute, short legged boys walk away from home was this disused open chalk quarry that had been out of use for years and was consequently covered in a carpet of, what to us, was almost jungle undergrowth. We could crawl in amongst the piles of it for hours, building dens and finding grass snakes, beetles, creepy crawlies of all kinds and in some dens that had already been created we found, along with the odd discard piece of clothing, an interesting black and white publication called Health & Efficiency, most instructive.
    Thanks for the memory jog and I will buy, honest.

  2. Jan says:

    One of my abiding memories of London wildlife was watching a Fox traipsing around Harrods forecourt late at night after the lighting had been switched off. It was so fascinating to see.
    And of course Harrods is no distance at all from Hyde park / Kensington gardens.

  3. Vivienne says:

    If I want to dispose of rather off meat I put it out on the road at night and the foxes clean up brilliantly.

    I do remember stag beetles south of the Thames: very impressive

  4. Noxious Gumbo says:

    Stag beatles only South of the river? I certainly remember catching them at the back of my junior school field in Newbury Park (NE London). This was in the early 70s but I hope they haven’t disappeared since.

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