Dancing with Admirals and Painted Ladies

By Berkman, Marcus | The Spectator, October 23, 2010 | Go to article overview

Dancing with Admirals and Painted Ladies


Berkman, Marcus, The Spectator


The Butterfly Isles

By Patrick Barkham

Granta, £20, pp. 372,

ISBN 9781847081278

Everyone loves butterflies. Of course we do.

Possibly more than any other living thing, they represent to us the terrible fragility of life, the knowledge that however colourful and attractive we may all be, something or someone really unpleasant is waiting around the next corner to smash our face in. This may be why butterfly collectors, men who love butterflies but nonetheless seem compelled to poison them, attach them to bits of cork board and stuff them in a drawer, have become a byword for weirdness and perversity. Who would kill the one you love? As countless TV thrillers have shown, only a complete loon.

Fortunately, mainstream entomology has moved on since Victorian times, and indeed since John Fowles wrote The Collector. Butterfly obsessives, or 'Aurelians' as they rather charmingly call themselves, now seek only to find butterflies and photograph them, while scientists are more concerned with their conservation than their dissection.

There are 59 native butterflies in the UK: some are robust and common, others are vulnerable and rare, and a few are hanging on for dear life. Patrick Barkham, who writes for the Guardian, used to go butterfly-watching with his father as a child.

In his twenties he was distracted, as so many of us are, by metropolitan fleshpots and the greasy pole of career, but in his early thirties he finds himself drawn back to countryside and childish pursuits. He sets himself a challenge: to spot all 59 varieties of British butterfly within a calendar year.

As Barkham acknowledges, this is just the sort of challenge people set themselves when they want to write a book about it:

Searching for butterflies should be as spontaneous and instinctive as these insects in flight.

Nabokov loved to 'drop in', as it were, on a familiar butterfly in his particular habitat, in order to see if he had emerged, and if so, how he was doing.

So that is what he does, while surreptitiously ticking off every one of the 59 he yearns to see. …

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