I visited my parents this week. As we sat there, watching the television, a large flying insect suddenly flew up from out of nowhere.
It bounced off the mirror, ricocheted off the bookcase, and then began to buzz around violently inside the ceiling lantern. It razzed around and around in there like a motorcyclist on the wall of death.
“What the Hell!?” I shouted over the loud buzzing noise.
“Oh,” said my mother coolly, “it’s just a cockchafer.”
There’s a strange tendency in England for natural things to have appalling names.
“A cockchafer,” she said again, “they just bash themselves into things until they die.”
I’d assumed that the name of the creature would be the most appalling thing about it, but apparently their antics are even worse. This thing hatched out only to keenly brutalise itself to death. Why would such a thing exist?
The way my mother referred to it so matter-of-factly suggested this was a regular occurrence. But I’d grown up here and I’d never before witnessed the sudden appearance and instinctive suicide of “a cockchafer.”
While it was a new experience to me, there was also something typical about it though I wasn’t immediately sure how.
Its name reminded me, I suppose, of driving through the countryside as a young family and my mother saying “ooh, a lovely field of rape.”
It might be the correct and original name of the crop that becomes canola oil but it still makes you think of, well, rape. I mean, how can it not?
To make matters worse, it’s often called “rapeseed” which is arguably even more unpleasant. Why not change the name to canola? As in “a lovely field of simple, non-upsetting, uncontroversial, nothing-to-do-with-sex-abuse canola.” It doesn’t matter if it was called rape before rape was called rape because it still makes you think of rape. Rape!
Maybe people just enjoy the frisson of saying a forbidden word while still being within the bounds of technical correctness. If anyone should object or spit their breakfast tea into the air, you can say “oh yes, it’s from the Old English, you see. Cockchafer! Cockchafer!”
But it wasn’t just the extraordinary name that made the cockchafer incident feel oddly typical. It was also the witnessing of something completely insane while everyone else acted like it was normal. Just like the testimonies in those Scarred for Life books, my childhood was full of strange and unsettling things that were generally considered okay or even de rigueur despite being straight out of Blood on Satan’s Claw. I can’t quite put my finger on a good example now but there was certainly a lot of Morris dancing. I do remember a man at a country fair, with the full approval of my parents, bopping my head with a bit of wood “so that I would grow tall and straight.” (One out of two isn’t bad, I suppose.)
“Just ignore it,” said my mum of the cockchafer, “it’ll exhaust itself soon and die.”
The cockchafer fell to the rug but I could see that it wasn’t dead.
“Shouldn’t I put it outside?”
“Go on then,” she said, humoring my eccentric city ways.
I drained my glass and placed it over the cockchafer.
I then put a sheet of notepaper underneath and escorted the cockchafer off the premises. I watched it buzz out into the night but not before it bollocked itself of numerous pieces of garden furniture.
When I went back to my seat, my dad said, “it’s called a cockchafer. How do you like that?”