The hawk moth caterpillar, richly coloured, with its spiked tail, the looping Magpies and the fierce, hairy ones we called pussy-cats. The variety was immense and they were everywhere. Cabbages had holes through them, garden peas were full of maggots, apples had small cavities with, at the bottom, fat caterpillars gorged with eating. It is difficult to look back from today, when supermarkets select for cosmetic reasons, not taste, to realise that many apples and other foods have always been shared with caterpillars. No wonder we were so interested in Nature.
The notebooks of Farbre, Bates in the Amazon, Darwin, Wallace, were all in the house and were read, off and on, by everyone in the family. At eleven, my paternal grandfather, William Whitehead, gave me a well-worn copy of The Voyage of the Beagle. A 77th edition, in green cloth binding, worth perhaps a shilling, but given at exactly the correct time. The small print and crude woodcuts would make it look dull compared with bright modern editions, but how well that book was read. It was picked up and studied at random for years.
It is doubtful if William Whitehead ever realiseA the effect of that book. He was a man of no formal education, but a persistent, omnivorous reader, who had left school at the minimum age and had worked for years as a packer in the tea department of the Cooperative Wholesale Society. Each Christmas the family received a tin of tea so that, over the years, the tins accumulated and everything was stored in fancy tea tins.
Grandfather William had a combatative mind, hard and rather dour. He read philosophical books in the Thinkers Library and thought that Balzac was the greatest writer who had ever lived. He got no sympathy in this from his wife, who read nothing but The Universe, the Roman Catholic newspaper. She was a tiny, vital woman, who was said to have had Italian blood. This must have been at least one generation remove, if true at all. Certainly she was dark haired, with a slightly sallow complexion, but she knew no Italian and had little particular sympathy with anyone from abroad. She was a Roman Catholic and had brought up the children in that faith, to her husband's resigned dislike. Five boys and one girl, all with voices, all singing in choirs at one time but Albert, my father, outstanding. A boy soprano, his first choir payment was a half-guinea in gold, shining, brilliant and his own. He ran home exultantly to give it to his mother, the first money ever earned by his generation, tossed it up and saw it slip down a drain, never to be recovered. People gathered round. A policeman was called, but the coin stayed in the drain to be found by someone unknown.
At the age of fourteen his voice broke, as happens to all boys, and he was doubtful if it would ever return to allow him to sing professionally again. For two years he took a nondescript clerical job, but at sixteen his voice came back better than ever. A rare alto voice, warm and full, able to float and soar. He joined the choir of Westminster Cathedral and sang there for many years, making the transition each day from marble and plainsong in the West End cathedral, to a cottage on the edge of Muswell Hill, another butterfly transformation.