50 years on…

Fifty years ago there was an ancient preparatory skool (sorry, school) master called Jonah, who had presumably once been called Mr Jones. He taught Dry Maths and Maths-without-any-vestige-of-Humour to ten and 11 year olds, and had done so for decades. He had probably died several times during his career, only to carry on as a ghost without anyone noticing. Something exciting once happened in one of his lessons: he caught fire, not through spontaneous combustion, but on account of his habit of going out half way through a lesson to puff a cigarette, which he then stubbed out and placed in his capacious trouser turn-ups. Doubtless this habit resulted from him having been traumatised in the war, probably the Crimea or Boer war, or by centuries of misbehaviour by Molesworth, Peason & Co. Eventually Jonah was retired into a rhomboid or a parallelogram, or wherever ancient maths masters go when their overtime is up, and was considered no more.

On Tuesday afternoons in the summer he did something arguably less futile. It was hobbies day, and he ran a butterfly & moth collecting group in the school (sorry, skool) grounds. The butterflies were rather modest but were wondrously outclassed by the moths, for the ablution blocks are the ends of the dormitories were superb walk-in moth traps. Curtains were not allowed as the skool (sorry, err, skool) was proud of its Spartan values. The windows were wedged open and the lights left on all night. Every dawn there was a scramble for the night’s catch. Four species of Hawkmoth were common, and much prized by the boys, along with several types of moth which I haven’t seen since, with magical names like Peach Blossom and The Lappet.

Matthew Oates and 50 years of Butterfly watching

Matthew Oates and 50 years of Butterflying

I was not in Jonah’s B&M hobby group, as it was called. I was in Birds instead, having developed a keen interest in birds and bird nesting from the age of four. Yet somehow Jonah fired me up, such that this summer I am celebrating 50 Years of Butterflying. Most of those 50 years have been intense if not downright extreme. Various outward-facing celebrations are being staged. A book is slowly writing itself on the topic, slowly being the operative word as the celebrations keep getting in the way of the writing.

I owe Jonah Everything, even though he probably never knew my name let alone my interest, and I was (and remain) hopeless at maths. What’s remarkable about this tale is that it illustrates the way in which someone can inadvertently be the catalyst for another’s passion, or even for their calling or ministry. Perhaps, as we were forever being told at school, the Holy Spirit does indeed move in mysterious ways…

  • Matthew Oates
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2 thoughts on “50 years on…

  1. Pingback: National Trust’s top twenty butterfly sites | National Trust Press Office

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