My First Memories of the Sea and TV

We would go to Swanage for our children’s holidays and I can remember as a 2-3 year old stepping onto the beach and watching with fascinated horror, excitement as the sea tried to grab my little toes and curled and tickled my little feet.  The power of the moon caused these gentle ripples and I find that as wondrous now as I did as a little boy.

Swanage in Dorset was a wonderful place for my summer holidays as was Peter Tavy in Devon and I have wonderful memories of holidays in the south and south west of England. This was the 1960’s and it was a wonderful time to come into the earth. We could travel by car and visit faraway places as a family and I loved my sisters and my extended family of cousins both older and younger than me. Above us all we had my grandmother the finest woman I have ever met a great and patient and compassionate leader. She caused us to go to Sunday school and built within us great moral values.

We had wonderful Christmases but my only other really early memory is the day we got our first TV. It was 1968 and Dad had decided that there were important events to share and we got a small black and white TV and put it pride of place in the living room. That evening (it was Christmas eve) the flickering TV revealed a great adventure happening live across the world. We saw that there were astronauts travelling around the moon it was 1968 and then we saw images of that dead other world or the moon with its grey mountains. Then as if by magic there was a light arriving above the darkness no it was not the sun but an image of half the earth rising above the cold and deathly moon. This was earthrise and it happened 50 years ago now. It was like watching a new earth being born and I found it wonderfully inspiring. The astronauts quoted genesis and I found the experience profoundly memorable.  It was Apollo 8 and those astronauts had done the most brave endeavour by travelling around the dark side of the moon. One of the astronauts was the famous Jim Lovell from Apollo 13 fame but the first to speak was Bill Anders and this was the message “ In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, and the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters, and God said let there be light, and there was light, and God saw the light and it was good, and God divided the light from the darkness…..”

Witnessing that wonderful adventure at such a young age had a profound effect on me I can remember learning about the water cycle being a leader in my kindergarten in drawing clouds and writing a story about us having to leave earth as the sun became a red giant. I wrote that story when I was about 8 or ten but by then I was getting less interested in being an astronaut and more about helping to save wildlife. In the 1970’s the WWF had campaigns to save the Panda the Tiger and other big animals and I remember collecting badges and reading nature books. This took me to become interested in the nature adventures of Willard Price and a pair of children who went around the world collecting animals for zoos. I loved the sketchy drawing of all these wonderful places around the world from the south seas to the rainforests of the Amazon and the Ruwenzori’s.

I took a particular interest in amphibians and reptiles and one day I saw a sign on my local pet shop  for the Cheshire herpetological society. Being an avid reader I knew what this was and wanted to join in. Luckily my father recognised my enthusiasm and once a month we drove to Macclesfield to meet fellow enthusiasts.  One evening Chris the president of the society took us to his house and showed us his collection he had a mangrove snake a beautiful black and yellow snake which was back fanged meaning it was slightly poisonous. We also saw in his spare room a large tank taking the place of what would fit a set of bunk beds. Here he had a 20 foot python and he brought it out to show us. We were taking it out all sharing parts of this massive and writhing serpent. We finally got it out and I was amazed at this animal only to notice it was raising its tail.

“Quick quick” said Chris, I wondered what was worrying him as snakes don’t have dangerous tails. “get it back in the tank and we all danced a slow writhing rhythm trying to get the snake back into its tank. “Too late it decided to spray us all with its liquid feaces and I can only thank my dad that we continued to go to the society for the monthly evening events (which were held in smokey pubs) where different people would bring in their reptiles and we would share our knowledge and interests.

Chris had many pets and the story goes that when him and his girlfriend left the terrace they lived in they packed up all the animals and got ready to move. One of their pets was a 2 foot long Tokay Gecko with giant cat like eyes and when moving it managed to escape. They tried to catch it but to no avail and the myth is that when the next residents moved in the Tokay Gecko was still at large in the house. I have visions of a young couple waking up in bed one night only to look up to the ceiling and seeing a large pair of dragon like eyes looking down at them. For whatever reason that terrace was never occupied for too long. 

During those early years I had only kept tadpoles but took great pleasure in watching them transform into little frogs but also witness how a 1000 little tadpoles become only a few final frogs and often if I didn’t get them out of the tank quickly enough they would drown and be eaten by their less fully formed brothers and sisters.

The amazing world of nature was my consistent source of inspiration and also of tragedy. I loved watching the lives of these little animals and also the horrible nature of animals devouring one another. For a long time I could not understand why death was such a companion to an animal lover and over my formative years I killed a great many pets which I loved but might accidentally kill because I would forget some vital need of theirs or leave their tank unsecured etc.

I carry it with me as an army of dead friends, I did for a while keep the animals carcasses in our family freezer until one day they were found and were summarily disposed of.

By the time I was 13 I was in secondary school and busy surviving my teenage years. I had been a supporter of Manchester city as my primary school friends mostly supported Man City.  I collected football cards and we would trade them and throw them to the school wall with the nearest to the wall winning the other cards in the game.  At secondary school I left all my primary school friends and lost a great security I had as I was very popular with all my class mates enjoying writing funny stories and being one of the clever ones in school.

I met a great rock for my teens Tim Smith a talented and funny friend who was always smiling at life. He followed me in caring about nature and we shared some wonderful holidays in Devon and also school camp in the Lake District. We also shared a support for Manchester United the red devils and I went to matches during the 1970’s at the time when supporters would through darts across the ground to hurt opposing fans and when I would run into no mans land collecting all the coins they would throw at each other. At school for some reason others in our year didn’t like Tim Smith, maybe they were jealous of him. For me he will always be a shining light, totally crazy but with a heart of gold. I think even now with him living in the United States with a young family he retains his childlike innocence and reverence for nature. He left our school to go to a private school for his A levels and I became a loner again. He introduced me to my first girlfriend a beautiful half Jamaican princess called Rosie I was 16 and it lasted around 1 month. I didn’t know how to be a good boyfriend and it’s a shame but she was always way ahead of me.

At 16 I decided to keep the most challenging of reptiles Jacksons Chameleons. At that time managing to keep them alive for anything more than a year was considered to be a real achievement. But then I like a challenge. I read books on the temperatures in the places where they lived and broke convention by letting them be cool over the night and ensuring that during the winter I kept them dryer and regularly sprayed their tank with water over the summer when my room was warmest. This was to mirror the wet and dry seasons somewhat.

Another friend Keith Winstanley helped me build a terrarium and so one weekend we went to the local hardware store and bought glass and wooden boards and got busy. After much noise and a few hammered fingers we created the largest vivarium which was about 5ft square and sat on my clothes drawer.

Feeding chameleons can be a challenge. I was quite a long way from any reptile shops so could only buy mealworms and crickets infrequently. Also I surmised that I would not want to eat the same food every day so I considered what I could feed them. Mum was and always has been a great gardener and one of her prides was a rockery and some little walls around the garden to help with raised beds etc. It was great for me too as below these stones I would find swarms of woodlice and spiders and slugs. This was a great diet and my 2 chameleons (Frank and Betty) devoured them with relish they loved white slugs particularly. I negotiated with Mum not to put out slug pellets (a new poison being marketed in garden centres) and let me collect them for my animals.   

They were eating well and enjoyed the network of branches and plants I kept in the tank which allowed them to find their ideal temperature and humidity. Every morning before school I would get mums flower spray and put a fine mist into their tank and they would open their mouths to take the mist and drink. I loved and still love chameleons they seem to be wise and wonderful reptiles which are so very charismatic.

After a year or so my female chameleon betty was getting fat. She was pregnant and I was getting very excited but beginning to deplete our garden of woodlice and needed a more regular supply of food for the winter. So I decided to go to our local fishing shop and I bought a bag of casters and put them in a tank. They were quite cheap so a £1 bought around a kilo of the pupae somewhat around 1000.  For the first few days nothing happened and I was beginning to doubt they were alive. After a week I tried the tank which was top opening and managed to find one or two badly deformed houseflies. Their wing cases hadn’t formed correctly but that made them easy to catch. I collected them and after a quizzical look the chameleons  ate them happily.

The next day there were around a dozen flies and most of these were perfectly formed. With quick hand and eye contact I caught them and I thought I had found the answer to my feeding needs. I released them into the tank and my chameleons took great pleasure in spotting the flies on the foliage creeping up to them and then testing and releasing their sticky long tongues and relishing a housefly.

And so the next morning I got up early and eagerly went to the shed to collect some flies only to hear a hum coming from the shed. When I got into the tiny shed. The humming became a great woofing buzz as around 1000 houseflies tried to fly from one side of the tank to the other to escape this large predator that I symbolised.  Ok I thought to myself I could use around 30 so Ill collect them and the rest I can feed and collect daily over the next few weeks. I gingerly opened glass slider of the tank and stuck my hand into this swarming mass. The flies decided to fly as one and next minute I had around 1000 flies swarming around me in the little shed. I screamed as I was blinded by buzzing chaos and waved my arms around not to be covered. Houseflies don’t bite or sting but they are pretty ugly and I lost my bottle and struggled with the hoes and rakes to get out of the tiny shed. As I escaped a funnel of flies came out of the shed with me. Over the next few days there were flies all over the garden so much so that the neighbours made comment.

I chose to keep silent on the matter and my parents told me that my days of growing maggots should be over.

As a result I went to mail order. The pet shop in Littleborough near Rochdale where I got the chameleons also supplied mail order crickets. Wonderful and so I made an order for them.

Three days later I got a call from Cheadle post office to come down and discuss a mysterious package they had received. It seems the box had broken apart and there were house crickets throughout the shop. They didn’t shout at me or otherwise get angry but I could see they were somewhat dissappointed and for the next few months till winter got severe whenever we would go to the post office we would hear the gentle chirping crickets making love in the skirting boards and under the floor boards.

By this time Betty was doing well and very gravid. Frank looked like a nervous father to be often looking at me with his independently moving eyes like “who me?” “Nothing to do with me!”

Betty was always a mottled green and black colour and I took that to be her presiding mood. Black is the colour of a moody chameleon in general. If they get angry or disturbed they put on a black colour and sometimes even open their mouths to scare you off. Frank liked me putting a mirror from time to time in his tank so he could scare off his reflection but Betty tended to ignore both Frank and her own reflection.

One morning I went to spray the animals and saw Betty hanging by her 2 arms onto a branch. I quickly helped her back onto the branch but I was concerned how long she might have been hanging there.

I chose not to go to school and watch her and see how she was as she was very heavily pregnant by this time. Over the next 2 hours she gave birth to over 40 little chameleons. Most were still born but around 6 were born alive and I watched them nervously hoping they would survive.

I called my herpetologist friends and one pet shop owner from Manchester came to visit with fruit flies and an expert in Sheffield offered an incubator. Chester zoo also offered to help if they could as they were the first chameleons born in captivity.

Unfortunately over the next 12 hours the little chameleons died and by the next morning Betty had also given up. The birth and the trauma of the birth were too much for her. “I loved her and she died and it was my fault”. I know now that chameleons should be separated and that I should have been sensible enough to put her in another vivarium once I could see she was pregnant. I carry the guilt still. Frank lived for a few more years but one day he got a mouth infection and even with the best antibiotics I could give him he also gave up and died. From then on I decided my reptile keeping days were numbered.  It was a wonderful time a distraction from much of the teenage angst which included beatings, gangs, sexual depravity and excessive verbal abuse.

Much as though I loved nature and the stories of Gerald Durrell I didn’t have the green fingers of my mother and couldn’t stop killing the animals I loved and so I decided that I needed a new path to help nature.

Now I look back on all the lives I have seen and loved and I consider those words that I first witnessed in 1968 from genesis and the earthrise. I see this world with new eyes and these words came to me:

Truth is the voice of peace
Peace is the face of love
Love is the heart of life
And life is the soul of the earth

I carry these words with me just as I carry my dead friends from my Grandmother who was my rock to all the animals and people who have shown me such love. It was tough being a sensitive teenager but nature always inspired me and I decided I needed to know it better and followed the life sciences.

As I completed my A levels and struggled to get good grades I ended up studying a modular course on environmental biology at Oxford Polytechnic. It was a great  course and I made lots of friends even becoming society president in my second year. But then that’s another story….