A wild slim alien

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Super 8 stories – film 23 – Christmas 1971

We are sitting down to Christmas dinner, 1971, the now nuclear family of two parents and two children (my sister would not enter the scene for another three years) plus my maternal grandfather and the sweet, innocent soul he married in his early sixties.  For the duration of my early childhood, I had three grandmothers.

I am three and a half, my brother nearly two.  While I concentrate hard on the eating to be done, he is much more fascinated by the camera.  My grandfather seems to have got used to its presence, overcoming the discomfort you could see that he felt at my christening in film 10.  My parents have had the camera for about three years, and have gone some little way to mastering the art of interior lighting for Super 8 film, though even then, half of this reel seems to be illuminated merely by fairy- and candlelight.

The main course is on the table.  Chocolates, candied fruit, and Christmas crackers await our pleasure.  Glasses are raised in a toast, ‘Merry Christmas everyone!’  I too have a little cut-glass of something, I’m not quite sure what.  Lemon cordial, perhaps.  Surely not wine, though my reaction to its contents suggests that it might be.  (This was after the incident when aged two I drank whisky from a tumbler that my father had carelessly left on the bedroom floor, provoking a case of early onset delirium tremens, or at least a delirium in which I saw pink elephants dancing on my mother’s shoulders.)  I imagine the afternoon passed in something of a haze for me, after the wired buzz of the alcohol or lemon cordial wore off.

The tree is heartbreakingly spindly and ethereal compared to the thick, fat brushes of the fir we have this year.  Somehow it manages to seem both austere and gaudy at one and the same time, with its baubles and strands of silver, lantern lights, golden tinsel, concertina tinfoil, and a dimly shining star at its crown.

My father mugs silent-film-style at the camera, raises a belated glass.  The shades of his golfing jumpers have taken a turn for the worse, into garishly primary colours.  The smart, short back and sides of the sixties have turned into something more relaxed, more ineffably seventies.  He could take to the park with Peter Osgood of Chelsea, sporting that look.  See you in the bar after, Ossie.

And look what I got for Christmas and am modelling outdoors at the driving range – a cowboy outfit. And what an outfit!  I’m not sure even Gram Parsons would have dared go this much further past the embroidered, rhinestone-heavy suits that Nudie Cohn made for him.  Red chaps with blue batwings, a decorative blue and black waistcoat and a ten-gallon hat, and of course the obligatory holster and gun without which no suburban cowboy boy of the seventies would be seen dead.  Somewhat more colourful too than what I imagine Wyatt Earp wore for the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral.  Watch me swagger down the mean streets of not Tombstone, but Cobham, laying waste to all the good-for-nothings I find there.  Curiously my brother is dressed not as a native American, but a twenties-era New York City cop, or possibly a turn of the century British bobby.  Note the giant golf balls on tees in the background.  Perfect cover for the sheriff looking to take down a few outlaws.

The reel cuts to another day, most likely Boxing Day, with the extended family gathered at my paternal grandmother’s house.  My cousins and I encircle the table, on which there is an as yet untouched Christmas cake and a big bowl of jelly.  The aunts and uncles look on as we eat our cold turkey, picking their food from an extensive spread set out on a side table.  The eldest cousin is wearing a tie.  We are still bound by a formality which the course of my life will slowly break.  If we could live through those early Christmases again, how much would we feel has changed, in comparison with now?  I guess in many respects, a lot.  The excessive materiality of Christmas, certainly.  The technology which surrounds us, obviously.  But in others, perhaps nothing much at all.  Families gather, a majority still eat turkey (though perhaps not the heavily iced fruitcake), the year turns and the endlessly magical Christmases of childhood are before you know it past and gone, except in memory and the frames of an old reel of Super 8 film.

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Super 8 stories – film 14 – 003 and a half

This reel is book-ended by me tottering about like a very young drunk, initially in a blue romper suit (‘you look like a Smurf,’ says my daughter, not unreasonably), but chiefly I’m posting this one for its golfing action.

My father was a golf professional, as was his younger brother. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, they ran a driving range where the fringes of London meet Surrey.  In summer, Dad would teach six days a week.  He also played tournaments, with varying degrees of success, once getting written up in the Daily Mirror as ‘003 and a half’, owing to a passing resemblance to the James Bond of the time, Sean Connery – that,  and possibly some knowledge on the part of the reporter of other Bond-like behaviour, but let’s gloss over that here. I now live not a million miles from where I grew up, and if I pass a golf course round these parts, it’s a sure-fire bet that he has played it at least once, if not many times.

The film shows 003 and a half (and briefly his brother) resplendent in golfing browns hitting balls at the driving range, first with an iron, and then a wood. I hope he won’t mind me saying that rather like footage of football from the same era, the pace of his swing looks slower than that displayed on television by today’s top pros – less physically and technologically primed. But technically, I imagine you can tell a lot about his game from these recorded shots. He certainly keeps his head nice and still. No doubt he would have watched the film back, to assess his own technique, to see what could be worked on and improved. I recall him telling me that while he could hit the ball a long way, relative to his slender physique, his short game wasn’t sufficiently good to raise him higher up the professional ranks.

Again for reasons I won’t labour, it wasn’t until I was pushing forty and Dad was retired that I took my first golf lesson from him. He has always had the gift of the gab, and now here he was finally putting it to use to correct my many faults as a golfer, which he was quick to point out I couldn’t yet call myself. At prolonged times in my own professional life, I have myself acted as a teacher, so I know a little about what it takes to win people over, to get them to trust your word, and then to follow it. Enthusiasm, authority, patience, humour, demonstrable results. It’s not easy, especially if you are not naturally possessed of the gift of the gab. But as I also remember witnessing occasionally when I was a boy, Dad made it look effortless, couching his rudeness about my recalcitrant swing in a fostering bed of humour, optimism, and reconstructive surgery. Judging by the end result – a vast improvement in the course of just a couple of lessons – he still knew exactly what he was doing. I don’t imagine he was any different with me than with the thousands of people (including such light entertainment luminaries as Dick Emery and Leslie Crowther) that he taught in his working life. I couldn’t help comparing his style of teaching with that of the contemporary professional who gave me a series of lessons at around the same time; his demeanour was weary, his methods lacked conviction, and psychologically he never made me feel anywhere close to a million dollars over such progress as I was making.

Golf was never my sport, very possibly because I am a contrary type and it was my father’s, and so closed to me. But at a time in middle life when there weren’t many other sporting options open to me, I felt a compulsion to give it a go. And though I doubt I’ll ever make my way round all or even some of the courses he played on hereabouts, I’ll always be glad that I belatedly got to have a couple of lessons from an undeniably great teacher.

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Super 8 stories – film 11 – The south of France

My father lent the Super 8 movie camera to his eldest brother, and in the late 1960s, they took it on holiday to Menton, in the south of France.  Accompanying them were my paternal grandparents, and my aunt and uncle’s adopted son, Michael.

Michael was a year or two older than me, but he is no longer with us.  I don’t know enough of the path his life took nor of his interior to presume to tell the story of his early death, but even now, I miss his life-and-soul presence at family dos.  In boyhood he was the cousin to whom I was closest, and alongside our respective younger brothers, we spent long hours playing at soldiers in our respective gardens.  In early teenage years I remember him having copies of a couple of seven inch records that I coveted – ‘Absolute beginners’ and ‘Love will tear us apart’ – but after that we met too infrequently to know anything substantial about each other’s life, times or indeed struggles.  Having brought three children of his own into the world, his death was a shock.  Shocking in its abruptness, and shocking in its finality.  How much more so for those who knew him so much better than me.

Here he is simply a happy, two year old boy playing on a French beach, loved by parents and grandparents alike.  He has made the acquaintance of a German boy of the same age, and he is absorbed in back and forth bucket and spade activity.  In another scene, his father lies on a lilo with Michael atop his chest, while in what looks to be one of the more staged shots, against a backdrop of photogenic bougainvillea, he walks between his mother and grandmother, holding their hands as the elder of the two women admires the flowers.  Much less staged is the camera catching his bottom being wiped.

The holiday looks to have been as beautiful as any in the south of France should.  The coastline – the way the houses are set into the hillside – has the look of Italy about it (and indeed, Menton was once part of the Republic of Genoa).  My uncle adds to the stylish feel by sporting the same kind of Fred Perry cotton pique short-sleeve shirt that I took to wearing when I was roughly the same age as he is in this footage.  Top button done up, as fashion dictated.

At home after the holiday, they find an English summer nearly as hot as the one they left behind.  While the poodle eats treats standing on the selfsame lilo, Michael runs the length of his grandparents’ garden.  That life-and-soul joy of later years is already writ large on his little face.


Super 8 stories – film 10 – A christening

Here we have a parade of relatives of every hue, from great aunts to cousins, many still living, a number dead, and one or two estranged.  These are the faces of people with whom lives were spent, or by whom two generations were raised, returned to youth or brought back to life through their having been captured on 10th August 1969 in three and a half minutes of silent Super 8 footage.

A christening is an occasion, third only to weddings and funerals.  Best suits and poshest dresses – worn to longer or shorter lengths depending on generation and daring – are donned, along with a variety of styles of hat.  One grandmother is turned out like the Queen mother; another goes hatless, wears a white knee-length dress, stops to talk and smile into the camera, and takes photos of the party assembled outside the church afterwards.

It’s my christening, to be precise.  Predominantly because it was the done thing then, rather than as a result of any strong convictions on my parents’ part, I am being inducted into a faith I no longer have, that did not make it past childhood.  But I still have the bible my youngest uncle and godparent gave me that day.  I spent a lot of time leafing through its thin pages as a child, fascinated more by its clean, simple line drawings of an ancient, biblical world than by the Word of the Lord.  Exposure to three different religions as I was schooled, and more critically a sense that if there were a God, he had decided not to keep his eye on my family, meant that whatever faith being christened conferred upon me was lost by the age of twelve or thirteen. I remember then standing my ground one Sunday morning and telling my mother that I was not going to church again.

It seems that All Saints’ Church is close enough to our New Haw house that everyone is walking to it.  My paternal grandfather waves a ‘hail fellow, well met’ greeting to camera from across the street.  And standing out from the footage much less, there is my maternal grandfather, tall, grey-haired, black glasses, looking somewhat socially stiff and a little apart, certainly not at all keen to be centre-stage or filmed.

In among the older generation of relatives are my father and two of his brothers, sharp in suits, thin ties and sideburns.  By a process of elimination, the eldest of the four brothers was the one tasked with filming proceedings.  And he captures it all.  Elderly great-aunts wear elderly great-aunt spectacles.  My maternal great-grandmother, whose face has slipped, presumably because of a stroke.  Outside the church, jokes are shared and smoke is puffed into the sky.  His job of bringing a new soul into the fold done, we even see the vicar walking off down the road, garments flapping in the summer breeze.  It’s a shame that he didn’t take the chance to dance off into the distance in the manner of Eric and Ernie at the end of their TV show, legs and arms alternately hoicked out to either side.

The tallest man in Britain at the time also seems to have attended (best observed standing next to my mother in her white sun hat at 2:23), for extra propitiousness.  I thank him for that, and all my relatives, the living and the dead, for being there for me that day.

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Super 8 stories – film 9 – Red sports car

Any mystique which still adheres to the A wild slim alien persona will be quite gone after this.

I am not embarrassed about the clothes I am wearing in this film. The embarrassment should lie fairly and squarely with my mother – alright, and perhaps the times – for making a two year old child wear such terrible clothing.  In my braces, checked shirt, nappy-filled blue shorts and long white socks, I look like Humpty Dumpty given a proper pair of legs and a pudding bowl of hair. The mod in me rebels at the sight, even now.

It’s my party and I’ll run around like a headless chicken if I want to.  But before I do, there is the birthday tea, with all the celebrants gathered round the table, their mothers seated behind them.  The children seem puzzled and uncertain, as befits two year olds, an age when life is mysterious and confounding as well as bright and bold and butterfly-strewn.  Save for my own, the mothers avoid responding to the camera as it passes over them.  None will be used to being filmed, of course, but perhaps there is a social insecurity there too.  Or maybe it’s simply that they are all still very young themselves, brought up in an age where higher education was still not the norm for women, and for each of them, character and confidence will only fully emerge with whatever challenges and troubles lie ahead.

The friend in the enviably à la mode striped t-shirt (not dissimilar to one I had twenty years later) is my best friend in those years, Graham, who was born in the same hospital three days after me to (I think) the woman we see talking most volubly around the table, holding his sister.  It was tragically only a couple of years later that his mother died, and it strikes me now that this (and what there is on other reels) may just be the only moving footage which exists of her.  The boy without a top is my next best friend Adam, whose family emigrated to Australia a few short years later.  Before that, he and I played football endlessly with each other; I remember still that he was quicker and better than me.  You see us both take our first steps as footballers in this film.

Given a choice between a flash red sports car and the broom, Graham opts for the witches’ implement. In fact, strangely, no-one seems to want to play with the flash red sports car, which looks for all the world like my big birthday present, one of which I have no memory save for its being captured here.  We are at the age when children are happier with sticks and balls and wheelbarrows.

June sunlight and shade play across the garden and the house, evoking the quickness of life but also eerily suggesting the certainty of death.  A friend has commented that these films are crying out for a Boards of Canada soundtrack; I’d maybe split the footage half and half between the ethereal, mind-bending music of the Boards, and the elegiac sounds and memory-haunted, past-is-a-foreign-country lyrics of the Clientele, but then that’s precisely the reason I’ve added no sound, because the viewer will bring their own music to the images, to the colours and objects and the wash of the film, to the peculiarly strong taste of childhood sensations that these images evoke.  That time of life when senses are so susceptible to colour and noise and smell and feel and taste, because they are green, fresh, unblemished, and ready to soak up life like a sponge.

What a head of hair I had.  What energy I had.  Already on the run, aged two.


Super 8 stories – film 5 – Beach barbell

It’s a world older than the late 1960s, when this reel of film was shot.  A world of horse and cart and wells for water and waves crashing on the rocks of undeveloped coastlines.  A battered Citroën 2CV before a petrol station brings us back to the twentieth century.  A road sign points in the directions of Maria, Lludi, Inca and Palma. The latter two are enough to tell us that we are in Majorca.

My father sunbathes on the beach, and swats away an insect with a lazy hand, or makes the movement in his sleep.  Then we see him showing off his skinny champion flyweight boxer’s physique standing before a barbell, the connecting rod of which is bent, seemingly by the downward force of the weights at either end, and frequent handling. He brings the barbell to his chest, and then, the strain showing on his face, raises it high above his head, arms straight.  You think this clean and jerk is slapstick at first, because of the gurning, because of his making it seem an effort when the spheres at either end of the barbell look like they might actually be made of polystyrene.  But now my mother tries her luck, and only manages to raise it as high as her knees.  The spheres are not in fact made out of polystyrene, but some considerably heavier material – metal or concrete, perhaps.  Now my father lifts again, this time deliberately clowning and Charlie Chaplinesque, falling forward under the weight of the barbell till he collapses into the sand, a fistful of which he throws in my mother’s direction.  She has another go, sticking out her tongue, and on this occasion at least manages to stand up straight with the barbell supported at her thighs.  They look as happy as they are young, and young they certainly are.  Young enough to be children of mine now.

Next the reel catches a flock of Majorcan sheep, and a bleached and arid-looking coastal panorama – presumably the Bay of Palma and its surrounding hills – at the end of the sweep of which, the camera briefly settles on my mother, who’s wearing a beige dress and sunglasses, looking like a character out of a Patricia Highsmith novel.

Finally it’s back to the beach, where she smokes, as do the friends to whom the footage cuts.  Everybody did.  They were much smokier days.


Super 8 stories – film 2 – Swinging sixties

If you follow this series, you’re going to have to get used to random juxtapositions.  Footage of dogs chasing each other will suddenly cut to a local shopping trip, as happens here.  It is the tail end of the sixties, and two dogs are running in circles around a small, largely paved-over back garden.  One – the golden retriever – is our family pet, a staple now of my online security questions, so I will draw a veil over his name.  The other is the poodle belonging to my paternal grandmother, whose back garden and patio this is.  The golden retriever runs through these films much as he does through my mind, invariably chasing or gnawing at a small punctured ball.  He belongs to the first eight years of my life, and must have died some time before the second half of my childhood began, in another part of the country, because he did not travel with us.  My grandmother’s poodle was long-lived, eventually replaced by Dalmatians, a constant trip hazard to an elderly woman in a small house, resulting in broken bones late in her life.

Cut to my mother leaving the house looking very swinging sixties in an orange mini-skirted dress and calf-length boots, carrying the infant me.  I’m put in the cot in the old-fashioned motor car, while the golden retriever provides continuity by running out of the previous scene and into this one, joining me on the backseat.  My mother then reappears on the high street of a town I know to be Epsom.  We see Finlays the tobacconists, the long since defunct Charter Inn, and Meakers, men’s outfitters, as well as chain stores still familiar in the UK, Burton and Boots.

My father shoots the traffic, and – not untypically for him – lets the camera wander after a bare-legged girl walking along on the other side of the street, before returning to my mother crossing the busy road.  ‘A man who never sees a pretty girl that he doesn’t love her a little’, as the Sea And Cake song has it.  People wait in a long, orderly crocodile for a bus in front of the long-lost pub.  It’s late summer or early autumn, 1968. You can almost hear the Kinks’ ‘Days’ or Dusty Springfield’s ‘I close my eyes and count to ten’ drifting from the window of one of the passing cars, or from the open door of a shop.  And again comes the wondering, where are all those patiently waiting people now?  What were their lives like?  If not in the ground or tossed as ashes into the air, do they ever remember those endless minutes queuing for a bus on Epsom High Street?

Cut to later that same sunny day, and a brief shot of the chef from the restaurant next to the golf driving range run by my father, followed by footage of two little twin girls eating chocolate, one of them clinging to her father’s leg, perhaps a little awed by the strangeness of the camera.

And now comes my first act of self-censorship, as the rest of the reel features me baby-naked in my cot, looking up into my birdie mobile (thus explaining my later ornithological leanings).  While I haven’t got a problem with you seeing me in what in those days they might have euphemistically called the altogether, I suspect YouTube would have.  And I suppose I don’t really want images of what would subsequently become my manhood floating all over the internet, so… cut!


Super 8 stories – film 1 – The Caped Crusaders

In which all of the main characters are introduced.

Here is my mother, wearing a peach Slazenger v-neck jumper and a gauzy scarf knotted in her hair, looking incredibly young for someone who has just had her third child, that being my sister, who appears as a mere months old baby.  There am I, and right by me is my brother.  We seem joined at the hip, and I guess we were, till I was about ten.  ‘On top of each other’ might be a better way of putting it, because we fought like dogs throughout the length of our childhood.  My father is largely absent, either because he was the one shooting the footage, or more probably, because he was busy teaching golf, a six days a week job in the summer.  But he does feature in the final frames of the reel.  We are playing football, and – wearing a light blue v-neck jumper – he scores a goal past me.  He turns to the camera, to my mother (I presume), and you can almost hear him saying, ‘I hope you got that.’

It’s 1974, and for the most part we are on a playing field somewhere in Surrey.  Horsell, perhaps, near Woking. A short train ride south-west of London.  My brother and I are in fancy dress, as indeed are all the children in this film. It’s a fancy dress competition. We have come as Batman and Robin.  Or, to judge from the costumes, Batman and Batman; whose younger brother has ever liked having to play second fiddle?  We were both big fans of the endlessly re-run television series starring Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin.  Fabulously, throughout the reel, we never take off our masks.

Despite the anomaly of us both being dressed as the chief Caped Crusader, and the fact that our Batman insignia look rather more like oyster mushrooms than bats, I have a memory that we won a prize, but perhaps it is a false memory, the kind that you tell yourself about a remembered day such as this to make it seem more magical, as magical as it very well may have been to live through, regardless of whether or not a prize was won.  See the way my cape billows when I jump off the heavy roller, just like Adam West’s did – for the space of a day, I must have felt that I really was Batman.

We are six and four, with twenty months between us.  Already we are adopting facets of the characters we have dressed up as, if we allow that my brother is indeed Robin.  I am more measured, if not yet cerebral, while he is excitable, already showing signs of a tendency to wind people up and pick fights with those who were bigger than him.  Here for example he takes on a sword-wielding pirate, armed only with a length of rope.

Blink and you’ll miss Sherlock Holmes, a Dickensian urchin, the obligatory cowboy and indian, and a little bear.  I wonder what became of them all.  The maid in blue and white and the satanic girl in fiery red, for example.  What have their lives been like?  Have their experiences tended towards fulfilment or disappointment?  With whom did they fall in love, and do they love them still?  Perhaps they went on to make costumes for their own children to wear to fancy dress competitions or parties, and if so, did they remember this day, without the footage of it to remind them?  Might they even still have a memory of the Dynamic Duo flitting very faintly across the screen of their minds?

A series of blipverts finishes off the reel; it was typical for every second of film to be used, with nothing wasted. And so at the last, there finally is my father, as well as a brief portrait shot of my maternal grandmother, holding my sister, walking towards the camera, but giving very little away.

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Super 8 stories, Super 8 dreams

Super 8 reels

It was a treasure trove that my mother handed over to me about ten years ago.  Film from an age when childhoods were not routinely captured as moving images.  She entrusted the box to me as her eldest child – or possibly her most technologically literate (it’s the eldest’s prerogative to say things like that) – and tasked me with transferring the 36 reels of Super 8 footage to DVD.  Which is what I had done, with the help of John Ross of Moving pictures.  And now, once again, it feels like time to take these old films out of their shoe box. Or rather, upload them to YouTube.

Each reel lasts three minutes twenty odd seconds.  That’s two hours of film, all told.  Enough to make a movie of my early childhood, of my parents’ life before upping sticks to another part of the country.  A skilled film editor could make something of them all, could take this random jumble of chronologically muddled Super 8 reels and perhaps transform them into a tale of the times, full of suggestion and pathos.  But I am not that skilled editor of film.  All I can do is present the footage more or less unedited, as they were shot, and try to make some sense of them with words.

The films come from what you might call the golden age of my childhood, before my parents’ separation and subsequent divorce.  Those are stories for another time; and though inevitably what happened subsequently adds an optical or a mental filter to the projected images, what I really want to concentrate on in writing about each reel of film is the life before me, the captured colours and tones and the sheer otherness of the not so very distant past.  The otherness, and the eerie similarities, as one generation succeeds the next.

The films have no sound, and tempting as it is, I’ve decided not to superimpose a musical soundtrack.  There are only the moving images to watch, and my accompanying words to read, if you’ve a mind to.  Bear witness to these small fragments of lives as they were lived forty years ago, and then perhaps set the Super 8 projector in your own mind running, in an effort to relive the earliest parts of your life.  And if that seems too highfalutin’, then simply enjoy this historical record of a particular place at a certain time, all shot in the glorious, faded colours of Super 8.


Lunchtime caterpillars

Elephant hawk-moth caterpillar

I’m sure I’m not alone in finding binomial names beautiful.  While the peacock butterfly’s is the Greek-sounding Inachis io, the elephant hawk-moth’s is the more typically Latin-sounding Deilephila elpenor.

My daughter noticed them first, crawling up the stems of the fuchsia by the gate.  Three, no, four elephant hawk-moth caterpillars, monstrously magnificent, almost too large to be supported by the stems of the flowers.  We both went for our cameras.  Snapping them discomforted one sufficiently that it carried out its deterrent trick of retracting its head and trunk-like neck into its thorax, which consequently swells to enlarge those conspicuous eye-spots.

Elephant hawk-moth caterpillar

As well as rosebay willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium), elephant hawk-moth caterpillars are rather partial to fuchsia.  We left them to feast, reasoning that while the hardy fuchsia could probably cope with their nibbling, the caterpillars could not cope without it.

Possibly they are common-named as much for their excrement as their trunk-like neck; it looks like little logs of elephant dung, the kind that Chris Ofili used to use to prop up his paintings.  Returning the next day, we found plenty of it peppered around the fuchsia’s pot.

I had hoped to document their transformation, but I’m afraid there is a sad end to the story.  We won’t see them pupate or become fully-fledged pink-winged moths, because those conspicuous eye-spots weren’t enough to deter a local feline from playing with them as it might a mouse; and my daughter and I could not be there to defend the fuchsia night and day.  A case of caterpillars besieged and eaten by cat.

But here to finish is the best photo I could find of this beautiful moth from elsewhere (West Yorkshire, to be precise).  One day I hope one flutters by me, and by you too.


Photo of adult elephant hawkmoth by Rachel Lucie Johns.  Photos of elephant hawkmoth caterpillars by awildslimalien.