I was born and brought up in the Lancashire industrial town of Wigan and lived there until the family moved when I was aged thirteen. The early years were a time when you really didn’t know what you wanted so you tried all the activities that were available – I loved cricket and swimming, drawing and music and, as we actually lived on the outskirts of the town, I also developed a real interest in nature studies, birds, animals, trees and the outdoors – something that remains with me today.
One day when I was 5 years old I was playing in our modest back garden and happened to catch a furry green caterpillar which I put in a jam jar along with some bits of twigs, cabbage leaves and stuff. I loved to watch the way it ‘walked’ and was fascinated how it slid the back feet forward, hunching itself up in the middle, and then projecting it’s front bit forward and repeating the whole process. Though mostly it seemed more interested in chomping away at the cabbage leaves and I couldn’t believe that such a small creature could eat so much.
Don’t know who it was that suggested I enter my caterpillar in the Wigan annual Agricultural Show, held in the Mesnes Park (pronounced Mains Park – must’ve been a Wigan thing) in the “Most Unusual Pet” category of the animal exhibits. So that is what I duly did (I suppose someone must have submitted my entry).
I remember being very excited on the morning of the show but became quite perplexed when I discovered my pet had disappeared and was replaced by a brownish, greenish fibrous sort of blob that had attached itself to the bottom of the jar. I knew it couldn’t have escaped as the jar had a screw cap lid in which my Dad had punched some holes.
“It’s turned into a cocoon” my parents said.
“Oh, thank goodness,” I said, “I thought it had escaped.” Even so, as at the time I don’t remember anyone explaining to me what a cocoon was, I knew it was still in there and still a caterpillar so I happily took it off to the show and presented myself to the appropriate judging tent.
It turned out that there were only three contestants in my section and for the life of me I cannot remember who, or what, won the first prize but the other one was a guinea pig and the judges didn’t seem to think that was very unusual and they gave it the third prize. So it was my turn and I proudly placed my jar on the judging table.
“What is it?” the judges asked.
“It’s a caterpillar,” I replied.
“We can’t see anything, where is it?” the judges asked.
‘It’s in there, on the bottom”
So they peered in the jar, removed the lid, tipped everything out, prodded and poked with the judging pencil, looked at me up and down as I proclaimed “It’s there, it’s a cocoon and it hasn’t escaped!”
They scratched their heads, looked me up and down, put all the detritus back in the jar and duly gave me a 10 shilling second prize saying that they were a bit doubtful about the pet but its owner was definitely “A Most Unusual Boy”.
Ten whole shillings! That was a fortune for a five year old boy then.
So for three years after that I would enter the competition and the day before go down to the local pond and catch a newt or a frog, one year a stickleback, put it in a jar with water and some green stuff and a few small rocks then proceed to take out first prize every year to the tune of one pound. The next day saw my ‘unusual pet’ back in its own environment and my pocket full of sweets.
To this day I don’t reckon the judges knew what a cocoon was – neither did I at the time but – I wonder if they learned anything?