If you can ignore the snow-white hair and the natty way I’ve tucked my trousers into my socks to keep the ticks at bay, you’ll notice something slightly out of the ordinary in this photograph. Forty years ago, it might have been the occurrence of an insect net, but on Monday it was the appearance of a tie. It’s true, I power dress to go out looking for insects.
It’s an old trick I learned from my Dad; he never left the house unless he was what he would have described as ‘presentable’. His cor-blimey trousers may have been ripped and sewn up, ripped again and re-patched, but he always wore a jacket and tie. It meant that if he bumped into the land-owner whilst he was out trespassing he could engage them in country conversation as equals, and he could also make small talk about gibbets and gilets with the game-keeper. In 50 years of skulking about in private estates, he was, I believe, only ever asked to leave on one occasion.
I trespass seldom, but the tie still has a useful place in entomological regalia. And it’s all still to do with the signals we give each other about our social and intellectual status — it’s all about power dressing.
On Monday I was out on the Hampshire heaths south of Salisbury. This was public-access land so I didn’t have to placate the farmer or the squire, but there was always the possibility that people might come up and ask me what I was up to. In this case it was all to do with whether or not electricity cables are removed from landscape-impinging pylons and buried underground; and if so, which route should the large trench take across the moors. There’s nothing really controversial about the project, but there was a certain amount of local interest and the power company don’t want everything broadcast until all the environmental survey work is done, and has been assessed. Fair enough. If approached, I could politely explain what I was about, but I should remain circumspect about precise details. The tie would be my mask of aloofness. It would proclaim that I am a sensible and serious person, of high civil and moral stature, not to be challenged, not to be cross-examined, and maybe even doff your cap when you speak to me.
These subtle symbols of status and rank are still with us no matter the easy availability of cheap suits — David Cameron was plugging in to this when he mocked Jeremy Corbyn for wearing a tweed jacket amidst a sea of black and blue lounge suits. I’ve got a tweed jacket, and I wear it well I might say. But even my slightly anarchic persona sometimes stoops to a slick outfit.
I might have once thought it rebellious, in an ironic sort of way, to turn up to a natural history event in a smart jacket and slacks, to separate myself from the beardy tweedy corduroy and cardigan brigade that once typified much of the conservation movement. But my balloon was burst many years ago by Mathew Frith, now deputy CEO of London Wildlife Trust, who more than most sports a sharp wardrobe and sharper boots. He pointed out that in a world of close-call funding and campaigning struggles, you dress the part if you want to be taken seriously by businesses, lawyers, politicians, and bankers.
It’s even worse if you’re trying to promote insects — this is a group dismissed by almost everyone as either nuisance, noisome, curiously alien or comically insignificant. In 2005 I spent the summer months trooping across the Thames Gateway (mostly South-East London and North Kent) visiting brownfield sites as part of a large assessment of their conservation value for insects. The project was run by Buglife, but had backing from English Nature, the Environment Agency and the Wildlife Trusts. Effectively I drove around visiting sites identified from a planning office data base, to see whether they looked good for insects. There were too many sites, and too many land-holders to start requesting formal permission so although a few places were unofficially open to passers-by, mostly these were visual assessments done through the chain-link.
Many sites were being worked, either in a slow run-down of gravel and sand extraction, or piecemeal landfill, or semi-dereliction with security or other staff in place. This is where the power-dressing came in useful. I strolled up to the gate in my jacket and tie and high-vis vest emblazoned ‘Environment Survey’, and I’d ask if they’d let me have a brief look around — as part of a broad-sweep wildlife assessment. My polite educated tones and smart appearance were just right, and plenty of times I was allowed a wander. I left them with a photocopied sheet explaining the Buglife project, with contact numbers and web addresses to follow up.
Occasionally I was met with scepticism. A huge chalk-pit near Swanscombe was being used for landfill and lorries were thundering past the weigh-bridge gate house, nevertheless I asked if I might go in. The site manager was far from stretched, and agreed to drive me down into the chasm. We chatted about badgers and yellow-hammers, and his proud claim that it would take ten or twenty or thirty more years of however many hundreds of thousands of lorry-loads to complete the fill until a nice estate of houses could be built in this future commuter belt. I mentioned all the scarce beetles, bees, wasps and flies that found old flower-rich chalk pits so enticing. Insects? He could not stop the flicker of derision crossing his face. He may even have rolled his eyes.
A lesser man might have taken umbrage and raged at his facile ignorance of wildlife, nature, and ecology; how these were driven from the insect end of the food chain, not the raptor apex. Instead I rose to the situation and adopting my best imperiously pompous tones expounded a brief history of thermophilic insect lifestyles, island biogeography and metapopulation dynamics — why brownfields were so important to scarce insects, and how habitat corruption on a nationwide scale, exemplified by his laissez-faire hole-filling exercise, was diminishing our native biodiversity.
I’m not sure I could have done this if I hadn’t been wearing a tie.