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11 April 2017

Nude, flailing, racked with fear, I tore down the stairs and grabbed the can of No More Flies

I hate and am absolutely terrified of wasps.

By Nicholas Lezard

I am lying in bed, as is my habit, nude, for the weather has turned, and firing up the laptop in order to write this column, when I hear above me and to my left a noise that is either a faraway motorbike, or a nearby wasp. I would much rather it was a motorbike.

However, as I am on the second floor, and the sound is coming from above me, it can’t really be one, and I look round and there, doing its menacing hovering thing, is a big, fat wasp. It really is a whopper. I don’t think it’s a hornet because I think they’re much louder and a bit bigger than this specimen, but it’s big enough to scare the bejeezus out of me.

I hate and am absolutely terrified of wasps: nothing else scares me, apart from heights, but at least heights don’t make an extremely sinister buzzing sound and suddenly veer towards you, or make drinking outside a misery in late summer.

You can tell me all you like about wasps’ ecological importance, the beauty of their nests, etc, but they terrify me, and they must die.

However, this is not late summer, it is early spring – 29 March, as it happens, the day Theresa May signed her letter about Article 50. I have lived in the Hovel for nearly ten years now, and I can recall only one other time a wasp entered my sanctuary. Believe me, I would have written about it.

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My attitude to wasps being what it is, I know exactly where the can of No More Flies is, and I grab the dressing gown and run downstairs to get it.

I’d been feeling a little dopey and sluggish beforehand, but fear has given me wings – but while trying to keep an eye on the wasp and run in the opposite direction, I overbalance. It’s a moment of panic, and the dignity of my comportment for which I am so well known deserts me.

It is well, I reflect later, that I am alone; the women I’ve known have looked at me in a new and not very flattering light when they’ve seen me freaking out and madly dancing about when plagued by any of the Hymenoptera. Show me a mouse or a spider and I will blithely ignore the former and humanely rescue the latter, but show me a wasp and I am unmanned: a child again, beset by terror. That I am naked makes things all the worse, and a dressing gown isn’t really much help: there are too many loose folds, places where a malevolent insect can insinuate itself and wreak havoc.

Yet it is not an unreasonable fear. The pain of a wasp sting is, I feel, unnecessarily great. I mean, really, a simple pinprick would be sufficient.

“Did He who made the lamb make thee?” Blake asked, raising the matter of the tiger’s place in creation, suggesting a divine inconsistency; but you have to wonder, if you believe in a creator God, what the hell He was thinking when He made the wasp. Did God say to His minions, “Make me an evil fly that hurts like buggery”? About the only thing you can say in the wasp’s favour is that it abandons its business at nightfall, and sometimes I wonder whether I could live on a planet where they flew about at night.

So I find the can of No More Flies (I do not have a problem with flies, as long as they aren’t there in numbers large enough to form a cloud: “. . . my uncle Toby had scarce a heart to retaliate upon a fly,” says Tristram Shandy. “—Go—says he, one day at dinner, to an over-grown one which had buzz’d about his nose, and tormented him cruelly all dinner-time,— . . . I’ll not hurt thee, says my uncle Toby, rising from his chair, and going across the room, with the fly in his hand—I’ll not hurt a hair of thy head:—go, says he, lifting up the sash, and opening his hand as he spoke to let it escape;—go, poor devil, get thee gone, why should I hurt thee?—This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me”), and I empty about a quarter of it at the insect, and watch with grim satisfaction as it writhes, and sinks, and falls with an audible thud to the sill.

The big worry is this: it is far too early for wasps to be acting like this, unless there is a nest of them nearby. And that would be a disaster. Living next to a hive of these vicious, mindless, parasitic vermin, whose only purpose is to confuse, disrupt and alarm, who care nothing for human beings except for what they can plunder from them – why, that would be a nightmare, the exact thing that one does not want, and I consider that it is no accident that this omen of pain and disaster should occur today, when a similar intelligence has consigned this country to confusion and despair. 

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This article appears in the 05 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue