10 JULY 1964, Page 13

John Bull's First Job

The Sting in the Tail


I HAVE had great diffi- culty in remembering what my first paid job was. Several different employ- ments seemed to compete for the honour. Was it when I tutored, or tried to tutor, a youth not much my junior in a play by Plautus or Terence—I for- get which—for the Little-

go at Cambridge? I was never a good classical scholar, and can't have helped him much, but he did eventually get through..

Or was it when, waiting to be called up for the army in the First World War, I did a spell in the office of a firm of contractors who were supplying the army with meat? I remember how the terms Fores and Hinds, meaning the front and rear portions of the animals, were bandied about—so many Fores, so many Hinds, to be dispatched, say, to Warminster Camp, which a waggish colleague always referred to as War Minister. The name of the firm was Perfect and Co., and it always amused me when someone answering the telephone announced: 'We are Perfect!' or, perhaps, 'Perfect here!' I myself never made this vainglorious assertion, for I had a phobia about speaking on the telephone which I did not overcome for many years.

After being Perfect I became a gunner, and

drew my pay, between two salutes, from the Orderly Officer sitting at a deal table with a pile of coins beside him.

But after much searching, my memory censor released an earlier instance of my earning capacity. It was in a hot summer—the summer of 1906, I think, for we have had so few hot summers. I was ten years old at the time, and was staying with my grandfather at his farm- house in the Fens, 'and it must have been towards the end of August, for there was a plague of wasps. My mother and my aunts were terrified of wasps; at the sight or sound of a wasp they would spring to their feet and run blindly to and fro, uttering shrill cries. The remonstrances of any male person who hap- pened to be present, urging that such behaviour would only further infuriate the naturally irascible insects, had no effect at all.

Of all the plagues that Heaven bath sent

A wasp is most impertinent!

I myself, though timid in most ways, was not afraid of wasps. My grandfather promised to give me a penny for every score of wasps I killed, and I remember his pretended consterna- tion when 1 told him that my target—my first target—was to be a thousand' wasps, for which he would have to pay me four and twopence.

The fruit-garden; as we called it, had flowers and vegetables in it as well as fruit trees. To me it was an enchanted place, especially in the summer. Passing through the gate, flanked on

one side by a coal-shed and on the other by a wispy but rather forbidding yew hedge, one was transported into another world, such was the in-

toxicating blend of sights and scents4Rnd sounds that greeted one. Among the sounds was the low

and soothing hum of bees that came from the hives farther up the garden, but with this was now mingled the high, angry buzz of wasps— the enemy, but the potential source of income.

The garden was no longer enchanted ground, it was a battlefield. On the left, just inside the gate, stood an ancient apple tree, bearing apples known as Barley Harvest. They were fresh and sweet and juicy, and so soft-skinned that they didn't need peeling. I often ate the windfalls.

But now the wasps had got there first. Hardly an apple on the ground that was not wasp- infested, and not only by one wasp but by several, pushing and nudging each other in their greedy haste; and many an apple that looked sound and succulent had a small hole .drilled in it through which a wasp had forced its way. Woe to the unwary apple-lover who set his teeth in it without first making sure it did not harbour an intruder! Adam's fate was happier than his, for Adam lived to tell the tale, whereas with a wasp sting in one's throat . . .1

But I was too intent on my job, and the silver' gleam at the end of it, to waste time eating the

apples. When I saw they were infected, I squashed them and their inmates with them. A fury of destruction seized me. Needless to say, I kept a careful tally of the slain; no sportsman was ever prouder of his bag than I was. F announced it every evening, sometimes with false modesty, sometimes with a pride I couldn't stifle.

But despite my efforts the wasps multiplied. As the windfalls increased in number, so did they, until the ground under the tree was crawling with them. Dealing with them piecemeal or stamping on them two or three at a time was a slow process.

Then I had an idea. I took my green butterfly- net and a big black kettle full of boiling water. I have had few sadistic impulses in my life, before or since, but the indignant buzzing under the butterfly-net as the wasps realised they were prisoners, then the sizzling, then the blessed silence when the water had done its work—these gave me, I confess, tremendous pleasure.

I don't suppose it was a crueller method of exterminating the wasps than gassing them in their nests with cyanide of potassium or suffo- cating them with 'smoke-ferrets,' which were then the methods used by vespacides. I don't think my conscience reproached me for these acts of wholesale slaughter. But for one thing it did reproach me. At first, after a massacre, I didn't trouble to count the corpses—a tedious business —I assumed I had slain fifty at a blow, and I dare say I wasn't far out. And it was gratifying to see my score mounting by fifties instead of by units or even by tens. But then I remembered that money depended on my accuracy, and wasn't I cheating by guessing at the numbers of the victims? So when silence reigned under the net I removed it and scrupulously counted the bodies, both inside and outside, impressing each on my memory with a jab of my forefinger.

Alas, I did this once too often. The wasp may have been dead, but its sting wasn't, and I fled

incontinently from the garden, much as Adam did, with a painful finger which, despite applica- tions of blue-bag, swelled up to quite a size.

After that my memories are vague. Did I return to my job, did the wasp epidemic sub- side, or was the one that stung me in fact the thousandth? At any rate, I got the four and two-. pence for the first paid, and I think the most painful, job I ever had.