travel across the mirage of the Canal, a mirage riding on a mirage. Can a butterfly recognise a mirage? Was it really trying to reach the fancied water? Certainly this butterfly appeared to be flying towards the water, looking in vain for the misty reed beds and wide open skies of its native Norfolk. As the Swallowtail began its erratic flight, and the two mirages met, a sand-devil skittered across the desert floor. Noon-day heat always produced these whirling spirals of air, blinding columns of furnace-hot dust which moved erratically across the desert. Four completely unreal elements performed a ballet on a piece of barren desert: the mirages floated unsteadily above, while the sand ­devil and the butterfly danced their erratic steps until, after perhaps five minutes, each one disappeared in turn and life became normal again.

To most people it had been a butterfly, or moth, or piece of litter. To me it was a message from home and a memory of childhood. I had signed for ten bombers, new to this theatre of war and said to be worth £50,000 each. If this figure was correct, the planes were worth half a million pounds in old money. At this time a new bungalow on an arterial road leading from London could be bought for £495. A good house in Muswell Hill cost perhaps £900 or £1000, so a £50,000 bomber was worth a row of houses and ten Wellingtons were worth a housing estate. Here, two days later, was a present, a tip, a sort of pour boire, a swallowtail butterfly.

As children we had never seen swallowtail butterflies in the wild, but had admired them longingly in the Butterfly House in the Zoo. They were the largest British butterfly, brilliantly veined in yellow and black, with the long tails which made them stranger and more elegant than any others: the birds of paradise of their world. On one visit the keeper had kindly given us three dead swallowtails. Lately dead, for the wing muscles were still flexible enough to be spread out without breaking. We had pinned the bodies in the groove of our largest setting board and gently spread out the wings on either side. There they dried and later were displayed in a shallow glass case as the pride of the collection. Now, in a foreign country, I had found the butterfly I had never seen in the wild before. A rare, unearthly moment.

This love of butterflies was strange. Most children were not so butterfly struck, having their own obsessions, but the cult went on in the family for years. It was perhaps the extraordinary transformations which insects achieve which had us in their thrall.

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