Friday, 23 March 2007

Racing Crabs

The British used to be rather fêted for their eccentrics. It might have been something to do with lead pipes. But we mistrust eccentricity now. It has been banished to the margins, the province of winos and the maladjusted, and I sense the government would ban it if it could.

Many years ago my father was travelling on a train from Khartoum to Port Sudan. There was only one other occupant in his compartment. During the course of the journey he became increasingly intrigued as at intervals the man took some shreds of lettuce from a bag and slipped them under the lid of a large cardboard box on the luggage rack.

Eventually my father, overcome by curiosity, asked what he was doing. The man, who introduced himself as Gerald Millward, explained that the box contained Red Sea hermit crabs which had provided entertainment at dinner the previous night. The crabs had run races, backed by his guests. He was now undertaking the 1,000 mile round trip to return them to the spot from which they had come.

I met this kind-hearted man two decades later. He was then living in an isolated house by a river in Wales. We were talking in the kitchen when he paused and looked at his watch. Jumping up he took a four foot long post horn from the wall and said, 'Follow me'. On the high, wooded bank on the other side of the river appeared a narrow-gauge steam locomotive, pulling a train of carriages filled with tourists. Gerald put the horn to his lips and blew a long note. The train replied with a blast of its steam whistle.

I suppose today he would have been stopped under a raft of legislation: wildlife conservation regulations; animal cruelty; unnecessary travel contributing to global warming; breach of public hygiene; noise nuisance; distracting the driver of a public service vehicle.

A pity; the world was the richer for him.

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