Among the fly-related books that I have accumulated over the years is a vandalised issue of the Transactions of The Edinburgh Field Naturalists and Microscopical Society from 1914 (Volume VII). Most of the pages have been cut out, not by me I am sure, leaving only incomplete articles on the geology of Blackford Hill in Edinburgh, somewhere I knew well as boy, and more exotically on “The Olive tree”. However, in full, is a piece on the history and biology of “The common house fly” by Dr W.G.Aitchison Robertson, D.Sc., F.R.C.P. The fly he means is Musca domestica, the most familiar member of the family Muscidae. By way of counter-balancing previous writing on his subject, which is “chiefly of a condemnatory nature” he quotes Lucian, Homer and Ruskin who wrote: “I believe that we can nowhere find a better type of a perfectly free creature than in the common house fly. Not only free, but brave; and irreverent to a degree which I think no human republican could by any philosophy exalt himself to. There is no courtesy in him; he does not care whether it is king or clown whom he teases; and in every step or pause there is one and the same expression of perfect egoism, perfect independence and self-confidence, and conviction of the world’s having been made for flies. Strike at him with our hand … and he alights on the back of it.”
Also in my fly archive is a drawing I made as a boy of specimen #7 from my newly established Diptera collection, a fly that I had caught the previous summer flying around the attic at 9 pm after the window had been left open. I know these details because for each specimen I filled out a record on the back of one of the punched cards that in another century were used to program computers. My father used these at work, and always had a stock in the inside pocket of his jacket in case he needed to write something down. Also from the attic, a diary entry for the day of capture reads: “Tidied up insect stuff in morning. After lunch collected flies. Set some. Program on Olympics. Mr Consigni phoned. Dad to Yorkshire.” I think Mr Consigni was calling about arrangements for the rather miserable exchange trip to France that I was about to set off on. The daily diary, kept faithfully for the previous 18 months, stopped the following day.
I identified specimen #7 a couple of years later, somewhat tentatively, as a male Phaonia rufipalpis, a slightly larger member of the Muscidae, using the rather taciturn key written by E.C.M. d’Assis Fonseca (the M, appropriately standing for Muschamp). I must have been back home from University for the Easter Holidays, though my much more intermittent and introspective diary doesn’t give much context: “If you go through life looking for answers to questions about how you should behave – perhaps there is no answer – you must make what you can yourself of a world that is finite and has no purpose. Each must find his own answer – or you can let a God give it to you and follow blindly – or you can appreciate the immensity of the awaiting task.“
Forty years on and I no longer a diarist but I am using the same key to identify a fly I found sunning itself on the side of the house on a warm March afternoon. I have to look for pre-sutural acrostichals on the thorax, check if the mediastinal vein of the wing is sinuous, and decide if the fronto-orbital bristles between the eyes are reclinate or proclinate – it isn’t any easier than I remembered.
As Dr Aitchison Robertson remarks in his treatise, “The fly is a very old friend.”