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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

On spiders and singing ...
from classical music's agony aunt,

Dear Alice,

I love your column, but was disturbed to read, in your biography, that you don't seem to like spiders. My son has four or five spiders (I forget) as pets and I think they're fascinating. What's wrong with spiders?

E W in Richmond

A spider

Dear E W,

Since I started writing this agony aunt column (with its appending section on Who is Alice McVeigh?) I have often been asked by friends, 'What is your beef with spiders, McVeigh?' or, in the case of my five-year-old, 'But I like spiders, Mummy!' (Though I accept some allowance must be made for a child so warped she gives ants names -- like Bert, or Amy -- and keeps snails as pets.)

So, to put the record straight, I would like to point out that I do not dislike all spiders. No, the ones who chomp up crop-destroying insects in areas of the world I have no desire to visit have my complete and entire support. Indeed, I am a founder member of the 'Keep all spiders safe abroad' movement, acronym KASSA, and frequently send them money, gnats who are bugging me and dead ants. No, the spiders I object to, and that strenuously, are the ones who, rather than demolishing malarial insects in far-off swamps, prefer to hang out in Orpington, Kent.

Firstly, these are not, I wish to point out, manly, up-front spiders swinging from tree to tree in the Amazonian rainforest, catching the odd puma or wombat (and what could be fairer?) but sneaky, dark-dwelling creatures of the underworld who, with all the green verdant spaces of nearby woodland to choose from, elect instead to set up house and home in cupboards, garages, lofts, and anywhere else where no self-respecting prey is likely ever to be seen, for the express purpose of hurtling themselves off ceilings and onto the nearest cupboard-cleaner, garage-sorter-outer etc, ie me.

Secondly, I wish to lodge a formal complaint about their speed. There is no particular need for them to be so quick, charging out towards me with their horrible spidery legs. That is not, I want to point out, the way they catch their dinners. No, to support themselves these lazy swine simply erect a canopy of some sticky substance and then hang about, polishing their toenails and admiring their handiwork, until some poor unfortunate insect takes the wrong turning in life and comes a cropper. (One doesn't wish to carp, but under-handed is the word that springs to the lips.) So what, may I ask, is the point of their being so nippy? If they sauntered about at a reasonable speed, like the snail, for example, I probably wouldn't be bothered at all. I might even like them, as some are rather nicely decorated, probably by Estée Lauder, though these are generally speaking the ones from Bolivia that eat birds.

Thirdly, I think something really ought to be done about their stupidity. Even by the standards of the non-vertebrate world, we are not talking genius here. When confronted by an arachnophobe (me, just to take an example at random) a sensible, intelligent spider ought to figure out that the snappy option -- and what his life insurance broker would advise -- is for him to flee. If on the ceiling, find the nearest crack. If on the floor, observe the big red exit signs. In short, buzz off. What no sane, self-respecting spider ought to do -- but which practically every single spider I've ever met in fact immediately elects to do -- is to run towards the panic-stricken house-holder who has just armed herself with the nearest book. It's not that I have any compunction about sloshing a spider with a book (a short life but a merry one, as they say, as they appear to get their thrills hanging about on their own in dark and dusty corners of my house) -- no, it's just that it makes such a mess of the books. I mean, at moments of crisis one does not have the time and leisure to pick and choose. There's never a Dick Francis around to sacrifice to the cause, no, it's generally one of my father's biographies (hardback is best) or Simon Schama's Citizens, or some other expensive and excellent tome that I've always meant to getting around to reading, the chances of which, I have to admit, are not markedly improved by its having the dark and crushed remains of a spider on the back cover.

Now you are about to write in, en masse, to point out that I am a meanie and miles bigger than any spider, that spiders are an invaluable part of the ecosystem, are beautiful (what, even the hairy ones????) useful, and highly-thought-of by the E B White in Charlotte's Web, but I urge you to spare yourself the time and effort. I loved Charlotte's Web as well, but talk about anthropomorphism!

Another picture of the same spider. Photo © 2002 Keith Bramich

Plus, the very idea of a spider having a vocabulary like Charlotte's is a hoot. Imagine a spider knowing, 'Salutations!' Personally, I've never met one who can understand, 'Scram!!!!!!!!!!'

Ask Alice

Dear Alice,

I am a professional flautist and I have a friend who I like very much (and his wife too). My only trouble is that the friend believes he can sing, and is always proposing that we do a concert together, invite all our friends etc. The awful part is (aside from his voice, which is pretty awful) that I would like to do the occasional concert locally, probably for charity, etc, but I can't face the repercussions of his either singing or (still worse) not being asked to sing.

What do you advise?

Worried about losing a friend

Dear Worried,

I'm not surprised you're worried. You seem to face a stark and terrible choice: to tell your friend he's not good enough to perform with you, or to put on a charity concert under an assumed name to which no one will bother to come (because people only ever go to concerts where they know the performers personally, which is why musicians are so desperate to make friends with absolutely anybody!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

There is however a third option, and the one I would go for myself. Invite your friend to sing, but also invite some people you'd love to play with so he can't in all conscience expect to sing more than one or two items. Warn all your friends to applaud him vigorously, because, although he has the most marvellous voice, he is a perfect martyr to stage fright and never does himself justice. They will think, 'Poor thing, just think how well he might have sung without his dreadful nerve problem,' and you will think, 'Just about got away with that.'

Yours sneakily,

Copyright © 20 June 2003 Alice McVeigh, Kent, UK



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