Simon Barnes Review – by Jennifer Benn

“I never intended to write this book,” declared Simon Barnes. It began with a suggestion by his publisher to write a book about insects. But the idea kept growing: why limit himself to just one arbitrary part of the animal kingdom? He began to see that animal life is “not about barriers but continuity, not about separation but links”.

The challenge was to interest people in creatures that they didn’t know existed or that they were repelled by. For instance, he launched into an extraordinary account of a slug’s sex life: “a slimy and sensual ballet performed on a trapeze of mucus”. (Sometimes, he added, a slug will chew off a corkscrew penis that cannot be easily withdrawn!).

Simon dipped in and out of his book, reading us chapters, breaking off at intervals to convey his awe at the dizzying variety of life out there. We heard about his encounter in Africa (while unarmed) with a large, angry lion: instinctively standing still, rather than running away, he survived. Reflecting later, he mused, “We humans first walked the savanna a million years ago and part of us still knows it: enough for me to come up with a wholly appropriate response without reference to conscious thought”.

Without being unduly confrontational, Barnes raised questions that challenge the world-view of creationists: parasitic flat worms that have evolved with beautiful, bewildering complexity – but they inflict chronic, ghastly suffering on their human hosts. Some of what has evolved is horrific while being extraordinary.

The evening began with delightful music, courtesy of a band named Lionel Richie and the Battledrobe, and with refreshments served by BGS Literary Event stalwarts Jane Hicks and Auntie Chris. It ended with a Q and A session and book-signing. We all went off into the night with eyes opened to the ‘ten million aliens’ with whom we share the planet.

Jennifer Benn