By Alix Norman
I don’t like spiders, so it’s with great surprise that I find myself reading and re-reading the definitive guide to arachnids in Cyprus. For a girl who hates spiders, it’s a quietly astonishing choice. But the secret, you see, is in the writing. For 60 Cypriot Spiders is about as far from a dry academic text as you could imagine…
This is a book that – like the crab spider Misumenavatia – pounces on its unsuspecting prey, leading the reader into a startling garden of literary delight. A superbly-crafted piece of prose packed with amusing anecdotes, it’s a diverting dip into a world thus far overlooked by the island’s naturalists: the world of the Cypriot Spider.
Its author, Duncan McCowan, is as humble and yet fascinating as the prose he pens. His sound grasp of academic fact is richly counterpointed by his ability to carry the reader along with his story: I chuckle as he stands over a spider-harbouring bucket in the middle of a field, watched in disbelief by passers-by; thrill to an emergency call from the Nicosia General Hospital in which his advice on a Chaetopelmaolivaceum bite saves the day; giggle as – in an enlightening incident – he renames the Recluse spider ‘the spider that hides behind the piano’.
Like a modern-day Gerald Durrell, Duncan has the ability to inform and entertain at the same time – so it’s probably no surprise that in his ‘real’ life he’s a teacher. One fourth Scottish, one fourth English, one fourth Italian and one fourth Greek-Cypriot, he’s a real family man whose oeuvre was written “in stolen snippets in the middle of the night whilst feeding one or other of my children”.
I find myself thinking that if I could write like this in the sleep-deprived small hours of the morning, I’d probably have a best-seller on my hands by now, but Duncan is typically modest about his achievements, and humbly grateful to his publisher, Kyriakos Kyriakou, for promoting his work so enthusiastically.
“I’ll be very happy if people find the book useful, but amusing at the same time,” he says, “I suppose that was my aim. Cyprus has a very rich and varied population of spiders, but you find that once you begin to look for information on the subject, there is very little available – it’s an area that’s been largely overlooked by the scientific community. The local population is almost entirely ignorant of the spider life on the island, and that generally includes the medical community as well.”
But what if, I ask – now privy to newfound knowledge regarding the variety of venomous species to be found on the island – I should get bitten? “Well, quite!” is Duncan’s amusing yet distressing response: “Very few doctors might consider including a spider as being the culprit for the envenomation!”
This does not leave me particularly reassured, especially when Duncan continues his discussion of Cyprus’ bigger arachnids: “We have a very interesting mix of spiders, which includes largish spiders like the aforementioned tarantula Chaetopelmaolivaceum – Europe’s largest spider.” This is a spider, he tells me, which can grow up to 12cm in leg span and may have a body length of up to 4cm (spiders are always measured by body length). “That’s approaching the size of a small human hand!” he adds.
I hold up one of my relatively small human hands. Duncan grins and nods. There’s a long pause…
“Look, we’ve been cohabiting with spiders for millennia and they haven’t significantly bothered us,” says Duncan by way of reassurance. “If spiders really were a scourge of the human race we would know all about it. The fact that people are not running to the hospital all the time with suspected spider bites means that they live harmoniously amongst us.” And they have been on the planet for the past 350 million odd years – since before deciduous plants even!
“In terms of evolution, spiders are a success story,” Duncan adds. “And yet most people are unaware of their important ecological role. They’re a vital part of the food chain and do extremely good work in general by ridding the world of pests, especially those creatures that affect food production; the closer you look at them then the more respect for them you develop, and the more wonderful they appear.”
He’s right in this: reading his book has made me see spiders in a completely different light. With a gracious and learned foreword by Paul Hillyard – former curator of spiders for the Natural History Museum in London – 60 Cypriot Spiders falls roughly into five sections. The introduction covers Duncan’s first forays into the world of arachnids, from his early fascination with the cobwebs at a local cobbler’s (“They hung like decrepit funeral drapes from the ceiling and cascaded down corners and fluttered in crannies”) to his unwitting rescue of a pool-going tarantula in Kenya (“Carrying it back home, the jar held out in front of me, I remember I had no difficulty getting a place on a notoriously crowded Nairobi bus”).
The second section takes a brief look at ‘some spider basics’, including detailed sketches by the author of different types of arachnid, while the third contains six chapters in which Duncan presents the spiders of Cyprus through both enlightening evidence and amusing anecdote. A section containing basic information and beautiful photography (many by esteemed local nature photographer, Christodoulos Makris) allows the reader to identify the 60 Cypriot species more commonly encountered, before a series of Appendices (concerning mating habits, bites and webs) brings the book – too soon – to a close.
I never thought I’d say this about a factual work that concerns one of my least favourite creatures, but 60 Cypriot Spiders really is a gem of a book. It’s nature writing at its best.
60 Cypriot Spiders by Duncan McCowan is published by Mikrokyklos Books, and is available at a cost of €15 from all reputable bookshops. The book launch will take place at 7.30pm on Wednesday, April 30, at the Nicosia University UNESCO amphitheatre. The launch will be in Greek (though questions may be answered in English) and anyone who wishes to attend is most welcome.