by Rosalind Lund
from Signs of the Times No. 71 - Oct 2018
In this idiosyncratic and fascinating memoir, entomologist and naturalist Henry Disney takes the reader with him on his spiritual and career journey through life.
Very much a Modern Church sort of person, his scientific knowledge and understanding meant that he could never accept a literal interpretation of the Bible and inevitably this led him through a period of difficulty with organized religion. He came through this and was led to feel that he was called to ordained ministry. However, this was not to be (half of the selectors considered him ‘heretical’) but his bishop thought that Henry’s talents were needed in the Church and recommended him to become a selector - a role Henry fulfilled for some years.
Disney’s early years were not easy - he was born in 1938 and his parents’ circumstances meant that he hardly saw anything of them during the war years. He was sent to boarding school very young and no doubt this contributed to his strong sense of his own self-worth and a need to challenge authority whenever he felt misjudged and in the right. Fortunately, Aunt Sheila provided a secure base and home for him and he reports of happy memories of holidays with her in Norfolk. Not surprisingly Disney was a somewhat shy boy who developed a fascination for natural history and gained release by writing poetry. The whole book is interspersed with Henry’s poetry which provides a continuing commentary on his life - sometimes the poems provide an essential insight into an experience, but if poetry is not your bag, then there is still plenty to get your teeth into. The drama of events certainly carried this reader through with a burning desire to find out what happened next!
No sooner had Disney left school than he received his call up papers and before long, it was 1957, he found himself in Cyprus where he not only discovered that he had leadership skills, but he also received an injury to his hearing that still troubles him today. He had little time for the MoD who later refused him any compensation for this injury. And, when Barbara Castle made a ministerial visit to Cyprus in 1958 she accused the Army of torturing EOKA suspects - she was denounced by the Establishment but of course events have shown that she was right. Henry engaged his comrades in debate over the value of torture and was clear that it achieved nothing - something that has been fully borne out by modern research.
Disney’s life work as an entomologist has been with scuttle flies, not a field of interest that the average reader will be familiar with. His notes on the insects found in dog poo in urban areas that led to an investigation of the toxicity of parasites in dog poo resulting to today’s law obliging dog owners to clear up after their dogs. Disney is still (in retirement) the go-to person for scientists the world over for scuttle flies and he has identified a huge number of new species over the years.
A brief review can’t do justice to such a wide-ranging book. It is an insight into the working of the mind of a distinguished scientist and thoughtful lay Anglican.