His Imperial Majesty: A Natural History of the Purple Emperor

Matthew Oates

Bloomsbury, £20

“IN character, one would hope that the Purple Emperor could be compared to the better-behaved Roman emperors – Claudius, Constantine or Diocletian, perhaps. The opposite would be nearer the truth; think Caligula, Commodus and Nero. This butterfly is utterly amoral.”

Who knew lepidoptera could be such fun? Matthew Oates’s rollicking study of the Purple Emperor butterfly is a joyful, boisterous piece of nature writing that informs, educates and, most importantly, entertains. Oates has a huge passion for his insect of choice, and he writes about it with passion and great humour.

And in the Purple Emperor, he has found a perfect subject. A huge, sex-mad creature that is always looking to pick a fight (NB, we are talking about the male of the species here, but you might have already guessed that). Oh, and it isn’t that bothered about flowers as a rule. But if you have some rotting flesh or fresh fox scat to hand, well, that’s a feast.

Oates’s study of the species rewrites some of the received wisdom about the Purple Emperor, which, alas, is mostly to be found in the south of England, picking fights with any passing bird or drone. But the fun of it is to be found in his vivid descriptions of the butterflies themselves and those who are obsessed with them.

Like Baron Charles de Worms (what a name), whom Oates recalls meeting one incredibly hot day “when he clambered out of his huge old Silver Bentley, clad in a string vest, Boy Scout shorts of considerable antiquity, and hobnail boots, and proceeded to rub rancid Danish Blue cheese into a Forestry Commission gatepost as a bait.”

There’s a BBC comedy-drama somewhere in all this, surely?

Oates makes hunting for a glimpse of the Purple Emperor sound like one of the best ways you can spend your summer. So, let’s hire a mini-bus next year and all head for Hampshire. Who’s coming?

Look Out For: Tess of the D’Urbervilles, BBC Four, Thursday, 8pm.

This 2008 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s rural tragedy continues on BBC Four this week. Gemma Arterton and Hans Matheson and Eddie Redmayne lead the cast, with the most scenic parts of Gloucestershire and Wiltshire in support.