You may recall that the moustachioed soul sweat monster Edwin Starr addressed the problem in as early as 1970 as he manfully proposed: “Caterpillars, huh, yeah. What are they good for? Absolutely nothing, huh.”, thus ruthlessly exposing an issue that had hitherto been on absolutely nobody’s agenda. Naturally the global lepidopterologist community leapt (no pun intended, but it does work) up to defend their wriggly, and in many cases very hungry, friends and so the argument has raged ever since. Over time Mr Starr began to regret his outburst and eventually, and rather astonishingly, became president of the Royal College of Chartered Lepidopterologists, championing all causes caterpillar related until his death at the age of 61, in 2003, the result of a bizarre accident in which he was forced to swerve his bicycle off a country lane, just outside the village of Chilwell, Nottinghamshire, to avoid a crossing caterpillar, and thence unluckily straight into the path of a speeding combine harvester. His shredded remains were appropriately buried in an eruciform shaped coffin. May his peace be eternal. Huh.
Famously, caterpillars are good for two things. The first is as a rather essential stage in the life cycle of both moths and butterflies. The second is, apparently, in the marketing and sales of supermarket cakes. I’m sorry if my opening paragraph was misleading and you were just settling down to an informative yet witty guide to the many wonders of the caterpillar world, but I’m sorry to say that for now I’ll just be focusing on the cake aspect; if you wish to stop reading as a result then now would be the time, and please don’t feel you’ve offended me, I can only assume you have something far better to do with your time. However, since caterpillar cakes are clearly an integral part of everyday life in Britain it may do you some good to read on regardless.
It appears that Colin the Caterpillar is something of an icon. More importantly it is an icon created by Marks and Spencer’s, who it turns out are really very precious about it. In a way I’m glad that their battle for Colin has been in the news because it demonstrates that there are far more serious and pressing issues out there than trivial matters such as race equality, pandemic turmoil, dementia, political sleaze, rape, death and paralysis, and I for one will not sleep until justice is done. In another way it does seem a rather pathetic that M&S, a company that have been haemorrhaging money, respect, credibility and high street success for years have got to the point where they feel their future may just rest on the slender shoulders of a cake shaped like a caterpillar. Called Colin. It is a farce you would struggle to make up.
If you’ve been following the story (I know, why would you have been?) then you’ll know that M&S are trying to sue Aldi because they have a caterpillar cake of their own, called Cuthbert. As you might expect M&S have bought in their very expensive lawyers to argue about design infringement and intellectual property rights, but let’s be honest – when you’re dealing with a squabble involving two caterpillars called Colin and Cuthbert it could hardly be described as dipping into any sort of intellectual arena. Colin goes back as far as 1990, which is some sort of achievement on some sort of level, I suppose, but M&S want us to understand that their caterpillar is the original and that even without a name we would all recognise it if, for instance, we swerved past one on a bicycle ride. Their actions also bitterly insinuate that Aldi’s cake must, even simply by default, be a cheap and tacky inferior copy and from the point of view of the average, sniffy M&S shopper not even good enough to donate to a church raffle.
The fuss that is being made over this is heart wrenchingly silly and if you scratch the surface it seems likely that M&S have a real battle on their hands. Not only is there Aldi’s Cuthbert to contend with (do today’s children know that Cuthbert is even a name?) but there is also a ‘Wiggles’ at Sainsbury’s, both ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ at ASDA (quite why they named their child friendly cake after a murderous, Depression era couple is anyone’s guess), ‘Morris’ (imaginative) at Morrison’s, ‘Cecil’ (suitably Barbour jacket and Hunter wellies) at Waitrose, Co-Op’s barrel scraping ‘Curious Caterpillar Cake’ and Tesco’s ‘Curly’. In fact, and purely by accident, I noticed that Tesco’s have several caterpillars on their cake shelves including a female version called ‘Calli’ and very tasty sounding ‘Carl’; who those children with the very weakest of constitutions will be pleased to hear is unhindered by gluten, wheat, milk and, inevitably, joy.
What does this tell us then, about supermarket cakes? Well, I certainly don’t care if M&S lose or win (Aldi have suggested that all the sales of Cuthbert go to charity, but the bitching persists) and I don’t care much either for the intellectual rights of a cake in the shape of a caterpillar with a stupid smile on its face. What concerns me more is the glaring lack of imagination involved amongst the teams that design cakes for Britain’s leading supermarkets; certainly it seems rather threadbare if the best they can do is just copy a caterpillar and give it another name. Alas, even the half-hearted attempts to deviate from Colin’s template are all just as shit: Tesco’s, as an example, can offer you – (and these all exist) a ‘Frankie The French Bulldog Cake’, a ‘Lucky The Llama Cake’ and most bizarrely, a ‘Sammy The Sloth Cake’ – but none of them look remotely appealing beyond the eyes of a dribbly six year old with a sugar addiction.
The woes of the world seem very considerable at the moment: to lend us some handy sense of context we keep on being reminded that life hasn’t been this hard since World War II, so why the trials of Cuthbert should be on anyone’s list of priorities is a bit of a mystery. All cakes made to look like animals and given names are, by their very nature, crap, and most kids are, also by their very nature, pretty stupid, and so the path of least resistance should be to simply let stupid kids eat crap cakes and then wash our hands of the rest, rather than wasting money and time arguing about whose is the most special. It’s also quite baffling that M&S can’t see that the average Aldi shopper is highly unlikely to go out of their way just to buy a Colin the Caterpillar from M&S, and equally the average M&S shopper is never going to go to Aldi specifically and solely for a Cuthbert, because both those scenarios are crushingly sad just to think about. They should instead at least be trying to come up with some characters that reflect our troubled and confused times: Annie The Anxious Aardvark, Toni the Trans Tapir, Bramwell the BAME Bobcat and Wendy the Woke Water Vole – now they’re the kinds of animals I’d eat in cake form, and I applaud any supermarket that wants to give them a shot.
G B Hewitt. 24.04.2021