Can the Fleas Come Too?

Why not take the whole family on holiday, insects and all? C’mon, you aren’t telling me you haven’t shuffled around a Super U in Northern France wondering what the difference between ‘shampooing’ and ‘apres-shampooing’ (apart from the apres) is. Given that the price of the latter is often double the former, you’d safely assume that the after gunk is conditioner. It is. But not as we know it.

I never thought I’d hear myself say how lucky we are to have the supermarkets we do in England, though you’ll be pleased to hear that I’ve made it a rule of life that I will never cross the threshold of a Tescos, even during a nit emergency. And for the French translation of that, read Carrefour – it even uses the same colours and now they have relaunched themselves, having eaten up all the darling Champions, they have unleashed the concept of 3 for 2 on the French public, where une was perfectly sufficient for centuries.

But we are lucky because we get a whole aisle of conditioners to choose from, whereas the French get precisely two bottles of apres shampooing. And the one you choose to put in your ‘chariot’ (I love that though – we should adopt it instead of trolley. Bring me my chariot! Or, crikey, she’s off her chariot..), is mysteriously inept at the business of de-tangling, ergo: aiding the business of removing nits and lice once you get back to the gite.

But then if you decide to go for the chemical route, who is brave enough to face those porcelain pharmacists in their spike heeled court shoes and laboratory coats that guard the pristine, minimalist chemist shops where narry a furry hot water bottle cover nor novelty baby bib can you find? What is French for headlice anyway? Do you mime it? Do you show them your child’s head? In front of the queue.. Voila!!

Once, in a Dutch town away from the perfect English speaking tourist route, I was forced into an apoteek to ask for something for kleine betjes. They all took a step backwards behind the counter. Though that could have been the shock of my accent.

And once the product is secured, do you understand the intructions? No, really? I have been that ‘soldat’ and at dix bleedin’ euros, the little blighters from blighty remained resolutely stuck in my children’s hair. In fact, I swear it increased their libido and the kids came home with a kilo of creatures in their follicular luggage.

Have comb, will travel. I have combed in restrooms, on boats, in courtyards and on beaches and you have to agree that nothing beats the thrill of NOT finding any live ones or eggs, with a large Campari in your free hand. Nothing.

Lice come in all shapes and sizes

Some fat, some thin, but all beautiful

I’ve been skimming through some old books in my library to find pictures of lice. And I have been rewarded in full. They really are very pretty. And they come in all shapes and sizes. The accompanying picture is from a book by Samuel Constantinus Snellen van Vollenhoven (founder member of the Netherlands Entomological Society), published in 1861. The lithography is exquisite. But the text is all Dutch to me.

Ignore the flea (number 11), here illustrated are:

1: Phthirius inguinalis (human crab louse)

2: Haematopinus asini (ass louse)

3: Pediculus vestimenti (human body or clothing louse)

4: Ornithobius cygnorum (swan louse)

5: Goniodes falcicornis (peacock louse)

6: Lipeurus baculus (pigeon louse)

7: Nirmus rufus (kestrel louse)

8: Docophorus ocellatus (crow louse)

9: Trichodectes latus (dog louse)

10 Liotheum importunum (heron louse)

The louse decides

Head-louse engraving (1842)

I recently came across a curious louse-related anecdote. It seems that in the “Middle Ages”, the election of the local burgomaster in Hurdenburg, Sweden, was governed by the wanderings of a louse. Candidates for this mayor-type position sat down and rested their beards on a table. A louse was released into the centre of the table and the owner of the beard first honoured by the louse’s occupancy, was elected.

But I’m left wondering about this. It all seems just a little odd (and for an entomologist to say this, it really must be VERY ODD INDEED). My main concern is that this ‘fact’ arose from a second-hand report in a book published in 1865. It has been parroted, almost word-for-word, ever since. With the ease of cutting and pasting on the internet, it has spread to such an extent that this is now the only fact known about the town or city of Hurdenburg.

I don’t even know where Hurdenburg is. It does not exist on modern maps, and none of the numerous louse-led internet or book articles offer any explanation. It may be Hedberg,in the Arvidsjaur Kommun, near Norrbottens. Wherever, it’s too similar-sounding to headberg, surely. Or maybe that’s how the place got its name!?

And what could possibly be the rationale behind such a bizarre protocol? Was the elder with the longest beard (probably the oldest person there) reasoned to have the greatest experience and lore? Did he keep the louse during his stint in office?

I can see there is still a lot more research to do before I can accept this ridiculous piece of history.

Oh Lor’ the anthropomorphists are at it again

There is a tendency, in our house, to say things like “Of course, that’s scientifically impossible”, whenever there’s some crass science fiction B-movie on the telly. It’s not the suspension of disbelief that irks so; it’s rather when the film director is trying to show-off by presenting some ‘science’ amongst the fiction, but misses the basic fundamentals.

How come the large, blue-skinned, cat-eyed genetically-engineered body inhabited by the consciousness of Jake Sully in Avatar, is never bitten by giant mosquitoes? Why is that Superman doesn’t smash Louis Lane into a bloody pulp when he catches her in a high-speed snatch as she free-falls through the air at terminal velocity? Where does Wolverine keep his retractable metal claws, and do they interfere with his tennis back-hand?

But these are nowhere near as irritating as the faux natural history notions presented in children’s books. It’s not the fact that animals can’t really speak, I’m as happy as the next  kid to accept this. And it’s nothing to do with cats wearing hats, or a pig making pancakes, or a professional bird-chasing dog. I can appreciate anthropomorphism, I love it. But the authors must get the basics right first.

Now, I am not the Grinch, but I could make it my life’s work stealing these frustrating ill-informed volumes from bookshelves and stuffing them, very nimbly up the chimbly. All those nonsense furry black and yellow bumblebees making honey in the hive would be the first to go.

A few days ago I was reading a cute tale of small fluffy animals, separation, loss, friendship, and family reunion, to the 6-year-old. “Lots of ecological detail accompanies the story”, said the quote from the Times Educational Supplement, printed on the back cover. What? Like the hatchling bird being an exact but miniature version of its parent moments after breaking out from the egg? Like the snake giving it slithering lessons rather than just gobbling it up? Like the baby bird flying off through the sunshine at less than 24 hours old? Ooh I could get in a right stew over this one.

So when I see him watching a Blue Peter special about the making of a new film, The Itch of the Golden Nit, my skin creeps. Watch this space for more rants.