Myths & Legends

It was all excitement at The Bookseller Crow on the Hill because a legend was in our midst – Stephen Appleby. He of wit and wonder in the Grauniad, prizing apart family life in uncanny cartoons and having a jolly good look at the insides. He takes the mundane, the everyday incidences and thoughts, and proves that they are anything but. Lovely fellow and so is his co-author in the Coffee Table Book of Doom, Art Lester. And it was a lovely launch party too, full of Art’s excellent charcouterie, and wine and beer and general bonhomie, not too may spillages and lots and lots of chat.

The subject of nits isn’t covered in his new book but microbial warfare is, naturally. Along with some brilliant drawings including a diagram of where to check if you fear pandemic contagion with arrows pointing to the body suggesting HERE, HERE, DOWN HERE, BEHIND HERE, HERE etc. It sounds like a head-check for lice. As we sloshed around more celebratory plonk, Stephen’s delightful editor commented that they never really had a problem with nits in the family because her wee boy never got ’em. The hormones you see, she explained.

How is it that people still believe this? It was no fun putting her straight, I can tell you but it had to be done. It is precisely that kind of rot that keeps the ole head lice in the money, thankyou very much. As our own soon-to-be-published book says, grown-up blokes don’t get nits because they don’t put their heads near their children. It ain’t because they are simmering with testosterone. Actually, in a way it is – cuddling kids is woman’s work afterall..

Meanwhile, boys get ’em as much as girls thesedays. When once upon a time your average eight year old chap was encouraged to shake hands and keep a stiff upper lip, now he lolls all over his friends on the sofa playing the Xbox and huddles with his school chums on the class carpet at group time. And there’s nothing head lice more than the current social phenomenon called The Sleepover. You do the maths..

Whilst not professing to be legendary as yet (ahem), me and the Bugman will get our own launch party in May when The Little Book of Nits finally hatches and hopefully it will go some way towards dispelling those ghastly louse perpetuating myths. In the meantime, the excitement is building, the best glasses have been rinsed out and the only headscratching is over how just many friends we can cram in between the shelves.

Letting go is suicide

As I was sorting through some pictures for a lecture I’m giving (brownfield ecology, no lice there), I came across several close-ups of head lice I’d taken when we had an infestation some years ago. The nymphs were really too tiny, even for a macro lens, so I’d kept an adult alive in a small glass tube. A twist of damp tissue prevented it drying out, and I kept it in my trouser pocket to keep it safe and warm.

Plonking it down onto a piece of art paper made the right background in terms of colour balance, but the louse was lost against the flatness and struggled to move. It did not look right. Then I remembered the clippings from the kids’ haircuts a few days earlier. We’d thrown them out into the garden. I don’t know, something to do with improving the tilth of the soil maybe. Anyway, the cuttings were still there and I rescued some sprigs, scattered them on the paper and released the louse.

The louse was very nimble on its claws.

It was remarkably active, considering it had not eaten for several hours; but I put this down to the fact that I had been keeping it in safe and humane conditions. It shot off across the strands at top speed. From memory, I’m guessing it moved at about 2 cm/sec. This was enough to make it quite interesting trying to get the thing in focus as I chased it back and forth across the jumbled strands. It also reminded me why head lice are so difficult to spot on a cursory examination of the dry scalp, and how easily they can scramble over from one victim to another.

What I had in my favour, though, was the fact that the head louse never once let go of the hairs. It ran backwards and forwards, up and down, left and right, exploring every inch of its manufactured backdrop, but it had nowhere else to go; it was trapped. Because, of course, for a louse, letting go is suicide.

Head lice are tiny compared to humans, they are perhaps one hundred millionth the size of their host. If they let go for an instant, they will get injured, or they will get lost. Either way, they will be dead. Head lice do not wander off across the pillow looking for another head to invade, nor do they sit on chair backs, or shoulders, hoping for another hairy human to stroll past so that they can scramble aboard. Within minutes they will start to cool down, and dehydrate. Their body movements will slow, their internal metabolism will start to fail and all the complex physiological workings of their bodies will start to corrupt. After a couple of hours away from its warm moist scalp home, the louse is beyond recovery; its legs may still twitch, but they are its last desperate gropings. No, if a louse lets go, it is as good as dead.

Don’t mention crabs

Crab louse, Pthirus pubis, the most embarrassing insect in the world.

On holiday visiting friends in the USA many years ago, my host suddenly appeared very agitated one morning and demanded, in a hushed whisper, something along the lines of “What are these?”, thrusting into my hand a strip of sellotape folded over onto itself. Stuck inside it were some minute grey insects about 2 mm long. My near eye-sight was better then and even without the use of a hand lens I could immediately see that they were crab lice. And, bluntly, I told him so. Oh dear. Never was there a blunter instrument used to deliver such a blow.

Unfortunately, in my objective scientific detachment I had forgotten a very important fact: in polite society, Pthirus pubis is perhaps the most embarrassing insect in the world. These are not nice lice. We don’t much like to talk about them. Incidentally, I like the fact that this beast’s name is coined from an ancient Greek word for louse ‘phtheir’. I don’t think it’s hard to guess how the Greeks came up with such a word. When said with a slight lisp and a nasal sneer it makes a suitably derisory sound, just right for such a revolting parasite — phtheir.

But from this same word we also get the wonderful-sounding job title phthirapterist — someone who studies lice. I always thought claiming to be an entomologist was a pretty cool ice-breaker at cocktail parties, but “Yeah, hi, I’m a…phthirapterist” is not to be sneered at, let alone lisped at.

Anyway, back to the USA and my embarrassed and appalled friend. I was later admonished; couldn’t I have at least said something neutral to him like: “Oh these are interesting, where did you find them?” or “Well, I’ll have to have a look through the lens and check a few reference books.” But, no, I came straight out with it: “You’ve got crabs”. Needless to say, this did not go down very well with his fiancée.

What followed was almighty bloody pandemonium. Beds were stripped, carpets, curtains and furniture were vacuumed, clothes were washed and all visitors were required to administer the appropriate amounts of insecticidal shampoo to nether and other regions of the body for prolonged periods. Come to think of it even the poor dog was probably shampooed too. All this despite my exasperated but quietly muttered protests about personal physical contact, casual sex and puritanical American prudery. We went through the polite motions of disinfection, even though I knew, all along, that it is usually intimate sexual activity that allows these lively critters to move around.

No matter what the graffiti says, on many a public lavatory wall, about standing on the seat, crabs cannot jump ten feet, not even one foot, they can’t jump at all, they crawl, and they’re very good at it. To anyone who’s ever seen a crab louse under the microscope, it’s patently obvious that their claws are perfectly adapted to clinging extremely tightly to their host, and that nothing could induce them to let go, until the precise moment of contact, when another host touches, and they can quickly shuffle across.

After my unnecessary bluntness earlier, I thought it better not to dwell on their precise mode of transmission. And despite the many myths surrounding these curious creatures I restrained my usual exuberant impulse to pontificate. So I let things lie. Or so I thought.

Personal embarrassment moved to farce a few days later. Louse episode put aside, ignored or forgotten, conversation in the car turned to my long-standing interest in insects, and the young son of our host innocently asked some question about how insects grew. I tried to explain how invertebrates moult, by shedding their skins. I started with the usual analogy of a medieval knight being constrained by tight and inflexible metal armour. He was quite absorbed in my description of how the insect’s chitinous armour has to be pulled off whilst a new tough hide is formed underneath and then hardens as the old shell is expelled. I started to take the whole exoskeleton thing personally. I did lots of actions as if I were climbing out from my own shrunken skin or badly fitting suit of armour. I threw in a couple of rusty codpiece jokes and vowed to beat my esquire severely for not helping me properly. I was really getting into my theatrical stride now.

This being a maritime state of the Union I then went on to give the example of edible crabs, knowing full well that everyone within hearing had cracked open their shells to eat crab-meat, and had found the moulted carapaces of shore crabs along the beach. With quite some relish I then moved on and went into the details of how to tell male from female crabs; different kinds of crab; crab behaviour and crab ecology; the biggest and the smallest crabs; land crabs and swimming crabs; fiddler crabs and crabs in other parts of the orchestra.

It was only later, much, much later, I discovered that my partner had been secretly hiding her head in her hands, slumped in the back seat of the car, willing me silently, but insistently, through her pleading but unanswered telepathy: “Don’t mention crabs. Don’t mention crabs. DON’T MENTION CRABS.”