Nits Are For Life & Not Just for Christmas

There is a saying in my extremely small world, born out of experience – when the going gets tough, the lice get going. When I say they get going, I mean it in the ‘sleeves rolled up and dig in’ sense, as opposed to b*ggering off when there is work to do.

Throughout my career as a working mum I learned that just at the point where I was about to crack and was unable to take any more, no really, absolutely, any full stop more, I’d catch a rogue child scratching out of the corner of my weeping eye.

Up all night with a vomiting baby, car broken down, bailiff at the door (you think I’m joking) and cat dying – and that was just one Wednesday in May – I spot the tell-tale itch, check the scalp in question and, bingo! the job just got even harder.

I had my sister on the phone recently and she sounded utterly exhausted. She’d finally moved house miles away from her old address, having packed up herself in between her paid working hours and sorting out my neice and nephew with their daily requirements of school etc. Her husband works abroad and had cancelled coming over for the ‘completion’ at the last minute due to company commitments and she had reached the very final hurdle only to discover a mistake in the sums and a shortfall on the very last day of a shedload of money. It was at that moment, sobbing and stressed, she tussled her son’s hair and realised it was crawling.

She was a different woman to the one I had seen not three weeks earlier at Jamie Oliver’s Italian place among the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf. Then my sister was full of hope and plans for the new house. It was all yet to happen. Let’s celebrate, she suggested, and we had Bellinis while our children lounged around enjoying eachothers cousinly company, teasing eachother with breadsticks and sharing the fun of Jamie’s silly ViewMaster children’s menus. Happy days. It was all going so well.

Now she was faced with the prospect of having to comb the kids’ heads over and over as well as unpacking boxes and shuffling furniture alone. Good thing we all went out for a meal together, I said in an attempt to comfort her down the phone. We had such a lovely afternoon, eh? And it was all thanks to you. By the way, I got some super pics of the children. I will email them to you to cheer you up..

And before I did, I flicked through the photos. I could do with a little reminding myself after a hectic week coupled with a sore throat. There was us two raising our peach juice and sparkling wine, there was my quid ink pasta, yum, and, oh, there’s a brilliant one of my son showing her son how to make the ViewMaster work by pressing down the lever, heads together….  Oh sh*te.


Love Is…

I could hear the teenagers in the bathroom beind a closed door. Just a quiet murmur and a follow-up giggle as I moved past on the landing with a basket of washing. Hmmm.. She’s eighteen, thought I as I silently scooped up a rogue sock, do I leave ’em to it and pretend I don’t know  (cue loud internal whisper) WHAT THEY ARE UP TO IN THERE? Or, do I plant a flag in the summit and assume both parental and household authority by rapping sharply on the door? God knows, I wouldn’t want to barge in without knocking.. shudder…

Eventually she says from behind the door: “Are you alright mum?”

To which, once I’d retrieved the startled grip I’d lost on the basket and juggled the assorted underwear as it fell, I replied: “Er.. yes, fine. You guys?”

And the door swung open to reveal daughter sitting on the loo, lid down, brushing conditioner through her long hair whilst the boyfie balanced on the edge of the bath making comical quiffs with his fringe using my BEST nit comb.

“So,” says daughter, “Tom scratched his head last night while we were watching Breaking Bad and found a head louse on his finger. I’ve just combed my hair and found seven!!”

“I’m quite enjoying it actually,” grunted Tom, sculpting his hair into a cow lick and giving us a King of Rock and Roll sneer, “I’ve never done it before.”

“But I don’t know where I got them from,” whined daughter. And my itch set in instantly.

“Elvis has left the bathroom,” said the boyfriend, handing me my comb and heading back to the the telly.

Sometime later, when I had the place and MY STUFF to myself, I gave my head a sullen once over. Nowt. Then I checked my reluctant son’s head and told middle teen she needed to check herself. We all came up clean. Cleaner than the bloody bathroom after they’d been at it, that’s for sure. Since then, she’s romped through the hot water, conditioner and tissues with the same alacrity she and boyfie romp through the fridge – not only is the food cupboard bare but the mirrored one above the bathroom sink is too.

Later, working back using the calendar and the trusty timeline in The Little Book of Nits, the eighteen year old surmised she must have picked up the head fleas whilst babysitting a few weeks ago. There’s a lesson there for us all, I tell her, about never taking your eye off the ball, I mean, comb. And I decided better get more supplies in pronto, in anticipation of a few more romantic bathroom dates. Afterall, you can leave school but you are never to old to get nits. (Damn, I wish hadn’t used the word ‘romp’ earlier – it has made me feel quite queasy).

Ps. No teenagers were hurt during the writing of this blog.

In Which We Go Back to School

Before the summer I was confronted by a mum in my shop sporting a long-sighted sneer as she held The Little Book of Nits at arm’s length, peered over her specs and remarked: “Ugh. Who’d want to buy a book on head lice?” Before I had the chance to compose a neutral facial expression and respond with ten reasons why the item was in fact, er.. useful, Jon – my partner at home and at work – leaned over the counter and beckoned to her. She put it down and huddled in conspiritorially.

“I’ll tell you a secret about that book,” he hissed to her.

“Ooh do,” she replied, still shuddering at the sheer ghastliness of the tawdry piece of published triviality.

He thumbed the air towards me and stage-whispered: “She wrote it.”

Our customer backed off as if she’d been infected there and then. She then blustered a bit about it not being ‘her kind of thing’, before skidaddling lickety-split.

Nits are not anybody’s ‘kind of thing’.  It’s not like lager versus real ale – “Cheap mass produced beer in tins just isn’t my thing.” Or, soaps. “Eastenders just isn’t my kind of thing. Give me a storyline involving a cow’s hoof stuck in a cattle-grid any day.” There’s not even any room for indifference – “Nits? Ah, I can take ’em or leave ’em.. Prefer a good dose of scabies meself..” Or, indeed, ambivalence – “Head-lice, ho hum. Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em..”

The only person on this planet that I know that has any sort of miniscule affection for them is my co-author, The Bugman. And that, I imagine, computes to little more than cheerful but grudging respect for their complete lack of a sense of inferiority.

The thing is, the beggars aren’t going to go away just because we don’t like them. I did a school event before the summer in which parents were invited to talk about the problems of head lice, to swap stories and, you know, on my part,  to knock a few of the myths surrounding infection and treatment on the, um, head. This smart primary school with a mixed demographic where some of the priciest houses in London rub shoulders with some of cheapest could not muster more than a couple of parents. Meanwhile at the assembly I attended later on, their own children were there in large numbers, having a great time. Sitting cross-legged in rows. Listening like good kids. Many of them scratching like mongrels.

Summer intervened and as usual I escaped London for a month. The bookshop always seems like an alien landscape on my return, over-grown like the garden, with a raft of new titles and unfamiliar dust jackets. But the Little Book of Nits has remain sentinal by the till all through August, biding its time. 

This morning a lovely mum came flying in and snatched it up delightedly with relief. The term is barely underway, the uniform still squeaky and already they’ve got a head full of fleas at home, she sighed.  Yep. It’s back to school for everyone. Including those clever little nits.

The tension rises…

The tension was rising, the big day approached and to my surprise, I found I’d already had quite a lot of interest in The Little Book of Nits, not least from parents congratulating me on having the guts to address the subject in the first place. At this juncture I would like to add that the book is a joint effort obviously, but as a bookseller front-of-house as t’were, my adoring public know only me. Yeah, right. The adoring public actually only know my partner Jonathan, as he is the face of the business and there behind the till 7 days a week but that is why I have been so surprised. Clearly Richard and I have struck a chord.

So, when a really bright friendly lady gushed in and contrary to my usual experience, where the customer’s eyes desperately seek out Jonathan and fail to disguise their disappointment at obtaining only me, and asked if I was the Justine who had written the nit book, I was genuinely dazzled. Yes, that’s me! I offered, unable to supress my pride. Brilliant! she replied. Finally somebody has written about the b*stards! Of course, she continued breezily, ultimately the only thing that works is lavender oil…

My smile froze. Too late, she’d spotted it and stopped short. You, she eventually said, are going to tell me I’m wrong..

W..w.. we don’t endorse any products, I stammered. Lavender has been used for centuries as a remedy. We look at tea tree oil and citronella too. All these things have been used historically as er, natural repellents but, um, there’s no scientific, er, proof as such. Now she was disappointed and no doubt wishing Jonathan had been there afterall. I tried to fix things by explaining we examine all sorts of treatments in the book, from mayonnaise to electric zappers but I could tell we’d lost her.

The truth is the Bugman and I reach one conclusion in the fight against infestation, one sure way to keep the ghastly uninvited guests at bay. I wanted to SHOUT it out loud to her and anyone else scratching nearby (inevitably, when the subject arises…). At this point, the book was, to coin a bookseller’s term, NYP – not yet published – the wine was still on ice and the posters on order at the printers, so I couldn’t show her what I meant. You must use whatever works for you, I finally suggested and she left wishing us luck for the launch party, as deflated as a Poundland balloon.

The solution to head lice, I should have said, is a darn sight cheaper than vials of delightfully fragranced oils with pretty labels. But I’m a bookseller and not just an author  – you won’t shift many books by revealing the ending of a story before your customer has cracked open the first page, and at this particular moment we were still waiting for the stock to be delivered so that we could celebrate. 

So, I hear you ask, now that the party is over, just what is this mysterious conclusion that you and the Bugman arrive at? Come close and I’ll whisper it:  The Little Book of Nits, Bloomsbury, £7.99, available from all good bookshops…

A Job for Life

Even though, as the children grow older the instances of head lice infestation get fewer, the fear never quite leaves you. If my son so much as puts an index finger to the back of his neck for an innocent scratch, I’m onto him, perusing his parting like a rapt gibbon. Which of course, he hates.There can be little worse than the ignominy of having your mum nit check your best Justin Bieber barnet, especially when you are taller than her. And she makes you bend down.

Meanwhile with my teenage girls, we can be having a perfectly easy going hair related conversation about, I don’t know say, Charles Worthington versus John Frieda and who would win in a wrestling match, but if I casually drop the subject of a quick head check into the ring, doors are slammed harder than lycra bums on a smack down.

The mounting superfluity of my role as nit finder general, ergo caring parent, is evident in the handful of conditioner smeared tissues that mysteriously appear in the bathroom swing top, or I’ll find my best steel comb forlorn on the side of the shower. While I’m sad that my babes will soon no longer need me to de-flea them, I am relieved that one of the longest, most trying episodes of parenthood is nearly done.

So there I was drying off after a nice peaceful, childless swim the other day, grateful that when one of the toddlers roaming the changing room while their mums chatted distractedly caught his finger in the locker door he was smashing open and shut over and over again, it wasn’t my responsibility. Turning to the big mirror with happy impunity, a small boy screaming in the background of my reflection, I began to brush my wet hair when all of a sudden something small and insect-like fell onto the mottled formica counter in front of me.

With suspiciously approriate timing, my near-sight has begun to waver as my parental usefulness diminishes but as I squinted, I wasn’t convinced that I hadn’t dislodged a hitchiking louse. Afterall, I only discovered I had nits one summer in France when I innocently combed my hair out over a broad, white glossed window ledge while enjoying the view, only to look down and find three insects looking dazed on the paintwork.

Self-consciously, I glanced over my shoulder at the toddler being comforted by a surfeit of concerned mums (certain locker doors having been closed long after the horse had bolted) before finding a tissue, licking it to ensure adhesion (yuck) and smothering the errant creature. I then smuggled the thing into my cardigan (that word alone describes my transformation into middle, ahem, age) pocket to scrutinise later. I left the sports centre in haste.

Later, in the privacy of my own well-lit living room, heart pumping, prescribed reading glasses plonked on my nose, I carefully opened up the tissue. There nestled in the bleached Kleenex fibres, was the unmistakeable menacing presence of, a speck of navy lint. The same colour as the aforementioned cardi. Safely transported all the way from Crystal Palace. Nerk.

But like I said, the fear never leaves you. And while my kids may no longer require my comb-wielding services, I am an expert aunty to a three year old and an eight year old, prime infestation territory. Further more, with the publication of The Little Book of Nits by Bloomsbury on May 24th, I like to think that I can still be of use in spreading the word. Also available for weddings and Bar Mitzvahs…



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.

Knit a Nit

Knits. By Kirsty Gordon

To me knitting is alchemy – coloured twine bewitched by clicking sticks into miraculous garments, blankets and toys. My mother was a fine knitter, my crusty sister Lummo knits too (albeit always from the same wool in a hedgerow brown that she bought as a job lot), as do the women in my partner’s family. In fact, the Arran cardi the mother-in-law made me actually stopped the traffic as I crossed the road on foot when one driver hung out of the window to ask me where it came from. But me? I just never got the hang of it.

But I’m genius at nit-checking. I don’t have talent for much – apart from drinking too much, completing 30 lengths frontcrawl without stopping and poaching an egg perfectly – but I can sweep a head of lice in, well, a trice. The secret is not to trust your eyes. Which is just as well in my case because after 40 something years with 20/20 vision, my near sight has crumbled. I told the amused, though slightly wincing optician that I could tell something was wrong when I had to hold my son’s head under a spotlight at arm’s length to see what I was doing with the nit comb and tissues.

The thing is, if you rely on the evidence of your eyes alone, it is unlikely that you will spot any nits (empty eggs that is) until the head in question has got a head full. And as for seeing a live louse? Well, they move darned quick, are fiendishly camouflaged and they have no intention of being caught. Which is exactly why they are so successful. The only times I have  clearly identified live lice roaming on a scalp was when I worked in a nursery and one or two children from ‘chaotic homes’ had serious infestations and I was picking the things off with my fingers.

And as for freshly laid eggs, well they too blend in very well and are usually quietly deposited and glued onto the hair shaft very close to the scalp thereby increasing their invisibility.

As far as I’m concerned, the secret to population control is regular combing, whether or not the beloved bonce in question shows any sign of habitation or not. And combing close to the skull, right at the follicle. And remember, scratching is not a reliable indicator, especially as kids quickly learn not to do it if it means a cross mum and a lengthy session covered in chemicals and conditioner in front of Antiques Roadshow.

So, comb weekly and don’t just leave it to the odd fish through your offspring’s hair at the bus stop during an idle moment to check what is going on in there. A quick sweep once a week should quickly keep the critters in check. Meanwhile, a little light diversion technique might be in order. So, how about getting them to knit their own nit while you comb? (technically, a cuddly louse). They could knit a head full!

With thanks to my dear chum, clever Kirsty Gordon, who showed me how it can be done….

Is Scratching Catching?

One of the perks of having a book published is that you get to go to the annual author party. Which is how the Bugman and I found ourselves one warm Indian summer evening on a Bloomsbury square beside a marquee amidst a very well dressed crowd trying not to peer too obviously at the identifying badges that everyone wore. Our badges each pronounced ‘author’ next to our names so the Bugman struck up a conversation with a tallish, likeable chap who was instantly fascinated (no, really) by the Bugman’s explanation that we had written an insect book.

“Oh, not that lovely big one on butterflies?” the man exclaimed and we had to shake our heads ruefully and reply that, er.. no, our insect book was in fact practically the complete opposite of the one he’d described.

“Ah,” he continued with a twinkle, “then it must be The Little Book of Nits!” We both nodded shyly, expecting the conversation to end swiftly. On the contrary, our new acquaintance glittered with enthusiasm – according to his badge he worked in sales and at their recent conference when the new titles were presented he reported that a noisy ripple of interest greeted the announcement that the Little Book of Nits would be published. This gratifying excitement was then followed by an involuntary itch that went round the room like a Mexican wave and everybody found they needed to have a little scratch.

In the book trade, word of mouth is supposed to be the best kind of marketing, but a communal itch that needs scratching? Now, you can’t ask for more than that!   

Mother Earth is on Facebook

My chum Kaye has a Facebook friend who put out the question: “My child has come home with nits, any suggestions?” She’s a natural Mother Earth type, Kaye reported and my heart sank.

There were many, many Mother Earth types at the excellent festival I went to with my offspring a couple of Julys ago.  It seems the English summer, though cruel to everyone else, was kind to us and we had three days of sunshine and grubby pleasure sitting in the grass, drinking beer in the afternoon – me that is, not my children – and wandering around the entertainment stalls and therapy tents and daft workshops, as well as listening to lots of live music. One afternoon, the main field was full of dancing adults and sheepish children embarrassed by their parents and a friend introduced me to an arty sort she thought I might get along with.

She was indeed interesting so we chatted and watched and supped from cans and eventually I couldn’t help but giggle and point out several children who were mucking around among the revellers dressed in oversized t-shirts, sporting long matted plaits and bare feet. I was amused because every so often, they stopped and gave their heads a good scratch.

“Hah! Just look at those kids going behind their ears like hound dogs! They are absolutely riddled!” I chortled.

And my new acquaintance laughed and agreed with me and we carried on. It was only later that I saw her giving them some money to go and get themselves something to eat.

So, I asked Kaye, what was the advice that came back on Facebook? All kinds, Kaye replied but ultimately the Mother Earth type had decided to “let nature take its course”.

I am still shuddering two days later.


For Nits In the Head

Eldest daughter and I went on a long  journey recently – no, not metaphorically… we were looking at universities – and happened to watch the recent movie Julie/Julia about a present day blogger’s attempt to recreate every single recipe in Julia Child’s classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking, as written in the late 50s. Most amusing it was and it helped while-away some incredibly tedious travelling. It got me thinking…

From the 15th Century English Leechbook

1. make lye of wild nept and therewith wash your head

2. take quicklime or piment and make powder of them & mix with vinegar & anoint the head with it

3. take seawater or else also brine & wash your head and it shall destroy them

4. take juice of a herb that is called blight & anoint your head with it, both lice & nits shall fall away

5. take a broad list (a ribbon of fabric) and anoint one side with fresh grease mingled with quicksilver (mercury) & spread on it a powder of lichen, and wear it henceforth

… good job I’ve got an unsuspecting partner and some handy children to experiment on. So, where do I buy mercury? Reckon Wilkos will have it?