Another museum, another comb

The Museum of London, today, with 120 seven-year-olds to study Roman Britain.

There was a comb. Just the one. But it didn’t look as if it would get out many head-lice. Even in pristine, non-broken condition the teeth were too widely spaced.

They were useless, them Romans. Really lousy.

A fine display of nit combs

I’m on my first ever visit to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and I’m glad to see they have a fine display of nit combs.

Oddly none is labelled as such; they are simply referred to a ‘combs’ in the display covering everything from Manchu ornamental moustache combs to bamboo ‘Afro’ combs.

But, come on, who doesn’t recognize this tried and tested format of coarse teeth one side, fine teeth the other?

Institutional squeamishness I say.

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.

Electronic nits

Good news. For the embarrassed, or the coy, or the ashamed, your problems are over. The Little Book of Nits is now available as an ebook. You can now have it delivered discreetly, in the electronic equivalent of plain brown wrappers, direct to your Knidle.

Yours, in less than a minute, with just a few clicks of the mouse.

You can peruse the useful and entertaining text, marvel at the in-depth scientific information and cultural insight, and no-one will know that you and your children are crawling with the beastly things.

On the tube, in the office, in the school playground, you can learn all there is to know about these fascinating creatures. And everyone will think you’re reading the latest thing by William Boyd or Jeffrey Archer. Your dignity will remain intact.

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.

Why do we have head lice?

I was recently asked: “why do we have head lice?”

My first, rather facetious, answer was that we have head lice because we have heads, and obviously they’d be called something different it they lived elsewhere on the human body….

But then I realized a slightly better answer was needed. So let’s start at the beginning.

Humans are host to three species of louse: head lice (on heads), body lice (not on heads) and pubic lice (self-explanatory). Except things are never quite this easy. So, in reverse order:

The pubic louse (also called the crab louse),  Phthirus pubis, is actually the generalist human body louse. It is adapted to coarser sparser hair, so is most at home around the genitals, but also extends up men’s hairy chests and backs, into armpits, and can be found in beards. Its spread by casual sex is sometimes over-emphasized, but it needs close physical bodily contact to crawl from one victim to another. This is usually in double beds, but there are reports of innocent children with crab lice in their eyelashes, perhaps caught from some not quite so innocent parents.

The body louse, Pediculus corporis, is perhaps better called the clothing louse, and an old name, Pediculus vestimenti, echoes this. It actually lives in the weave of the clothes, and lays its eggs in the threads, but visits the body to take its blood meals several times a day.

The head louse? Well, we all know about that.

Pubic lice are not very common these days, mainly because, on the whole, the close physical contact necessary for its spread is only between sexually active adults. Once monogamy of some form kicks in, infestations are likely to be dealt with quickly.

The body or clothing louse is also not very common these days, mainly because we have the luxury of taking our clothes off. This, effectively removes the lice. Ever since the discovery of regular hygienic clothing changes, the body louse has been under attack. Changing clothes, say, once a week gets rid of this louse quickly. Adult lice are dead within 24 hours, and any nits that survive the week off and hatch when next against the skin will be despatched the next week off, before they have a chance to lay any more eggs. Today the clothing louse only exists where people are unable to take their clothes off, for weeks, or months, or years — down-and-outs, refugees during famine or war, the victims of natural or man-made disasters. These are people who own only the clothes they stand up in, or lay down to sleep in. They do not, cannot, change their clothes.

The head louse, though, lives in a microhabitat we all possess — head hair. There is no taboo against hugging or cuddling our children, friends and family members. Head louse transmission is quick and easy.

Is there anything that might reduce head louse abundance? Perhaps if the world is swept with an almost universal fashion (in adults and children) for baldness. Otherwise, not. Head lice are here to stay.


Sitting by the pool in the Dordogne, the last thing you want to worry about is head lice.

Unfortunately, we’ve brought our nits with us.

Fortunately, we’ve also brought the nit comb with us.

Unfortunately, the nit comb has lost a tooth.

Fortunately, in The Little Book of Nits, we have a page of helpful phrases, for use abroad, including the French for: “I’d like to by a nit comb please”.

Unfortunately, we left the book at home.


Apparently they’re travelling by Tube now too

My grateful thanks to Twitter contacts Lou ‘Weasy’ and David King for bringing this to my attention:

Head lice? Glum faces all round then.

It’s your typical London Evening Standard head-louse-alert-warning-disaster-aaarrrghh article on head lice. I’ve tried to untangle some of the facts here.

Wet weather = more head lice? As Dr Burgess is quoted as saying, more to do with kids staying indoors, cuddling in front of the telly or the games console, and since this was probably researched last month, also more to do with ‘wet play’ in the class-room rather than running about in the playground, so yet more head-to-head huddle time.

Tea-tree and neem oil? The campaign at the school mentioned in the article is led by one vociferous parent’s anecdotal report that it’s the “only product she has found to work effectively”. The plural of anecdote, as any fule kno, is myth.

Passing them on to colleagues and commuters? Remember, it’s that all-important head-to-head touching contact that is important. Head lice do not abseil, or swing like acrobats; they are scurrying about on the scalp, not clinging to the ends of long fine wispy strands. You’re going to have to get rather over-friendly with your fellow tube travellers for head lice to scamper across.

One fact they fail to dredge up is the ‘safe’ breeding season over the summer holidays, when, without the usual nit letters coming home from the school, it is so easy to forget to keep vigilant and keep looking. So if you are concerned about an itchy summer, have another hard scrape at the kids’ scalps. There is no need to worry overly about your journey in to work. But if you are feeling anxious, I’m sure it won’t be long before you can buy hair nets at all Tube stations.


Well, we’ve been well received so far

The media have been hammering at our doors after personal interviews, in-depth analyses of nit infestation rates and old family louse recipes. The book is out and, by all accounts, selling well. Let’s hope for a nice surprise when the next royalty statement comes through the letterbox.

So far, we have had notices in a wide variety of places.

Southwark News came round to see us, mainly to take some pictures of Justine and me looking like complete dweebs. Can I just say that they succeeded admirably:

We even wore the head louse tee-shirts.

The London Evening Standard gave us a corner:

Read all about it.

We’ve been on The Guardian website, Families on Line did an interview with Justine, as did Book Fabulous, and Griffith Library in New South Wales have been good enough to put us in their ‘What the fact‘ section.

And finally, we have been reviewed in The Lady (“for elegant women with elegant minds”):

Actually, the book on ambergris looks quite interesting too.

Oh the irony, oh those dark unguarded looks

Oh dear. Teenager is in the bathroom tearing her hair out. Well, if not her actual hair, then at least the contents of her hair, the six-legged crawling verminous contents of her thick luxurious wavy hair. And it may just be that the hair is winning.

I nearly offer to help, but I am warned away by those dark unguarded looks. Her eyes seem to say: “It’s all your fault.”

And the accusations follow: “If you hadn’t written a book about them….”

I don’t seem able to follow this up with the question on my lips: “If I hadn’t, then … what?”

Whatever is the opposite of delicious irony, this is it.