Friendliness is next to lousiness

It's a thrilling read, but difficult to associate with any of the major characters.

It’s a thrilling read, but difficult to identify with any of the major characters.

Just got a call from my brother. He’s bought, and he wants me to sign, a copy of Little Book of Nits.

“It’s for some friends”, he says. “We stayed with them recently, and all their kids had head-lice”

I readily agree, but after we hang up, I contemplate the possibilities.

You’ve got to be REALLY good friends with someone to give them a book that is a direct comment on the state of their children’s verminous hair. And you have to be sure that you’ve accurately gauged the true measure of their humour.

This could all go horribly wrong.

It’s another sale though. Ring up those royalties, I say.

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.


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.

No matter what, I am not dressing up as a head louse

The Little Book of Nits is here, we have a publication date (24 May) so we are having a launch party. And by complete coincidence, it so happens that Justine has the perfect launch venue — the bookshop she runs with her husband Jon.

Bookseller Crow, they sell books, loads of them.

Bookseller Crow on the Hill is renowned as an independent bookseller of repute (number 6, “shabby but wonderful”, in The Independent’s top 50 bookshops) and they have regular signings, readings, launch parties and just plain party parties (15th birthday this June).

In fact I was up there not three weeks ago for the launch of local author Alex Milway‘s latest children’s story about abominable snowmen (and various other mythological creatures), where he served some yeti poo biscuits and was dressed as a yeti.

The Little Book of Nits launch party is at 7.00 on the evening of Thursday 24 May, Bookseller Crow on the Hill, 50 Westow Street, Crystal Palace, London SE19 3AF. Lice are fascinating, and so are the weird and wonderful remedies dreamed up to fight them. It is time for the myths, as well as the lice, to be busted.

I am quite happy to provide a microscope and louse specimens, lead some conditioning and combing workshops, or give a brief run-down on louse evolution, phylogeny and nomenclature. But, don’t ask me, I am not going dressed as a head louse.

Even Hogwarts has a lice infestation

It must be high up on the anxiety list of any headmaster — the last thing the school needs is another infestation…

It’s been some time since my son (now 7) came home with the usual nit letter. I’m not complacent though, I’m sure it will happen again (several times probably) before he leaves them behind and moves on to secondary school.

It is usually in primary school (age up to 12) that children suffer head lice most often. It’s nothing to do with physical size, or childhood body chemistry. It’s everything to do with childish behaviour — unabashed huddling and cuddling. Boys and girls are equally exuberant in the playground, and equally enthusiastic as they snuggle up together to pore over the shared school table to read, or write or chat. Long gone are the stern days when individual children sat at single well-spaced desks, staring in silence at the blackboard at the front of the class.

Two things happen when children go off to secondary school. First, if they have suffered head lice in the past, their families may have have got the hang of control by now. Secondly, they begin to take responsibility for their own grooming. Combing is still the easiest and best way to control head lice, and even without a fine-toothed comb, brushing and combing can still dislodge, damage or remove head lice enough to break or prevent infestation.

Head louse infestations in secondary school are few and far between, but that still doesn’t stop head lice being used to theatrical effect. Even Hogwarts has an outbreak.

The Harry Potter Puppet Pals have become a bit of an internet sensation, so perhaps it comes as no surprise that lice should invade their table-top version of Hogwarts. Weasley has an affliction.

Ron Weasley has lice.

Dumbledore gets it right: “Lice are magical creatures”.

Indeed, they are, but I’m not sure about Hagrid’s folksy treatment. His name is not, after all, synonymous with grooming.

The mayonnaise might work though….

How to judge a book — by its cover

We have a cover. Darned good it is too. Here it is:

The path to happiness: Buy - Read - Look - Find - Remove - Rejoice. Eat only if really necessary.

And we have a contents list:

We've highlighted the important bit.

And we have an index that goes from Albatross and Alligator, via Brimstone, Stavesacre and Voldemort, to Woodlice. Despite its small size, this is a very thorough book on nits. A very thorough book indeed.

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.

Proofs are out — nearly there

Excitement mounts in this house — the nit proofs are here. A massive PDF file was waiting in my inbox Friday and I’ve just banged out hard copies on ‘fast draft’ mode from the printer. Here’s a smattering, as a taster.

They look very good, and I’m wandering round with a smug look on my face, trying to read out bits to my harassed family. But I must be calm. We’ve got to read through everything first; my red/ blue/ green/ black editing pen will get full use this week. Then we have to construct the contents and index, check the illustrations, fiddle with running heads, check the spellings of Latin names, in fact, go through everything with a fine-toothed comb.

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….