How to write a book about nits

Some while back I was interviewed for a magazine article. You know the sort of thing…strange man, studies insects, weird huh! Actually, it was a brilliant article, witty, subtle and kind. And, guess what, it was written by my arch-partner in nit crime, that Justine Crow. [It’s here, by the way, if you’re inclined, pages 16–18.]

In it, Justine asked how I study insects, expecting some state-of-the-art high-tech CSI-style equipment maybe; instead she found the answer pleasingly Victorian — basically, it’s just me and a big net. Don’t be surprised, therefore, to find that this is also our approach to writing a book.

We specifically had the kitchen floor done to cope with spread sheets.

Despite the prevalence of desktop publishing, email, spreadsheets and the supposedly paperless office, when writing a complicated book you just can’t beat the spread-it-out-on-the-floor technique. So this was us, just over a month ago, getting the pages in order.

They’ve been tweaked a tiny bit since then, but this was the decisive editing point that dictated the layout, the flow and, indeed, the overall style of the book. No on-screen cutting and pasting, no excel charts, no algorithmic jiggery-pokery; just jostling, shuffling and paper-pushing. Less is more.

It’s lice, Jim, but not as we know it

Meet Gliricola (formerly Gyropus) gracilis, the louse of the variegated cavy and Docophorus ocellatus, the louse of the crow. Justine and I are adopting them as our lousy alter-egos. Obviously Justine Crow needs the crow louse. Pretty simple really. But there is no Jones louse. So what to do?

Flicking through Henry Denny’s 1842 louse monograph offered some interesting ideas. I did think of one of the lice of the jay (as in J for Jones), there are two species to choose from, but they are both very similar to the crow louse. Jays and crows are very closely related, and so too are their lice. I quite liked the sound of the louse of the cuckoo, especially as Denny has it as ‘cuckow’. Or there was louse of the gannet, louse of the spoonbill, and louse of the shoveller, if I wanted to emphasize my poor table manners. How about louse of the eagle, of the falcon or of the ‘kestril’? But these are all bird lice, and they all look very much like Justine’s crow louse.

Other alternatives were the louse of the stag (too grand), louse of the dog (too lowly), louse of the ferret (too comical) or louse of the campagnol (?) vole apparently, and too obscure anyway. But then, there it was — louse of the variegated cavy or guinea pig. Done. It’s a slim handsome insect, elegant and refined. Need I say more. And I quite like guinea pigs, even though I am allergic to them. I appreciate the historical importance of a biological test animal. You can eat them too.