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.

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.

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.

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….

How things have changed, or not

Researching various old texts for Little Book of Nits has thrown up some though-provoking comments from yesteryear.

1806: “It is affirmed by Leewenhoek that the male is furnished at the extremity of the abdomen with a sting; and that it is this instrument which causes the chief irritation suffered from these animals; the suction of the proboscis hardly seeming to have caused any perceptible pain on the skin on his hand.” Still, today, people confuse biting and stinging.

1806: “…there can be little doubt but that such cases, wherever they occur would be effectively removed by a proper application of mercury sublimate. Also called corrosive sublimate, mercuric chloride is thankfully no longer available for medical treatment, but people still think nothing of slapping poison on their own (and their children’s) heads.

1842: “The Head Louse is not like its congeners the companion of disease, or at least, ill health, produced from some temporary accident. On the contrary…it is well known, [the head louse] is common upon the most healthy children, as well as upon adults at particular periods, whose habits are not the least uncleanly.” It really is about time we bashed the squeamish idea of dirt and disease on the head.

1939: “Acetic acid or vinegar is still popular, owing to the belief that it loosens the cement attaching the egg to the hair. It has been known for years that this is not so, and that even after several days exposure…the cement is not dissolved.” In fact it has been known for over 100 years now that vinegar has no effect on nits. But it is still popularly touted as a solution.

1954 (after discussion of available insecticides): “DDT and BHC [benzene hexachloride] are slightly poisonous and, of course, should not be left in unlabelled jars or packets in the kitchen, where they might be mistaken for baking powder.” I suspect there is someone, somewhere in the world, promoting baking powder as a cure for head lice.

1954 (in the heady days of nylon and rayon appreciation): “No confidence should be placed in fabrics said to repel lice.” In fact, no confidence should be placed in anything said to repel lice.

Oh Lor’ the anthropomorphists are at it again

There is a tendency, in our house, to say things like “Of course, that’s scientifically impossible”, whenever there’s some crass science fiction B-movie on the telly. It’s not the suspension of disbelief that irks so; it’s rather when the film director is trying to show-off by presenting some ‘science’ amongst the fiction, but misses the basic fundamentals.

How come the large, blue-skinned, cat-eyed genetically-engineered body inhabited by the consciousness of Jake Sully in Avatar, is never bitten by giant mosquitoes? Why is that Superman doesn’t smash Louis Lane into a bloody pulp when he catches her in a high-speed snatch as she free-falls through the air at terminal velocity? Where does Wolverine keep his retractable metal claws, and do they interfere with his tennis back-hand?

But these are nowhere near as irritating as the faux natural history notions presented in children’s books. It’s not the fact that animals can’t really speak, I’m as happy as the next  kid to accept this. And it’s nothing to do with cats wearing hats, or a pig making pancakes, or a professional bird-chasing dog. I can appreciate anthropomorphism, I love it. But the authors must get the basics right first.

Now, I am not the Grinch, but I could make it my life’s work stealing these frustrating ill-informed volumes from bookshelves and stuffing them, very nimbly up the chimbly. All those nonsense furry black and yellow bumblebees making honey in the hive would be the first to go.

A few days ago I was reading a cute tale of small fluffy animals, separation, loss, friendship, and family reunion, to the 6-year-old. “Lots of ecological detail accompanies the story”, said the quote from the Times Educational Supplement, printed on the back cover. What? Like the hatchling bird being an exact but miniature version of its parent moments after breaking out from the egg? Like the snake giving it slithering lessons rather than just gobbling it up? Like the baby bird flying off through the sunshine at less than 24 hours old? Ooh I could get in a right stew over this one.

So when I see him watching a Blue Peter special about the making of a new film, The Itch of the Golden Nit, my skin creeps. Watch this space for more rants.

When Was Your First Time?

I have an image of my youngest sister in my (nit) head, unkempt as a feral kitten, mute til she was five (she couldn’t get a word in edgewise with four older siblings & umpteen adults all over the house), with a stinking chemical potion simmering on her head. I remember thinking, ha ha. I’m so glad that’s not me. Until my mother beckoned me into the bathroom to take a turn. In those days, there were no niceties with a nit comb. If you got that brown envelope from school it meant the nit nurse had spoken (albeit discreetly) and my mum, squeamish about creepy-crawlies at the best of times, applied the regulation sheep-dip without hesitation.

And that stuff reeked so much it howled. What did they put in it? Napalm? It was treatment of the herd, regardless of whether there were any signs of life in any other familial thatch and it was the same when she came home with worms. I can still taste the warm blackcurrant mix in the paper cup we all had to gag down. To this day I can’t smell let alone drink Ribena without wanting to retch. Vile beverage.

My friend Alice said her first time was ten years ago when her eldest daughter, then aged six, came home from school with the standard generic note about a reported case of infestation. She gave her little head the once over, spotted nothing and forgot all about it. Two weeks later she said there were headlice practically abseiling off the six year old’s eyebrows. The kid was teeming – it was a veritable louse circus with insects swinging off her hair like they were on a trapeze.

That’s the clever thing about headlice, they are brilliant gymnasts.

When was your first time?

Nit-removal preparations do not work — official

Louse eggs glued to hair strands

I am a geek, so my light reading often extends to the scientific journal Medical and Veterinary Entomology, published for the Royal Entomological Society. And I take great delight in bringing you the latest nit news from the arcane world of academic entomology.

Phthirapterists (people who study lice) are an inventive bunch. Not only do they keep lice as pets (more on that later), they build nit-testing machinery. The latest offering is a gadget to test how easy (or not) it is to slide a nit from its cemented position on a hair stalk.

Nit glue is pretty tough stuff, and is one of the secrets of louse success. It is created by the female louse as a liquid, but hardens within seconds on exposure to air. It forms a tight sheath around the hair stalk which holds he egg in place with a vice-like grip. Long after the tiny louseling has hatched and walked off across the scalp, the empty eggshell (nit), now bright white, is a brilliant distraction to focus our grooming on the wrong things. Months after the louse has left its egg, the nits are still firmly attached to the hair, and as the hair grows the nits just become more obvious.

Since some schools operate a no-nit policy, parents can spend hours of wasteful time trying to get rid of them. Any pharmaceutical company that comes out with a nit-glue-dissolving preparation will be on to a winner. But I’m not convinced. The cement appears to have a chemical structure somewhat similar to hair. If a chemical can dissolve the glue, surely it will surely dissolve the hair too. The trouble is that these chemical companies can get rather carried away with the advertising claims.

Ian Burgess, at the Medical Entomology Centre in Cambridge, put some of their claims to the test. He developed a machine with a tiny glass tube through which a nit-laden hair was passed. The tube was so small that the hair could just get through, but the nit could not, and was held fast at the tube entrance. He then measured how much force was required to pull the hair through the tube, and free from the louse egg.

He tried several specialized nit-loosening brands, along with some anti-louse shampoos, ordinary hair conditioner, olive oil, plain water and dry hair. And this is what he found:

“We conclude that so-called ‘nit-removing’ products have no effect in terms of loosening the grip of the cement-like fixative secreted by the female louse to hold her eggs in place on the hair. None of the products tested demonstrated any detectable chemical or physical activity beyond lubricating effects indistinguishable from those found for widely used toiletry or cosmetic products….There appears to be no justification in purchasing products specifically marketed for this purpose.”

In other words, they don’t work. Told you so.

Ostrich Eggs

Not a nit

Richard, aka Bugman Jones (think Indiana but with an insect net instead of a bullwhip), told me he found an ostrich egg in Dulwich Woods last week. Not your usual addition to the school nature table, you’ll agree. In fact, a startlingly unlikely exhibit next to the mortified stag beetle and chestnut leaf. One egg – whole forest. The analogy is obvious to me. One nit – whole head of hair. But where as that stray ostrich egg is definitely not going to hatch out into a six foot bird with comedy feet, the mystery of how it came to be there up in the woods is both baffling and exciting. Not so the louse egg in the head of hair. One egg will hatch and it will wreak havoc as relatively effectively as a flock of ostriches let loose on the landscape. One egg will not disappear of its own accord. And, there is no exciting mystery whatsoever as to how that nit got there. It was laid. By a headlouse. That stepped off someone’s head. And, of course, there is never just one egg, there are always lots.

Throughout my existence as a parent, I have battled headlice. The fight against infestation has consumed hours and hours of my life. I have combed and cried and watched back-to-back Julie Andrews movies until I’ve screamed (no, it is not a jolly bloody holiday with Mary any more). I have fished through my children’s heads at bus stops, in traffic jams and on beaches. I have come to know my enemy well. Curiously, I have come to respect its tenacity. Headlice have been with us for thousands of years and are here to stay, especially if we parents sit back and pretend they will go away if we do nothing. When it comes to nits, you cannot make like an ostrich and bury your head in the sand.