16 February 2009

A little knowledge

Sometimes things just come together the way you want them to. On BBC4's The Book Quiz last week, Wendy Holden had one of those wonderful moments. This was very unlike Will Self's extraordinary display on the previous episode, when he answered almost every semi-cryptic title question with dazzling speed (this reminded me of watching Kate play solitaire on the computer; she shifts all the cards before I've even registered what's showing). Ms Holden triumphed when the category of train poems appeared as an option--one I wouldn't touch with the proverbial barge pole. After a quick consultation, her teammate Jake Arnott simply sat back and let her tackle the subject: instant identification of each poem and author. It turns out her young son is a train enthusiast and she has been entertaining him with poems on the subject. Synchronicity!

On a more modest scale, I was very pleased yesterday to make a connection highly unlikely for someone of my fiction-oriented reading tastes. Last week I had finished Richard Fortey's Dry Store Room No. 1, a tour behind the scenes at London's Natural History Museum. Carrying his vast learning lightly, Richard is an amazingly entertaining guide, with tales of venerable taxonomists who privately collected string (including a box of pieces "too small to be of use") or the pubic hair of sexual partners, meticulously catalogued. There's a lot of serious science, too, of course, as our good friend demonstrates why the work done at natural history museums is critical to understanding--and interacting with--the world we live in.

One of the most vividly memorable chapters is "Multum in parvo," which looks at entomology. After a description of the sort of maggots we're all familiar with, Richard writes, "If feeding on decaying flesh is a good option, evolutionarily speaking, because flesh is nutritious stuff, it is only a small step to cut out the middleman -- death. Feeding on living flesh is a logical progression in the dipteran way of doing things." Enter the screw worm fly, whose larvae "can reduce a cow to a pulp" and, relevant to my story, the rather less dire Cameroonian tumbu fly.

Consider the Cameroonian tumbu fly (Cordylobia anthropophaga). The species name alone may furnish a clue. This unpleasant creature lays its eggs in places where it can smell the merest hint of urine. The larvae form 'warbles' in the flesh of the victim in the most sensitive parts of the body. For some time humans were infected by way of eggs laid on the gussets of knickers hanging out to dry -- providing direct delivery to the right kind of protected habitat. When the little beasts got to feeding, the pain and embarrassment can be readily imagined. Modern hot steam irons applied to the garments in the right place have helped to see off this intimate curse.

So . . . imagine my surprise when I read the following on www.zambiaexpress.com. My identification of the pest may be wrong, but its behavior certainly sounds suspiciously similar--as, fortunately, is the precautionary measure our friends are taking:

Never done so much ironing in my life. Even clothes you’d have thought too small or too big to bother with are being steamed into shape. There’s some nasty bug that lives in damp clothes and which lays its babies under your skin, and it’s a right palaver to get it out.

My advice, Jo and Kieron: if you decide not to continue "mopping and ironing [y]our guilt away," make sure whoever takes over the laundry is as committed as you are to that hot steam.

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