Will my son's head lice save us all?

Stewart Lee

“Am I right in remembering you cultivate a colony of head lice in your cellar, Lee?” Nicola Bridgens, former artist in residence at London Zoo, for whom I once provided the voice of a depressed black widow in an insect house installation, called me, coveting my Pediculi humanus capitis.

Ten years ago, my little boy had nits. But if Paley’s divine watchmaker exists, my precocious son argued, then he engineered lice to live in human hair. They were merely following their natures, so we should not exterminate them. Compromising, I decanted some specimens into a fish tank in the cellar, before destroying the rest like a Mexican god.

A Spectator-type dad at kids’ football told me I was “sentimentally prolonging the lives of lice that should perish. God invented threadworm, too,” he snorted. “I suppose I should allow them to party in my arsehole? Artificial improvements in survival statistics of any species preclude growth towards utopia, my friend, as do wheelchair ramps. See you next week, if you can escape your liberal bubble.”

Fellow late capitalists! Soon the market’s cruel spreadsheets will suggest the cost of saving a life outweighs the economic value of a life saved. Gagged medical professionals are already making terrible decisions about who to spare. But my colony of head lice thrives, nurtured on toe-nail clippings and sock skin. Whether my lice have inherent worth or not, for me the coronavirus crisis has given them religious significance.

Predictably, my teenage son no longer loves lice, but here I sit in the subterranean semi-dark, a generous single malt in one hand, a magnifying glass in the other, contemplating the lives of lice. “Where’s Dad?” the family ask upstairs, demanding wearisome interaction. “Oh, I expect he’s in the cellar,” my wife will say, resignedly, “with his fucking lice.”

Sometimes, as Call of Duty rages above, the light of my mother’s memorial candle flickers through the white bodies of these translucent ghosts and my parasitical companions seem transcendentally beautiful, microscopic, ectoplasmic lobsters, carved from hoarfrost and ice.

I have been engulfed by many similarly odd epiphanies during these long, locked-down days. Last weekend, when Bob Dylan unexpectedly dropped the contemplative psalmody of Murder Most Foul, like many old men, I sat at my desk stunned, the terrifying world temporarily transformed. On Tuesday, bright blue blossom undulated slowly on a sunlit tree and I was transfixed. And on Sunday morning, a discombobulating BBC interview with Michael Gove captivated me, the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster momentarily the equal of lice.

On his west London doorstep, words, many not demonstrably untrue, were falling out of Gove’s unflapped face like molluscs made of sound. But glazed clouds of steam kept scudding over his inscrutable visage. Something hot was coming down the pipe into the front garden drain, out of shot to Gove’s right. Vaporising liquid wafted between Gove’s face and the camera, as if some unseen hand were attempting to wipe away stray flecks of cocaine from his nostrils with a sheet of greaseproof paper. Perhaps someone was emptying a hot bath. Or was Gove’s cohabitant making her morning micturition, like a tethered wayside pony in some 70s Cornish lane, its great, golden gallons heard spattering in doppler effect from the back window of a passing family car?

The problem with trying to write supposedly funny columns during the crisis is the speed news moves. Last week, when I filed on Wednesday, our prime minister seemed fair game, but by publication day he had tested positive, and deserved sympathy. Indeed, the Goves were finally handed their coveted bedpan of influence due to the viral indisposition of Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Cake Bumboys Vampires Haircut Wall-Spaffer Spunk-Burster Fuck-Business Fuck-the-Families Get-Off-My-Fucking-Laptop Girly-Swot Big-Girl’s-Blouse Chicken-frit Hulk-Smash Noseringed-Crusties Death-Humbug Technology-Lessons Surrender-Bullshit French-Turds Dog-Whistle Get-Stuffed FactcheckUK@CCHQ 88%-lies Get-Brexit-Done Bung-a-Bob-for-Big-Ben’s-Bongs Cocaine-Event Spiritual-Worth Three-Men-and-a-Dog Whatever-It-Takes I-Shook-Hands-With-Everyone Herd-Immunity Johnson.

Low-waged employees who would not have vaulted Patel's threshold are suddenly key workers

Having previously hidden from scrutiny inside a fridge, Turds is now hidden from scrutiny inside a virus, perhaps because, last month, he “was at a hospital where, I think, there were actually a few coronavirus cases and I shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands, and I think it’s very important that we do”.

Hack standups hoping the ring of truth will nudge their tepid tales over the laughter line preface them with the weight-giving statement: “And this really happened, right.” Likewise Turds, who has spent his political, personal and journalistic life lying, now qualifies important announcements with the words: “I’m going to level with you folks,” a belated admission of the fact that even his followers don’t believe anything he says.

And yet I pity Turds, like me a shallow man in a deep well. “There is such a thing as society,” Turds babbled off-script in isolation, his words unapproved by the swiftly scurried-away Cumming, the PM accidentally refuting 33 years of Thatcherite thinking in a single bound. Doh!

Low-waged employees who would not have vaulted Patel’s threshold are suddenly key workers; foreign nationals toiling for the NHS, many of them piccaninnies or the letterbox-faced, are invited to ignore the expiration of their visas, and their lives, to save the nation that rejects them. What kind of city will we see builded here, in our green and Brexit land, from these ruins? Will it be walled? Or will it be infinite? And will the sewers be blocked with wet wipes and kitchen towels? Just one packet of toilet roll per customer, please! Step away from the hand-sanitiser!! Step away from the hand-sanitiser!!!

“We clutch at straws,” said Bridgens on the phone, “but London lice are resistant to toxins, so might be worth studying as we search for vaccines. And with kids not intermingling they’re in short supply. The world needs your lice, Lee.” Will people still want to hear my 30-minute routine about stupid things Tony Parsons has said when theatres reopen? There must be more to life. Lord, make use of my lice.