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Thursday, May 29, 2008

LIVE BAIT: PART TWO

I find it curious that there are no professional worm charmers, considering the mercenary foundation of the sport. In 1980 then headmaster of the Wallaston County Primary School, Mr. John Bailey, was searching for a way to raise funds. Dances were too stodgy and fraught with the threat of uncontrolled social interaction the English so dread, and certainly nothing they would want their young children involved in. The school was already holding bake sales and silent auctions. What was needed, Headmaster Bailey decided, was the drama of a competition. But, again, being British, it would have to be a non-competitive competition, something like cricket, in which two teams engage in a fierce competition that often leads to a long drawn out draw.
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In addition, the competition had to be non-weather dependant, given the generally damp and gray English version of weather. And it had to be something which would encourage participation while discouraging physical contact, in order to avoid lawsuits and insurance complications. (If the insurance companies had their way, all intramural human sport would require fireproof protective gear, including a full helmet!) Furthermore, the event must avoid encouraging any excess of enthusiasm. What the Headmaster was looking for was a clean sport with a minimum of set up and cleanup time, and which would use the facilities the school already processed. Ideally there should be no rentals, no leases and no veterinarian fees or protests from animal rights groups; if the event required any non-human participation, it must revolve around a creature whose demise, even if it were to be bisected in full view of the public and their children, could still bring a smile to the lips of the average English antivivisectionists. To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, having eliminated all other creatures, the worms beneath the schools “pitch”, or cricket field, seemed the obvious choice.
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That field of competition on “Charming Day” reveals that winning is not the primary goal. Mere participation is a victory of sorts, and a far more important victory than winning. Yes, that makes little sense to an American, but then neither does what happens on the Charming Field.
Contestants can be seen, “…tap dancing with magnifying glasses, and (the) “…hum of a didgeridoo (has even been heard)”. Some contestants have tried meditation, playing cellos, tapping bongo drums. even mounting and riding plush horses. “ Some hammer the ground with plastic tubes, or, indeed, plastic hammers. Others push a garden fork into the turf and strike it. Others play deep notes on a double bass, or tempt the worms with the music of a mouth organ. One person, in an inflatable fat suit, circles around on stilts. I hope the worms can see him but I doubt it.”
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They can’t. And even if they could, it is unlikely that Lumbricus terrestris would be amused. I can state with little fear of contradiction; worms have no sense of humor. When your existence consists of burrowing through mud and litter, and being chased by moles and robins, of what use is humor? Or for that matter, of what use is irony, compassion, or even philosophy? It is much the same conundrum that perplexed Hamlet, over a long dead fool. Thus it is even unlikely that the worms would enjoy the not so ancient verse that sings, “First you’re sick, and then your worse, and then it’s time to call the hearse. They put you in the cold, cold ground, with all your relatives standing round. And all goes well for about a week. And then the coffin begins to leak. The worms crawl in and the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle on your snout. They eat your eyes, they eat your nose, they eat the jelly between your toes. Your eyes fall in and your hair falls out. Your brains come dribbling through your snout. The worms that crawl in are lean and thin. The worms that crawl out are fat and stout.” It is not a cheerful poem, but it is descriptive.
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Compare that ditty with the tribute in verse provided by Mr. Andrew Rudd, the first (and so far only) official poet laureate for the World Worm Charming Championship. “Come, come to me, blind-lurker, burrower, mulch-eater, twist-curler, soft survivor, ….flexible friend, cranny-squeezer, shade-lover, moist drinker, dew-sipper, …humble worm, mortal worm, beak-tugger, bird-resister, …tiny miner, soil-sapper, spaghetti loop, micro-gut,…muscle-ringed, knot-twister, cold-sleeper,…neglected, ignored, come, come to my, charm.” It could almost be set to an atonal Nursery Rhyme.
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But why is it that no one has ever surpassed or even tied the magic number of 511 worms achieved by legendary Tom Shufflebotham almost 30 years ago? Could it be that the worms are trying to tell us something about global warming? What, them too? Or could it be that the worms on the pitch of the Wallaston County Primary School have grown smarter over the last 30 years? Or, could it be that the Wallaston pitch has been “over charmed”? Worrying also is that the heaviest worm charmed in the history of the competition was back in 1987, a 6.6 gram monster, brought down by the suspiciously named Mr. N. Burrows.
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The second year of competition saw just 302 worms charmed by the winner (Mr. M. Bennion) and in 1983 Mr. S. Goodwin could only corral 217 worms to claim victory. 1983 saw a brief return to abundance when Mrs. C. Paul was able to capture 248 wigglies to claim the trophy, but the middle eighties were a time of Lumbricus terrestris scarcity. Over the three years, 1984 through 1986 inclusive, just 184 worms graced the winner’s buckets. (It reminds this observer of 1968, the year that Carl Yaztremski won the American League batting title with an anemic three-oh-one). In 1987 and '88 the school pitch bounced back with 214 and 265 worms, but the decade ended with a pathetic 79. The last time any contestant even topped 400 worms was Miss G. Neville in 1993, (487). And the average since 2000 is just 243 worms per year, well under half of Mr. Shufflebotham’s truly Babe Ruthian catch.
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Still, the evident decline in worm numbers has not led to a decline in competition. In 2003 there was a tie with two plots each producing 167 Lumbricus terrestris. In accordance with the rules, the Gordian knot was severed with a five minute “Charm off”. Lea Clark and Robert Oltram (plot 134) were able to draw out a further 13 worms, but Richard and Rodney Windsor (plot 131) drew a triumphent 14 worms to their bucket, and were declared the official winners. Five years later and the village is still abuzz about that hair's-breath victory.
TOMORROW: PART THREE
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