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Sunday, October 09, 2011

LIVE BAIT Part Two

I find it curious that there are no professional worm charmers at the Wallaston Primary School competition,  considering the mercenary foundation of the sport. In 1980 then headmaster, Mr. John Bailey, was searching for a way to raise funds for the school. Dances were too stodgy and fraught with the threat of the uncontrolled social interaction the English so dread. The school was already holding bake sales and silent auctions. What was needed, Headmaster Bailey decided, something new, perhaps the drama of a competition. But, being British, it would have to be a non-competitive competition, something like cricket, in which two teams may engage in a fierce match that often leads to a long drawn out draw.
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. Furthermore, the event must avoid encouraging any excess of enthusiasm. The British had already give the soccer hooligans,
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. In fact he felt any non-human participats must be creatures whose demise, even if it were to be bisected in full view of the public, might 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.
An observer of the competition on “Charming Day” noted contestants who were  “…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, using, of course, plastic hammers. Others push a garden fork into the turf and strike it. Others may 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.”
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,and now human begings dressed as pirates,  of what use is humor? Or for that matter, of what use is a rope?
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 crawl in are lean and thin.
The worms crawl out are fat and stout.”
It is not a cheerful poem, but it is descriptive.
Compare that ditty with the tribute in verse provided by Mr. Andrew Rudd (above), the first (and so far the 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.
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?) 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.
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 a mere  217 a worms to claim victory. 1983 saw a brief return to abundance when Mrs. C. Paul was able to capture 248 wigglies to claim the top trophy, but the middle eighties were a time of slimmy scarcity. Over the three years, 1984 through 1986 inclusive, just 184 worms graced the winner’s buckets. In 1987 and '88 the school pitch bounced back with 214 and 265 worms, but the decade ended with a pathetic 79. And the last time any supreme contestant even topped 400 worms was Miss G. Neville in 1993, (487). And the average since the dawn of the 21st century is just 243 worms per year, well under half of Mr. Shufflebotham’s truly Babe Ruthian catch.
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) captured 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. But whiter the future charming? We shall ask that question, and a few others, in our final chapter of Live Bait
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