Eight legs bad

… before I cut my throat, 
I shall leave this final note;
Driven to it by the spider in the bath![1]

I once drowned a spider in the bath. Earlier in the day, my mother had stuck a post-it note on the edge of the tub that summed up the situation. It read: ‘Eek! Spider!’ I duly noted the large house spider crouching defensively in the bath tub, miserable and uncertain. And then some time later, I forgot it was there (the post-it having been removed contemptuously by another family member, or maybe it just fell off under the weight of its own portentousness) and I put the plug in and ran a lovely hot bath and read Time magazine for a bit while it ran. It wasn’t until I had removed all my clothes that I noticed the spider, now very dead, floating dreamily round the bath like a sad black glove. My immediate thought was to let all the water and assorted bits of arachnid out and never bathe again, but I think it is a sign that I was more mature than my fifteen years that instead I put on a dressing gown, went downstairs, got a jug and decanted the dead spider. The hot water had caused its exoskeleton to soften and break up, so it took several attempts to ensure I had poured every last knee and mandible out of the window. Then I got into my spider-broth bath and pretended it hadn’t happened and had a wash. And then, even later, I got the heebie-jeebies.

I am interested here in two apparently unrelated topics, joined together by this story: spiders (some dead, some alive) and the art of letter-writing (dead). Let’s take the spiders first, and let’s assume that the human dislike of spiders stems from three things: cobwebs are unpleasantly sticky to the touch; spiders have a disconcerting way of scuttling about; and some spiders bite, sometimes painfully and other times fatally. The first and second ideas of the general yuckiness of getting a web in the face and the creepy way that spiders move can be seen in literature (The Hobbit, Shelob later on in Lord of the Rings, and of course the final shape taken by It), terrible films (Arachnophobia, Starship Troopers) and multiple science fiction offerings, in which the most unsettling aliens and/or alien ships are inevitably slightly spidery (Babylon 5, Starship Troopers again). The third idea relating to bites is a little harder to verify when one lives in the British Isles, but happily (for the purposes of today’s post) I got bitten by a spider in Nanjing Park a few years ago and can speak with some authority here (see Bite me). The bite resulted in my feeling as if I was going to faint for about half an hour, followed by a hard, painful blister the size and colour of an egg yolk, followed by a permanent scar. Here is a jolly fact that I learnt from this experience: you don’t always feel the little bugger running over your ankle and you certainly don’t always feel it bite[2]. Compare this to the morning when, while sleeping on the living room floor of some relatives, I was woken at 6am by a spider running over my arm (in defence of my girlish scream, I thought it was a rat).

Given that spiders can apparently rush about one’s body whenever the whim takes them, and given that sometimes one feels it and sometimes one doesn’t, does this give credence to the much-quoted urban myth of spiders running in and out of one’s mouth while one sleeps[3]? I had a lot of fun researching this on the interblag. However, as always happens when I spend time trawling internet fora, it also renewed my despair at the death of literacy (“I have seen it with my own eyes. Maaany tonnes of these creepy crawlie bugs duuuude they’re waay trippy maaaan. Sometimes I think it’s gods way of stickin’ it to the man, man!” writes Roy of Corazon de Oro, Portugal, for some reason. Why would God need to stick it to ‘the man’, and why would He choose spiders as His means of doing so? And what man?); the death of common sense (“I woke up when a spider was crawling in my mouth. It was huge. I have taped my mouth shut every night since that happened. Almost died once.” Thanks, Mariah from Blairstown, USA. Thanks for sharing); and the death of self-consciousness at the banality of one’s own thoughts[4] (“Dying by choking on a spider would be a dumb way to die” says Priscilla Moreno of Fullerton, USA. Priscilla is apparently unaware that i. this is not good conversation; and ii. her surname is an anagram of e-moron). Got a thought? Share it with someone! Immediately! Don’t filter it first to see if it’s interesting, useful, thought-provoking or funny: just share it, preferably with as many people as possible and in a format that ensures it will live forever.

Contrast these witless burblings with the writing of letters: ephemeral, hand-written and intended for just one other person. The first entry in my new diary, which I began some time in 2009 and add to from time to time, has this to say on the subject:

I recall ceasing to keep a diary (several years before anything of real importance had happened to me) on the grounds that: i. when lots of interesting things were going on, I didn’t have time to record them; and ii.  I wrote a huge number of letters, in which I let my various correspondents know much of what I had been up to and what I thought about it, and it seemed beyond tedious to describe the same events for my own benefit. Having not kept a diary for fifteen years or more, I also can’t remember the last time I wrote a proper letter. Email and the mobile ’phone seem to have killed, finally and truly, an art that I flatter myself I was rather good at.

The most striking thing about the spider-in-the-bath story to me now is that my mother thought a post-it note an appropriate response to this domestic crisis. Why didn’t she simply remove the spider and say no more about it? And yet I also like the idea of notes appearing around the house, from one family member to another (possibly in imitation of William Carlos Williams and his well-rehearsed fruit-based verse, possibly not), drawing attention to various small emergencies or points of interest. This has a wistfulness to it that I don’t think any other form of communication can match.

[1] Flanders and Swann again, of course (see The origins of the filthy comma).

[2] Another thing I discovered while researching spiders bites was the Brazilian wandering spider, one of the most poisonous spiders in the world. In addition to being very painful, the bite also causes severe priapism for several hours. This is so extreme that it can lead to heart attack, loss of blood to (other, more) vital organs and, if left untreated, death within a couple of hours. It does, however, have the advantage that this particular symptom is unique to the bite of the Brazilian wandering spider (interesting in itself as the spider is very similar in appearance to a bunch of other much less venomous species of spiders, making studying the thing excitingly uncertain). Therefore, provided the patient isn’t too humiliated to draw the afflicted part to the attention of his doctor, it allows medical professionals to make an accurate diagnosis and start appropriate treatment swiftly.

[3] Shakespeare missed a trick, in my view, when he gave the following splendid line to Margaret in Richard III (act 1, scene iii): ‘Why strew’st thou sugar on that bottled spider?’ (Elizabeth repeats this description to Margaret towards the end of the play), but failed to follow the idea through. I know the spider she refers to is King Richard himself, but think how brilliant it would have been if Richard had whipped a bottle out of his doublet and replied, ‘forsooth, my lady, I am bereft of all but the sweetest of condiments. Om nom nom.’

[4] I also really wondered at the general tone of the people that write in such fora. For example, Brain of Roanoke, VA, reassured concerned spider-botherers by saying “Dont [sic] worry, I am sure you have had things a lot dirtier [than that] in your mouth before.” I resent your tone, Brian.