What can we learn from the worm

I have just been filling out an incredibly long and detailed author questionnaire for Columbia University Press. One test was to provide half a dozen questions for journalists to ask who are too -lazy- busy to read the book. I should have sent them Peter Cook’s take on worms, scanned in below.

DUDLEY: What, Sir Arthur, can we learn from the worm?

SIR ARTHUR STREEB-GREEBLING: Well, I’ve been studying the
worm for thirty odd years — thirty very odd years indeed — and I
think the main thing I’ve learnt about worms is that they are very
uncommunicative, self-effacing creatures.

DUDLEY: Is it possible, in fact, for a worm to communicate?

SIR ARTHUR STREEB-GREEBLING: Well, let me put it this way. In
all my many years of intensive study of the worm, I’ve never
known a worm to speak to me. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s
something I’ve said, or possibly something I’ve left unsaid.

DUDLEY: But can they hear?

SIR ARTHUR STREEB-GREEBLING: Oh yes, but don’t feel
inhibited. My worms have seen it all. They are unshockable. Feel
free to say anything you like.

DUDLEY: What led you into this somewhat specialised field of

SIR ARTHUR STREEB-GREEBLING: I think it was my father who
was responsible, both for me, and my interest in worms. He, in
fact, was the discoverer of the world’s longest worm.

DUDLEY: How long was that?

SIR ARTHUR STREEB-GREEBLING:Approximately three thousand
miles. He came across it in the Andes. and spent five years
tracing it back to its source in the Azores.

DUDLEY: There has been some doubt expressed about the
authenticity of this claim. Wasn’t it Professor Hans Gauleiter
who suggested that your father had sighted the head of one
worm in the Andes and the tail of another worm in the Azores?

SIR ARTHUR STREEB-GREEBLING: Well, Gauleiter was of course
prejudiced against my father, who was at the time romantically
involved with Frau Gauleiter, the Professor’s wife. She shared
my father’s interest in enormous worms.

DUDLEY: I wonder if I could have a look at some of the worms you
have here in captivity?

SIR ARTHUR STREEB-GREEBLING: I very much doubt it. You see,
worms spend most of their life underground. I’ve got a couple in
here, but they haven’t been out for years. If you like, we could sit
down here with a thermos and some sandwiches, but it might be
years before we sighted one.

DUDLEY: But I believe you have some slides of worms in action.

SIR ARTHUR STREEB-GREEBLING: No. I have some slides of
worms in Acton, where I do most of my research. These are
characteristic studies of the varying moods of worms in North

(Sir Arthur shows DUDLEY some pictures of worms.)

SIR ARTHUR STREEB-GREEBLING: Here we see a worm in repose,
and one can see from this study why the worm has inspired the
artist throughout the ages.

DUDLEY: There is certainly a kind of classical simplicity about the

SIR ARTHUR STREEB-GREEBLING: A tremendously relaxed quality.
But in startling contrast, let me show you another side of the
worm’s nature. This is an enraged worm, under conditions of
great stress.

DUDLEY: There seems to be no real difference in its expression.
How do you know it was under stress?

SIR ARTHUR STREEB-GREEBLING: I was shouting at it, saying ‘You
stupid worm! Move along there, worm!’ And other
inflammatory phrases. But as you?ve noticed, the worm keeps its
feelings well under control. In this respect, they are superior to
the human race.

DUDLEY: How do worms reproduce?

SIR ARTHUR STREEB-GREEBLING: I mean, worms aren’t in the
habit of having a great deal to eat and drink, staggering upstairs,
getting into bed and taking all their dothes off and muttering ‘I
love you’ and ‘was it alright for you, darling?’ The worm has a
more earthy approach.

DUDLEY: How do they go about it?

SIR ARTHUR STREEB-GREEBLING: Slowly but surely. I don’t know
whether you ye ever been underground for any length of time,
but take it from me — it’s dark, damp and visibility is nil. Not an
ideal setting for romance. Just let me show you a male and a
female worm in a prenuptial mating display.

DUDLEY: How do you tell the difference between the male and the

SIR ARTHUR STREEB-GREEBLING: Well, men wear trousers,
whereas women have long hair and things out here.

DUDLEY: I meant in worms.

SIR ARTHUR STREEB-GREEBLING: Well, the answer is you can t,
and nor can they. It’s rather a hit-or-miss affair. The worm
tunnels along, hoping he’ll hit a miss, and if he doesn’t, it’s
apologies all round and the worm turns in considerable
embarrassment. Here is a worm on the turn. Notice the slight

DUDLEY: It must also be difficult to distinguish one end of the
worm from the other.

SIR ARTHUR STREEB-GREEBLING: It is a bit of a toss up. Heads or
tails, there’s nothing in it. And this leads to the worm s worst
dilemma, trapped in a narrow tunnel of its own making,
approached on either side by two rampant worms in a state of
sexual arousal.

DUDLEY: What does the worm do in these circumstances?

SIR ARTHUR STREEB-GREEBLING: Either the worm decides to face
the music and take the consequences, or else, as is more usual, it
makes a suicidal leap for the surface, where of course it’s a sitting
duck for any bird.

DUDLEY: May I ask what your plans are for the future?

SIR ARTHUR STREEB-GREEBLING: Well, I’ve written a book, Helga
the Worm Cub
. I?ve got 4000 copies in the conservatory. It?s the
story of a kindly old man who finds a wounded worm and nurses
it back to health. It would make a terrific film. I saw myself as
the man and either Virginia McKenna or Brigitte Bardot as my
wife. Bardot in particular looks as if she could have a soft spot for
a worm.

… And so on, for another page of unalloyed perfection.

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