11 JUNE 1988, Page 22


Anthony Daniels visits a

small Dorset town where fear stalks the streets

NEARLY everyone is familiar with the genre of horror films in which a small and peaceful community is terrorised by a plague of mutated animals such as killer rabbits, gigantic crabs etc. My own favourite is Invasion of the Giant Spiders, in which giant arachnids from outer space occupy a mid-western town. I saw it in Uyuni, 13,000 feet up on the Bolivian altiplano, when the whole town turned out to cheer the spiders on to victory against the American middle class.

On the face of it Blandford Forum is an unlikely location for such a drama. It is a prosperous Georgian market town in Dorset, to which many city dwellers have fled and which receives crowds of visitors during the season. Only a town with a large proportion of middle-class inhabitants could support two health food shops, selling Mozambican cashew nut butter and Nicaraguan honey, marketed by a com- pany called Equal Exchange (Just Trading for a Healthier World). 'Mozambique', explains the label on the cashew nut butter, 'is a Frontline State. Frontline is the struggle against the injustices and aggres- sions of the apartheid system of South Africa.' The general principle of healthy nutrition seems to be that if the nuts and dried fruit come from a distant enough country with progressive politics, they must be good for the bowels.

Alas, in the months of May and early June, the health of Blandford Forum is sadly affected by the behaviour of the Blandford Fly, dried Vietnamese plums or no dried Vietnamese plums.

[first heard of this egregious insect when a friend of mine and his wife went to visit relations in Blandford. They telephoned to warn them to take precautions against the Fly, whose female had a predilection for biting women in the premenstrual phase of their cycle.

My scientific curiosity aroused, I went to investigate. Like Professor van Helsing of Amsterdam, I repaired at once to the local hostelry to seek out information. The lads where playing darts when I entered, but soon gathered round: in Blandford, every- one has strong opinions on the Fly. There were various theories as to how the plague had started. Some said it was the army that brought the Fly from abroad; others, that it was an Iranian pupil who brought it in his suitcase on returning to Bryanston School, just across the River Stour; yet others that the Fly had escaped from the school's laboratories, where they were doing ex- periments to breed new species of fly. They talked of the school as Transylvanian villagers talk of the Castle.

I said that at least two flies must have escaped, a male and a female. But the barmaid — jolly, plump and blonde — pointed out, quite correctly of course, that it could have been a fertilised female alone. Then one of the darts players put forward an alternative suggestion.

'Some of these flies, like, can make love to themselves.'

'Like sea horses,' said his partner. He had seen Jacques Cousteau on the telly. I mentioned the theory about premenstrual women.

'We always wondered about Bob,' they said.

Bob was a friend of theirs who had just been bitten. They fetched him from his house to show me the nasty, blistered purple reaction he had had to the bite of the Fly. It rather tended to disprove my friend's hypothesis that the whole business was one of mass hysteria. One of the darts players had been dismissed from his job because his employers did not believe his arm had been badly swollen for two days after a bite.

The barmaid said the only thing that made Blandfordians hysterical was sex.

The last time the town had been in the national press was a year ago. The Sun newspaper reported that a woman in a council house there had requested a rent rebate because her next-door neighbour howled every time she had an orgasm. She couldn't stand the noise any more.

'It never happened with Jim,' said one of the players. Jim was the howler's ex- husband.

Returning to the Fly and how to defeat it, they spoke of the Community Service scheme to cut down the reeds on the banks of the Stour. Despite hours of labour, it had been a total failure, because the Fly was as bad as ever this year. Of course, they could eliminate it with chemicals, but that would kill everything else in the river as well. Besides, the local brewery drew its water from the Stour.

'It wouldn't make no difference to the beer,' one of them said. 'It's bloody near Stour water already.'

Slightly drunk, I returned to my genteel hotel, where turbot on nests of season's leaves and salmon in parcels of filo pastry were being served. An old gentleman at the next table was explaining to an old lady how a niece of his had just returned from Burkina Faso.

'All her hair fell out,' he said.

'Was she clever?'

'Too clever.'

Next morning, I decided to find out the Truth About the Fly, so I went both to the doctor and the school. Fly bite was a notifiable disease and last year there were 360 cases in Blandford alone. Some people had such serious reactions that they were admitted to Poole Hospital. Now everyone was worried lest the Fly should spread Aids. Mere scientific information, of course, did not quell wild rumours.

The fly is called Simu/ium posticatum and belongs to the genus that in Africa and Central America spreads river blindness. At the school (from whose laboratories it was definitely not released) I was given a scientific paper to read. The atmosphere was calm and rational. A lapidary sentence described the habits of the fly: 'After mating, the females seek a blood meal, often at the expense of gardeners and sunbathers.' Simulium posticatum lays its eggs on earth in the river banks. The eggs hatch when the level of the river rises in spring and the larvae attach themselves to riverine plants. Then, in May, the adult insects emerge, mate, feed, lay eggs and die.

No one knows how the fly reached the Stour or why it should have become more common in the last few years. On one thing alone is everyone agreed: now that it has reached Bournemouth, something Will have to be done.