All God's Creatures

FOR the British, there are world problems. And then there are worm problems.

Last week's fight by Prime Minister John Major to keep European unity alive is an example of the former. So is the dangerous chaos in Russia with Boris Yeltsin calling for a new referendum every 15 minutes. But last week also brought an instance of the latter. Call it the case of the Boulmer worms, and file it under "There will always be an England."

It seems in 1990 one Anthony Anderson, a fisherman, was digging for bait below the mean water level - illegal - near the town of Boulmer Haven in Northumberland. Caught worm-handed by a policeman, Mr. Anderson refused to plead guilty. Rather, he took the case all the way to the Court of Appeals, using as his defense that most English of documents - Magna Carta of 1215. Worm digging, argued Anderson, is not just a right, but an ancient right. Magna Carta gives Englishmen the right to fish, he stated, and worms are an implicit part of the job.

The local District Council of Alnwick disagreed: The juiciest worms, which lie below the mean water level, are protected. Period.

Thus, The Independent noted, the court heard "Detailed evidence on what rights were ancillary to the right to fish. Whether, for example, a fisherman had a right to cross the foreshore, moor a boat, place his kit upon the short, or dry his nets.... There is no right to gather mussels from the shore, placing in doubt any alleged right to gather worms." The court decides by Christmas.

The British may have odd interests, and they may even secretly delight in them. Take the spot in their hearts for hedgehogs. Or their turgid debates over the theology of garden fertilizers. But given brutal aggressions in so many places, one finds a curious sanity in this pursuit of small delights.

1992 may have been annus horribilis for the Brits, as the Queen said - marital woes within the royal family, the fire at Windsor. But worlds, and worms, will turn.

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