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The Snakebite Survivors' Club: Travel Among Serpents

by Jeremy Seal Picador pounds 16.99

This is a travelogue designed as aversion therapy. It starts with the author "standing outside the reptile house in London Zoo on a spring afternoon in 1996, gathering myself to go inside". To conquer this (not very disabling) phobia, he sets off around the world to learn snake lore, meet snake enthusiasts, get up close to some of the most dangerous species and talk to the "singular clique" of snakebite survivors.

There are several grisly first-hand accounts, and also the Kenyan equivalent of an urban myth, about a man who was bitten by a black mamba, totally paralysed and put on a respirator. He overhears the nurses mocking the size of his penis, doctors saying he might never re-awaken, was surely brain-damaged and should probably be disconnected, but then deciding to keep him alive as a "clinically interesting" case. On the eighth day, he manages to communicate by twitching a finger. Jeremy Seal tracks the supposed victim down to ask about the experience but discovers he has got the wrong man. It really happened to a man called ... J Seale. Spooky!

Snakes are truly dangerous - the boomslang is known as "Doctor, go home" in Swahili - but their strange, malign glamour comes from their intimate association with sex as well as death. Australian snake shows started off as spectacular sales pitches for antidote manufacturers, became spine- chilling entertainments and finally turned to titillation, with one "incomparably lovely" exotic dancer allowing "writhing, hissing reptiles all over her glamorous head and body". Today's no-nonsense scientific lectures simply do not pack the same kind of thrill.

It is probably in India that people take the most positive view of snakes - some will even worship cobras which have just bitten close family members - and that the phallic link with fertility is closest to the surface. Seal vividly describes festivities where women placate the angry spirit of the cobra while treating it as "the procreative genius and rat-catching, rain-bringing friend of farmers". He does not explore the intriguingly different American Indian view of serpents as a female symbol, in that menstruating women are seen as shedding their insides like snakes shedding their skin.

Christians can never forget the trouble the Serpent caused in the Garden of Eden, and one of the book's narrative threads is the investigation of an attempted murder among the strange, snake-handling sects of the American South. Glenn Summerford was a brute who found God but continued with his drinking, womanising and domestic abuse. He eventually cooked up a crazy scheme to kill his wife with a rattlesnake and make it look like suicide. Seal interviews her in a trailer park, expecting her to have been transformed by the "Gothic glamour" of her story, but finds "just a woman seriously behind with the housework".

Another thread describes a visit to taipan country around Cairns, in Far North Queensland, a rough frontier town where a radio show was inviting "people who had been sick over strangers at concerts to phone in with their technicolour reminiscences". An uncouth outbacker called Dundee becomes almost mystical when describing what it is like to take a near- fatal bite, although he also reckons it tends to impress the girls. Now, whenever he is out of range of medical help, he carries his own "emergency kit" with him: a joint, some Castlemaine XXXX and a copy of Playboy. After all, if another taipan were to catch up with him, what could be a nicer way to go than sitting under a gum tree enjoying "a final nice joint, a final beer and a final pull on the old ..."?

The last interwoven narrative strand takes Seal to Africa, and particular into the world of "East Africa's European snake men", the founding father of whom would eat gaboon viper for his Christmas dinner and wander around the bush in snorkelling goggles. One could hardly ask for a more eccentric crew, "researchers" whose commitment to snakes led them to inject themselves with venom to observe the results and to organize mamba races to calculate their maximum speed. This book is also pretty eccentric, a series of great digressions around a rather tenuous theme, but they are creepy, sharply observed and wonderfully bizarre.