Nov/Dec 1999 Book Reviews

The Snake-bite Survivors' Club: Travels Among Serpents

Jeremy Seal
Picador, Pan Macmillan (October 1999) 377pp
ISBN: 0 330 34834 5

reviewed by Ann Skea

In 1991, in Scottsboro, Alabama, Glen Summerford held a pistol to the head of his wife, Darlene, and forced her to plunge her hands into a box of live rattlesnakes. She was bitten. Twenty-four agonising hours later, Glen stirred up the rattlesnakes and again forced Darlene to handle them. Again she was bitten.

This terrifying story fascinates Jeremy Seal just as venomous snakes do, and he threads it through the book between other equally chilling snake-bite stories until he lays it to rest by meeting Darlene and hearing the outcome from her own lips.

Seeking face-to-face encounters with the world's four most deadly snakes is a strange way to tackle a snake phobia. I remember trying to do something vaguely similar about my own fear of spiders. I read everything I could about spiders and found them to be amazingly interesting creatures, but I still tremble and sweat when I meet one. Seal's chosen cure is much more directly confrontational than mine was, and his encounters and his stories are thrilling, fascinating and hilarious by turns. He seeks out the survivors of bites from rattlesnakes in America, cobras in India, black mambas in Africa and taipans in Australia, and he generously shares his and their experiences with us. But he never tells us if his strategy worked.

Never mind. His journeys are most enjoyable and he writes with a snake-charmer's skill, charm and slight-of-hand, breaking off the fangs of his deadly subjects, so to speak, with his jokes and his taste for odd facts and anecdotes.

Often, the fragments of snake history that Seal discovers are as curious and absorbing as the people he meets. The snake-banishing rituals performed in early Sydney by the colourful, Irish convict, Sir Henry Browne Hayes, for example, who was transported to Australia for kidnapping a young Quaker heiress, is a tale I have long intended to write. Seal (damn it!) has beaten me to it and wonderfully conveys all Sir Henry's bizarre quirks of character in the process.

Then there is Peter Bramwell, whose forebears trecked across Africa to Nairobi in the 1890s, heedless of the bandits, blackwater fever, malaria, snakes and notorious man-eating Tsavo lions, all of which were playing havoc with attempts to lay a railway line in the area at that time. Peter's own life was equally eventful when he set up his snake park at Kilifi, near Mombasa in 1964, and suffered a number of venomous snake-bites before the big, myth-making bite from a black mamba made him a living legend.

Seal writes thrillingly of joining religious congregations in American where snake-handling is a regular part of the ceremony. In India, he becomes part of a snake festival, sees a young friend get bitten, and is required to meet a cobra at close quarters. He describes his own Larium induced snake hallucinations in Africa. And he is disillusioned by modern educational snake-shows in Australia, rightly judging them to be not a patch on those of earlier days when they were advertised thus: 'Young Milo...will allow a venomous snake to bite him....The snake will immediately afterwards kill a rabbit".

But be warned. This is a book which caused snorts of laughter and a compulsion to share ghastly facts and anecdotes with anyone unwise enough to be in your vicinity whilst you are reading it. On the other hand, it can be so absorbing that those you annoy can extract revenge by creeping up and "fanging" you with a couple of finger-nails - they will probably get gratifying results.

And this is not a book to read if your are of a highly imaginative or nervous nature. Even if you are not, I would advise you, before you start reading, to pick up any stray lengths of string or bits of hose-pipe lying around the house, and to lock up the cat and dog so that they can't jump up on you unexpectedly. If you do already have a phobia about snakes and you still choose to read it than you have only yourself to blame.

Finally, if you decide to use the little maps at the front of the book to follow in Seal's footsteps, you might like to know that the old cure for snakebite in FNQ (Far North Queensland) was "a quart of brandy by the glassful, one every ten minutes". It may not work for everyone, but at least the unlucky die happy. And following the same kind of thinking, the modern snake-bite emergency pack, as put together by Dundee and Kev for a trip in remote, taipan infested Australian bush, is a joint, a bottle of XXXX beer and a copy of Playboy.


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