The Bruised Heel Healed

by Theodore Dalrymple (October 2012)

There is a baby in the world that seems never to get beyond its ninth month. It has been following me for at least forty years, but it makes its appearance only when I board a long-distance aircraft, when it is to be found in the row immediately behind or in front of me, and proceeds to scream unconsolably for what seems like an age from the moment of takeoff. All manner of paranoid thoughts then come into my mind: for example that the airline has designedly, though for reasons that I cannot fathom even in my paranoid moments, disturbed my peace and prevented me from reading by seating the baby there, very close to me. In any case, why does that wretched creature never grow up? For if there is one sound in the whole world that cannot be ignored or screened out by attention to something else it is that of a baby crying on an aircraft.

And now I am being followed by snakes, scorpions and giant spiders. They seem increasingly to be everywhere I go. For example, only a few months ago I had occasion to spend time in the city of Nottingham, a dreadful place but interesting in its way, as most dreadful places are; and not more than a couple of hundred yards from my lodgings was a reptile pet shop. Such shops, I have noticed, are far commoner than they used to be; the keeping of reptiles as pets, though declining slightly with the economic crisis, the price of frozen rats and other reptile nourishment having risen as incomes have stagnated at best, is a noticeable cultural trend. What does it mean?

Snakes, to say nothing of scorpions and spiders, never respond to or recognise their owners; the relationship, if it can be called such, is entirely in one direction, from man to creature. Feelings are not and can never be returned. The creatures are objects, not subjects. Cold blood is for cold hearts, or at least for hearts that have had bad experiences with warmth. If that is so, then there are more such hearts about than there used to be, or at least more of them that express themselves in this rather peculiar way, the keeping of snakes, scorpions and spiders.

Those who patronise reptile pet shops are usually dressed and adorned in a conventionally unconventional way: tattooed, pierced and beleathered. (Leather clothes are to man what scales are to reptiles. It is no coincidence that the NKVD and Gestapo liked leather coats.)

But why snakes, scorpions and spiders? After all, there are plenty of other creatures in the world that are cold-blooded and (more or less) automata. The reason, I suspect, is these favoured creatures they are antinomian by implication or connotation, and the keeping of them a reversal of the Biblical curse that there shall be ‘enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed’: most people are scared of them and hold them in abomination, to be both repellent and dangerous. Those who keep them, therefore, mark themselves out as people who reject the conventions and standards of bourgeois society – as if bourgeois society really existed anywhere any more other than in tiny enclaves such as Switzerland and Liechtenstein. As generals are said to fight the last war, so the unconventional reject only the conventions that are already dead and destroyed.

Returning to France some time after my sojourn in Nottingham, I was surprised to see appear in the nearby village or small town of St Paul le Jeune notices advertising a performance with live reptiles, to be held one evening in the village hall or Salle des fêtes. So even in France I am followed by a rising tide of reptiles. (We have wild reptiles near our house in the form of lizards, some of them bright green and eight inches long, slow worms and even snakes, but I am not speaking of these. These reptiles are unavoidable; I speak only of what one might call voluntary reptiles.) A friend and I decided to attend the performance.

The Salle des fêtes turned out not to be a very festive place in atmosphere, but rather the kind of dismal utilitarian space that one might have expected municipal bureaucrats with limited funds to have planned. And my friend and I were, in fact, the only adults to have turned out without small children in their wake. In all, the audience was about fifty or sixty, with three or four children to every adult.

The performance was conducted by two travelling Germans, Dieter and Uschi, the former to handle the animals, the latter to provide the commentary in good, but not native, French.

Dieter was, to judge by his appearance, an aging biker. He wore jeans, highish-heeled boots (necessary for the performance, as I shall relate), and a strongly patterned shirt. He had the long, uncultivated beard of bikers; I should guess he was in his mid-sixties, but I might be wrong; certainly he had the look of a man who had knocked about the world a bit.

Uschi was considerably younger, but still not in the first flush of youth; she was tall, lithe and slender, but with the thinness that spoke of cigarettes rather than natural metabolism or dietary self-control. She wore very tight jeans, a cut-away shirt, and long boots with snakeskin bands and long leather tassels. She wore her hair nearly to her waist. She stood to one side with a microphone in her hand while Dieter displayed the animals.

Before the performance began, as the audience trickled in (I thought that le tout St Paul le Jeune would be there, but I was wrong), heavy metal guitar music, not unskilfully played, was relayed over a stereo system: this was Dieter’s music, and the audience was invited to buy a CD of it. Parked not far away from the Salle des fêtes was the large white camper van in which Dieter and Uschi lived and worked and took their being.

Dieter came into the hall and stood behind a small and battered white metal table. Behind him were ranged boxes of various sizes containing his creatures. I could not help but notice that the end of one of Dieter’s middle fingers was missing, and of course I jumped to the most obvious conclusion about the fate of the missing portions.

Dieter started with the giant scorpions, taken out of a Tupperware-like box. The audience gasped. With swift and practised movements, Dieter provoked the vile creatures into activity, and then brought them close to the audience for their inspection.

Next came the giant spider. I was at this point strongly reminded of a film I once saw high on the Bolivian altiplano, in the Teatro municipal of Uyuni, called The Invasion of the Giant Spiders, in which the eggs of vast spiders fell to earth from outer space to hatch and take over the world. The only thing that stood between the giant spiders and world domination was the US Air Force, and the audience cheered the spiders on to victory which, however, was not in the end theirs, though it very nearly was.

Dieter put the giant spider on his bald head, wiping it afterwards because, said Uschi, the hairs of the spider, with irritant chemicals in them, might otherwise get in his eyes. And then came the snakes, in ascending order of dramatic quality, starting with corn and coral snakes, ascending through a boa constrictor and ending in a reticulated python, the species that grows to the greatest length known of any snake, though the anaconda can weigh more, up to 400 pounds in fact, and Colonel Fawcett, the bestselling South American explorer who disappeared in the jungle in mysterious circumstances, spent many years searching for the Dormidera, the legendary or mythical 80 feet long anaconda that was believed in inhabit the swamps of the Chaco. This particular python had more than ten feet to grow to equal the record, but it was only twelve years old and still it was, in its own way, a splendid beast. It wrapped itself round Dieter’s leg not from affection but, so Uschi told us, to steady itself while Dieter held its pea-brained head aloft. One of the smaller snakes, Uschi also informed us, always sought cover and shade, and Dieter proceeded to demonstrate this. Standing in the middle of the floor, he released the snake on the floor, and it at once found the dark gap between the sole of his boots and the high heels.  

For a small fee, Dieter and Uschi allowed the children to be photographed with the boa, much smaller than the python, which could easily have swallowed some of the smaller children. As such constrictors go, the boa was a small one, but even to touch it – as Dieter encouraged us all to do – was to feel the formidable strength of its musculature. Of course all the children wanted to be photographed with it, and from this natural desire Dieter and Uschi derived a considerable part of their income.

The show ended with the exhibition of a caiman, a crocodilian only a yard long, but nevertheless when seen up this close a formidable beast. Uschi told us that the caiman was intelligent, though added that this was only by comparison with snakes. Dieter allowed the caiman to walk in our direction, pulling it back when it was almost within lunging distance of those tasty morsels, our legs.

The show over, Uschi went round with a hat, asking for voluntary contributions in addition to the entrance fee if the performance had pleased us (we gave generously). She described her and Dieter’s itinerary in the days to come, to other small villages, that is if the councils would agree to let the village hall to them, and asked us to recommend the show to anyone we knew, again if it had pleased us. Dieter and Uschi’s existence was clearly a hand-to-mouth one.

During the show, Dieter had fixed his face in a smile, or a rictus rather; but he gave the impression of being a kind and gentle man, and he was very good with children. A man who can persuade six or seven year olds to wrap snakes round their necks that are as large as they must inspire confidence, after all, and, for all his beaten-up look, Dieter obviously knew what he was about. The posters that had appeared in St Paul le Jeune proclaimed that one of the purposes of the show was to reduce the unreasoning fear that reptiles inspired, and to replace it by love and appreciation. How much more educative this show was than another night of television!            

There were many questions that I should much have liked to ask Dieter and Uschi after the show. How did they embark upon this strange life, how long had they kept it up, and did they now do it because they liked and enjoyed it still, or were they trapped into continuing it because they could do, like Luther, no other? Did it bore them to repeat the same performance over and again in out of the way places, before small audiences of utter provincials? (Uschi gave no hint of boredom, quite the reverse, but I suppose a professional can hide or disguise his or her boredom.) I did not approach them to ask, being too shy.

Whatever the answers would have been to my questions had I asked them, I warmed to Dieter and Uschi, a warmth not untinged by admiration, for they were undoubtedly courageous in following their own path. Oddly enough I found their performance reassuring, in that they were still free to take it wherever they desire – and no doubt their linguistic abilities allowed them. It could not have been an easy life, but it was a free life, and contrary to what I might previously have thought regulation had not yet made it completely impossible. I began to see why Dickens (to say nothing of Hamlet) had such an admiration and affection for strollers.

Dieter and Uschi were fine people, despite their probable membership of a subculture that I do not in other circumstances much admire, for they brought to the faces of the children expressions of happy wonderment in a world in which premature disenchantment is so often taken as evidence of maturity and sophistication. If only there were more Dieters and Uschis! The world would not be tidier, but it would be more enchanting.

Theodore Dalrymple's latest book is Farewell Fear.

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