THE WRITER’S LIFE
It was by strange coincidence that I walked into a lost property office when I myself was lost. As I leaned on the counter, I remembered having the thing I’d lost, but not what it was. I rested my head on my hand and my elbow slipped, banging my head on the counter, and then I realised what it was: I’d lost my memory. I’d been self-censoring for too long, with so much stuck inside me.
A royal python
While the fiction writer was away, things had been happening in the real world, and one such happened on Friday, when I got a text: “Could you order rats on the internet please?” It was my mum, and in my family, this is a normal event. It also allows me to tell a story of my life, as I step back into writing…
Long ago (in 2010), after my marriage had broken down through my drinking, I lived in Bexley. I was still running a print management business, and I had a nice flat in an old manor house, with a heated swimming pool in the garden. The kids would stay with me at weekends, and so it was on the eldest’s seventh birthday. He asked if we could have a party, but I wasn’t sure how many of his friends would make the journey, and feared a deflated son. So I offered to buy him something with the money I’d otherwise have spent on a party, specifically a snake.
At the time, I was volunteering with a reptile rescue centre, and although snakes thrive in captivity, are cheap and easy to keep (after the initial outlay on housing and an actual snake), people were still naïve. Most of our guests were snakes and there were three main reasons for them becoming homeless: Their size, their diet, and their longevity.
Among the collection was a 12-foot Burmese python, which could potentiallly grow twice as big. She’d been bought as a yearling at about three feet, and the owner didn’t know some constrictors could grow that big. Most snakes feed on rodents, which can be bought frozen in bulk (you need a zookeeper’s license to feed live prey, it’s inadvisable to feed a captive-bred snake live food, can be inhumane for the prey, and a risk to the snake if the prey turns). So if you’re squeamish about having dead rats next to your frozen pizza in the freezer, perhaps best not to have a snake. And they can live for 30-40 years or more.
We had half a dozen or so royal pythons in the collection, which are relatively small (5-6 feet maximum) and easy to keep, but they’re secretive and can be fussy feeders. So the talking point in the room isn’t so much the snake, more a nicely decorated vivarium.
I could write reams on snake husbandry, breeding and minor veterinary treatments (I filed a paper at The Zoological Society of London, on treating snakes with scale mites), but a personal blog is not the place to learn about keeping snakes. Anyone considering keeping snakes should thoroughly research the subject, certainly more than most of our donors had.
I’d work with the rescue centre some weekends, and the kids enjoyed coming with me, because they’d learned a lot about snakes through me and were fascinated. Mostly we’d go to local and school fêtes, where we’d show the snakes (and a couple of lizards), engage with the curious, and educate the willing. It was mainly dispelling myths: Snakes aren’t cold and slimy, most are not venomous (certainly no constrictors), and very few bite in any case. In general, they’re placid, inquisitive creatures, and it was always a joy to witness someone’s first ‘Snake moment’.
On at least one occasion, I’d had a lady moved to tears. It was her 40th birthday, and she’d asked if she could learn about snakes. I happened to be free, so I sat down with her and a royal python at a table, and I answered her questions. She confided that she’d been not so much frightened as nervous about snakes, because she knew so little. At the end of the meeting, she held a five foot royal python in her hands and started crying. “It’s so beautiful,” she said. I must admit, that caused me a bit of a moment too, having helped someone overcome a common, pre-conditioned repulsion of an unfairly maligned creature, so that they could better understand it.
There was amusement too, like when we were at an event on Blackheath during the London Olympics, and I was charged with Alexa, the aforementioned 12-foot Burmese python. The Burmese is a fairly stocky snake, and pythons are constrictors, so they’re heavy on muscles. A snake of her size weighs in at around 25kg, which you’re very aware of when you’ve got one draped around your shoulders. Like most snakes, she was inquisitive too. To her, I was a warm tree. For me, it got tiring, so I’d let her down on the grass to give myself a rest.
We’d displayed signs around our reptile enclosure, clearly stating ‘No small dogs’, and as Alexa was stretching herself on the ground, I spotted an old lady with a toy ‘dog’ (the kind which would fit very easily down a large python’s throat). “Excuse me, madam,” I said politely, and pointed to a sign.
“Oh it’s okay,” she replied, looking down at the snake’s food, “he’ll only lick you.”
“That’s very nice madam, but my snake’s tongue is flicking because it sees food…” I picked up the snake, the rat licked my foot, and I resisted the urge to kick it.
The point is, snakes are fascinating creatures and totally undeserving of all the myth, suspicion and ignorance surrounding them. Generally speaking, kids are for more into snakes than grown-ups, perhaps because our greater general understanding of them isn’t shrouded in so much superstition as a generation or two ago. For at least the last 30 years, all snakes bought by the home enthusiast have been captive-bred, and there’s a large conservation scene among those who study and keep them.
I’ve been fascinated by snakes ever since a reptile breeder visited my primary school in 1977 (when I was seven), and my children have inherited the passion from their part-reptilian parent. I suspect my parents have snake DNA too, and that circles me back to the beginning of the story and that text from my mum.
So I got my son a royal python for his seventh birthday. My ex-wife wasn’t so keen, so I had the snake at my place, but he was very much my son’s project. The snake moved with me to Sidcup, where I lived for two years after Bexley. Eventually of course, I drunk everything away and I ended up back at my parents’, with a snake.
When I had my breakdown and all sorts of people were supporting my parents, the reptile rescue centre asked if they’d like them to take the snake. But they declined. The snake belonged to their grandson, so they wanted to keep him in the family. They paid me what I’d paid for the snake and the whole set-up, to give me money to stay afloat, and the arrangement was that I’d buy him back when I got myself sorted out.
I’ve lived in my studio for almost two years now, I have a rolling tenancy, and therefore the nearest I’m ever going to get to a permanent home. But ever since we started talking again after I’d sobered up, my mum (who’s 73) and dad (76) will not sell the snake back, not through any concern for his well-being, but because they’re so attached to the little guy. For now I just order his food for mum and dad’s freezer.
People think I’m weird, and I am. But don’t blame the parents.