Serpent Tales

 Aruba beach      aruba flag

I never fail to learn something new when I listen to BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent and last week my attention was caught by a report from the Caribbean island of Aruba. In recent years it’s been suffering a plague of boa constrictors and, as the island’s main economy is tourism, this is not a welcome influx. They’re thought to have been introduced by someone releasing some pet boas into the wild. This explains how they got there, but until recently no-one could understand how they were managing to make their way so efficiently to the furthest reaches of the island. The mystery was solved when they were discovered to be expert hitchhikers. They’re attracted to the warmth of car engines where they curl up and stay quiet while the unsuspecting drivers ferry them around the island.


This story reminded me of Bernard the boa constrictor who went missing in Portsmouth a couple of years ago. His owner had enjoyed a heavy night at the pub and attempted to get into a taxi with the snake draped around his neck. “There’s no way, you’re getting in here with that” said the taxi driver, not unreasonably, and so poor Bernard was brusquely removed and thrown into the nearby bushes. The owner took off in the taxi but someone notified the police and the story was reported on all the local TV and radio stations. My sister and brother-in-law live in Portsmouth and the next day were watching television quietly in their sitting room when they heard a terrible noise in their kitchen. They have a ground floor apartment surrounded by lawns, bushes and flower beds, and in the summer they leave their sash windows open. At first they tried to ignore the unusual thrashing sound, but eventually they looked at one another and wondered if this was just the kind of noise that an angry boa constrictor would make in the confines of a suburban English kitchen. They tiptoed into the hall and worked out a strategy…how to respond if they pushed the door open and a giant snake lunged at them. My brother-in-law has held a number of responsible positions in his life, including father to four boys and commander of a nuclear submarine. He took charge bravely, and positioning my sister next to him for reinforcement, made a sudden dart at the door. It flew open to reveal that the ice-maker on their fridge had gone berserk and was firing frozen lumps at the walls and ceiling.

I often think of Bernard and wonder what happened to him. I can’t find any reports of him being found and since they live for up to thirty years, who knows what he might be up to these days. If I lived in Portsmouth my obsessive personality would force me to check my engine every day before getting into my car.


Another snake, this time a python, cropped up in one of my treats and unwittingly contributed to my sense of mid-life confusion. I’m currently watching all of David Attenborough’s Life on Earth documentaries. I started with the Life of Birds series which I thoroughly enjoyed and then went onto Life in Cold Blood. This is where I encountered the python. The film showed speeded up footage of the snake lying quietly for months, barely moving, with just a pilot light metabolism to keep it alive. Then with no apparent warning it decided it was hungry and sensing an antelope nearby, struck out with forked speed. The animal was squeezed in its coils and over the course of several hours, it disappeared head first down the python’s throat with its hooves sticking out. The snake’s flexible jaws stretched wide open and in order to avoid suffocation it left the top of its windpipe hanging out of its mouth like a piece of flexible tubing. Once the antelope was down, the python’s physiology began to change. During the next few days its liver doubled in size and its heart increased by forty per cent. It took about four weeks for the python to digest its meal. Hair, horns, hooves, everything. Then it went back to sleep again till its next mealtime many months later.

There were many interesting moments in the Life in Cold Blood series but I often think about this episode. One motivation for doing my treats is that I’m ensconced in an existential crisis. I’m in middle age. What am I for? This is puzzling enough, but I have to wonder… what must it be like for a python?

python Photo: Shankar S. United Arab Emirates


The Clock Struck One


In the last post, Riding on Branch Lines, I said that unexpected things often happen when I’m immersed in a ‘treat’. My fish project has been no exception. This treat has involved cooking ten different fish and was prompted by my lack of confidence with seafood. I’ve always been put off by the bones, strange appearance, and fierce warnings about overcooking.

In Fish Mondays, I described how I had problems in sourcing the ingredients at the beginning but that once I discovered the seafood section at my local Asda, this got easier. Last week was the penultimate fish and we had sea bass. However, this week, for the final flourish, things got a bit tricky. I’d exhausted all the unfamiliar species at the supermarket counter and had to look further afield. I decided that my best bet was the Wednesday market fish stall in the nearby town of Winchester. This was also a good opportunity to visit the specialist clock shop in the town centre and get some advice about my large oak mantel clock which is incapable of keeping the correct time.

I arrived early at the market with my clock in a plastic carrier bag and sure enough there was an enticing display of fish, many of which I now recognised. I deliberated over the huss but eventually opted for turbot. These are large, heavy flat fish and I bought one to share between two. I also bought some new season asparagus at the neighbouring vegetable stall.

Whilst in town I thought I’d try to solve another problem that’s been bothering me for a while. My bedroom overlooks the neighbours’ garden and when I’m getting dressed we regularly surprise one another. Although I’ve managed to avoid net curtains for most of my life, I decided recently that the time has come to give in to modesty, so when I passed a fabric shop, I went in and bought a couple of metres of the plainest muslin available.

By this time I was a bit weighed down and the bags were banging against my legs. The clock clanged as I walked and every now and again it made a half-hearted attempt at a chime. Then, as I was making my discordant progress through the town centre I spotted Winchester Cathedral and it occurred to me that I could soak up a bit of history before going home. Within a couple of minutes I was at the main door and as I stepped inside, the clock chimed one o’clock which was both embarrassing and inaccurate. “I’d love to look around” I said to the man at the ticket desk, “but I’ve got a lot to carry. Could you possibly look after this?” I handed him my clock and as I did so it attempted to strike again. “Could you take this, too?” I asked handing him a large flat parcel. “What is it?” he said suspiciously. “A turbot” I replied. “A what?” “A turbot”. “Oh, and I’ve got this” I said handing him the muslin curtain. I paid for my ticket and was just about to join the guided tour when I noticed the bunch of asparagus sticking out of my bag. “I suppose you want to leave that too?” he said, taking the words from my mouth.


The next hour was absorbing and delightful. I stood on Jane Austen’s gravestone in the nave and squinted up at the window dedicated to her memory. A pane at the top depicts St Augustine from whose name, Austen is derived. I walked across decorative floor tiles dating from the 13th Century, and then as I turned a corner towards the high altar my mouth dropped open at the enormous, ornate stone screen. I also learned about the hero who saved the cathedral. There was a great deal of structural movement at the start of the 20th century as the building was erected on a wooden raft over a peat bog. At first, the engineers tried pumping the water out but this made the subsidence worse, so in 1905 they brought in William Walker. He was a Royal Navy diver who worked every weekday for five and a half years. He would dive into the water under the cathedral and pull out the peat with his bare hands, replacing it with concrete and bricks. Each day he spent half an hour getting into his diving suit and would then work two three-hour shifts, emerging after the first one to smoke his pipe and eat a mutton pie. He obviously did a thorough job as the cathedral has only moved one millimetre during the past century.

diving helmet

The tour ended in the crypt where the Anthony Gormley statue, Sound II, stands beneath the arches. The sculptor models all his statues on his own body so it’s eerily lifelike. The crypt was dry when I visited, but in the winter it floods and so the figure is often up to its knees in water. I also learned a new word, which is something that always cheers me up. The monks used to attend eight services a day as well as High Mass. They weren’t allowed to sit down but they did have a kind of bottom rest that they could lean against. This is called a misericord.

With my ecclesiastical diversion over, I returned to the desk. “Please could I have my clock, asparagus, net curtain and turbot?” The obliging attendant looked relieved to see the back of me and my bags, and I was pleased to have spoken a sentence that I’ve almost certainly never said before. In fact I have to wonder whether anyone has ever spoken that particular combination of words.

Getting back to the fish project, it’s been interesting to discover that in common with many of the thirty-seven preceding treats, it has changed me. I now have many new dishes in my repertoire. And something surprising happened half-way through. With the first few fish I was cautious, perusing cookery books for instructions and following them carefully. But by the time I got to the fifth one, I realised that fish really is very easy to cook and this gave me the confidence to experiment. The details are on the Fish Recipes page.


sound II

And following on from the last post there are now a number of new lists on the Treats Collection page. Thank you to everyone who has contributed so far.