THE SNAKEMAN by Margaret Lane. Hamish Hamilton. 1988. £ 6.95 This is a paperback edition of a book which was originally published in 1963 under the title ‘Life With Ionides’.
C.J.P. Ionides was undoubtedly one of the great characters of East Africa; one of those singularly original people who escaped from the restrictions of a more ordinary life to find fulfilment in his own way. After a rebellious childhood, Rugby, Sandhurst, the army in India, he landed in Dar es Salaam in 1925 in pursuit of the love of his life, wild animals. He did two years with the Kings African Rifles before taking up ‘professional’ ivory poaching and finally managed to join the Tanganyika Game Department in 1933 where he made a name for himself as a disciplinarian and a great naturalist. His autobiography was published under the title “A Hunter’s Story” by W.H. Allen in 1965.
The author of this book is Margaret Lane whose most well-known book is an outstanding biography, “The Tale of Beatrix Potter” (F. Warne 1946 and 1985 ) – not at all the same subject as Ionides, one would think, but I am not so sure.
Miss Lane was intrigued by the character of Ionides when she first met him in London after he had retired and went there for medical treatment. He was ‘shocked’ by London and persuaded her to visit him in idyllic Newala where he lived in ‘a tin-roofed bungalow plastered like a swallow’s nest on the edge of an escarpment, looking towards Mozambique.’ Here there was an abundance of snakes and he was able to carry on his retirement trade with the zoos of the world without a lot of trouble.
It is not necessary to be a snake lover to read this book and possibly one can learn to appreciate snakes from reading it. Miss Lane even learned to handle them. Incidents with other animals and insects are also described attractively.
The book is primarily a character study of Ionides during the few months that Miss Lane spent with him in 1962. She found him something of an ascetic but not averse to enjoying himself in the right company. One was able to ‘sit with him in his uninhabited-looking room and at a glance to see nearly everything that he would call his own’. He had, as he said, escaped from ‘the tyranny of possessions’. He spent much time apparently meditating in a cloud of tobacco smoke with his feet on the tablecloth while he waited for news of snakes to be relayed to him through an elaborate system of messengers.
He employed eight servants ‘for the comfortable running of his household’ which of course included the snake-catching business. The servants, however, were certainly not overworked: all they had to do was to obey orders when summoned in a fearsome voice. (“Excuse me I am going to ring my bell!”). His diet was frugal and identical every day – a sausage for breakfast, rubber-like goat for lunch, melted cheese on bread for supper – and the minimum of housework was done. Miss Lane had to introduce her own diet in order to survive and to suggest a few household jobs for the sake of hygiene. Once this was done, the two of them appear to have got along together very well.
Ionides had charm, was always courteous to Miss Lane, and ready for any amount of deep, original conversation. He was widely read, though somewhat behind the times. His heroes all had ‘a streak of violence in their nature’ as he had himself. Chaka, King of the Zulus; Tippu Tib; Hannibal; Genghis Khan. “Jezebel now, I always liked her; a great woman who died so bravely, with much dignity”. “It is the same feeling that he has for all wild animals” says Miss lane. In Shakespeare, which he read often, he would always quote the references to animals.
The book contains interesting descriptions of life in and around Newala at the time together with Ionides’ comments on it. Since he had ‘an instinctive disapproval of anything called progress’ there was much he did not like. Nevertheless he was very tolerant of people because he saw them as part of the animal kingdom and accepted them as they were.
Finally there is an enjoyable visit to Mafia, followed by a few days in Dar es Salaam where Ionides was greeted ‘on every hand as a rare and auspicious migrant’ his nickname being revealed as ‘Iodine’!
I am glad that this charming classic has brought the Snake Man to our notice once more.