Alimentary, my dear Watson

2008-08-06 00:00

Lyall Watson died on June 25 at the age of 69. Not that anyone in South Africa appears to have noticed. As far as I’m aware, Watson’s passing merited neither a news story or an obituary. Most odd, considering he was a well-known author, South African by birth and once director of the Johannesburg Zoo. His many books often feature African subject matter, such as his penultimate volume Elephantoms: Tracking the Elephant (2002) or the earlier Lightning Bird: An African Adventure (1982), the remarkable story of the maverick anthropologist Adrian Boshier.

Watson, who died of a stroke caused by Lewy body dementia, a progressive brain disease, will mostly be remembered for his 1973 Supernature, a “natural history of the supernatural”, that was obligatory reading in the seventies, although all I remember of it is the bit that everyone else (or perhaps only male readers) seems to remember, the bit about leaving razor blades under pyramids to sharpen up overnight.

Watson’s last book, The Whole Hog: Exploring the Extraordinary Potential of Pigs, was published in 2004 so it looks as if his last piece of published writing is the essay that appeared in Slightly Foxed, the British literary review that accurately describes itself as The Real Reader’s Quarterly (check and take out a subscription immediately).

Fellow Travellers, or The Trouble a Book Can Cause can be found in the Summer 2007 edition of Slightly Foxed, the troubling volume being The Life that Lives on Man by Michael Andrews published in 1976 and containing, as Watson says, “all the details of our intimate companions in the micro-deserts of our forearms and the swamps of our underarms”. Elaborating further, he informs that “the two square metres of your skin surface are divided up into a variety of ecosystems ... Each of those habitats is occupied by bacteria, viruses, yeasts, insects and mites — often as many as three million per square centimetre.”

These creatures, like most others, tidy up behind them and generally look after their home turf — in this case, us. Yet their benevolence goes unrewarded, as “we continue to use deodorants and anti-perspirants which are specifically designed to kill off or destabilise the natural populations of micro-organisms that, left to themselves, protect us constantly, night and day, from infection by foreign fungi and bacteria which cause irritations, inflammation, thrush, trichomoniasis and even brain damage”.

A mistaken obsession with personal cleanliness puts us at even greater risk when “we leave our normal environment and become exposed to infection as we travel”. Watson suggests we should be particularly eco-friendly to our “personal flora and fauna” on such occasions, “which means taking less medicine, prophylactics or prescription drugs when you prepare for a trip — not more.”

But, says Watson, such precautions don’t solve “the biggest problem facing an adventurous traveller” — food. “Sooner or later you are going to come across a microbe so alien that it overwhelms your tame flora or fauna.”

After his “third or fourth experience of being laid low in India or Afghanistan, and missing most of what I had gone there to see or do” Watson pondered a remedy. Initially he tried “a process of self-inoculation”. Arriving at some out of the way destination a week earlier than scheduled, he would “book into a small comfortable hotel or guest house” prior to ambling down to the local market to sample dishes “on offer from enterprising, but clearly unhygienic street vendors”. When the alien microbes hit he would then “rest and fast in reasonable reach of a lavatory. All it takes is a few days of adaptation, and then I can set off suitably equipped with sufficient local resistance to render me immune to most further disturbance.”

“Time and patience” were required for this approach and Watson decided he wanted a method with guaranteed efficiency. The answer was hermaphroditic tapeworms that anchor themselves on the stomach wall or the intestine of their host while exuding — and this was key — an anti-social enzyme which “inhibits the development of other embyros, eggs or larvae.” Reading up on the literature, Watson found that “tapeworm owners seemed to be immune to roundworms and perhaps other kinds of intestinal parasites”.

Getting rid of tapeworms once they have become embedded is not a pleasant process, Watson admits, but “if the temporary possession of a worm could protect me from things like amoebic dysentery ... that was a small price to pay.” Accordingly Watson turned up at the London School of Tropical Hygiene and said, “‘Good morning. Could I please have a tapeworm?’” He was thrown out.

Undeterred, he put forward a proposal “that the prophylactic effect of tapeworm infection be put to a thorough field test,” and offered himself as the guinea pig. This was agreed to, provided he sign a “disclaimer absolving the school of any responsibility”.

Six weeks after downing “a glass of water containing the embyros of my parasite of choice ... I was diagnosed as the proud owner of a full-grown tapeworm, who soon came to be known as Fred”.

And so Lyall and Fred went off “to some of my favourite haunts in the Middle East and India. And, for the first time in my experience of the area, I never got ill. Not once in nine months. I ate absolutely everything. I did exactly as I pleased, even — in a supreme test of our association — drinking water direct from the Ganges.”

An added benefit of having Fred along as a travelling companion was that Watson could eat as much as he liked without putting on weight. “I was, after all, eating for two.”

Back in London the time came to bid Fred farewell. “A quinacrine compound ... purged me so violently that the whole worm complete with hooked head, emerged intact, all 10 metres of him/her — which I promptly collected and kept in a bottle. I was sad to be separated. We had made a good team.” On further expeditions to exotic locations Fred was followed by Mabel and Harry.

A brief endnote appended to the essay records that “Lyall Watson is a wandering naturalist who finds most pleasure in the strange ends of life”. Now, a year later, the endnote stands as epitaph.

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