Writing wrongs: tarantulas aren’t baboon spiders after all
I wish I could write and tell my dad what I know now
I wish I could write a letter to my dad, and then, one day, when I have waited patiently long enough, receive one back.
I don’t really want to write him an e-mail or send a text message or even really give him a call, although of course any of those would be better than the nothing I get to do now. You don’t really get much of a person through an e-mail or a text message or a call. You get the convenience of speed and the illusion of proximity but not much connection, that shy, generous revealing of yourself that I more closely associate with letters. I have spent the past 35 or so years wishing I could be in touch with my dad again, wishing he could be in touch back, so I wouldn’t mind waiting however long it took for my letter to get there and for one to arrive, an actual piece of paper that his hand has touched and upon which his shadow has fallen while he has lingered, chewing his pen, wondering what to write.You don’t get to choose what you remember about your dad. One of the things I remember is him telling me that tarantulas aren’t as dangerous as they are made out to be in the movies. This was back in the 1970s, when this was a pressing issue because there were lots of tarantulas in movies and on TV, as well as scorpions, sharks, quicksand, rattlesnakes and piranhas. I protested that tarantulas are in fact extremely dangerous. They are hairy, long-legged, angry and have fangs. Their venom will cause you to writhe and dance in agony and then die. Consider the tarantula scene in Doctor No, I said. Look how scared James Bond was when the tarantula crawled across his bed. He shrugged at that. Tarantulas, he said, are basically baboon spiders and he used to catch them and put them into his brother Jerry’s school shoes. (This must have been in the summer, because he was also always telling me about how he and Jerry had to go to school barefoot in winter because it was the Great Depression.) Maybe, I said, this is a different kind of tarantula. Everything you see on TV is a different kind of something, my dad agreed.
It turns out that he was wrong and also right, as all parents are. Baboon spiders aren’t actually tarantulas, but tarantulas are indeed not fatally venomous to humans. I was reminded of all this yesterday, when I was reading Ian Fleming’s collected letters.
Fleming has been a hero of mine ever since my dad took me to see my very first movie in the cinema – Roger Moore in The Spy Who Loved Me – and I read my very first adult book from the adult section of the Brighton Beach library – From Russia With Love. Each year from 1953 until he died, Ian Fleming would decamp to his small, uncomfortable beach house in Jamaica and spend January and February writing the new Bond novel in the mornings, and snorkeling and drinking and writing to his friends in the afternoons. When he finished a manuscript he would send it first to his pal William Plomer, the South African writer and poet. Usually Plomer would reply saying how thrilling the book was, encouraging him to pay no mind to the jealous carpers of the literary establishment who sniped at his genre, but he would occasionally note some errors of continuity or fact.Plomer had written to say that everything in the manuscript of Doctor No was grand except for the bit about the tarantula, because what’s the big deal about tarantulas? Growing up in South Africa (today’s Polokwane), he kept tarantulas as pets. Fleming replied on June 19 1957: “I’m keeping the tarantula. I think we can assume that these are the South American variety, more puissant than your South African pets.”
It delights me to think that my conversation with my dad about Doctor No was played out 25 years earlier between Ian Fleming and another South African, and it delighted me this week to lie on a rattan couch within the sound of a warm sea and read his letters to his friends and his lovers and his wife, to feel the shudders and waves of doubt and anguish and triumph and despair. I wanted to write a letter to my dad and tell him what I had discovered, and to mull over what it’s like to be here, to try to tell him a little of what it feels like to be me. Perhaps it’s easier to do that with people who are dead, just as it’s sometimes easier to talk to people who are far away.
Someone I have never met wrote this week and asked me if I would welcome a letter over there on my island, and you know, I in fact would welcome a letter. I haven’t been able to ascertain precisely the address where I’m living – I’m not sure it has an address, and “the white house on the cliff” would probably work but might ask too much of the local postman’s English. Let’s see if this will do it:
Darrel (from South Africa)
c/o Restaurant MaryMary
I promise I’ll write one back.