Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Steve Irwin clone in Holland

A delightful detail in this story is the hero's name, Freek Vonk, which sounds great in English. Besides, this is the first time in my life that I've ever understood immediately a media heading written in Dutch (by four vowel substitutions): Steve Irwin is dood, lang leve Freek Vonk.

This Dutch guy—whose enthusiasm for reptiles and biting creatures is infectious—is in fact a serious biologist at the University of Leiden, and he hunts snakes to milk their venom, which he then uses in his research. You can find out all about him through his websites, here and here, which provided illustrations for the present blog post. Not surprisingly, Freek seems to spend a lot of time doing field work out in Australia.

His Irwin antics emerge in the following otherwise serious video:

Apparently, the proteins used by snakes to capture their prey are of great interest to researchers in genetics. A good introduction to this subject is provided here by the US scientist and writer Carl Zimmer.

POST SCRIPTUM: I'm happy to see that my Antipodes blog, as a consequence of the automatic Twitter announcement of the present post, is getting quite a few visits from the Netherlands. In watching Freek's video once again, with joy, I was suddenly reminded of a tone of voice that I had forgotten for half a century. In Sydney, when I was an adolescent (working as a computer programmer for IBM), there used to be a hardware store in George Street, not far from the town hall, called Knock & Kirby. They employed a wonderful English-born hawker who officiated in a sidewalk stand before his being transformed by his voice and talents into a TV celebrity. I forget his name, but I'll never forget his vocal marketing style. He sold vegetable-slicing gadgets in much the same way that Freek Vonk is now selling snakes. In fact, like yesterday's snake-oil charmers, exceptional individuals of this caliber succeed in using their voice to sell excitement and joy to us intrigued listeners. And what's wrong with that?

In the case of Freek Vonk, of course, there are three additional factors of a weighty nature. First, the guy is exceptionally bright and dynamic. You don't work at a doctorate at Leiden unless you know what you're talking about. Second, he's no ivory-tower academic, in that (like Steve Irwin) he knows how to communicate with us ordinary folk in the outside world, and expresses a desire to do so. And third, he seems to have mastered a spectacular real-time art of dancing out of the way of mortal bites from his friends. While touching wood, I wish him well. For Chrissake, man, don't go all the way by doing us an Irwin…


  1. Joseph Sandow, Joe the Gadget Man 1913-2002.

  2. Yes, that's the fellow. It's unpardonable that a former resident of Sydney should have forgotten his name. In fact, the event at which I first fell under the spell of the Gadget Man was the annual agricultural show up in my native Grafton, when I was probably a 14-year-old youth. In the context of Joe, it was a bit like sex: the first time is inevitably an unforgettable experience. At home, there was nothing fancy about our meals, and the visual aspect of food on a dinner table was not a question that enthused my mother… or anybody else in our family circles, if I remember correctly. This was brought home to me years later when I returned to South Grafton with my French wife and our baby daughter. Proud of having acquired the rudiments of cooking under Christine's guidance, I volunteered my services for a lunch of curried chicken, to which our Mulligan friends from OBX Creek were invited. I forget the exact recipe, but it seemed natural for me that the fowl should be served up in manageable pieces, laid out on a big plate and surrounded by rice and vegetables. My mother had announced with pride that her son had prepared a dish that she referred to as Continental Chook. When I placed the plate in the middle of the table, Athol burst into laughter: "Billy, your Continental Chook looks as if it has been run over by a steam-roller." It was no doubt the first time that any of my guests had ever seen a cooked chicken that didn't retain the shape of an intact fowl.

    When I first observed the culinary art of the Gadget Man, he was demonstrating a set of complicated metal tools that enabled you to prepare an attractive cold vegetable salad. I was utterly amazed. In all my years on the banks of the mighty Clarence River, I had never set eyes upon such an amazing assortment of edible forms and colors. As for their taste, it was surely of the same exceptional caliber. Beautifully slender slices of crimson beetroots supported a foamy mass of shredded parsnips, accompanied by a fiery storm of carrots, radishes and red peppers. There was even a magic device (included in the packaged deal at no extra cost, but only because of Joe's generous decision to keep the price at rock bottom, because he loved us, and wanted us all to become master chefs) that gauged perfectly spherical balls out of an unidentified vegetable that might well have been boiled spuds, or maybe turnips. Watching the Gadget Man, I had the sudden revelation that life in the Skyvington kitchen at Waterview would never be the same as soon as I spent my pocket money on Joe's marvelous gadget and arrived home, equipped with this splendid low-cost discovery.

    I can't remember if our grace prayers at Waterview (I'm joking) ever contained references to the inspiration provided by this English-born Jew named Joseph Sandow. That religious link, incidentally, was one of the most pleasant surprises in the references given to me by my friend and accomplice Badger. I had imagined the Gadget Man as some kind of a weird Cockney who had probably, in a previous life, sold fish and chips to Benny Hill lads and ladies at Brighton Pier. But I was pleasantly bowled over by the idea that Joe's family might be "comforted among the mourners of Zion". And I declare with them, tardily and humbly: Shalom, Joe.

  3. A lovely story. I used to watch Joe on TV on Saturday afternoons - transfixed by his skills in using his amazing gadgets.