Archive | April 2015

‘The Extinction Club’ by Robert Twigger – Bambi with history?

On the first night of our family reunion a few years ago, we gathered in a restaurant to clatter spoons. Our respected elder, in his late seventies, rose to address the gathering, leaned on his polished wooden shepherd’s staff, looked about the room and declaimed, with a gleeful grin, that as he was the alpha male present there was no doubt that everyone must listen to him. His few words of greeting included sincere commemorations to those no longer with us and urgent invocations for us to enjoy ourselves. And it was with great amusement and happiness that everyone did enjoy themselves with merry banter thereafter.

Young hands holder an elder's hand

In comparison, I recently heard of another successful family reunion, which had been opened by their ninety-three year old matriarch. She had looked about the room where four generations gathered and asked them all to speak in turn on the subject of ‘What I care for most.’ The memorable reunion was emotional, meaningful and honest.

Which reunion was best? Could the merry banter at our family reunion uphold the heartfelt encouragement to communicate with each other and recognise family ties or does only the serious and sincere carry weight into the future to improve our lives?

This is the sort of struggle faced by Robert Twigger in The Extinction Club, Penguin 2001, a deliberately exasperating, bitsy, read. Ostensibly a very, very funny travel book (says so on the cover) about Pere David deer, The Extinction Club also packs in some metaphysical meditations about old ideas in the form of books.

Deer standing in a park

The rare deer, also known as Milu, were saved from destruction in China’s Imperial Garden during the Boxer Rebellion of the 1900s and bought to Britain, to Woburn Abbey Safari Park, giving the author a thin excuse to muse on the nature of extinction as he plans the outline. ‘The obvious, possibly tabloid, über-theme [of the book] was extinction. OK, the concern for the deer would be an example of our fear of extinction which has mushroomed this century.’ (pg 29)

fun sign for Woburn

Twigger points out the idea of extinction arose with Darwin and,

‘ … it was just a question of time before the possibility of the extinction of the human species became a widespread idea. And when it did, the fact of the A-bomb and biowarfare simply made it more concrete, more tangible, the fear already in us. Making extinction a necessary part of life added a shadowy bleakness to the scientifically informed world view. The theoretical necessity of extinction leaves the world a little colder.’ (pg 49)

Atomic bomb over Nagasaki

Heavy stuff! But do not fear, Twigger does not tarry long in these murky depths, quickly uplifting the reader with amusing accounts of pathetic aimless research (look how everything is changing at the library) juxtaposed with the chunks of serious history supposedly resultant, his strange story of the Major’s club paying for a species of fish to become extinct in one blow and how his funny agent, Klaudia, gets on with the droll story of how to get this gosh darn book published any how!

Twigger’s drinking pal, the Novelist, is about to publish a successful book – how ironic – neatly contrasted by such questions as, ‘How does a book die? How does it become extinct? When nobody reads it any more? When nobody buys it any more? When libraries won’t stock it? When nobody remembers having read it?’ (pg 72) Clearly Twigger cares most about books, he is a writer after all, the essence of his desire to leave his mark on the world, to be discovered in the dusty piles of paper in the bookstalls of the threatened Ezbekiya Gardens

Fittingly, I found this very book in a secondhand book shop, one having to downsize, how suitable an evolution, look how these bookshops have to change! There in the dusty shelves were three different editions of The Extinction Club, leading one to assume the royalties may well have staved off extinction for this author for some time. I suppose he gets to sit on panels in Writers’ Festivals with names like, ‘Animals or Us?’ or ‘Does Extinction have a lighter side?’ I imagine he might even wear his sleeveless yellow jumper as he explains his frustrated attempts to write a serious book (who would read it any way?) but, in his modest self-effacing way, had to hand in something, anything, against the already-spent advance. (Hilarious!)

For those of us not in touch with the publishing world, this throwaway book about books is more annoying than revelatory. How the hell does such blatant carelessness get published? There are some moments where a great clanking gear change causes the badinage to clarify into powerful words yearning to be read with seriousness but mostly Robert Twigger clearly struggles with the big picture and, unfortunately, it appears the struggle wins.

‘The wild places are just wastegrounds now, interesting enough as places to play if you are a child, or in need of a holiday. They don’t function as wild places any more, not unless you are careless and forget your radio beacon and satellite phone.’ (pg 175)

Do we read this with recognition or with dismay?

‘In many ways the individual is more at risk now than he has ever been. His ability to think is overwhelmed by useless noise. He is encouraged to become a passive consumer, supporter, viewer. He has to go outside the mainstream to find opportunities for his inner powers of self-reliance to develop.’ (pg 168)

Is this about the writer or the reader? We know the writer has undergone a survival course for fun but he is the man finding his passive consumption in the form of his beloved books after all and he is the man making a lot of unnecessary noise around his thoughts.

‘All along, it is not animals that have been most at risk, but ourselves, our innermost selves.’ (pg 169)

Again, who is the line for? And, what are humans if not animals?

Twigger’s serious statements about how we should live and the risks we face are buried in silly streams about books and babies, much as all our discussions about changing the tide of human destruction founder on day-to-day having to make a living in the city.

When working on a puppet show about endangered species, It’s not the end of the world, (Polyglot Puppets 1995-6) my husband urged a funny sheep character who would (sidesplittingly) try to prevent her inevitable death by being officially declared endangered. It probably would have fitted in well to our story line about endangered stringbags but I was trying to be sincere and lucid with a tight narrative line. Twigger would have agreed with my husband that a show about extinction should be vaudeville; skits, bits and pieces, highs and lows. It’s extinction people! Fun! Danger! Giggles! Death! Farts! Overpopulation! Pollution! Hilarious!

At the end of The Extinction Club, in an exposed stab at a happy ending, the sparrows seem to be returning to his garden, the booksellers have recreated his beloved Ezbekiya Gardens book market and his yellow jumper is returned from Woburn Abbey where the author stayed to see the Pere David deer cull. (Apparently it’s best to kill an endangered creature when there’s too many of them.)

Woburn Abbey

Or maybe not, as Twigger categorically denies any firm relationship with the truth because that’s light-hearted and ironic and the best way to deal with a difficult subject that sticks in the craw like a piece of plastic in an endangered albatross chick.

On discovering the returned Ezbekiya Gardens book market Twigger says,

‘If the secondhand book market still existed, it meant far more than just being able to buy cheap first editions of Victor Hugo. It meant that something I cared for had not become extinct.

The great auk, the passenger pigeon, the dodo, that snail from the Pacific, those fish the Major poisoned—I had to admit that my concern was virtually nil. My concern was simply the result of a conventional upbringing, nothing more. Even the fact that the Milu had survived rather than being killed by the starving relief battalions, including a starving Grandpa Tom, meant little to more to me than a good yarn; the deer did, of course, look nice at Woburn, but care? Really care? About a few animals, when the WORLD was disappearing?’ (pg 177)

man searching old books

So, imagine we’re at a family reunion thirty years hence. I ask you to speak on the subject of ‘What you care about most?’

What do you say? Are you light-hearted? Playing to the audience, bumbling, stumbling, getting laffs and getting your books read?

Or are you serious?


Dear MasterChef – What is it with you and PROTEIN!?!?!

Dear MasterChef,

MasterChef judges and food

Look, I love a reality tv show as much as anyone else. Remember Bollywood Star Australia where Australian performers had a chance to travel to India and become a Bollywood Star? Fantastic show.


Or if you prefer your reality online, Penny Arcade produced a lovely, fun and genuine search for a new cartoonist called Strip Search. This series is notable because the contestants were super nice to each other and the judges were positive, constructive and just plain generous.

Strip Search picture

We’ve all watched a few, haven’t we, but in Australia, at least, the biggest of all must be MasterChef. When we had a Brazilian student from Rio stay with us for far too long, our family all sat down to watch MasterChef because it combined sport (Brazilian kid’s love) and food (my family’s love).

But I can never go back to MasterChef. But I’m sorry, MasterChef. I’m so over you.

It’s finished between us


What is it, MasterChef, with the PROTEIN?!??

To listen to you bang on EVERY SHOW, beef or lamb is a protein. Eels are protein. Little helpless milk-fed baby cows are protein. As if protein was only available in animals.

Do you not know that protein is in EVERY living thing? Proteins are the building blocks of life!!

Well, MasterChef. It’s true. Think about it for just one moment. You really need to eat dead animals to grow big and strong? Like horses? Cows? Camels? Elephants? When you think of big boofy creatures, like bulls, for instance, what do they eat? AND did you know, thinking of big and boofy, that gladiators were vegan? Why, even bodybuilders today can be vegan!

Gladiator mosaic

In the old days everyone read Diet for a Small Planet. That’s where I learned the facts of life and many, many other people did too.

cover of Diet for a Small Planet

Apparently, so Frances said, proteins are made up of twenty amino acids and nine of those are essential – that’s what we have to eat every day. If you kill your food, it’s easy. Just take an axe to the cow or strangle your chicken for your amino acids. Or you could eat vegetables – you just have to mix it up. Complement your proteins. Beans on toast is a complete protein meal. Lentils and rice. Dahl and bread. It’s not rocket science.





A few years later that same author of Diet for a Small Planet, Frances Moore Lappé admitted in the 10th anniversary 1981 version of the book that sufficient protein was easier to get than she had thought at first:

“In 1971 I stressed protein complementarity because I assumed that the only way to get enough protein … was to create a protein as usable by the body as animal protein. In combating the myth that meat is the only way to get high-quality protein, I reinforced another myth. I gave the impression that in order to get enough protein without meat, considerable care was needed in choosing foods. Actually, it is much easier than I thought.

“With three important exceptions, there is little danger of protein deficiency in a plant food diet. The exceptions are diets very heavily dependent on [1] fruit or on [2] some tubers, such as sweet potatoes or cassava, or on [3] junk food (refined flours, sugars, and fat). Fortunately, relatively few people in the world try to survive on diets in which these foods are virtually the sole source of calories. In all other diets, if people are getting enough calories, they are virtually certain of getting enough protein.”[3]

In 1981, this is. Over thirty years ago!! Award winning and Foundation founding Ms Lappé recognised she’d made a mistake and she apologised and put the facts straight.

But the complementary protein myth still exists. Not only that vegetables don’t have enough protein but that it’s necessary to mix it up. When it’s not!!! It’s worth repeating that about eating enough protein, ‘ … it is much easier than I thought.’ In fact, you just have to eat food!

All food contains protein!! Wake up MasterChef!! You are so far behind the eightball you haven’t even debunked the first myth! Or are you so far enamoured of the meat industry that you can’t even see the truth for the steak?

You might like to take a look at this excellent summary about balanced vegan meals, including a neat tip: when you’re in a hurry grab a ‘grain, a green and a bean meal!’

And, finally, MasterChef, here’s where the television star meets the meat: did you hear about the hunter who thought that the locals would like to eat a tough old giraffe when they could have had some tofu and rice? Go, Gervais. Just get ’em!!

I wish you well, MasterChef, but mainly I wish you’d get your facts straight.

Lots of love,


Bring on the bullfight – fiesta brava – the wild festival

Spanish flag with bull image

“It only takes one person to bear witness. One to share what they have seen.” Animals Australia Facebook page

Once upon a time I worked for a tv show. One day my boss called me in to her office to see some footage. She had obtained it from Spain to be included in an episode of the show. It was a bullfight. Her name was Lyn Bayonas. She learned about the bullfight from her old boss, Orson Welles. Mr Welles was an aficionado, up there with Hemmingway with his passion for things Spanish. I had absolutely no interest; rather I felt revulsion for the ghoulish spectacle on the screen. Lyn insisted, as only she could, that I sit down and learn something. She explained the bullfight is a ritual. It’s about our relationship with nature. Our relationship to death. Our relationship to meat.

cover of Death and the sunHer lecture came back to me recently when I found a copy of Death and the Sun; A matador’s season in the heart of Spain by Edward Lewine. It’s a great read. A page-turner. Will the matador die in the bullring, like his father before him?

wild bull free

There’s no doubt about the bulls, of course.

“Bulls suffer and die in the bullring. Either you believe this is justified, or balanced somehow by the supposed beauty, history, and cultural significance of the corrida, or you don’t. Cattle and other animals suffer and die in the food industry. Either you believe this is justified, or balanced somehow by the human desire for nourishment from meat and by the tradition of meat-eating, or you don’t.” pg 188

steers in feedlot

The Spanish don’t have a word for bullfighting, instead they use words such as, “the fiesta de los toros (festival of the bulls) or fiesta brava (wild festival) … What the matador (killer) ” … does with the bull is usually translated in English as “to fight” but the Spanish word for this is torear, which takes the word for bull and makes a verb out of it, “to bull”. The art or craft of bullfighting is called toreo — “bulling”.’ pg 25


bull turns around man

He explains that, ‘A single bullfight involving full-grown bulls is called a corrida de torros” … ‘The act of holding a corrida is indicated by the word celebrar, as in, “Yesterday they celebrated a corrida.’ pg 26. It’s like saying we celebrated mass or morning matins. It’s a ritual. It’s not a fight. The bull has no chance to live. The bull will die. The bull becomes meat. He represents all cattle, all meat. However, he does have a chance to take the matador out with him or at least give him a few weeks off and a decent scar to remember him by. Lewine again:

‘Bullfighting is easy to dismiss as an artefact of humanity’s savage and uncivilized history. But in its bloody way the bullfight is the essence of civilization, if by civilization we mean humanity’s subjugation of the natural world and the development of custom and ritual to replace violence as the governing principle of human interaction. A society that can mount a corrida is an advanced society, one that has tamed nature, met the basic needs of its people (to the extent that entertainment is a priority), and channeled the bloody impulses of its populace into ordered ritual. There is nothing more civilized than a bullfight. It is the sum of humankind’s fears and wordless needs contained in a spectacle of rigid control and elaborate ceremony.’ pg 227

Activist human packed into meat container for PETAThink about it. It’s too easy now to pick up that shrink-wrapped flesh from the meat aisle and sizzle it into some processed sauce and slap it between two calcium enriched buns without giving a second thought to the life given. It’s too easy to ignore empathy as the cows are stripped of their skin and twitch in their chorus-line of death on the way to their disembowelling. No. We must turn the spotlight on our food. We must face up to our responsibility. You must look. You must see.

‘Aficionados say there is a special feeling that comes when a great matador passes a bull low and slow around his body and the bull responds, charging hard at the cape and lending solemnity and danger to the matador’s movements. Hemmingway described it as a lump in the throat. Garcia Lorca called it “man’s finest anger, his finest melancholy and his finest grief.” It is an electric mixture of fear, pleasure in beauty, sadness, anger, horror, joy, tension, the feeling of victory over death, and the viewer’s relief that he or she is safe and not facing the bull.’ pg 32

man subjugates beast

This is far more than a cat playing with a mouse. Lewine describes the matador’s use of a bull as the painter’s use of a brush or a trumpet player’s use of the trumpet. The man makes art with the vanquished beast. The man is an artist, seeking beauty in the subjugation of the other life. The art lies in the domination. The wildcard is the bull. It may toss, gore or kill. But it will die in its turn. Certainly.

the bull dies

Of course it’s cruel. Of course the bull suffers. Right in front of your eyes.




Consider the conspiracy in modern farming. What is locked away behind hedges and walls? How many cows suffer every minute of every day in feedlots? How many pigs are shut up in sheds unable to move for their entire life? How many chickens were kicked to death in the last hour? All far, far away from the public gaze?

pigs in sow stalls

Today in most affluent countries, farming animals for meat is done out of sight. Billions of invisible creatures are bred and fed in close confinement and slaughtered on a conveyor belt. Their lives are lived in darkness, pain and terror. Humans peruse their hermetically sealed plastic packages of flesh without the faintest glimmer of awareness of how that beast lived and died to become a product. Now the agriculture industry seeks laws to protect their secrecy even further, laws known as ‘Ag Gags’ where it will be illegal for activists to visit and photograph factory or experimental farms or indeed any animal abuse. Sign a petition against them here.

Activists protest Ag Gag laws

This is the horror. That humans can have so little regard for life that they slaughter millions, nay, trillions of creatures (created by ?) to slice into pieces because they like the taste when it is no longer even necessary to eat meat. That the meat industry can seek protection to continue to devolve their systems is hideous. Dishonest. Deceitful.

man taunts bull

If you see the bullfight as a ritual then this modern denial of death seems weak. We become insipid and deceptive, hiding, cowering from the facts of life. We watch hideous news every day, rubber-neck at bloody car crashes and see extreme violence surrounded by fumes from chemical-laden popcorn and rumbles of high-performance Dolby. Pretending. Playing.

watching film

That six bulls should die in an afternoon in the full glare of the sun, witnessed by people who are at least emotionally sensitive to their existence, seems just and fair.

Bear witness to your meat.


Or, you know, you do have a choice …