“If you have the hunter sticker you have to live with the social outcast label.”

Back in 1999 when a freelance travel writer could still get a commission, I wrote a piece on hunting in Namibia which was published in CNN Traveller. I interviewed two major players in the Namibian hunting fraterntiy and one, the now-dead Jan Oelofse, invited me to his farm, Mt Etjo, to see for myself what happens in a hunt and to meet some of his hunters.

Jan Oelofse remains one of the most unpleasant people I have ever encountered, but his views on hunting and hunters were jaw-dropping.  For him, hunting and conservation were intertwined – a viewpoint extremely common amongst hunters.  He admitted to me that he ran canned hunting, illegal then and now.  In a canned hunt, someone – usually someone American – pays a great deal of money ($25,000 then, probably around $35,000 now) to shoot an animal – generally a lion  – in a small enclosure. When I asked if if he regretted anything he’d done, he answered:

“I’ve done a lot of things I didn’t like to do. The first impala I shot on this farm wasn’t necessary for me to shoot, but it was financially necessary. If a guy takes you out and every night wines and dines you and doesn’t take you to bed, he’s not going to take you out any more. It’s the same in life. If people are prepared to pay in kind, in money, you cater for it. Hunters have sponsored this place.”

Cecil the lion has rightly made headlines across the world.  The American dentist who shot him with a bow and arrow on an illegal hunt in Zimbabwe and then left him to in agony for 40 hours before he was killed, skinned and beheaded has discovered how it feels to be hunted.  I have no sympathy whatsoever.  I have no sympathy with hunters who would rather shoot with a gun or a bow than a camera.  I despise their attempts to justify and their pride in ‘the hunt’.  In my view, hunting is indefensible, whether it’s foxes, deer or the animals of Africa.

I am currently working on a travel book/memoir/thing.  One of the chapters is about my time with the hunters.  Rudi and Annette (not their real names) were Oelofse’s professional hunters. Michael was the American hunter client. They tried to persuade me to go out with them, but I couldn’t.  Perhaps I should have done, all in the name of the story, but nothing I would have seen happen would have changed my views.  Despite all that, I liked them, a fact that still disturbs me, although nothing in Namibia is ever black and white.  Here’s an extract:
“OK,” I say, taking another slug of wine to bolster my confidence. “You love watching game, you love animals. So why go that extra step? After tracking something for days – why do you need to kill it? Isn’t the hunt enough?” I feel like I’m in an undercover documentary made by Merchant Ivory.
Rudi, shamelessly conforming to stereotype, declares: “It’s the challenge,” and Michael, hilariously, shrieks: “Oh noooo!” Annette and I both laugh but Rudi is clearly irritated. “It’s so personal – like hallowed ground. It can be murder or a great experience. If you are not in the circle, hunting is a machismo, big horn on the wall thing and it annoys me when I get dismissed like that.”
It’s still not nearly good enough for me. “But why kill it?” I persist.
“We want to utilise it. We utilise to conserve…”
But now I’m irritated. “No, I don’t want the conservation shit. Tell me what you really think, because if you can’t even say the word ‘kill’…” I wish I’d been this brave with Helga and Henk. These guys and girls may have the guns, but they scare me a lot less than the Swakop racists.
Rudi finally tells it like it is for him. “Because I have outclassed the animal. He’s made too many mistakes. Actually, I don’t even like hunting with a rifle anymore, it’s not enough of a challenge. I use a bow – and before you ask, it’s legal here now. The bow hunter is not going to utilise as many animals as a rifle hunter.”
“Why don’t you say kill?” Astonishingly, it is Michael who asks.

“Well,” says Rudi, shifting in his seat, “It just sounds a little bit better – some people don’t like that word.” Oh, you think? But then he wrong-foots me again. “A lot of times I prefer it when the animal gets away. We beat him, we could have killed him. I feel super about it. If I just want to kill, I could shoot 2-300 animals a day. It’s not the kill – and that’s why I don’t like to use the word. Killing is the final full stop. When you get to the final stage of the hunt… I’m so psyched up, I can hear my heart beating.”
Michael agrees. “There’s nothing like it. But how can we explain that to someone like you? How we can respect it and kill it? In the simplest terms, it makes no sense whatsoever. I’m hunting kudu tomorrow and you should come, you know that. “
“But it won’t make me understand, because I could never kill something,” I point out.
“True,” he says, “but you’ll maybe understand why we do it from beginning to end. You’d have a better input. To people that don’t do it – and yes, I mean people like you – it’s a stigma, you’re just a macho asshole trying to prove something and it’s so far from the truth that I want to scream. I hate being dismissed as the Great White Hunter, what the fuck is that about? Guys back home do their bowling and their tennis, so maybe there is a macho thing going on. They switch the subject too quick. They want to push me down the drain, because I’m doing what they don’t dare to.”
“Come on then,” I ask as we drain the third bottle. “Sum it up for me in one sentence.”
“For the sport and the challenge,” Annette and Rudi say simultaneously.

Michael rolls his eyes, intensely self-aware. “I’ve spent fifteen years not getting it straight in my own mind. Maybe I’ve never been cornered before.”


Clever girl (or why I love the Jurassic Park franchise). Contains spoilers

17th July, 1993.  My father had died suddenly of a heart attack just over a month before.  I am on tour with the Sound of Music, currently resident for three months in Bournemouth.  My friend and I are co-producing a charity gala for a Bournemouth HIV/AIDS hospice starring pretty much everyone performing in Bournemouth over the summer.  I am stressed, shocked, numb, driven.  And Jurassic Park has just opened in the UK.

The SoM company had booked a cinema for a midnight matinee – our own private viewing, post-show excitement, some of us with sweets, more with alcohol.  I sat next to Christopher Cazenove, a lovely, kind, talented man who died a few years ago, also too young.  We were all excited, even me in my head-fucked state.  We had no idea what to expect except that there were dinosaurs, Richard Attenborough and Sam Neill.

When Alan Grant, played by Sam Neill, dropped to his knees in front of a parade of dinosaurs, Christopher and I unconsciously and simultaneously reached for one another’s hands, both of us crying with joy and wonder.  It’s a memory as fresh now as it was then, and I have watched Jurassic Park rather more in these ensuing twenty years than might seem reasonable.  I can quote you most of the lines, in order.  I am entirely smitten with velociraptors.  It’s one of my favourite films ever.

Jurassics 2 and 3 – well, not so much.  I switch off 2 once they leave the island (having made sure I get my velociraptor fix first) because it’s just silly.  3 is better because Sam Neill and Laura Dern are back, William H Macy is in it and the velociraptors get a load of airtime.  But still.  A bit meh, as they say.

Fourteen years on, Jurassic World has broken box office records around the globe. Yeah I know, they say that every time, but it’s just beaten Avengers: Age of Ultron, a film I have no intention of seeing.  The thing is, I’m not a massive fan of a franchise.  Yes, Star Wars the originals, Indiana Joneses up to a point, Lord of the Rings for sure and The Hobbit because who wouldn’t want to see Aidan Turner as an unfeasibly beautiful dwarf?  But your Avengers and your Marvel this and Mission Impossible that… couldn’t give a toss.

So what is it about the Jurassic Park franchise?  I couldn’t wait to see Jurassic World, but was a little nervous having viewed the ridiculous trailer of Chris Pratt leading a pack of velociraptors on a motorbike.  I mean, seriously?  The signs weren’t auspicious.

But within five minutes, I was lost, overwhelmed with joy, adrenaline and a kind of grief.  I cried a lot.  The first time was when that incredible John Williams theme kicked in.  Then when the little kid, Gray, gets his first glimpse of the island.  Then when we see the original Jurassic Park gates, looking oddly small.  Then when I see the velociraptors.  Then… then… then…

I’ve read a lot of blog posts and reviews where the writers say things like: “Cardboard characters,” “where’s the feminist perspective?”, “what’s the BAME index?” “why does the impending divorce of the kids’ parents never get mentioned again?” Normally, I would also be engaged with these questions, but with the Jurassics, I simply don’t give a shit.  I’m not there to watch the people, I’m there to watch the dinosaurs.  I’m there to weep when the brontosaurus dies in Chris Pratt’s arms.  I’m there to cheer when Blue the velociraptor rips Hoskins to pieces.

If you’ve ever been on a safari, you know what an indescribable privilege it is to see animals in the wild, doing what they do.  I am reminded of that feeling as I am immersed in Jurassic World.

So why is that?  It seems to me that JW is made by fans, for fans.  It ticks every box from the original film to every film Steven Spielberg has ever made.  The dying brontosaurus is ET.  The English babysitter getting eaten by the Mosasaurus references Jaws.  Spielberg is the absolute master of the emotional hit.  There is no irony in a Spielberg film, no post-modern knowing winks.  Watching a Spielberg film and allowing yourself to be taken by it is to become a child again.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET, are the films that most resemble Jurassic Park. They are not manipulative, unless you have no soul.  They go straight for the heart, they are about deepest dreams and wishes, they are about love.

Jurassic World remains true to the Spielberg ethos of ‘never kill off the core family’.  Core families are a vital element, and generally don’t mean blood families.  There’s a lot of divorce in Spielberg films, there are parents who are not present, and adults who become surrogate parents (Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler in JP, for example).  There are always children, and the children never die.  Oh except for that kid at the start of Jaws, but we hadn’t got to know him and it was Spielberg’s first major film.

Jurassic World is also about man’s – or humanity’s – relationship with the natural world.  Yes, it’s layered on with a trowel, but that doesn’t make it less valid.  The dinosaurs are ‘assets’, the Mosasaurus feeding time with laughing spectators – well, have you seen the backlash against Seaworld and keeping whales in captivity just for our viewing pleasure?  It’s about hubris and arrogance – the arrogance of the military, the arrogance of science.  It’s about creating a hybrid dinosaur with the ridiculous name of Indominus Rex (part-cuttlefish, part-tree frog, part-raptor, part-oh who knows, they won’t tell us) because the public want something ‘cooler, with more teeth’.

It’s about Chris Pratt taming velociraptors, a concept so bonkers it actually convinces.  But then, he imprints on them when they are born, so it does make a kind of sense.  I only hope Blue, the one remaining raptor, pals up with the T-Rex after they save the park, because she’s going to be awfully lonely without her siblings.

Oh, and about the lead woman – Bryce Dallas Howard’s character, Claire, manages to run in insanely high heels.  She runs really fast.  She doesn’t take them off as you might expect just because Chris Pratt has told her too.  No, Chris.  Fuck you.  I can run in my heels and do it while holding a flare to bring the T Rex out of the paddock to save everyone.  She’s not Ellie Sattler, with her classic: “Dinosaurs eat man.  Woman inherits the earth.” – but Jurassic World, for all its fabulous, adrenaline-rushed glory, is not Jurassic Park.  Jurassic Park had a tiny cast, and a truly original storyline.  It had a great script and genuinely terrifying moments and nobody had ever seen anything like it.  And of course  it had the wondrous Bob Peck and “Clever girl.” Jurassics, you are the business and I love you.  Now and forever. 20150619_16364220150619_163337