“A llama is a funny kind of fleecy hairy goat, with an indolent expression and an undulating throat. Like an unsuccessful literary man.
And I know the place he lives in (or at least- I think I do)
It is Ecuador, Brazil or Chile- possibly Peru;
You must find it in the Atlas if you can.
The Llama of the Pampasses you never should confound
(In spite of a deceptive similarity of sound)
With the Llama who is Lord of Turkestan.
For the former is a beautiful and valuable beast,
But the latter is not lovable nor useful in the least;
And the Ruminant is preferable surely to the Priest
Who battens on the woful superstitions of the East,
The Mongol of the Monastery of Shan.”
That’s the undeniably Victorian doggerel of Hilaire Belloc on llamas. It starts as a lovely silly poem about llamas and ends up saying EVERY EASTERN RELIGION IS ATROCIOUS. Which kicks me right in the Buddhism. I learnt it, along with whichever other poems I could get my hands on, as a kid. Llamas have been in my thoughts a great deal today so I thought I’d share it.
The few encounters I’ve had with camelids in the wild have been perfunctory. An alpaca tried to eat the buttons on my shirt in Peru. It didn’t even have enough understanding of cliché to spit water in my face, which would have made a better story. A few kids tried to charge me for a photograph of another one in Cuzco. They made me delete it from my phone when i refused to pay. Outside of those unsatisfying encounters, it’s really just been tame llamas on farms. And sharks? I’ve not seen one in the wild at all despite having dived a bit. Is that unlucky or lucky? There were a few dogfish on a night dive in Thailand, but only little ones. I met a banded sea krait, but that’s about as dangerous as I’ve seen in the water. Ok it could’ve killed me in seconds, but they’re docile.
Llamas and sharks. Sharks and llamas. A strange pairing. But the two are connected. “How?” I hear you all cry. “How can they possibly be connected? What witchcraft is this?”
Six months ago, off the coast of Polynesia, the first specimen of llamashark was brought ashore. Hairy and aggressive, the llamashark blinds seals by spitting in their eyes with acidic saliva, before gradually chewing them to death.
No it’s a little more complicated than that. Stand by, here comes science. It was recently discovered that camelids and some sharks have antibodies that are very unusual. They are smaller than other antibodies and able to survive in higher temperatures and pH than ours. This opens up possibilities when it comes to the treatment of diseases. For instance they can survive and work in the human stomach. I’ve only got a handle on the basics at the moment. But bear with me, there’s time yet. I’ve been hanging with a bunch of epidemiologists. Scientists specialising in disease epidemics. We’re examining the ethics of new forms of self diagnosis and containment using lateral flow tests at home and harnessing big data. But we’re trying to make it a fun way of asking what you would do if you thought you had an infectious disease. Which might sound like a big ask, but it’ll work out.
Last summer at Green Man Festival we ran a sciency story gamey info thing about a disease that turns people into llamas. Here’s me in the sunshine wearing loads of wool.
It came through Fanshen, who have done some brilliantly random fun madnesses over the years, and who I love dearly. It was fun and went down well so we’re doing it again slightly differently in London. It’ll be two days only as part of a four day beer and music festival in Kings Cross. I get a free pass and a plus one and some dosh. It looks to be the beginning of another ridiculously fun summer.
Today seven people sat around a table having earnest and heated discussions about whether llama ears needed to be made out of socks or cardboard, about the merits of different types of face paint, about effective sleight of hand techniques with lateral flow test models. These and more of the usual ridiculous sincere early development questions, made all the more strange by the hotch potch of artists and scientists in the room. I’m the right man for the job though. My brother’s a scientist so I’m an expert at working out how to make what they say comprehensible and transferrable.
So there we go. Llamas and sharks. Another random day in the life. What will tomorrow bring? Will I turn into a llama? Stay tuned for the 100th episode of “Al stumbles through existence with a big smile on his face.”