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The Price of Everything

By Warwick Cairns

Here’s a question: “What is a cynic?”

And the answer?

“A man who knows the price of everything…”

Are you with me here?

Is the quote beginning it sound familiar? Care to finish it off?

Yes, yes. Of course.

“A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

So, who wrote that?

Oscar Wilde is always a good one when it comes to quotes. It’s always him or the other one, I find: him or Winston Churchill. Winston Churchill as in

“Sir, you are drunk.” (Bessie Braddock)

“Madam, you are ugly. In the morning I shall be sober.”

Or Winston Churchill as in

“If you were my husband I would give you poison.” (Nancy Astor)

“If I were your husband I would take it.”

But in this instance if you guessed Wilde you’d have been right. It’s from his play Lady Windermere’s Fan. But for multigazillion bonus points, can you say what comes next? No? Well, here’s the next line.

"And a sentimentalist, my dear Darlington, is a man who sees an absurd value in everything, and doesn’t know the market price of any single thing.”

Value and price: that’s my theme for today. Value and price and the relationship between them. And also, for a sort of subsidiary theme, little-known second parts to well-known things. Which have to do, ultimately, with value and price, as we’ll see. Now, to value and price and the relationship between them.

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Here’s another quote for you:

A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!

Yes, you know that one, too. Spoken by the hunchback King Richard III on the battlefield, fighting on foot after his own horse has been killed.

And you know, of course, that it’s not Oscar Wilde, this quote, and not Winston Churchill, and not even Noel Coward (“I like long walks. Especially when they are taken by people who annoy me” - how can we have forgotten him earlier?) but the other King of Quotes, William Shakespeare.

Now you know, and I know, that however horses were back then, they didn’t generally cost an entire kingdom. But with the hunchbacked king on foot in the middle of a fierce hand-to-hand battle, and conspicuous, and vulnerable, the value of a horse had just shot right through the roof, on account of it being the one thing that would save his life. Ditto the value of a breath of air to a drowning man, or a single minute of life to a man - let’s imagine Saddam Hussein, say - standing on a gallows trapdoor as he hears the click of the lever being pulled.

So, we know that there is a relationship between value and price. We know that what we value more, we are prepared to pay more for. And, conversely, when it comes to what we value little, well, you’ll find it hard to get people to part with tuppence for. And we know that values change, and prices change with them. Back in the 17th Century, you could have bought one of the 750 copies of the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays, including the horse quote, for a pound. Allowing for inflation in the intervening centuries, that would be about £100 at today’s prices. Whereas try and buy one today and you’d be hard pushed to get one for less than £2 million.

So price is a reflection of value: things cost, by and large, what people are prepared to pay for them.

But there’s a lesser-known second half to all this - value, in turn, is often a reflection of price. Which is to say, people often think more highly of expensive things, for no other reason than how much they cost.

Now, I can imagine you sort of half-agreeing with this. Thinking of some people to whom this applies rather a lot, but feeling somehow more grounded and genuine yourself, and not swayed by such shallow materialism.

And there are people who do seem to be very conspicuously swayed by high prices. The sort of very wealthy people who have solid gold taps, for example, or Bentleys painted the colour of their favourite nail-varnish. There’s a joke I heard in Moscow about two oligarchs who meet in a bar. One admires the gorgeous silk tie worn by the other.

"Ivan!" he says, "Where did you get that tie? And how much did it cost you."

At which Ivan smiles knowingly.

"A little shop down the road from here," he says, "Very exclusive. Very expensive. They only let a select few into the shop. This cost me 20,000 roubles! Can you believe that, Oleg? Twenty thousand for a tie!"

Oleg looks at him pityingly.

"You fool," he says, "There’s another shop just around the corner. You could have picked up one of those there for 30,000."

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Now, you may sneer and feel yourself superior to the superficial super-rich, but research shows that the same principles apply rather closer to home. Have you ever been to an expensive restaurant and noticed how good the food tastes? Or savoured the complexity of a glass of vintage wine? Well, if you have, there’s a reason you had such a wonderful experience. The price.

In 2001, at the University of Bordeaux, Frederic Brochet carried out a psychological experiment on oenology students studying there. Oenology is the study of wine. The department is just down the university corridor from the boules department and the Gallic shrugging department. Probably. But anyway, these wine students: he gave them two bottles of wine to evaluate. One was a bottle of cheap supermarket plonk. The other was some grand vintage or other from a fancy chateau. Or so they thought. Asked to describe the expensive wine, the students gave lengthy descriptions, using adjectives such as “complex and full-bodied.” Asked to describe the plonk, they talked about it as “weak and flat.” Except. Except that they were describing the exact same wine, with different labels on. Being expensive led the students to believe it must be better and more valuable.

And it’s more than just belief. There’s evidence that knowing wine is expensive actually makes it taste better.  In an experiment at California Tech Institute, bottles of wine ranging from $5 to $90 were compared. Again, it was the same stuff in all the bottles - but this time the tasters were connected to a brain scanner. While tasting the wine, an area in the ‘pleasure zone’ of the prefrontal cortex of the brain would light up every time they drank the wine. But when they thought the wine was expensive, it actually lit up more. Which meant, in essence, that they were actually enjoying the flavour more.

So price affects value as much as value affects price, though we might think otherwise.

All of which leads me to the little-known second part to my story today, which concerns a book I’m writing at the moment and, ultimately, matters of value and price.

A year or so back I wrote an adventure novel, set in the English Civil War. My agent touted it around the London publishers, and got back pretty much the same response, time after time: yes, yes - there’s some nice writing there, but it won’t sell. It’s the period. We’ve tried with some of our own authors, and no-one buys books about that period. It won’t sell to the US, either: they really won’t get it.

So the perceived value, and consequently the price they were prepared to pay for the manuscript, was around zero.

We did speak to one publisher who we thought was going to give us a different response. “Love it!” she said, “Great characters. Great writing.”

Which was good.

"But there’s just one little problem.”

The problem?

"The period. Could you set it in the Elizabethan era?”

My first response was “Well, this Civil War novel: the one with Cavaliers and Roundheads in it, and Oliver Cromwell and Prince Rupert of the Rhein. What part of it, exactly, do you want me to set in the Elizabethan era?”

My second response was “No. Bugger off.”

And my third response, a couple of months later, was “Hmmm. I wonder…”

Which is why I sit here now, some tens of thousands of words into The Master Thief, a new novel set in London in the last years of the reign of Elizabeth I. It’s why I sit piling up page after page of its particular mix of street crime, candle-making, journeys from rags to riches and back again and inept hopeless rebellion, and wondering how, and where, things will end up on the old value-price equation.

Posted on Monday, December 30th 2013, by I Am Dan Eastmond

Tags warwick cairns value price quotes

A Mile In Your Moccasins

By Warwick Cairns

There’s an old Red Indian saying.

I know, I know.

But the ‘American’ part of ‘Native American’ – well, that takes you back to Amerigo Vespucci, doesn’t it? Amerigo Vespucci was the Italian explorer who, along with his chum Christopher Columbus, could be said to have kicked the whole thing off, that whole ‘Europeans conquer the New World’ thing.

Where do you start with this correct terminology thing, and where do you stop?

But as I was saying: there’s an old Red Indian saying.

Or is there?

I mean, there is a saying that I’m thinking of, but whether it’s really old, and whether it really originated where it’s meant to have done, well, that’s a whole other question.

It’s a bit like the ‘Old African Saying’ you hear quoted every now and then.

You know the one: “It takes a village to raise a child.”

Big place, Africa.

No-one seems to be able to be any more precise about it than that.

Anyway, the saying I have in mind on this particular occasion is this:

“Never criticise a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins.”

You can sort of tell it’s meant to be from the Wild West, can’t you?

It has the word ‘moccasins’ in it, see? If it had been from somewhere else -  Ancient Rome, say - it would have had something like ‘gladiator sandals’ in it. It probably would have had miles in it too, being as how the mile is a Roman measure. But I’d have imagined that the Red Indians would have come up with some other measure of distance. Something buffalo-related, perhaps.

I think, sometimes, people like having that sort of provenance to their proverbs. Sort of noble and wise, yet unsullied by the sophistry of progress and still in touch with the earth and the fundamental truths of life.

You can imagine the venerable old chief, sitting there in his fringed buckskins and his feathered war-bonnet, sucking slowly at his pipe as he considers his next words, the medicine-man at his shoulder, doing things with a bag of bones, while all the tribe sit cross-legged before him, waiting rapt.

And then he speaks.

“Never criticise a man,” he says.

And you cannot help but listen.

You cannot help but listen, even as the young braves come cup-handed, bringing smouldering leaves to the pile of wood heaped beneath the timber frame from which you hang suspended by your ankles. Even as the young women gather up their pointed sticks.

You cannot help but listen, even though you don’t even speak their bloody language.

But how wise, you think, nevertheless: how very, very wise.

I suppose where this is all leading to, this walking a mile in another man’s moccasins, is the importance of empathy. The ability to understand – and share – the feelings of another.

I would say that it’s one of the things that makes us human, except that it isn’t, really.

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You can have empathy and not be human.

And you can be human and not have empathy.

Dogs, for example.

One of the few species, they are, who ‘catch’ yawning from seeing people yawn.

And it’s not just a matter of seeing a mouth opening and copying - if the researchers at the University of Tokyo are to be believed. What they found – what they published in their report this past couple of months – is that dogs, humankind’s oldest animal companion, catch yawns from people in a way that shows empathy between the species. Which is to say, they respond more to real yawns than to fake ones, and they respond more to their owner’s yawns than to the yawns of a stranger.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Porto in Portugal have found that dogs’ stress hormone levels rise and fall in direct relation to their owners’.

Empathy, you see.

Non-humans with empathy.

And meanwhile. Meanwhile, back in the human world, you have psychopaths. Now, it used to be thought that psychopaths had no empathy at all, being as how they’re such unfeeling, self-centred bastards and all. They were thought to have no empathy whatever kind of psychopath they might be - whether the mad axe-wielding serial-killer variety or else the more common manipulative, self-serving sociopath kind that many people rightly or wrongly believe their bosses to be.

Rightly, most probably.

According to studies, there are, proportionately, four times more psychopaths in the boardrooms and management suites of big businesses than there are in society as a whole. Psychopaths know how to get ahead in business, you see.

But here’s the thing – it used to be thought that psychopaths had no empathy at all. Now, however, it turns out that they do – but just as an optional extra.

Again, just this past couple of months, at around the time the dog-yawning study went to press, researchers at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, were publishing their report on psychopaths and how they feel. And it’s not quite how we thought they felt.

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According to Christian Keysers, the author of the Dutch report, “The predominant notion had been that they are callous individuals, unable to feel emotions themselves and therefore unable to feel emotions in others. Our work shows it’s not that simple. They don’t lack empathy but they have a switch to turn it on and off. By default, it seems to be off.”

That must be nice for them, the psychopaths.

I mean, if you have no insight into how others feel, then you’d wonder why you’d go to all the trouble of doing something really bonkers – I don’t know, building an underground torture-chamber in your basement and kidnapping people off of the street to do unspeakable things to. Because if you did that, and if you had no sense of the effects of it on your victims, no appreciation of it – well, you’d be bound to question whether it was worth all the effort of doing it. Maybe you’d take up a less demanding hobby instead.

Whereas it turns out that they can feel what others feel, after all.

But only when they want to.

There is a link, I think, between empathy and cruelty.

There was an interview I read a while back with what you might call a ‘champion’ torturer from Cambodia, or somewhere like that. I don’t know if there was an actual championship, or any sort of award for it, but he was one of the best, if there is such a thing – if not the very best. He was much in demand for his skills, and frequently called upon to do the honours whenever a local paramilitary thug needed to be particularly beastly to someone.

What he said was this: he said that he hadn’t always been good at it. He’d actually started out being quite a rubbish torturer. It wasn’t that he didn’t hurt people enough – quite the reverse, in fact. He beat some people senseless, and beat others to death. Blood everywhere. But he was crude, you see. He had no style, no panache. He was a long way from being the respected figure in the torturing community that he later came to be. But then, he said, gradually and with practice, he began to get a feel for his trade. He learned to vary the pace and severity. He learned to watch the signs and cues given out by his victims, rather than bludgeoning blindly ahead. He learned when to offer small mercies like a glass of cold water to drink; and when, suddenly, to snatch those small mercies away – the water flung in the face, the glass smashed and… well, we’ll draw a veil over that.

But what he did was more than just a technical thing. It was an emotional one. He learnt to establish a bond of empathy with his victims, and this made his skill as a torturer all the more terrible. Because of this bond he was able to see inside them and sense exactly what they were feeling; and because of this he was able to devise ever more cruel and subtle refinements.

Writers do the same. In tragedy and in comedy, from Macbeth to Alan Partridge, they allow you insight into a character’s inner world – and at the same time they heap misfortune and embarrassment upon him – deserved or otherwise. And you feel for him, while at the same time relishing the feeling.

The bond of empathy is a knife that cuts two ways.

Which sounds rather like it ought to be some kind of old Red Indian saying.

Posted on Sunday, September 1st 2013, by I Am Dan Eastmond

Tags Warwick Cairns empathy literature yawning psychopaths

Getting Emotional

by Warwick Cairns

ScienistI want to start by telling you a story. It’s a very short and rather odd story, but it’s one that says a lot about quite a lot of things. One of these things is the power of your emotions. Another is the bizarre antics that postgraduate scientists get up to with their research grants, which – when it comes down to it – are paid for by people like you and me. Do you often have meetings with members of the opposite sex on bridges? No? But if you did, do you think you would spend time wondering whether the outcome of your meeting would be different if you’d chosen a different sort of bridge: a pedestrian suspension bridge, say, rather than a steel-box-girder one? No, me neither. But two psychologists, in Canada, in the 1970s, were concerned enough about the issue to set up a scientific experiment on the subject.

What they found was that when a range of young men met a young woman on various bridges in the Vancouver region, the kind of bridge that they met on made a difference to what happened. And the bridge that made the most difference of all was the Capillano Suspension Bridge, a rickety, Indiana-Jones-like structure suspended over a vertiginous 250- foot drop.

In creative writing exercises taken later in the day after meeting on that bridge, consistently more of the men used sexual language and imagery, and consistently more of them called the woman afterwards to ask her for a date. As experiments go, it sounds completely bonkers; but the implications, as it turns out, are actually quite sane, and actually quite important. The Capillano bridge is scary. Being scared makes you emotionally aroused.

Your sympathetic nervous system – which controls the pumping of the heart and the readiness for action of the organs and glands – is on a state of alert. So when these emotionally aroused men met the woman, their brains kicked in, and created a story that helped them ‘make sense’ of how they felt.

And in a significant number of cases, the brain got it ‘wrong’ and told them that they felt like they did because the woman was so attractive. That, in a nutshell, is how the mind works – we feel first, and think afterwards.

However much we like to think of ourselves as intelligent, rational beings, much of what we do when we think is to create stories that post-rationalise (more – or less – accurately) our gut instincts. We like to think we’re rational beings. We like to think we make decisions for sensible reasons. That’s what we tell other people. That’s what we tell ourselves, much of the time, and much of the time we believe it. But we’re wrong: utterly wrong. In evolutionary terms, we had emotion long before we had words or abstract thought.

Although our words and concepts differ by time and place and culture, our emotions are the same the world over.

Charles Darwin was one of the first people in modern times to come up with the idea of universal basic emotions, and universal facial expressions for them. Since that time, study after study has borne him out. All of the evidence points to the fact that there really are fundamental emotions – happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, disgust and fear and the like – and each one of them has an evolutionary function. You feel fear, you run or hide; you feel anger, you fight…

Each emotion we feel relates to our species’ basic animal needs and responses to problems in the environment. More than this, they’re not unique to human beings. In some form or other, these emotional states, and the behaviours that go with them, are universal.

The face you make when you smell or taste something disagreeable is similar to the face your dog pulls under the same circumstances.

Which gets you into all sorts of odd territories, like can an ant feel sad? The answer – as far as many evolutionary biologists are concerned – is yes… probably. But let’s not go there for now.

But if it is true that we were emotional beings before we were ever thinking ones, it’s also true that even today our brains reflect that. The things we see and hear are processed first by the amygdala – the seat of the emotions – before being passed on to the association cortex, where ‘thinking’ happens, and where we create the story that makes sense of what we feel. And when a story becomes established, and gains a hold on the mind, we begin to see things not as they are, raw and unfiltered, but as the story tells us they should be. We pick up on the things that confirm the story we hold, and filter out the ones that contradict it.

Because of the way emotion has evolved, and because of the way the brain is constructed, an idea that connects with us emotionally is far more powerful than one that is ‘intellectually correct’, even (and perhaps especially) for intelligent people. The psychologist C.G. Jung described how, on visiting Germany in the 1930s, he found himself so overcome by the emotional power and spectacle of the Nazi state, that he realised he was, for the duration of his visit, a ‘believer’ – even though he knew, when he sat down to think about it, that it was all nonsense, and dangerous nonsense at that.

And the rise of Nazi Germany – and much of recent history – is really rather instructive in the question of which side tends to win if ever there is a conflict between emotion and reason. In no particular order: Mao’s Cultural Revolution; Princess Diana’s funeral; the threat of SARS, Bird Flu, salmonella in eggs and BSE (‘Mad Cow Disease’); the DotCom share boom; and the endless procession of ‘miracle diets’ that promise to make you slim and attractive without you actually having to eat any less food or do any more exercise.

I’d like to finish with a story – or rather, two stories, both of which come from the bizarre ‘what-on-earth-made-them-study-that?’ world of psychological research, both of which illustrate truths about the nature of emotion, but both of which I’ve included mainly because, of all the things I’ve read on the subject, these just happened to jump out and elicit in me the Darwinian fundamental emotion of surprise.

The first one is this: did your grandmother ever catch you making some particularly horrible grimace and tell you not to do it, because if the wind changes, you’ll stick like it. Well, it turns out she was right. Sort of.

In research carried out in the USA in 1987 a number of old people were photographed with what they imagined were ‘neutral’ expressions on their faces. The pictures were shown to students, who were asked to describe what emotions the photographs were depicting. The students descriptions of these emotions matched perfectly with what personality tests had shown to be the dominant emotion of the people in the photographs. Which is to say, if you spend all your time feeling miserable, or happy, you’ll end up looking like it.

The second one concerns a particular prejudice of mine, which was described by the 19th-century psychologist William James as The Gospel of Relaxation. The gist of it is this: if you are feeling unhappy, there is no point moping around or agonising over it: what you need to do is damn well go out and do something to make yourself feel happier. In England, we have a long tradition of cheering ourselves up through vigorous physical exertion; and – as A.A. Gill pointed out a while back in The Sunday Times – we are particularly fond of exertion that involves danger and/or violence; whether chasing foxes on horseback, engaging in fisticuffs with rival villages or football teams, or on the numerous battlefields with which our past is littered. This sort of exertion, as it turns out, is particularly stimulating to the sympathetic nervous system and very good at lifting one’s mood.

In 2005, researchers at the State Univbersity of  Novosibirsk, in Russia (where – Chekhov and Tolstoy notwithstanding – there is a similarly robust attitude to personal problems) reported a remarkable new treatment for depression and alcoholism. Rather than sit and listen to the patients go on and on about their problems, and how unhappy they are, the research team, led by Dr. Sergei Speransky, simply beat the living daylights out of them. Physically. On a regular basis. And, surprisingly, according to the study, it actually worked, and far better than the conventional alternatives. So where this is all leading to is this. We feel, emotionally, before we think, intellectually; and much of our conscious thought is simply a postrationalisation of the way we feel. And feeling is a physical thing at least as much as it is a mental one, and it shapes our very bodies and features, and it has its roots in the primitive evolutionary history we share with all other creatures. For good or ill, the things that succeed in this world, be they ideas or philosophies or personalities or whatever, are not the ones that are right – they’re the ones that feel right.

Posted on Sunday, April 8th 2012, by I Am Dan Eastmond

Tags culture Warwick Cairns

In Which I Say ‘Coloured’

image for In which I say

Lately I’ve taken to reading the London Gazette.

There’s not a lot in it to like, really. It’s not what you’d call a riveting read. You get a sense of what it’s like from how it describes itself. ‘A modern, efficient way to disseminate and record official, regulatory and legal information’ is what the blurb says. It doesn’t have cartoons in it, or sports pages, either. I can’t say I enjoy it, particularly, or come out of it in any way enriched.

It’s just that I feel I ought to keep an eye out for the announcements, you know? Keep an eye out for them, when they come, so that I can avoid saying something stupid again.

I’ve been caught out once too often, you see.

I did it the other day. I spoke about ‘the British Olympic Team’ to a couple of sports fans and I got this pitying look from them that I didn’t quite understand. And then in the next sentence – and I’m sure this wasn’t a coincidence – the words ‘Team GB’ were mentioned three times. If not four.

It was like I’d said “What are you young folk listening to on the wireless these days? Do you like to jig along to the pop music?” It was like talking to my daughters about going to see a film at ‘the pictures’ – something that occasions much sighing and rolling of the eyes in my home. I don’t know why that is: maybe ‘the pictures’ is just not what people say, these days.

So you see my anxiety.

I’m fifty now, you know. Yes.

And I’ve recently discovered that when there’s an official deed-poll name-change, the London Gazette is where the official notice is published, and has been since 1914. So I’m hoping that the next time, when something else suddenly and inexplicably starts being known as something else, they’ll publish the details there and I’ll know.

I missed the announcement for Mumbai, unfortunately.

One minute there I was, happily wittering away about Bombay and Bollywood. Or at least, in as far as I talk about these things I was, which isn’t much, admittedly. But I must have blinked and missed something, because the next minute it wasn’t called that any more and I was getting these strange looks everytime I mentioned the place, and people pointedly saying ‘Mumbai’ at me. No-one’s actually said ‘Mollywood’ yet, but there’s time, I think.

It doesn’t do to ask why, I’ve discovered. You’re just supposed to know. You’re just supposed to act like you’ve always known and always said it that way.

And anyway, even if you do ask, you won’t get the actual answer. That isn’t how these things work. You’ll get something like ‘Mumbai? We call it that because that’s what they call it where they come from, in India.’ And it won’t do to point out that in India itself, where the people of Mumbai come from, they call their country Bharat; or that the Germans call GermanyDeutschland; or that the Spaniards call Spain Espana. It won’t do to ask to what degree you’re supposed to put on an ‘authentic’ accent when you talk about foreign places, as BBC news reporters sometimes do when talking about Bahrain (Bacchhrrrain). Or whether you ought to stub out an imaginary Gaulois and shrug your shoulders every time you mention Paris (Pahree-err). It won’t do to ask whether the correct course of action might be to go the whole hog and switch your conversation to another language entirely when referring to the kinds of places where other languages are spoken. Or whether the correct form, on discussing the vexed question of Scottish independence, say, might be to pull on one of those tartan hats you can get from the gift shops, with the orange hair attached, and say things like ‘Aye, I ken noo.’ It just won’t do.

Incidentally, ‘Spaniard’ is getting a bit of a ‘feel’ to it, too, as a word, don’t you think? A bit like ‘Scotchman’ or ‘Chinaman,’ if you know what I’m saying.

On which subject: Beijing. Yes indeed.

And my point is?

One thing that did catch me out, though, and quite recently, was an item on the ITV News.

A reporter, a man by the name of Richard Pallot, was talking about racism in football and what a bad thing it was. He was saying dreadful it used to be in the old days, when fans regularly brought bananas along with them to matches, to throw them at the coloured players, whilst making what they imagined to be ‘monkey noises’. And how, thankfully, things had changed since then.

What happened next was that there was a storm of complaints. People were saying how outrageous it was, and how shameful, and they were saying that something should be done about it. People on Twitter were getting very worked up, apparently, and doing things with hashtags and so on. (I don’t know what a hashtag is, exactly, or what exactly you are meant do with one, but I feel that using the term it makes me sound sort of clued-up and happening, in a ‘disco vicar’ sort of way). But the interesting thing was this: what caused the storm was not the disgraceful behaviour of football fans in the 1970s or what have you, but the fact that the reporter, in saying how bad racism was, had used the word ‘coloured’. Twice.

ITV made the profoundest, most abject apologies for this. “ITV News apologises for the inappropriate use of the word ‘coloured’ in a report on racism and football in the News at 1.30,” they said, “We take this error very seriously and we regret any offence caused.’’ And then the programme-makers apologised on Twitter, no doubt using those sort of acronym-phrases that people use on it, like – oh, I don’t know, OMG or ROFL or LOL or whatever. And then they removed the video package from the news website and took the package out of the repeat show on ITV+1, and then they rent their garments asunder and beat their breasts with their fists, and wailed, and poured ashes on their heads and lay face-down on the floor kicking their feet in the dirt and weeping.

The Twitter users weren’t satisfied.

“Just when was it okay to use the word coloured?” one thundered. Or indeed tweeted.

Now, there are a couple of answers to that particular question, as it happens, and one is quite a precise and factual one. It’s just not the answer the Twitterers want to hear. The answer is ‘it’s been okay to use the word coloured since February 12th, 1909’. This was when a group of Civil Rights activists got together in New York City to set up the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which still uses the phrase in its name to this day, and which today has some 300,000 members.

So there’s your answer, persons of tweetness. That’s when.

The other answer is the complete opposite of this, and it is the answer that many twitterers would be far happier to hear. This answer is ‘Never! It has never been acceptable to in any way to use the word ‘coloured’ to describe human beings, and shame on you for even thinking such a thing.’

It is possible to hold both of these things to be true. Without denying the existence of the NAACP, or the history of the acceptable use of the word ‘coloured’ for more than a century, it is possible to will yourself to believe that it is not now, and never has been, acceptable to talk about coloured people on television or in polite conversation. It just takes a bit of mental editing and compartmentalisation. George Orwell summed up how you do it, in his book 1984:

“The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them…To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient…to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary.”

Doublethink, he called it. There seems to be rather a lot of it around these days. It is, apparently, the new black.

Posted on Friday, March 9th 2012, by I Am Dan Eastmond

Tags warwick cairns culture

If Travel Broadens The Mind…

By Warwick Cairns

Post image for If Travel Broadens the Mind&Travel, they say, broadens the mind. Adds perspective. Opens up the outlook and so on. Makes you sophisticated and cosmopolitan. If you’ve been nowhere other than where you’re from, except on holiday; if you’ve lived in no place other than the place you know, what does that make you? What is the word for it?

I mention this for a number of reasons, and for a number of people.

My wife is one.

A man called Adrian Targett is another.

And it turns out that I’m one, too, although I must say that this surprised me.

There was the lady who reeled off a great long list of cities she’d lived in, and countries, and then, holding the stem of her wineglass between her forefinger and thumb she asked my wife where she’d lived in her time.

“Windsor.” She replied

“And before that?”

“Still Windsor.”

The lady took a sip of her wine.

“Well,” she said, “I don’t know whether that’s sweet or sad.”

And all the while she was scanning the room, looking for someone more interesting to talk to.

Back in 1903 a skeleton was excavated from a place called Gough’s Cave, in Cheddar Gorge, in the county of Somerset.

They gave it a name, this skeleton ‘Cheddar Man,’ they called it. Then they packed it up in a box and sent it off to the Natural History Museum. It sat in a store-room on a shelf there for the next 93 years. Then one day an Oxford University professor by the name of Brian Sykes took a sample from one of the skeleton’s teeth, and from another tooth found in the cave, and carbon-dated them and analysed their DNA. The skeleton’s tooth, it turned out, was 9,000 years old; the other tooth 12,000 years old.

He managed to get good DNA samples from both teeth; and armed with the analysis he went half a mile down the road from Gough’s Cave to the nearest village, and asked for volunteers to give DNA samples for comparison. Astonishingly, he found 2 perfect matches and one almost-complete match with just one single mutation. The 2 perfect matches were primary-school children who weren’t named. The almost-perfect match was Adrian Targett, a teacher.

Not only had Targett not moved from the village of his birth: none of his direct lineal ancestors had, either, never having gone anywhere at all or, as far as anyone knows, done anything at all other than be where they were throughout all of recorded history and all prehistory since at least the end of the last ice age. This would have been just after the woolly mammoths departed.

But of course this was in Somerset. You expect things like that there. They’re quite fond of their cousins, too, as I understand it.

But elsewhere it’s different.

Or so you might think.

Me, I’m the author of a travel book. A bit sophisticated, if you know what I mean. A bit cosmopolitan.

So when I sent off a sample of my DNA to Prof. Sykes’s laboratories, you can imagine the sort of result someone like me would get.

Exactly. My ancestors haven’t been anywhere either.

In common with over 64% of all English men; in common with 83% of Welshmen; in common with almost 100% of all men from the far West of Ireland, in common with the vast majority of the Scots, my paternal y-chromosome genes are those of the original pre-Roman, pre-Saxon inhabitants of the British Isles.

My lot came here some time in the Stone Age, in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, and just stayed. We’ve been here ever since.

So to the sophisticated cosmopolitan lady with the wineglass I have just one thing to say: get orf moi land!

Posted on Friday, February 3rd 2012, by I Am Dan Eastmond

Tags warwick cairns culture history travel

An Atheist’s Guide To Lucky Pigs

By Warwick Cairns

Post image for An Atheists Guide to Lucky Pigs

I am reminded of a story about the Nobel-prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr, who was visited at his home in Tisvilde, near Copenhagen, by an American scientist. They had just entered Bohr’s study when the American notice a ‘lucky’ horse-shoe nailed above the door, open-side upwards in the correct and approved manner, so that the luck doesn’t run out.

“But surely,” the scientist said, pointing to the horseshoe, “Surely you of all people cannot believe in such superstitious nonsense.”

“Of course not,” Bohr replied, “What do you take me for? How could you think such a thing of me?”

The scientist began mumbling his apologies.

“Although,” Bohr added, “I am told it works even if you don’t believe in it.”

I was put in mind of this by my daughter, Alice, devout atheist that she is, and member of the British Humanist Association that she is, and admirer of the snaggle-toothed Richard Dawkins that she is, who has just been to her university interviews. She wants to study English.

As an aside, at the time of writing this Alice is reading God is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens. She intends to use it in her long-term and so-far fruitless mission to convert her younger sister to Secular Humanism. Me, I’m more of a fan of the other Hitchens brother – the one who’s a bit like Jeremy Clarkson, but with fewer laughs. But I digress.

Anyway. Alice was called for interview at her first-choice university. They gave her a room in college, and asked her to stay for three days: one day for her official interviews, and two more days sitting in a common-room with the other thirty-four candidates, waiting, in case anyone else, taking a look at their UCAS forms, fancied interviewing one or more of them.

First day, first interview, and Alice is sitting in an ante-room, waiting to go in. By her side is a bag of books, through which she rifles, looking for last-minute nuggets to help her in the trial to come.

And on the table before her, taken out of her pencil case, is Lucky Pig.

Lucky Pig is a small pink figurine, about the size of my thumbnail, made of some sort of ceramic or hard plastic. He has two dots for eyes and two dots for nostrils, and two sticky-up ears, and he brings her luck.

She had Lucky Pig with her in her GCSCs, and in her AS-levels, and in the ELAT test, the English Literature Aptitude Test she had to sit to get an interview.

Quite unexpectedly the door opens and one of the interviewers comes out, before Alice has had a chance to put away her books or to zip Lucky Pig back into his pencil-case.

“Would you like to come through?” the lady says, and then catches sight of what’s on the table.

“You can bring your pig,” she adds.

Alice told me this afterwards, as we sat in a café in the town, talking about how it went.

“So,” I said, “Let me get this straight: the difference between religious people and secular humanists is that religious people believe in God, whereas secular humanists believe in Lucky Pigs?”

She said that it was not as straightforward as that.

I wonder what Lucky Pig makes of it all.

I wonder what he feels about the task of bringing luck to someone who claims not to believe in it.

He does not say.

Perhaps he has no opinion either way.

Or perhaps he does, but is too polite to express it.

He just sits, enigmatically, on the chest of drawers in Alice’s room.

Placed, by some strange and lucky coincidence, on the offer letter that arrived a week later.

Posted on Thursday, January 5th 2012, by I Am Dan Eastmond

Tags warwick cairns atheist luck culture university

In A Perfect World It Would Be Spiders For Lunch

By Warwick Cairns

Post image for In A Perfect World It Would Be Spiders For Lunch

Why being irrational saves us from a life of Bush-Tucker Trials

Why Not Eat Insects?

Not my question, by the way, but the title of a book. It was a book first published in the 1880s by a man by the name of Vincent M Holt, and it’s not been out of print since. In fact, it’s available on Amazon in about ten different editions, priced from a reasonable £1 all the way up to around £18. So there are lots of options there, should you be stuck for a last-minute present for a loved one. A parent, perhaps, or your children, if you have them. The look of joy on their little faces would make it money well-spent, I think.

But why not? Eat insects, I mean.

Apart from the fact that it’s a vile idea. Apart from the fact that the idea of biting into a cockroach and feeling it burst between my teeth would make me retch.

Perhaps you, too.

And yet…

It is said that in the Irish Potato Famine, a million people died, and another million emigrated, and it was all needless, or so I read, in an article by an insect-eating enthusiast.

The potato crop failed, you see, but there were worms in the ground, and this writer was saying that worms are high in protein and could have been cleaned and eaten like spaghetti, or else dried and ground into flour. I know they’re not insects, worms – and nor are spiders, neither – but you get my drift. Bugs, perhaps, you might call them.

And I know in some foreign countries the people can’t get enough of them: deep-fried tarantula, giant ants in chocolate, bamboo skewers of grasshoppers in batter just waiting to be crunched. Fat Wichetty grubs, eaten alive.

But over here we don’t go in for that sort of thing.

But imagine it for a moment.

Imagine for a moment that on your plate, this evening, instead of your usual sausage and mash or whatever you eat, there is a heap of creepy-crawly things, with multiple spindly legs and antennae and eyes on sticks, and fat little bodies covered with jointed exoskeletons.

What would you do next? Rip off the heads and legs and shove the rest in your mouth, savouring the flavour on your tongue as you bite into the bodies? Or gag at the idea?

And here’s the interesting thing – because your reaction depends, to a large extent, on what you call the creatures on your plate.

Call them insects and most Westerners would throw up to have them in their mouth. But take the same sort of creatures and call them prawns or shrimps, and – well, M&S sell them by the lorry load.

And it’s not just the little ones that people eat but great big things, up to and including lobsters. Compared to which the biggest, most shudder-inducing land-dwelling insect – the May-bug, say – is as nothing.

Yet for me – and, I imagine, for you – ‘why not eat insects?’ is still the wrong question, or still the question for which the only sensible answer is ‘Because it’s horrible, you fool, and disgusting. Because the thought of it makes me feel sick.’

There are those who think this a bad thing.

There are those who think we ought, as a rule, to be less driven by our emotions, by urges and taboos; and that we ought to be more rational and logically-consistent. The world, they say, would be a better place, and we would all be better people, if only we were.

There are those who write earnest books with titles like Why Not Eat Insects and those who devise new ways of living in which what we think of as human nature is rewritten. Instead of the messy old compromises and inconsistencies we have now, we’d live better lives according to new principles.

There was a time when the world was going to be made new by the sweeping away of the ancient regime, and that mankind would enter a new age of liberté, égalité and fraternité. There was a time when selfishness and inequality were going to be abolished, and people were all going to work together for the common good, organising themselves into committees called soviets. There are those today who think that applying the right rules will make national character vanish away, and that the inhabitants of Southern Europe, for example, will start thinking and behaving with the same financial prudence as the Germans.

And there was once a very clever man, a professor by the name of B. F. Skinner, who was going to remodel humanity according to science. In 1948 he published a book called Walden Two, a utopian volume which described the wonderful life lived by the inhabitants of the ultimate ‘planned community’, a perfect town of a thousand happy, productive and creative people governed by a handful of properly qualified managers and planners, acting on the impartial advice of a small number of scientists.

It was a place in which people no longer ate meals at home with their families but dined, instead, in communal canteens, not least because the ratio of volume to surface area of a large cooking-pot is more energy-efficient than that of a smaller one. Clothes no longer denoted status, since status, like poverty and violence, no longer existed – although the people did dress attractively in items carefully and strategically chosen to be beyond the fast-changing vagaries of fashion, which is a bad thing because it ‘makes perfectly good clothes worthless’ long before they are worn out. And women in this ideal community most certainly did not fill up their wardrobes with party-dresses, since these things were quite clearly impractical.

The world, Skinner suggested, could be this way, and people could be this way, with just a little effort from all of us and just a little expert guidance from the likes of him. We could all be this way.

For some reason, though, none of these perfect worlds seems to have worked out quite as their architects planned.

For some reason we human beings remain wedded to our urges, our inconsistencies, our foibles and our irrationalities.

For some reason we kick against embracing full rationality.

Why that should be I don’t quite know.

But at least it means we don’t have to eat insects.

Posted on Thursday, December 1st 2011, by I Am Dan Eastmond

Tags warwick cairns culture food tradition

Odin’s Police Force

By Warwick Cairns

Post image for Odins Police Force

Or…

What life might be like today if the Vikings had won?

The problem, I think, is that we are suckers for novelty.

It gives us a frisson of cosmopolitanism to use words like frisson. We are suckers for words like suckers. It gives us an air of imagined sophistication to walk boldly into the local coffee-shop and demand a grande decaf skinny latte to go, if you please, and to look confidently about us as we do so, defying anyone to laugh at us for spouting what we ourselves, at an earlier time, might have thought of as so much gibberish and nonsense.

And this, I think, is behind the way that we have turned out, as a nation. And it has a bearing, I think, on the way we deal with all sorts of things, and on the way we live our lives and organise our world.

It is perhaps a little too soon to call, but one wonders how things might have been if, a little over a thousand years ago, we had resisted the temptations of the missionaries coming over from Ireland or what have you with their Johnny-come-lately foreign religion, and if we had stuck, instead, to the familiarity of what we had at the time.

AS Byatt RagnarokThis month I have mostly been reading AS Byatt’s Ragnarok, her re-telling of the Norse myths that were, before Christianity came along, a living part of the life and culture of our islands.

Things have changed beyond recognition since then – though some things have endured. We had, and still have, Tiw’s Day, Woden’s Day, Thor’s Day, Freya’s Day. We had Yule in the winter with its logs and gifts and decorated trees, and we had Eostre in the spring, with its eggs and bunnies (well, hares). And we still have those today, though in Christianised form. So far so similar.

But what we also had, back then, which we don’t have now, was a way of thinking that encompassed a collection of gods and goddesses whose attitude to humanity was very, very different to that of the Christian and post-Christian world that followed. The Saxon and Viking gods and goddesses did not even pretend to ‘love’ their people: they were so caught up in their own feuds, their own plots and their own affairs that they were positively indifferent to us – except from time to time if we amused them. Even then they could be capricious at best, and at times downright cruel.

Which seemed to make sense to people at the time, and seemed to explain a lot about the way the world was and is.

There was no sense that, on being wronged, one should turn the other cheek, or forbear from action to allow the higher authorities to take the appropriate measures, because the higher authorities really didn’t give a damn.

More than this, the gods positively disliked and discouraged people they saw as milksops and pedants and sent them, on death, to the freezing half-world of Niflheim as pale and ineffectual shadows, there to eat the shadows of food and drink the shadows of drink. A bit like the Liberal Democrat conference would be, I should imagine, if they’d held it in an ice-cave in Antarctica. Meanwhile the ‘top’ heaven, Valhalla, was reserved only for those who died fighting, whence their souls were whisked off by the Valkyries for an eternity of drunkenness, fighting, carnal lust and general bellowing at each other through their beards. Not everyone’s cup of mead, of course, and the novelty would probably wear off even for those whose it was; and yet I suspect that it would be immeasurably preferable to the alternatives.

Viking MosiacNow let us imagine a parallel Britain, today. Let us imagine that the Vikings put paid to Alfred the Great, as they so nearly did in the 9th Century, and that they continued to spread outwards from their camps at Reading and Maidenhead, overpowering the defences at Cookham and taking control of the whole of Alfred’s Wessex. Imagine that as a consequence of this the conversion to Christianity that Alfred helped bring about never happened.

I read, recently, about a man – a man in once-Pagan Maidenhead, as it happens – who had his bicycle stolen. Some days later he saw it chained to a railing outside the local McDonald’s, and he approached a Police Community Support Officer to say that he was planning to go home and get some bolt-cutters to remove the lock, and would they like to come and arrest the thief? ‘Oh no,’ he was told, ‘You can’t do that: you see if you damage the lock, you can be sued.’ Instead, he was told to leave matters to the police, who would monitor the situation using CCTV cameras. Which they then failed to do. What happened was that the thief wandered along, unlocked the bike and rode off on it, and no-one ever saw it again.

Now imagine the situation under an Odinist (or indeed Post-Odinist) Police Force. The area would no doubt have been sealed off, and a ring of officers formed, so that the thief could be called out to take on the owner in single combat. Which might have had unfortunate consequences if the owner had been a bespectacled geek, and the thief a six-foot-four bruiser. Perhaps the regulations would allow the wronged party to select a champion?

Or imagine the case of the home-owner in Manchester who, at the time of writing, was on Police bail on suspicion of murder after stabbing to death one of two burglars who had forced their way into his house. Imagine the court case that would have followed, and the judge looking down his half-moon spectacles at the defendant in the dock.

“You are charged,” he would say, “With the wilful murder of Raymond Stanley Jacob, a burglar on your property. How do you plead?”

“Guilty.”

“Excellent. But you are further charged with not murdering his accomplice, and allowing him to escape with his life despite the most grievous provocation. What kind of a man are you?”

“I know. I’m sorry. It was the heat of the moment and I didn’t realise what I was doing.”

“Well, make sure you don’t do it again. Case dismissed.”

It would be different, is what I’ll say. I can’t say that it would necessarily be better: in many ways it would be quite a lot worse. It would certainly be a crueller world. And yet there is a balance to be struck, in these things.

And I think, sometimes, that the balance has swung too far the other way.

ChipsA few months ago I was at a local park, where a boy of about fourteen was showing off to his friends by throwing chips into the path of passers-by. This irritated me and I told him so. I told him to pick up the chips he had thrown. His response was to throw more in my direction.

“Look,” I said, changing tack a little, “You pick them up or I’ll make you.”

“Oh yeah?” he said, “How’s that, then?”

Well, what did he expect?

I grabbed him by the scruff of the neck with one hand, and twisted his arm up behind his back with the other, forcing his head down so that his nose was a few inches above the ground. Then I led him over, still twisting his arm back, until he was staring at the chips.

“Like this,” I said, “Now pick them up.”

Which he did.

But the interesting thing was how surprised he was, and how resentful both he and his friends were, and how keen they were, after the event, that I should apologise.

Nor did they seem to appreciate my restraint in not flattening the boy.

They seemed to live in a world in which, if you go out of your way to infuriate someone bigger and older than you, there are no painful consequences.

I can’t say that I altogether understand this new way of things.

But then again it’s still fairly new.

Perhaps in another thousand years it will all make sense.

More about Warwick Cairns can be found here

Warwick Cairns’ latest book, In Praise of Savagery, is available now: the true story of a journey into uncharted land inhabited by murderous tribal warriors and ruled over by a bloodthirsty sultan – and the man, the explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who lived to tell the tale.

Posted on Saturday, October 1st 2011, by I Am Dan Eastmond

Tags warwick cairns culture police society vikings ragnarok

Two Thousand And Twelve

By Warwick Cairns

Post image for Two Thousand And Twelve

Did you get all your Olympic tickets, then?

No, me neither.

That Sebastian Coe, eh?

Mind you, I didn’t actually apply for any, and that may have had something to do with it.

For some reason, I have found it hard to work myself into a frenzy about entering into an internet lottery, sight unseen, for the possibility of a ticket that might, if I’m lucky, get me into the quarter-finals of the men’s shot-put. I’m having problems getting enthused about the chance of a ringside view of the ping-pong. Or the opening ceremony. Or the closing ceremony. Or pretty much anything they have on offer, really, up to and including the men’s hundred metres final which lasts, as I understand it, for around nine and a half seconds. Tickets for that will be going for up to £725, apparently. £76.32 a second, that works out at – plus you have to do all the travel and the parking, and the queueing and the waiting. And what if you sneeze, or what if you bend down to tie up your shoelace, and get up to discover you’ve missed the event? Is that value? Is that time well spent? At least with the mile or the marathon you’d get your money’s worth, if watching people running about is what you like. Me, I can take it or leave it. And mostly, given the choice, I’d rather leave it, I think.

There is a reason why you don’t get Premier League discus stars, and why international badminton players don’t tend to get mobbed in the street by children wanting their autographs. There is a reason why you don’t get canoeing hooligans, or weightlifting songs in the charts, or people with the faces of their favourite Modern Pentathlon stars tattooed across their backsides.

That reason is that most of the sports in the Olympics aren’t actually very interesting to most people, most of the time. People running in straight lines. People running in circles. People jumping over sticks. People throwing things. There’s the beach volleyball, I suppose; but then you may as well just have cheerleading in the Olympics, and have done with it. For its skill and athleticism.

You may as well have synchronised swimming.

You may as well have armies of self-important committee members in blazers living large on expenses, demanding to be put up in five-star hotels, for free, and demanding special private VIP lanes on the roads for their chauffeur-driven limousines, so they don’t have to sit in the traffic-jams like everyone else.

You may as well have this weird synchronised name-change thing where everyone suddenly and simultaneously starts referring to the British Olympic Team as ‘Team GB’ like that’s what they’ve always called it.

You may as well have an opening ceremony that becomes an event in its own right, so that instead of a quick blast from a brass band, and the Queen cutting a ribbon and saying that she declares these games open, and then everyone getting on with the running and the jumping – instead of that you have people going around on stilts, shooting fireworks out of their ears, in order to convey some trite message about the children of the world, or something.

2012 puzzles me – as did 2008, and 2004 and just about every Olympic year. Once every four years something seems to happen to all these minor sports, and all these boring sports, and all these sports that most normal human beings don’t normally give a damn about. It’s like they’re Clark Kent, and every few years they go into a phone-box marked ‘Olympics’, and when they come out – well, when they come out they haven’t actually changed into anything different at all. They go in as pole-vaulters and javelin-throwers and when they come out they’re still pole-vaulters and javelin-throwers. But people go mad over them, for some reason.

Perhaps I’m missing something. Perhaps at some point the Olympic Spirit will sweep me up and I’ll be whooping and hollering with the best of them, like Bulgaria’s performance in the Graeco-Roman wresting really matters to me. Who knows?

More about Warwick Cairns can be found here

Warwick Cairns’ latest book, In Praise of Savagery, is published 28th April 2011: the true story of a journey into uncharted land inhabited by murderous tribal warriors and ruled over by a bloodthirsty sultan – and the man, the explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who lived to tell the tale.

Posted on Friday, July 29th 2011, by I Am Dan Eastmond

Tags warwick cairns culture 2012 olympic games london 2012

Alien’s Guide To Alcohol

By Warwick Cairns

What would you say of someone who gets to the age of – what, forty-nine? Yes, forty-nine it is, forty-nine and who has never, not once, ever been drunk? In his life.

Because that’s me, you see.

But I’m trying to put that fact to one side for a moment, and trying to imagine that someone’s just come up to me and they’ve told me about this person, and what do I think of that, then?

So what would I think?

A bit weird? Bit of a train-spotter? Unimaginative? Unnecessarily restrained? Bit of a party-pooper? Probably never married, lives with his elderly mum? Or maybe a religious enthusiast of some kind, in some small but hardcore fringe group like the Plymouth Brethren, or the Peculiar People (who are, or were, a genuine religious group, until they changed their name to the Union of Evangelical Churches in 1956). Or something.

The Free Church Presbyterians of the Highlands and Islands are particularly disapproving of the demon drink, as I understand it, and think it a high road – or low road – to certain damnation.

But the fact of the matter is just that my taste in food and drink seems to have stopped maturing at about the age of twelve. I have a dreadful sweet-tooth, you see, and am a slave to Coca-Cola and Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. For healthier, more sustaining fare I’m rather partial to half a loaf of white bread, hollowed out, with a full bag of chip-shop chips inside. Or I would be if I didn’t have to worry about my weight these days.

But the thing is, I just don’t like the taste of most alcohol, apart from the sort of stuff old ladies drink in thimble-sized glasses at Christmas. And even then I can take it or leave it.

Most of the other lifelong non-drinkers I’ve met seem to have similarly unsophisticated palates, and, like me, a weakness for sugar.

But there have been one or two occasions – not very many at all, but some, nevertheless – where, for one reason or another, I have reached the edge of drunkness.

For someone who visits the place so extraordinarily rarely, it’s a very strange place indeed – or at least, so it seems to me.

So there was this time once, where I was running a day-long session to help cocktail-makers come up with new drinks for the World Cocktail-Making Awards. Don’t ask me how or why – it’s a very long story, and will take us quite off of the point. But at the end of the day we went to a bar, which was opened up just for us, and a huge range of spirits and equipment were laid out for us. One of the participants put together some white rum, some mint leaves, some ice some crushed lime slices, some sparkling water and – here’s the important part – a big dash of sugar syrup. And he gently swirled the mixture and bruised the mint leaves with what I now know to be called a Muddler.

“Here,” he said, offering the drink to me, “This is a Mojito

“Thank you,” I said.

I took a small sip. Then I took a slightly bigger one.

And it actually tasted really rather good.

So I drank it. And then he made me another.

It was about halfway through the second one that I began to notice the effects.

I told my wife about them when I got home.

“It was like I was in a car,” I said, “A nice fast sports-car, with hard suspension that lets you feel every bump in the road, and the roof open and the wind in your face, and accelerating and braking at the touch of your foot – and then all of a sudden it just goes, and everything starts to slip.

The world all goes soft and spongy, is how it seems. You begin to notice a time-lag when you turn the steering-wheel or touch the controls, and you notice that it gets longer and longer. And it begins to feel that the suspension is soaking up the bumps, rather than responding to them – ‘de-tuned’, I think the expression is. And the sounds and the rush of the air around you are muffled, indistinct. And it’s sort of comfortable, but it’s disconnected, and…”

I was about to go on, but I could see expression on her face, and it was as if she was wondering what planet I had spent my life on.

“Yes,” she said, “But that’s the point.”

More about Warwick Cairns can be found here

Warwick Cairns’ latest book, In Praise of Savagery, is published 28th April 2011: the true story of a journey into uncharted land inhabited by murderous tribal warriors and ruled over by a bloodthirsty sultan – and the man, the explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who lived to tell the tale.

And the story of Warwick’s journey, fifty years later, to a mud hut in Africa to visit him at the end of his life.

Posted on Saturday, April 23rd 2011, by I Am Dan Eastmond

Tags warwick cairns culture alcohol in praise of savagery drunk

He Only Does It To Annoy Because He Knows It Teases

By Warwick Cairns

People stared at the make-up on his face
Laughed at his long black hair, his animal grace
The boy in the bright blue jeans jumped up on the stage
And Lady Stardust sang his songs of darkness and disgrace
Lady Stardust, David Bowie

Today I am struggling with gender identity issues.

And with the possibility of being seen to mock the afflicted.

And I am struggling, also, with the difficulty of knowing who the afflicted actually are, any more, and with the very real prospect of seeming to insult them unintentionally, even by describing them as such.

So.

There was a time when, for good or ill, things were all very much simpler. It was largely for ill, I think. But there was a time when one knew exactly who the afflicted were. And by and large, mocking them was what one did. What one was expected to do.

It was called childhood, this time.

I don’t know about your childhood, but pity and the ability to imagine the suffering of others were latecomers to my emotional repertoire, back then. And also, I think, to that of many of my friends.

Mong was our favourite insult, for stupidity, as I recall. That and spazz. We’d do the actions as well, and tuck our arms into the sleeves of our nylon anoraks to shorten them as we ran around moaning, rolling our heads and with our tongues hanging out. The arms, I now realise, weren’t and aren’t strictly features of being a mong or a spazz, but thalidomide and its effects were all the rage back then, and flid, to our minds, was just another way of describing one of ‘them’. The mongs, if you know what I’m saying.

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child, but when I became a man I put away childish things.

But some things I still struggle with.

Take what is known as ‘gender identity’.

Within living memory – within my memory, certainly, and I’m living – if a man let it be known that he believed that deep down he was not a man at all, but that he was in fact a woman; and if he let it be known that he wished, henceforth, no longer to be known as Dennis, but would be Doris instead, and that he intended to turn up for work at the bank in ladies’ clothing and a bra stuffed with tissues, and that in the long term he intended to take hormones and eventually to get surgeons to remove his male accoutrements and fashion for him, to the best of their ability, a semblance of female ones instead; well, you would have thought him… afflicted, let us say. And worthy of pity.

Whereas now that is not necessarily considered so. Small boys, I imagine, think much as they always did. But others think differently.

From this year, under government guidelines announced by the UK Justice Ministry, and drawn up by its ‘gender recognition policy team’, prisoners who’d rather be a different sex from the one they were born into are to be allowed to purchase padded bras and ‘gender-appropriate’ clothes and make-up from a home shopping catalogue. And warders will have to call them “Miss” or “Ms”. It is to become a human right.

Meanwhile, if you apply for a parking-permit in the town of Hove, you now have to answer a question that asks “Is your gender identity the same as the gender you were assigned at birth?” Perhaps babies in Hove actually are ‘assigned’ a ‘gender’ at birth, these days, from a range of available options. Perhaps they’re no longer simply born either male or female like babies everywhere else are, or were. It’s an interesting thought. But not one that has much to do with parking, I should imagine.

Fine, you may say, fine and dandy, and well and good and right and proper. And, snide remarks aside, this sort of sensitivity to difference does make the world a more tolerant place.

But I find that I am tormented by hypotheticals, when it comes to the matter of personal identity.

I imagine a colleague of Doris nee Dennis who also has issues with his self-image. Let’s call him Keith. Like his colleague, Keith feels that deep down he has been living a lie, and that what he really is, inside, is very different from how the world sees him. For a number of years – and unbeknownst even to his wife – Keith has been attending special clubs in the evenings and occasionally at weekends, where he is able to relax with others of like mind, and to act out his ‘real’ identity through costume and role-play. But as time goes by he feels that these snatched moments are no longer enough, and he wants to give up the pretence once and for all and reveal himself to the whole world as he really is.

It is a big step to take. He wants to be absolutely sure that he is doing the right thing. So he decides to seek medical advice first. He sends off for a testing-kit from a laboratory in Oxford, and receives in the post a little bottle and a brush with which he wipes the inside of his mouth. One lunchtime he does the test, packages up the sample and sends it off with two fees of £180 for two separate tests (he wants to be absolutely sure).

A week later he gets the results. One is an analysis of his mitochondrial DNA, inherited from his mother and from her mother before her in an unbroken chain going back for countless thousands of years. The other is an analysis of his Y-chromosome, showing his paternal heritage. And the results of both turn out to be positive – exactly as he thought they would be, and as he always knew they would be.

So after breaking the news to his wife – who is by turns incredulous, stunned and then tearful, he marches into the manager’s office at work and announces that the reason he has turned up at work wearing a stuck-on beard and a silver-grey plastic helmet, and a sort of brown sackcloth tabard thing over his suit, tied with a dressing-gown cord, and the reason for the plastic sword in his briefcase is that he is, in fact, a Viking.

And he has the DNA analysis to prove it.

He wishes the bank to recognise his new identity. He wishes them to start by issuing him with a new name-badge, under his new name, Leif Bloodaxe. And, yes, he does have to talk like Brian Blessed loud-hailing a ship in thick fog. That’s how Vikings spoke, he says.

And meanwhile, and to make matters worse – or to make matters more ‘inclusive’ (let’s be value-neutral here) – a third employee has also come up with a scheme to resolve his identity issues. I won’t go into the details too much, but suffice it to say that they involve changing his name to Fido, having surgeons construct for him a snout and floppy ears, cocking his leg up desks in the office, and doing things to the legs of staff and customers as the mood takes him.

The phrase ‘opening a can of worms’ comes to mind here.

Because for all that may be said about the blinkered certainties of earlier times, at least you knew where you stood with them. Whereas now it is hard to know quite which way to turn.

Back then, whether a man wore a suit and bowler hat and carried a briefcase and rolled umbrella, or whether he wore a cotton frock and headscarf knotted under the chin and carried a purse and handbag, or whether he did both at different times, according to mood and opportunity, a man was considered still a man for all that. As for the idea that a he might, somehow, really be able to become an actual she, to the extent that he (she) should be allowed to have his (her) birth-certificate and official papers altered – it would have been unthinkable, laughable, preposterous. Whereas now it is the done thing to believe, or to profess to believe, that a man really can ‘become’ a woman.

But if he can, then who is to say that he cannot also become something else that he was not born to be? Why does it have to be a woman? Why can he not become a cat, say? Why can he not become a dog, or a Viking, or Napoleon, or a space-alien, or anything else that takes his fancy, if he really believes himself to be so? And with the advances in prosthetics and surgery now available to us, and with the ready availability of fancy-dress hire shops in all of our major towns and cities, what is there to hold him back? Who has the right to say it is not so? Who has the right to deny him?

I am in this hole, and I intend to keep on digging.

What is this unexploded bomb I’ve turned up here? Ah! Civil partnerships. What I want to know about civil partnerships is this: if it is right that a man should be allowed to marry another man; and if it is right that a woman should be allowed to marry another woman, then why should a man who is attracted to both not be able to marry one of each? Or two of each? Or as many as he damn well pleases? It’s not as if multiple spouses are unknown in the world: the prophet Mohammed had eleven wives, and that was 500 years ago. So what is it about this ‘two people only’ rule we have here and now? Is there a good reason for it? Or not?

And while we’re on the subject, why should human-human partnerships be the only kind to be celebrated in society and recognised in law? Is that not a blatantly speciesist thing? Why should a man not be able to marry his dog?  Why should he not be able to marry his goldfish?

Or indeed, why should he not be able to marry himself? If he were to start a ‘gender reassignment’ process and then stop it halfway through, then his male bits could marry his female ones. That might go some way to placating the traditionalists.  And they could always adopt, if they wanted children. Who are we to stand in their way?

So I’m struggling, you see. In all sorts of ways.

More about Warwick Cairns can be found here

Warwick Cairns’ latest book is, In Praise of Savagery: the true story of a journey into uncharted land inhabited by murderous tribal warriors and ruled over by a bloodthirsty sultan – and the man, the explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who lived to tell the tale.

And the story of Warwick’s journey, fifty years later, to a mud hut in Africa to visit him at the end of his life.

Posted on Saturday, March 26th 2011, by I Am Dan Eastmond

Tags warwick cairns culture gender identity same sex partnerships

The Devil’s Party

By Warwick Cairns

Post image for The Devils PartyAre you a virtuous person?

Or are you, secretly or otherwise, of the Devil’s party?

When you hear people talking, approvingly, of things you’re meant to approve of these days – equality, say, or modernity, or human rights or diversity – do you nod approvingly, or does something inside you bristle at the people doing the talking?

To put it another way: are you, broadly speaking, an enthusiastic supporter of the worthy causes de nos jours, or are you childishly resentful, on some level, of the motives and personalities of those involved?

By the way, I’m sorry about this question-asking thing, but I’ve just been reading a book called The Interrogative Mood. It is, in essence, an entire, novel-length book, but composed entirely of seemingly-random questions. It’s turned my head. But I’ll get better in a while.

But while I’m still in a question-asking state of mind, I have another for you, by way of example: if you are of an age to remember Band Aid, do you mostly remember seeing the images of those poor, starving children, and thinking ‘Oh my! How dreadful – we really ought to put our arms around the world this Christmas time and do something about that.’? Or do you mostly remember seeing the images of Bob Geldof, and the one with the funny sideburns that everyone forgets about, and Bono, and thinking, ‘You smug, sanctimonious, holier-than-thou bastards. Is it not enough for you that you’re richer than the rest of us, and more successful? Do you now have to set yourselves up as our moral superiors too?’

In Bernard Cornwell’s book Rebel, set in the American Civil War, the hero, a young man by the name of Nathan Starbuck, is an earnest Yale theology student who is raised in the ways of righteousness by his father. His father is an abolitionist preacher who delivers two-hour sermons on the evils of slavery, and who makes it his business to ensure that young Starbuck doesn’t drink, doesn’t swear, and that he holds all of the correct views on just about everything.

And what does young Starbuck do to show his gratitude? He runs off to join a travelling show, where he steals money, absconds with a loose woman who then abandons him, and ends up in Virginia, where – get this – he joins a bunch of illiterate, snaggle-toothed farmboys and hillbillies in signing up for a Confederate landowner’s private militia. Which then goes on to play a key role in defeating a much larger Federal army at the Battle of Manassas.

At which, also, the Rebel soldiers first came up with their answer to the earnest, pamphleteering moral rectitude of the North: an unearthly, high-pitched wailing howl, which became known, in time, as the Rebel Yell.

Here is a contemporary account of it: “Then arose that do-or-die expression, that maniacal maelstrom of sound; that penetrating, rasping, shrieking, blood-curdling noise that could be heard for miles and whose volume reached the heavens–such an expression as never yet came from the throats of sane men, but from men whom the seething blast of an imaginary hell would not check while the sound lasted.”

There are any number of theories about where it came from, this yell: from the calls of hunting-dogs, from forest noises, from the war-cries of the Comanche or else of the Scottish clans that so many of the Southern army were descended from. But whatever the origin, and whatever the meaning, there was, and is, a powerful emotional resonance in the South’s inarticulate expression of pure animal fury.

You would need to be a cold fish indeed, or an unusually worthy one, not to feel it.

Sometimes unrelieved goodness can get rather cloying. Sometimes you need the destructive power of negative energy, just to shake things up and just to restore balance in the world.

We’ve known this for a very long time, though we often forget it or wish it weren’t so.

In the Bible, in Ecclesiastes 3, King Solomon says:

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill and a time to heal; a time to break down and a time to build up…”

Which is to say, it’s not all eternal worthiness and harp-playing in the Kingdom of God. And though there is, and should be, ‘a time to love’, there is equally, ‘a time to hate’.

In Hindu theology the four-armed Goddess Kali, mistress of time and change, is often shown red-eyed and fang-toothed, wearing a skirt of severed arms and a garland of human heads, accompanied by serpants and a jackal and standing on the body of the god Shiva. In stories she appears on the battlefield, drinking the blood of her enemies, and beyond the margins of ‘polite’ society. And yet she is revered also as a force of great energy, benevolence and creativity.

It’s the whole yin and yang thing, to jump another couple of thousand miles further east: yin and yang is what it is.

Or maybe not. It could be just self-justification for having mental Tourette’s and thinking such unprintable, unsayable things about the moral certainties of our age and the people involved in propagating them.

Maybe other people aren’t like that: maybe other people really are virtuous through and through.

I don’t know: you tell me.

Warwick Cairns, author and Beat columnist

More about Warwick Cairns can be found here

Warwick Cairns latest book is, In Praise of Savagery: the true story of a journey into uncharted land inhabited by murderous tribal warriors and ruled over by a bloodthirsty sultan – and the man, the explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who lived to tell the tale. And the story of Warwick’s journey, fifty years later, to a mud hut in Africa to visit him at the end of his life.

and the official, Friday Project page, on Harper Collins site is here.

Posted on Sunday, February 6th 2011, by I Am Dan Eastmond

Tags Warwick Cairns culture kali bob geldof nathan starbuck

Injury Time Revisited

By Warwick Cairns

Post image for Injury Time RevisitedI think I began my monthly columns for Beat magazine with a piece about my last Injury Time. It was a lightish sort of thing about limping around the kitchen engaging in a bit of banter with my wife and two daughters after falling off of a skateboard, at the age of forty-seven.

I don’t think I fully explained. I’d like to now.

If you’re of a squeamish disposition, you might want to skip the next paragraph.

I won’t go into the technicalities of what I was doing on the skateboard to fall off it, except to say that as the result of my foot ‘catching’ on the surface of a wooden ramp at a critical moment, the thing I was doing went wrong, and I ended up on the floor pretty quickly and with some considerable force and momentum, with my legs rather farther apart than I would have liked them to be. I am not a naturally flexible person, but I was surprised at just how far apart my legs ended up: so far, in fact, that I could not see how I had not dislocated my hips. I hadn’t, though: something else had happened instead.

What had happened was that the bones of my pelvis had twisted, and in particular the curved structure at the front known as the pubic bone or pubic arch had pulled apart and ‘opened up’ in a way that, in the normal course of things, only happens to women in childbirth.

As well as that, the surrounding muscles and ligaments had torn and a number of the blood-vessels in them had burst in the process, and the internal bleeding that resulted had caused a large, protruding, blood-filled swelling to appear in my abdomen. Doctors call this a haematoma. I couldn’t move my legs: they had to carry me into a car and then they had to lift me into a wheelchair to get me to the hospital, and the pain of it was extraordinary.

In hospital I was injected with morphine, put on a drip, and put into a body-scanner. At some point my blood-pressure dropped through the floor, and I felt faint. I came to in a room surrounded by beeping machines and doctors in surgical masks.

And yet I distinctly remember laying there wondering whether it might be a matter of months before I would be able to get back onto my board and do the exact same tricks all over again, or whether I might, instead, be able to manage it in a matter of weeks.

As you sow in this life, so shall you reap.

I read once, in the newspaper, of a man – or perhaps it was a woman: I don’t remember which now – who won $2 million on a slot-machine in Las Vegas, and then put it all back again and lost the lot. My first reaction was to think “You stupid, stupid fool! What were you thinking of?” and to think how, in similar circumstances, I would have scooped up my 8 million quarters from the heap pumping out of the machine and stuffed them all into my pockets, and untucked the hem of my shirt to act as a sort of makeshift bag, and then clanked and waddled and dragged my way out of that room as quickly as my legs could carry me, never to return again.

But the fact is, I never would have won the $2 million in the first place, even if I’d been there; and neither, probably, would you. Because to get to the point of winning $2 million in a slot machine you are required, first, to gamble progressively larger lesser sums, and to take the kind of foolhardy risks that only someone of a very particular frame of mind would ever seriously contemplate. You win $10, and gamble it all to win $50: maybe you could do that.

So you gamble your $50 to win $500: yes, perhaps. But by the time you get to $10,000, or $50,000, or $100,000: well, who’s going to risk losing that once they’ve won it? Not me, I’m sure.

But if you are that way inclined, and if you are inclined to risk large sums of money against all the odds on the off-chance of winning still more, then who is to say that putting your $2 million back in the slot is any madder than putting back your earlier winnings of $1/2 million or whatever it took to get you there?

I don’t really ‘get’ gambling, I’m afraid; but when it comes to foolish risks, I am not really one to preach.

Certain fields of human endeavour attract people who, in one aspect of their personality or another, tend to believe, often in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that things will turn out alright. Or if things don’t turn out alright, that they will be able to deal with the consequences without too much fuss.

Optimism, you might call it. Or positivity; though both of these descriptions make it sound like a good thing, which isn’t always the case. Sometimes it’s the complete opposite of the case. Just ask Scott of the Antarctic where unbounded enthusiasm and disregard for consequences can get you.

This is why the pessimists and worriers and hypochondriacs of this world do talk a lot of sense, sometimes. It’s why they exist and why evolution has ensured that there’s so many of them still around. Because despite all their timidity and their moaning and whinging and their incessant fussing and their hand-washing and their precautionary measures, and despite their insistence on following the correct procedures all the time, and their risk-assessments and their CRB checks, they very rarely get themselves into the sort of position where they wake up, as I did, a week after being discharged from hospital, lying in a pool of blood as the haematoma from their skateboarding injury eventually found its way out.

There needs to be a self-help book of some kind for optimists, I think, or perhaps a self-unhelp book, you might call it, to teach them the Power of Negative Thinking and the can’t-do attitude to risk that will help them stay out of trouble, out of hospital, out of the bankruptcy courts and, at the extreme end, out of the morgue.

I even considered setting out a couple of the kinds of lessons that the book might contain. However, I found myself distracted by the thought of two really good things that came about as a direct result of my trip to the hospital, which I’ve absolutely got to tell you about right now.

One was a new book: I’ve just completed the third draft of a novel, set in the run-up to the English Civil War, about a young man fallen on hard times who takes up with an ex-jockey-turned horse-trainer, providing horses for the various militias gearing up for the coming conflict. Then he gets involved with a scheme to transport several wagons of gold and silver from Oxford to Worcester; and just when it all seems to be going swimmingly well, he falls off his horse. And lands badly, with his legs apart.

As a result of which… well, yes. Watch this space. It’s called The Fall, by the way.

The other was an email from a man by the name of Tony Hawk, who is, depending on your point of view, someone you’ve never heard of, or a character from one of your children’s video-games, or else a – the – skateboarding legend. Who, at the same time that my book In Praise of Savagery came out in ebook form, also had an ebook out; and who was, by strange coincidence, recovering from a fall involving a damaged pelvis and a haematoma. I won’t go into the technical skate talk in the email here: it may be enough, merely, to share the gnomic wisdom of his two-word sign-off.

“Keep ripping” it said, “Tony.”

“Keep what?” was my wife’s response; “What on earth is that all about?”

Me, I just smiled. How true that is, I thought: how very true.

Warwick Cairns, author and Beat columnist

More about Warwick Cairns can be found here

Warwick Cairns latest book is, In Praise of Savagery: the true story of a journey into uncharted land inhabited by murderous tribal warriors and ruled over by a bloodthirsty sultan – and the man, the explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who lived to tell the tale. And the story of Warwick’s journey, fifty years later, to a mud hut in Africa to visit him at the end of his life.

and the official, Friday Project page, on Harper Collins site is here.

Posted on Friday, December 31st 2010, by I Am Dan Eastmond

Tags warwick cairns culture ebook kindle

Murder. and Admin

By Warwick Cairns

I have a story to tell you.

It is a story of betrayal and murder, and also of unexpected kindness and even more unexpected redemption.

But if you’ll bear with me for – what, thirty seconds? I have an announcement to make, first.

A bit of admin to get out of the way, as it were.

Look: my book: the one I’ve been banging on about these past few months, goes by the name of In Praise of Savagery? That one. Well, it’s out now.

Sort of.

I say ‘sort of,’ because… those e-book thingies: Kindles, Sony Readers. Also computers, like people have at home. Well, it’s out now for those, although the actual paper book is still six months away.

But here’s the thing: for the month of November 2010 the ebook of In Praise of Savagery is absolutely free from the iTunes and Kindle stores. In the sense of costing nothing at all – so long as you get your order in before the end of the month.

There: that didn’t take too long, did it?

Now. My story.

In February 1692, a party of a hundred and twenty soldiers of the first and second companies of the Earl of Argyll’s Regiment of Foot marched out from Fort William on the shores of Loch Linnhe, through the bleak winter landscape, under the command of Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon. Snow on the mountainsides, and an icy wind blowing.

They crossed the water by boat at Ballachulish and then headed along the shores of Loch Leven for some sixteen miles, until they saw thin streams of smoke from spiralling upwards in the bleak winter sky from the stone-hut villages of the MacDonalds of Glencoe, which lay by the shore of the river Coe, beneath the mountainous ridge of Aonach Eagach, to the North, and, to the South, the twin peaks of Buachaille Etive Mor and Buachaille Etive Beag, the great and little shepherds of Etive.

They made their way to the house of the chief of that clan, whose name was MacIain, and there they were met by his sons, who came out to greet them.

The eldest son spoke out.

“Greetings, Robert Campbell” he said, holding up his hand towards them, “Do you come in war or in peace?”

“In peace,” said Campbell, “From Fort William.”

“What brings you here to our village?”

“Building-work,” said Campbell, “And the movement of men at the Fort.”

MacIain’s son inclined his head for Campbell to continue

“There have been new units admitted,” he said, “And the old barracks are full. The new barracks are not yet ready, and we have been sent to quarter in Glencoe with your people.”

“You are welcome here,” said MacIain’s son, though there was no love lost between the men. But Campbell had requested hospitality, and it was the custom in those parts that such requests could not be refused.

There had been much blood shed between the Campbells of Glenlyon and the MacDonalds of Glencoe over the years. Mostly it had been over questions of cattle theft and ownership of land and grazing rights. Not four years before, a party of Glencoe MacDonalds, together with their Glengarry cousins, had raided Robert Campbell’s lands and stolen his livestock, putting him into debt and necessitating, incidentally, his decision to join the army for the wage it offered; but at this time they found themselves on opposite sides of something much bigger – something that was, in all respects, a civil war over the throne of Scotland.

With the ascendancy of William of Orange, all the Highland chiefs were required to swear an oath of loyalty to the Crown; and it had been judged that MacIain had been unduly slow and reluctant in doing so, and his loyalty was considered suspect, if not downright false.

With this in mind, Captain Campbell was dispatched to Glencoe with a very particular and most secret set of orders.

The MacDonalds welcomed Campbell’s men into their homes as guests; and though Campbell himself was what he was, and who he was, and of the clan from which he came, he was also related to the MacDonald chief through marriage; and so he was given a bed in one of MacIain’s own houses.

The soldiers were fed, housed and entertained for some two weeks, until the night of the 12th. That night, Campbell spent the evening playing cards with his hosts, before wishing them goodnight and accepting an invitation to dine with them the following night.

But later, in the early hours of the following morning, a single shot rang out. It was a signal for which the soldiers had been waiting, dressed and armed; and upon the sound of it they turned upon their hosts, dragging them from their beds and slaughtering them in front of their homes.

In all, thirty-eight MacDonalds were killed by the soldiers. Another forty, mostly women and children, died of exposure in the snow after fleeing from their burning houses.

The number of deaths would have been higher still, were it not that the idea of killing one’s host – of murder under trust – was considered deeply shameful in Highland culture. No matter how much you might happen to loathe a man, and no matter that, if you were to come across him in other circumstances, you would happily slit his throat as soon as look at him, it was just not the done thing to kill him while a guest under his roof.

For this reason, not all of the soldiers were wholly enthusiastic about their task, nor were they wholly diligent in carrying it out.

Some found ways of warning their hosts beforehand, saying things like “If I were a sheep, I think I would head up to the hills tonight,” whilst giving their hosts the kind of meaningful looks that either persuaded them that they had lost their marbles altogether, or else that they had some urgent message of the utmost importance to impart. Two lieutenants, Francis Farquhar and Gilbert Kennedy, went so far as to break their swords rather than carry out their orders, and for this were subsequently imprisoned for their disobedience – though they were pardoned at a later date.

The ruins of MacIain’s house can still be seen to this day, in a wood not far from the present-day village of Glencoe, overgrown with heather and bracken.

More than three hundred years later, people in those parts still sing of the massacre in ballads:

Some died in their beds at the hand o’ the foe

Some fled in the night and were lost in the snow

Some lived tae accuse him wha’ struck the first blow

But gone was the house of MacDonald

And there is a story, also, of a soldier in Campbell’s regiment who was sent down to search beneath the bridge of the River Coe, where it was believed that a number of the MacDonalds might be hiding. Sure enough, he found a small group of women and children huddled down there; but rather than kill them all, he drew his sword and, taking hold of the arm of one among them, a young boy, he cut off the boy’s finger, smearing the blood along the length of his blade, before returning to his unit to report his ‘success’.

It is also told how many years later, as an old man, this same soldier passed through Glencoe once more on his way to conduct some business in Fort William. It was late and he was tired, and he stopped at the new inn in the rebuilt village, which is, as I say, a little way down from where the old one stood; and there he fell to drinking, and to thinking about had gone before and what he had taken part in; and feeling burdened by the shame and guilt of it, he told his story to the innkeeper. Now, this man listened carefully, all the way through, and when at last the old soldier reached the end of his story he said nothing. Instead, he simply held up his hand, to reveal his missing finger.

I do not know if this is true or not; but that is the story as I heard it.

Oh, and I meant to say, this is from In Praise of Savagery as well. Which, given that it’s a book about travels in Africa, may seem a little surprising. But there’s a reason for it, you see. And that reason is… well, you’ll have to download the book to find out.

Here is an advance sample chapter, in proof form, for you to get a taste of it:

Warwick Cairns is an author, he lives in Windsor, Berkshire.

Beat has followed Warwick Cairns through these collumns on his journey to publication of his new book “In Praise of Savagery”: the true story of a journey into uncharted land inhabited by murderous tribal warriors and ruled over by a bloodthirsty sultan – and the man, the explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who lived to tell the tale. And the story of Warwick’s journey, fifty years later, to a mud hut in Africa to visit him at the end of his life.

More about Warwick Cairns can be found here

and the official, Friday Project page, on Harper Collins site is here.

Posted on Saturday, October 30th 2010, by I Am Dan Eastmond

Tags warwick cairns culture ibook books