Essays: In the land of Timbuctoo |
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In the land of Timbuctoo

IN a moment, the Referendum. But first, The Tribal Eye (BBC2) — David Attenborough’s new maxi anthropology series, which at a casual glance might seem irrelevant to the burning topic of Britain’s membership of the Common Market, but in the manner of Perry Mason I intend to link it up later. Stand by for some ethnic music.

Zmm zmm zmm. THE TRIBAL EYE. Yoing yoing. CHAPTER ONE: BEHIND THE MASK. In the first part of what promises to be an opulent, world-ranging round-up of primitive art, David was to be discovered among the Dogon people, ‘150 miles from Timbuctoo.’ Until he and the cameras arrived, Western impact on this district was apparently near zero. Certainly its music is untouched by sophisticated artifice. Zmm zmm. Ceremony is plentiful — a life ruled by ritual. Holy places are nourished with millet-gruel and blood. ‘An old man draws symbols in the sand,’ David explained, as an old man drew symbols in the sand. Depending on the importance of the person addressed, elaborate conventions of greeting dictate that it can take up to half an hour to say ‘Hello.’

Meanwhile, hidden up in the rocks above the village, the master of masks is making masks. ‘The work,’ says David ‘must be done in secret’ — i.e., away from women. (Whether the mask-master was aware that the whirring machines Whitey was pointing at him were blowing his secrets sky high was a nice question.) There is strict demarcation between jobs: after the mask master has made the mask, the threading of its appropriate ropes is done by a rope-threader. The completed mask, which looks good, is worn at a dance, which is dull — but indisputably authentic and therefore preferable to what we heard when some of the masks went on display at a gallery in the West. ‘I like the way the planes sort of meet each other.’ said one lady. ‘The excitement, the coolness, the sort of Marshall McLuhan attitood.’

Bzz. Pyeeooh. Woosh! THE TRIBAL EYE. Thrrr. Pfft. Yerk! CHAPTER TWO: CROOKED BEAK OF HEAVEN. This time David was on the North West coast of America, among a people whose name he pronounced (without a doubt correctly, since he has the gift of tongues to the point where he can order a baked bird’s-nest in Tamil) Kwargilth, but who must surely be the Kwakiutl — folk vividly familiar to anyone who has ever studied anthropology, since they crop up in examination papers as often as the Tikopia and the Dayaks.

The Kwakiutl are potlatchers — they continually try to upstage each other economically by giving presents the recipient, who is obliged to retaliate, can’t afford to equal. In the old days, a successful potlatch was tantamount to a massacre. Recently things are friendlier, but the ceremonial hand-out remains essentially unchanged. It involves a great deal of dancing. There are masks. The quality of the visual art (especially in the totem poles of goddesses capped with thunderbirds) is formidable. So is the tedium of the dancing. Haya! Hayayaya! Pyeeooh. The big-wig giving the potlatch lays on a solid eight hours of ceremonial hoofing before distributing his largesse, which seems mostly to be dime-store dreck.

Eight hours of watching a fat man in a skirt pretending to be a spirit running around in a forest is a high price to pay for a pen-and-pencil set, yet there are still advantages to being a Kwakiutl. It is undoubtedly a way of life, as opposed to a life-style. But even here, where some care has been taken to protect a primitive culture, the inexorable West has gained ground not just on the material periphery but in the spiritual centre — the art. One of the totem poles, I noticed, had a truck-tyre built into it. And one of the Dogons’ cave-drawings was of a car. It is more than likely that the Dogon caves will soon be decorated with drawings of cameras, and that a Kwakiutl totem pole will feature David Attenborough.

Can a culture — not just a tradition, or a style of architecture, but a whole culture — be preserved? It seems probable that merely to form the question is to give a negative answer. You can’t find out about a way of life without altering it: the observer changes the thing observed, and the same applies when the thing observed is himself. It follows that a Britain wishing to retain unaltered its conception of itself would be condemned to live a lie, because to form the conception is to embark on change willy nilly. This fact should have lent the pro-Marketeers some strength.

As it happened, the battle was fought gracelessly on both sides, with Enoch Powell’s pinchbeck rhetoric the nearest thing to oratory, and Benn’s eyeballs the nearest thing to passion. The YES broadcasts were at their best when they strung together a dozen vox pops by prominent people and men in the street, alternating the famous and the obscure with a beguiling air of democracy. The NO broadcasts were endsville. A troika consisting of Sally Vincent, Paul Johnson and Patrick Cosgrave ranted to camera about the dwindling contents of the shopping basket. Cosgrave has never looked flakier: it is possible to deduce from his hair-style that he is wearing Hush Puppies. ‘Inside the Market our wealth will bleed away,’ he purred.

More drearily symbolic than a Kwakiutl dance, the Oxford Union debate was a ritual staging of the conflict in men’s souls. Here was a jolting reminder of the fact that the time to let a tradition go is when it has become self-conscious. Not only were the speakers old members, but the commentators were old members. Robin Day was an old member. Ludovic Kennedy was an old member. David Dimbleby was an old member. The whole scene was littered with old members. Ted Heath’s speech — the usual length of fustian — was greeted as a triumph.

The David Nixon Show (Thames) is better than ever. Last week one of Nixon’s guests was a very droll ‘unusualist’ called Paul Daniels, of whom one hopes to see more. Nixon’s mini-series Checkmate (Thames) is good stuff too. Anno Domini (BBC1), a God-slot show with guts, probed torture and death in South Korea. A pair of South Korean officials based in London were interviewed. They were inscrutable — or, as the word sounds in their extremely awkward accent. inscahootabore. These things were not happening, they said. But if they were, only a handful (handafore) were involved. To make too much of such reports, they concluded, would be regrettable (ahagahetabore).

The Observer, 8th June 1975