Cannibals apologise

It’s not just a matter of having your neighbour for lunch, apparently

Of all the apologies to have to make, surely one of the most awkward must be over the small matter of having eaten someone's great-great-grandfather. This, however, is precisely what the inhabitants of Erromango, part of the South Pacific island state of Vanuatu, are doing.

A hundred and seventy years ago, the distinguished missionary career of the Rev John Williams came to a premature end when he and his companion James Harris stepped ashore on Erromango's Dillon Bay. Unfortunately, recent European visitors had killed some inhabitants, and consequently the newcomers' welcome was violent and brief. When a Royal Navy ship later arrived at the island, as Williams's great-great grandson Charles Milner-Williams explains in this BBC report: "The islanders then said that, yes, they had killed and eaten both Harris and Williams."

Milner-Williams and 16 other relatives have just taken part in a reconciliation ceremony during which the place where their ancestor landed was renamed Williams Bay. A local MP, Ralph Regenvanu, says that many of the (now overwhelmingly Christian) islanders thought that their home may have been placed under a curse because of the killing of Rev Williams and were keen to make reparation. But he also hastened to point out that:

Cannibalism, contrary to what a lot of people think, was traditionally a very ritualistic and sacred practice. It was not something like, you know, have your neighbour for lunch. It was practised in a very ritualistic way and was considered to be a very sacred activity. A lot of the time it was a way of vanquishing a threat, absorbing the power of an enemy. John Williams may have been eaten because he represented this threat, this incursion of European civilisation that was coming into Erromango at that time.

The practice of cannibalism exerts a peculiar horror for us, although, if one accepts the idea of some kind of physical ensoulment, it is not entirely without logic. The philosopher Ted Honderich, for instance, once told me that he was convinced that the Hawaiian islanders ate Captain Cook "because they knew he was a great man". (As Ted's wife, Ingrid, then added sagely: "Yes, you'd fortify yourself greatly by eating someone else.")

Not to make light of this in the least, but apart from societal taboos and various medical reasons, I'm not quite sure what the, say, atheist, utilitarian arguments against cannibalism would be. However repulsive it sounds, I can see why an extreme libertarian might argue that if a body is merely a collection of dead flesh and bones, then why not? Some people do eat placenta (a UK mothers' website even has a page with recipes). Others happily donate their bodies to medical research . . . though any doctor can tell you tales of the mischief students get up to with cadavers: disrespectful is not the word. And as was noted in a trial that received a great deal of attention in 2003, cannibalism is not even against the law in Germany.

None of this is to diminish the importance of the gesture the people of Erromango have made. But I have to say that, given the actions of Europeans carving out their empires with the bible and the sword in the 19th century, I don't blame the islanders for attacking the next white men to land on their shores -- even if putting them in the cooking pot was a bit de trop.

 

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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What David Hockney has to tell us about football

Why the sudden glut of blond footballers? A conversation I had with the artist back in 1966 gave me a clue. . .

In 1966, I went to interview David Hockney at a rather run-down flat in Bayswater, central London. He was 28 and had just won a gold medal at the Royal College of Art.

In his lavatory, I noticed a cut-out photograph from a newspaper of Denis Law scoring a goal. I asked if he was a football fan. He said no, he just liked Denis Law’s thighs.

The sub-editors cut that remark out of the story, to save any gossip or legal problems. In 1966 homosexual activity could still be an offence.

Hockney and a friend had recently been in the United States and had been watching an advert on TV that said “Blondes have more fun”. At two o’clock in the morning, slightly drunk, they both went out, bought some hair dye and became blond. Hockney decided to remain blond from then on, though he has naturally dark hair.

Is it true that blonds have more fun? Lionel Messi presumably thinks so, otherwise why has he greeted this brand-new season with that weird blond hair? We look at his face, his figure, his posture and we know it’s him – then we blink, thinking what the heck, does he realise some joker has been pouring stuff on his head?

He has always been such a staid, old-fashioned-looking lad, never messing around with his hair till now. Neymar, beside him, has gone even blonder, but somehow we expect it of him. He had foony hair even before he left Brazil.

Over here, blonds are popping up all over the shop. Most teams now have a born-again blondie. It must take a fortune for Marouane Fellaini of Man United to brighten up his hair, as he has so much. But it’s already fading. Cheapskate.

Mesut Özil of Arsenal held back, not going the full head, just bits of it, which I suspect is a clue to his wavering, hesitant personality. His colleague Aaron Ramsey has almost the full blond monty. Paul Pogba of Man United has a sort of blond streak, more like a marker pen than a makeover. His colleague Phil Jones has appeared blond, but he seems to have disappeared from the team sheet. Samir Nasri of Man City went startlingly blond, but is on loan to Seville, so we’re not able to enjoy his locks. And Didier Ndong of Sunderland is a striking blond, thanks to gallons of bleach.

Remember the Romanians in the 1998 World Cup? They suddenly appeared blond, every one of them. God, that was brilliant. One of my all-time best World Cup moments, and I was at Wembley in 1966.

So, why do they do it? Well, Hockney was right, in a sense. Not to have more fun – meaning more sex – because top footballers are more than well supplied, but because their normal working lives are on the whole devoid of fun.

They can’t stuff their faces with fast food, drink themselves stupid, stay up all night, take a few silly pills – which is what many of our healthy 25-year-old lads consider a reasonably fun evening. Nor can they spend all their millions on fun hols, such as skiing in the winter, a safari in the spring, or hang-gliding at the weekend. Prem players have to be so boringly sensible these days, or their foreign managers will be screaming at them in their funny foreign accents.

While not on the pitch, or training, which takes up only a few hours a day, the boredom is appalling, endlessly on planes or coaches or in some hotel that could be anywhere.

The only bright spot in the long days is to look in the mirror and think: “Hmm, I wonder what highlights would look like? I’ve done the beard and the tattoos. Now let’s go for blond. Wow, gorgeous.”

They influence each other, being simple souls, so when one dyes his hair, depending on where he is in the macho pecking order, others follow. They put in the day by looking at themselves. Harmless fun. Bless ’em.

But I expect all the faux blonds to have gone by Christmas. Along with Mourinho. I said that to myself the moment he arrived in Manchester, smirking away. Pep will see him off. OK then, let’s say Easter at the latest . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times