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Spot the difference: the largest human gathering on earth and a vicarage tea party

Will Self's "Madness of Crowds" column.

At Paddington Station, where one occasionally finds a stray bear with a label around its neck reading: “Please introduce me to a life of prostitution and drug addiction,” the train departures board operates at a laggardly pace. By which I mean to say that the platform number for the train to West Drayton will mostly only be displayed five minutes before departure. Since the platform is usually number 13 or 14, this necessitates a brisk walk of 500 yards in order to make the train. Even I, a sprightly pentagenarian, find it something of a push – but anyone less able, let alone disabled, would be scuppered.

True, the West Drayton service is not the most popular of trains except during the evening rush hour. We midday voyagers to the outer ’burbs are pasty-munching, tea-sipping slowcoaches – spindrifts or even snags in the great current of urban life – and so we resent being so chivvied. But I’ve seen veritable stampedes when the platform is announced for a peak-time intercity express. If you happen to be standing in the wrong place at that moment, you might end up as a smear of jam in front of Delice de France.

As a thought experiment, it’s worth forming a mental picture of a British station at its busiest, then multiplying the human density by a factor of between ten and 100. Such a scene – albeit more brightly coloured – would have met your eye had you been standing in Allahabad station on 11 February when a belated platform announcement (or possibly a collapsing handrail; accounts of the disaster understandably differ) triggered a stampede that led to 36 deaths and scores of injuries. That this took place during the climax of the Kumbh Mela, the largest human gathering on earth, makes it seem – how can I put this without being psychopathically insensitive? – relatively insignificant.

If 30 million people assemble on the sandy floodplain at the confluence of two rivers, the Ganges and the Yamuna, and a third, mythical one, the Saraswati, with the avowed intention of bathing in muddy waters into which the pitcher (or kumbh) of the Gods has dripped immortality-conferring nectar, a death toll in the hundreds would still seem a result. Deaths, lost children and parents are the inevitable sequelae attendant upon such a pathological party. Numerous Bollywood films have been made about these Kumbh Mela tragedies – the conjunction of so many people in one place presents unrivalled opportunities for plot-generating coincidences.

There is – as I’ve had cause to remark before – one type of human folly conspicuously absent from Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, the 1841 book from which this column takes its name, and that is religion. Mackay doubtless itched to include the entire panoply of religiose nuttiness in his volume, from Catholic flagellation, to Muslim meteorite circumambulation, to Hindu widow-toasting, but lest the lens of comparative anthropology aim backwards into the equally wacky practices of Protestantism, he gave the entire field a swerve. The contemporary form of such an avoidance would be founded on a desire not to offend, which in turn would rest on a mushy pediment of cultural relativism: since all religions at all times have seemed valid to their adherents, who am I to judge between their forms of worship, no matter how excessive they may seem?

Stomping, snorting, naked and ash-smeared Naga “sky-born” sadhus charging in the dawn half-light across the riverbank to fling themselves into the chilly waters of the Ganges bear an obvious affinity to Justin Welby standing in a well-heated narthex objecting to gay marriage. True, they are physically many and he is just the one; but the Archbishop represents an entire crowd of benighted homophobes, while the Naga sadhus have dissolved their egos into the collective being of moksha, or enlightenment.

As you can see from the above, my cultural relativism takes a rather more robust form: Claude Lévi-Strauss observed that the miniature is the archetypal form of all artworks, for, when you considered the matter closely, all representation consists in a diminution. Even Michelangelo’s vast frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are miniatures, since their subject matter is the end of all cosmological time. By the same token, even the greatest of religious gatherings is a vicarage tea party when set beside the ubiquity of human belief in the immaterial. I’m not sure about train travel, either.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion