Too many chiefs, no little Indians

We tend to form short-term, dynamic, social microcosms wherever and whenever we can. Some of these are essentially republics. Beaches, holiday camps, major cultural festivals, large-scale mass demonstrations … all present a diversity of human life doing what we all do best: rubbing shoulders, exchanging our different kinds of mojo and generally muddling through in pursuit of an aim. Others are more like enclaves or ghettos reserved to a certain type or class. I’m an Alvis owner. I shall always have a lot to say to other Alvis owners, however tweedy and moustachioed they might be. Most clubs, private schools, science fairs, hacker conventions, death-metal concerts, sports associations, churches (and communities of belief in general) are all examples of this more incestuous type of social group. As part of a temporary republic you feel exhilarated or uplifted by the spontaneity of others, by their ability to overcome differences in a good cause, cocooned within the sheer mass of humanity: a citizen, a brother, a fellow traveller. As an accepted insider within an enclave, you feel that sense of safety that comes with knowing exactly who you are and exactly to whom you belong, in a social context that presents few surprises, where you know the rules and the language.

The Republic of Arnolfini

Country weddings in the “home counties” are generally enclaves of self-affirmation confined pretty strictly to a single class. The men wear dove-grey and the women show off their hats. Everyone brays rather than talks. Beano’s will be different. He is going to show us that he is, after all, a little bit of an Italian, despite three hundred years of boiled cabbage. The wedding will be the vision of the Republic of Arnolfini realized; a veritable city state. He’s inviting the motliest crew of people one could possibly imagine, and so is the Williams girl. They both seem to have gathered a deal of human moss over the years. There will be the changing memberships of Beano’s former punk band “Well-Sorted” and Diana’s riot-girls “The Otterbury Incident”. There will be any number of people who might still be students if they weren’t researchers. Beano’s publishing career will bring in a horde of scruffy Fleet Street alcoholics and razor-sharp magazine-owning women dressed in Dior. Everyone Beano has ever lodged with, travelled with or got drunk with seems to be invited. There will be Poles and Scandinavians, Latvians and Greeks. To top it all, Roger “the Podger” Spooner has somehow mutated from Diana’s almost-husband and public enemy number one to prime benefactor and (wait for it) Best Man! And the chocolate layered hardcore of the event will be the bizarre juxtaposition of Diana’s chapel people from the Rhonda with the crisp city Arnolfini crust.

As the oldest of friends, I am invited. Yet so is Jean-Michel, who has known the groom for a mere week or two and with whom Beano bonded in the January mud. I can live with that. After all, J-M is an officer, albeit a Belgian one. But then, and here’s the rub, Mrs Harker is invited too! I suddenly find that I am horribly class-conscious and not at all the cosmopolitan free-thinker I always thought I was. What am I going to say to people who learn that we both come from the same area of the Ardennes. They’re bound to ask me if we know one another. I shall either have to limit myself to a brisk affirmative, or say: “Of course I know Mme Arquair, she’s my cleaning lady”.

A place for us

But anyhow, this same republican wedding which has got me worried about my own left-wing credentials has also got me thinking about the many roles we play in life, each with its own habitat, from the maternity ward to the retirement home, from the school to the workplace, from tub to club to pub. There is truly a place for everyone in this multi-verse world of short-term social cohesion. There will certainly be a niche for you somewhere, no matter who you are. Whether you are a software coding nerd, a philatelist, a fun-loving air-head, a neo-fascist, a born-again Christian, an employer, an employee, an unemployed or unemployable, a concerned parent, an ethical scientist, an outraged citizen, a teen with a piercing and ear buds or an ex-dictator …

Yes, because as an ex-dictator you may qualify for a place on “Dictator Island”, Edwin Drood’s new TV reality show. Which of you ex-tyrants will be the first to die by another’s hand? Indeed, will any of you die of natural causes? Can you impose your brutal rule on the island’s vast electorate of seven and are you man enough to lead its army … all three of them? Will you succeed in outwitting your fellow dictators to finally even gain their grudging respect and allegiance? Will “Policeman One” accept your authority or will he arrest you for corruption? Are you still swift enough on your feet to capture the radio station and broadcast your agenda before all the other dictators manage to? Are you still wily enough to convince the island’s only chauffeur to drive you around in its only limousine? Are you still presidential enough to move into the island’s only luxury villa? How will you survive without your wealth and your staff of thousands, without your personal doctor, your Ukrainian masseuse, your blue marble wellness spa and your collection of karaoke discs? Can you boil an egg? Can you make buckwheat porridge? Can you graft a banana tree? Can you build a functioning eco-toilet?

Tyrannus Recyclicus

These and many other questions will keep viewers riveted to their TV sets as ex-dictators of every creed and political colour; the boorish, the sleek, the charismatic, the verbose, the fiery and the cold-blooded, the populist, the elitist, the thug and the technocrat fight for the people’s vote. Just call this number (0800 WHATEVER) to put your man in the Pink House this week and condemn his predecessor to a month of sanitary duties. Because, in an enclave of too many chiefs and no little Indians, anyone who can’t stay at the top will just have to learn to do the dirty work.

Now if the dice roll the way they should in the middle east, we might be looking at a reasonable field of contestants for the show, which is a good thing, since so many of the old school are either dead or dying. I’m all for recycling these guys as a form of entertainment. Why should they get a golden handshake and an honourable retirement? If the law can’t touch them, then maybe the most intrusive form of mass media should be their court of last recourse.

Edwin Drood

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