COMPETITION: LITERALLY LOST: 33

This excerpt has been taken from a work of travel literature. Readers are invited to tell us: a) where is the action taking place? b) who is the author? Blackwell's Bookshops will supply pounds 30 of book tokens each week to the first correct answer out of the hat. Answers on a postcard to: Literally Lost, "Independent on Sunday", 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL. Usual competition rules apply. Entries to arrive by Thursday.

These countryfolk can fare on strange meats. A boy consumed a snake that was lying dead by the roadside; a woman ate 30 raw eggs and then a plate of maccheroni; a man swallowed six kilograms of the uncooked fat of a freshly slaughtered pig (he was ill for a week afterwards); another one devoured two small birds alive, with beaks, claws, and feathers. Such deeds are sternly reprobrated as savagery; still, they occur, and nearly always as the result of wagers. I wish I could couple them with equally heroic achievements in the drinking line, but, alas! I have only heard of one old man who was wont habitually to engulph twenty-two litres of wine a day; eight are spoken of as "almost too much" in these degenerate days.

Mice, says Movers, were sacrificially eaten by the Babylonians. Here, as in England, they are cooked into a paste and given to children, to cure a certain complaint. To take away the dread of the sea from young boys, they mix into their food small fishes which have been devoured by larger ones and taken from their stomach - the underlying idea being that these half-digested fry are thoroughly familiar with the storms and perils of the deep, and will communicate these virtues to the boys who eat them. It is the same principle as that of giving chamois blood to the goat-boys of the Alps, to strengthen their nerves against giddiness - pure sympathetic magic, of which there is this, at least, to be said, that "its fundamental conception is identical with that of modern science - a faith in the order and uniformity of nature".

I have also met persons who claim to have been cured of rachitic troubles in their youth by eating a puppy dog cooked in a saucepan. But only one kind of dog is good for this purpose, to be procured from those foundling hospitals whither hundreds of illegitimate infants are taken as soon as possible after birth. The mothers, to relieve the discomfort caused by this forcible separation from the newborn, buy a certain kind of puppy there, bring them home, and nourish them in loco infantis. These puppies cost a franc apiece, and are generally destroyed after performing their duties; it is they who are cooked for curing the scrofulous tendencies of other children. Swallows' hearts are also used for another purpose; so is the blood of tortoises - for strengthening the backs of children (the tortoise being a hard animal). So is that of snakes, who are held up by head and tail and pricked with needles; the greater their pain, the more beneficial their blood, which is soaked up with cotton-wool and applied as a liniment for swollen glands. In fact, nearly every animal has been discovered to possess some medicinal property.

But of the charm of such creatures the people know nothing. How different from the days of old! These legendary and gracious beasts, that inspired poets and artists and glyptic engravers - these things of beauty have now descended into the realms of mere usefulness, into the pharmacopoeia.

The debasement is quite intelligible, when one remembers what accumulated miseries these provinces have undergone. Memories of refinement were starved out of the inhabitants by centuries of misrule, when nothing was of interest or of value save what helped to fill the belly. The work of bestialization was carried on by the despotism of Spanish viceroys and Bourbons.

Literally Lost 32

The extract came from `Baghdad Sketches' by Dame Freya Stark. The action took place in Iraq. The winner will be announced in next week's issue.

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