John Walsh: Tales of the City

'Historically, cannibalism is far more a Western phenomenon than an abomination of jungle savages'
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The Independent Online

It's always interesting to see a roomful of experts gathered to celebrate their communal love of a subject. The Olympians of the British classical music world piled into the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden on Sunday for a quiz to raise funds for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, and it was quite a spectacle.

One team was composed entirely of conductors; a nervy, flickery-eyed crew who resembled a bunch of retired footballers in unfamiliar sports jackets at an awards ceremony. All except for the regal Sir Colin Davis, who sat slightly apart from his peers, a tired king only mildly amused by his brilliant courtiers. Writers who had no obvious connection with the orchestra pit (among them Russell Davies and Victor Lewis-Smith) conversed earnestly. Steel-framed Himmler spectacles adorned 50 noses. Composers have always been a curious bunch, veering to extremes of bushy hairiness at one end (Brahms) and neurotic asceticism at the other (Mahler) but no composer has ever looked like Steve Martland, with his GI buzzcut flat-top, his safari shorts and the inexplicable bandages on several of his limbs.

On The Independent table, we were in the polymathic hands of Edward Seckerson, our ace music reviewer; Mark Pappenheim, our former arts editor; and a tiny pocket-Venus called Chloe Hanslip who, at not quite 18, is cutting her third album of violin pieces. She had to leave early, she said - not to be in bed before midnight with a hot cocoa, but because she had to be in Brussels for a concert the next day.

Despite my legendary grasp of musicology, I felt at sea as the assorted critics, players and impresarios hissed the answers at each other, triumphantly identifying obscure works by Scriabin and Monteverdi, humming along to atonal shriekings that were apparently clues, uttering high-table guffaws at the guesswork of the ignorant. Then we reached a section on Instrumentation. Peter Snow, at the microphone, asked which woodwind instrument in an orchestra sounds the lowest note. Simple, I thought. It's the bassoon. No, no, said Pappenheim, it's the contra-bassoon. Well actually, said Seckerson, there's a thing called a hecklephone, which plays a whole tone lower than a contra-bassoon...

The right answer, when it came, was a contra-bassoon. A hand shot up from a table beside us. "Would you accept a counter-bass clarinet, which is pretty much the same thing?" A gust of booing broke out at this flagrant special-pleading. After discussion, Snow decided he could accept it. Cheers rang out from the clarinet fans. Then Snow came back to the mic. "I've just been advised," he said, "that the counter-bass clarinet isn't strictly part of the orchestra." Aghast yells and satirical jeers burst forth. Menus and auction papers began to fly. Soon they would be followed by fists.

At this moment, my colleague Seckerson decided to intervene. "I think you'll find," he shouted, "that the hecklephone is at least a tone lower than..." Fresh jeers and catcalls. "I think that's quite enough heckling," said Snow, calming things down.

Not since the River Café quiz 2003, when I watched two Oxford professors fighting about the flavour of the potato crisp before them ("I tell you it's Roast Chicken, you bastard!") have I seen such professional one-upmanship.

The result? We were in the top 10, effortlessly trashing The Times and The Sunday Times, but we were annoyingly pipped by The Guardian. I mean, honestly, The Guardian. They've probably never heard of a flipping hecklephone.


Does it strike you that cannibalism has become newsy? First, Boris Johnson compares the Labour Party's succession wrangle to the Papuan tribes that used to eat their leaders to draw strength from their wisdom. It provoked furious rebuttals from Papuan diplomats.

Then the Australian TV show 60 Minutes broadcast a piece about the Korowai tribe (again in Papua) who practise cannibalism and who're preparing to kill and consume a six-year-old boy called Wa-Wa. When a rival channel landed in the Indonesian jungle looking for the boy, it drew a fresh wave of defensiveness. "The cannibalism era has stopped since the Bible was delivered in West Papua," said a human-rights worker. "That was before I was born. There are no people eating people any more."

Maybe not, but if you investigate, you find that cannibalism is, historically speaking, far more a Western phenomenon than an abomination of jungle savages. There were reports of people-eating all over Europe during the Great Famine in the 14th century. In the early 1600s, you find men in Virginia, USA eating their wives. The survivors of the Medusa shipwreck (as painted by Géricault) did it by eating each other. Outbreaks of anthropophagy in the 19th century were reported from Nantucket Sound to Colorado. It became gradually less taboo. When an English yacht was wrecked in 1874 and the crew killed and ate a sick crewmate, the defence of "necessity" was allowed for the first time. (Hooray for British phlegm.) When the German oddball Armin Meiwes ate a willing victim in 2001, he wasn't convicted of eating human flesh, but of (second degree) murder.

And consider this: there were instances of cannibalism in the First Crusade when the knights feasted on the bodies of the slain after capturing Arab towns en route to Jerusalem. Efforts were made to remove any mention of it from Western history books, but the Arabs know it happened. They wouldn't do it; it's expressly forbidden in the Koran. But how long will it be before the Muslim brotherhood - looking for some ideological stick with which to beat the Pope, in revenge for his tactlessness about Islam - start accusing him of systematic symbolic cannibalism by eating the body and blood of Christ at Communion? I can see it coming a mile off...