Thomas Sutcliffe: Like salmon, some things are better wild

Social Studies: The British Government would be wise to resist the temptation to get our intangibles on the list
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The Independent Online

If you're a Croatian Ojkanje singer or a rabbet-jointer from Fujian province you may already know that this is quite a big week for you and your colleagues. If you're not – and you don't even know what a rabbet-jointer does – let me explain. This week, in Nairobi, Unesco's Committee for the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity scheme is meeting to decide on what to add to their official lists and both of the activities above have been nominated as being in need of Urgent Safeguarding. From a disinterested – and possibly uninterested – standpoint it's not hard to see why. Ojkanje singing, for example, is Dalmatian folkloric style involving glottal warbling in which "each song lasts as long as the lead singer can hold his or her breath".

Rabbet-joints, by contrast, are a technique used in the construction of traditional Chinese junks, a vessel that has proved less than buoyant in the face of competition from steel-hulled ships. Neither are well equipped to survive in the modern world but both are precious to those who care – and since 2003, when it produced a convention for the safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, Unesco has cared a lot. It busily compiles lists of endangered Intangibles, issues gratifying recognitions of their status as National Treasures. It's a quixotic affair, if you think about it. After all Unesco's definition of an Intangible Cultural Heritage includes the requirement that it should provide a community with "a sense of identity and continuity". And yet the very fact that Unesco has to step in suggests that continuity needs artificial respiration.

Safeguarding, they explain includes "the identification, documentation, research, preservation, protection, promotion, enhancement, transmission, particularly through formal and non-formal education, as well as the revitalisation of the various aspects of such heritage". Which makes it sound very much as if you're in culture's Intensive Care Unit.

If the people who originated the Intangible Cultural Heritage are giving up on it, though, why should anyone else strive officiously to keep it alive? More to the point, even Unesco is happy to let some slip away. "Only intangible cultural heritage that is recognised by the communities as theirs and that provides them with a sense of identity and continuity is to be safeguarded" it declares, while simultaneously pointing out that they must be compatible with "mutual respect" between communities. So, Orange Day Parades indisputably qualify on the former grounds, but are disqualified by the latter.

It's a pasteurised culture, in other words, purged of microbial intruders and given an artificially extended shelf life. And it makes you wonder what becomes of an Intangible Cultural Heritage once it's been incorporated into Unesco's scheme – and wrapped in that potentially asphyxiating cotton wool of documentation, protection and "enhancement". It stops being a culture, I would guess – volatile and dynamic and unpredictable – and turns into heritage, a fossil of something that once lived. The British Government was wise to steer clear of signing the convention and would be wise to resist the temptation to get our own intangibles on the list. Like salmon, this kind of thing is far better wild than farmed, however benign the farmer's intent.

Sarah's spam

I don't know who's running Spam's corporate press office but they're doing a damn fine job. They got a bundle of free publicity after emergency supplies of Spam were airlifted in to feed the passengers marooned on a drifting American cruise ship. And then, when Sarah Palin was pictured cooking breakfast for a group of Alaskan fishermen, two tins of the mystery-meat brick could be seen, artfully peeking out from the clutter of objects on the work top. I can find no evidence that Hormel Foods is formally backing Sarah Palin but it looks as if she is happy to back Spam – her advisers presumably calculating that being seen in company with this blue-collar staple, along with a ceramic angel and a fruit bowl, will send the right kind of message to her base. Of course you might regard this association as a marketing disaster – but that, is just the kind of snobbish reflex that makes Palin despair of the "lamestream media". Meanwhile I'm left wondering what the gloomy looking fishermen in the picture are eating. I pray it isn't Baked Apple with Spam Streusel – a Blue Ribbon State Fair recipe from the Spam website – which invites you to stuff a Braeburn with diced spam mixed with brown sugar, oats, dates and cinnamon. If that was the winning recipe imagine what the losers were like – and perhaps grasp the yawning gap between heartland taste and metropolitan sniffiness into which Sarah hopes she can wedge herself.

Depressed by happiness

I get asked whether I'm happy on a regular basis. A lot of BBC studio engineers don't say "Ready?" when they've finished getting their levels right and want to know whether you're prepared for the green light. They say "Happy?" And the question always snags a little. Well, am I? Really?

In my case I find the question itself has a distinctly lowering effect on the mood – since your anxieties are usually closer to the forefront of your mind than your blessings. As the Coalition Government braces itself to measure people's "general wellbeing" I hope that their statisticians can find some way of allowing for the fact that an inquiry about your happiness is often synonymous with an invitation to count your curses.