It is a symbol of sex and comedy - but it has not always been so. Once the banana was a very serious fruit

Marina Warner
Saturday 17 October 1998 23:02 BST

THE MERE look of a banana and the sound of the word are funny - or so it seems now. But it was not always so. The banana is also a sign that can be peeled to reveal a history of a historically specific fear. Beyond its immediately cheerful colour and suggestive shape, it has a story to tell, peculiar to the West. It can be scried, like coffee grains or the flight of geese, to reveal history at work on a symbol.

Because slipping on a banana skin seems one of the oldest jokes in the world, it is a challenge to draw up its biography. After a moment's reflection, though, it is clear that it cannot be very ancient. The banana skin slipped into the old comic tradition of folly, embarrassment, egg-on-your-face; it was added to the prop cupboard alongside the custard pie and the flour bag and the inkpot or chimney soot. After all, the banana became known in the Old World, evidence suggests, in the 15th century at the earliest, and the fruit became common in Europe only after its importation from the Caribbean began in around 1900. An exclusively elite delicacy would not have inspired popular bottoms-up funny business.

The fruit entered the comic bloodstream with the music hall. "Have a banana" was already a comic catchphrase in routines of the early part of the century, and most schoolchildren in the 1940s and 1950s knew the funny answer "What did you say? I can't hear you, 'cos I've got a banana in my ear." Marie Lloyd, famous for her repartee, is often credited with the fruit's debut as stock innuendo, when she picked up a banana skin from the stage, and remarked, "If the man who threw this wants to get his skin back, he can come to my dressing-room afterwards." By the early 1920s the banana-skin joke was already so hackneyed that it was mocked, with understated skill, by Buster Keaton in his 20-minute short The High Sign.

But why the banana at all? Most of us know that autumn leaves, icy pavements, as well as the peel or pith of almost any fruit much more familiar to our forebears, like strawberries or pears or cherries, are much more likely booby traps. One answer is obvious: the banana's shape, and that shape's associations, which Marie Lloyd and music-hall bawdy songs were already playing on.

One story, collected as far afield as Perthshire and Arkansas, began to be told after the Second World War. Two little girls on a train are sitting in the compartment with a soldier, just demobbed, who offers each of them a banana. The older girl accepts and begins to eat it; at that moment, the train enters a tunnel. She asks the younger girl, "Have you started your banana yet?" "No.""Well don't," she warns her. "It makes you go blind."

The explicit sexualising of the fruit was famously conveyed by Andy Warhol's cover for the Velvet Underground & Nico's 1967 release, and echoed in the famous marketing slogan "Unzip a banana". The raucous and highly popular comic Viz features Tommy "Banana" Johnson ("He's got a big banana") alongside "Felix and his Amazing Underpants". By the mid-1990s, the equivalence of banana and penis had been so thoroughly internalised that British schoolchildren were given instructions about condoms using bananas (and, admittedly, cucumbers) for classroom demonstrations; Durex used the banana in an advertisement around the same time.

THE BANANA'S associations with male sexuality, with its absurdity and its pathos, and at the same time with the jungle and monkeys and exotic parts, have turned its biography into a troubled tangle of modern dilemmas, one that takes the temperature of racial prejudice. Members of some football crowds in England have made monkey noises and gestures at black players; they have even been known to throw bananas on to the pitch in abusive mockery. Nick Hornby gave a passionate account of an Arsenal-Liverpool match in 1987:

"We could see quite clearly, as the teams warmed up before the kick-off, that banana after banana was being hurled from the away supporters' enclosure. The bananas were designed to announce, for the benefit of those unversed in codified terrace abuse, that there was a monkey on the pitch ...

"Those who have seen John Barnes, this beautiful, elegant man, play football, or give an interview, or even simply walk out on to a pitch, and have also stood next to the grunting, overweight orangutans who do things like throw bananas and make monkey noises, will appreciate the dazzling irony of this."

The banana's seemingly natural link to sex has focused the fruit's modern Western meaning around issues of male performance and potency; fears in these areas have led, skipping sideways along lines of anxiety, to race - partly on account of the banana plantations' siting. "Banana republic", dating from 1935 in the OED, describes a corrupt and hopeless puppet dictatorship, but the term disparages the local people, for submitting to (collaborating with) their pay-masters, invariably international or American fruit companies operating cartels in Central America.

Even the phallic identification, which seems so natural, has been acquired within the North American and European tradition only recently: in Africa and in India, the banana supplies so many comforts and necessities - food from the bud and the leaves, shade, shelter, building materials, wrappings for food and other goods, and even shrouds - that it belongs in rituals centred on fertility and women's guardianship of life: it is planted in sacred precincts in India and features prominently, for example, in women's rituals in Uganda, where it is the staple crop. An Indonesian legend, from the Central Celebes, gives the banana a crucial role at the beginning of human society: the Creator one day let down a stone on the end of a rope, as is his way with his gifts to his creatures, but the first man and woman scorned the stone and asked for something else. "The Creator complied," the story continues, "and hauled away at the rope; the stone mounted up and up till it vanished from sight, Presently, the rope was seen coming down from heaven again, and this time there was a banana at the end of it."

They are delighted, but then hear the patriarch's voice boom out: "Because ye have chosen the banana, your life shall be like its life. When the banana tree has offspring, the parent stem dies; so shall ye die and your children shall step into your place. Had ye chosen the stone, your life would have been like the life of stone, changeless and immortal." The plant here figures as the whole cycle of growth, and symbolises human life, process, transformation, ripeness and procreation, all aspects of the knowledge of good and evil, as opposed to immortal, unchanging stasis. It embodies the lesson in time and death that Kronos is forced to learn when Zeus overcomes him and he has to relinquish his power to the future generation.

THE BANANA'S history in the West begins with the banana as a principal candidate for the identity of the forbidden fruit itself in the Garden of Eden. In the 17th century, when savants were equally keen on gardening and the Bible, the general opinion of herbalists and botanists and connoisseurs of simples was that the banana, not the apple, was the most likely tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The frond of the banana has straight seams, and it is easy to tear along them and make squares of bright luminous green, nature's own shot silk, which is what Adam and Eve probably did when they made shift with "aprons" to hide their shame from God in the garden. In countries where French, Spanish, and Portuguese are spoken - which means the original export markets of the fruit, such as the Canaries, parts of Africa and the Caribbean, as well as Latin America - the word "fig" is used in Creole for banana. Only the savoury variety, the plantain, is called banane. In 1750, the Rev Griffith Hughes, in his account of Barbados, declared, "And as the fruit of the Banana-tree is often by the most ancient Authors called a fig, I may, I hope without Presumption ... look upon the Fig-tree in Paradise to be no other than the Banana-tree." The fig-leaf may have the appropriate trefoil shape, but that it is hard to attach to the body every child confronted with a Renaissance statue has noticed. Banana leaves, on the other hand, can be draped and threaded - like cloth.

When the banana was first harvested in the New World, it epitomised the natural plenitude of the tropics, the earthly paradise where everything fruits and flowers in glorious abundance the year round. The banana is not, however, indigenous to the Americas, with which it has become so closely identified; the word is West African, noted for the first time in works like Garcia de Orta's travel chronicle of 1563 and Filippo Pigafetta's A Report of the Kingdom of Congo in 1597. It is likely that the banana travelled to Africa from China and India, where it is recorded far earlier than in the New World. Was it transported in the same long-distance canoes in which Javanese sailors brought rice to Madagascar 2,000 years ago? Perhaps. Then Arab traders carried it across the continent to Guinea on the west coast, where Portuguese navigators found it; they took the root stocks (known as bull heads, from their appearance) to the Canary Islands, where bananas are still grown - within the frontiers of the European Community. A Spanish friar, one Thomas de Berlanga, may have been responsible for the fruit's subsequent journey to the Americas, for he planted it in San Domingo in 1516; the English, those comparative latecomers to the New World, saw the plant's obliging nature and took many banana stocks from the Spanish-dominated islands to their doomed pioneer colony of Roanoke in Virginia.

WHEN THOMAS Johnson hung up a stem of bananas, brought from Bermuda, to ripen in his shop in Holborn in 1633, it was the first time its wonders were displayed to the public in London. Bananas thereafter emerge as a motif in Western dreams of the tropics. They were first imported into Britain at the end of the 19th century - the shipping company Fyffes, which still carries the Caribbean harvests, gives 1888 as the first year - and the annual consumption of the fruit has now reached 5 billion bananas in the United Kingdom alone. At the end of the 1980s and of the Cold War, the fruit embodied Western access to cheap luxuries and pleasures and plenty; in the aftermath of 1989, East Germans coveted appliances and bananas, polar expressions of capitalism's consumer liberality.

The fruit's history continues, as the stake in a bitter economic war between small countries and the superpower of the United States: American fruit companies insist on forcing down the price of bananas and effectively cutting out the producers from island states like Jamaica, Dominica and St. Lucia. Meanwhile, its nutritional virtues continue to be promoted, for it is rich in potassium and other essential trace elements, including serotonin, a natural antidepressant and the chief ingredient in Prozac. Athletes use the fruit as almost magical power food: 800 bananas were eaten every day by players at the Wimbledon tennis tournament in 1997. In just over 100 years, it has become a staple, a prime source of natural nourishment which we expect to consume plentifully and cheaply.

JOSEPHINE BAKER shamelessly guyed the banana's sensual and exotic associations for her predominantly white audience when she stripped down to her notorious banana costume for the Revue Negre of 1926. Performed at the Folies Bergeres in Paris, the Revue Negre was part of the variety show that capitalised on - and crowned - the capital's new mania for "negritude".

Josephine Baker entered a stage jungle, by dusk (of course), and crawled along the trunk of a fallen tree on all fours; there, to the beat of native drums, she came across the sleeping body of a young white man, for whom she launched into her dance. Her costume was a scanty parody of a Hawaiian hula skirt made of hanging bananas, and she is reported to have said, "It is Cocteau who gave me the idea for the banana belt. He said, 'On you, it will look very dressy.'"

Carmen Miranda, another incandescent stage performer in her own country (Brazil), also clowned for her public, also found herself enmeshed in the complicated humour arising from "nigger-loving" and its complex beckonings and disavowals. In her early career as a singer she adopted the ornaments and headdresses and bangles and jewels and braids and belts of the women of Bahia, traditional street vendors descended from African slaves brought to Brazil. The character she invented eventually inspired the logo of Chiquita, one of the largest banana companies in the world: the famous totem who pops up in turban and Spanish flounces and used to deliver, in a Carmen Miranda accent, an advertising jingle to which every child in America in the 1950s could sing along.

A comic spectacular directed by Busby Berkeley, The Gang's All Here (1943), features a Broadway nightclub decorated as a banana grove, with barrel organ players galore, performing monkeys, and an infinite chorus line of banana-waving showgirls. Carmen Miranda arrives on a fruit wagon; the chorus then lever giant bananas and strawberries in prolonged routines with bawdy overtones. They manipulate the bananas erect, make Mexican waves and kaleidoscopic patterns by opening and closing their legs, and assemble a banana xylophone for Carmen Miranda to play, while all the while she is sparkling and trilling the come-hither lyrics. The various elements of this camp, hilarious fantasia eventually climax in an explosion of bananas from Carmen Miranda's head.

THE BANANA has endured astonishingly undiminished as a sign of an easeful existence that envelops others, elsewhere. In Britain, during the Second World War, when a population that had grown accustomed to the fruit's arrival on the banana boats from the Caribbean was deprived of it, the banana gained in allure, becoming a symbol of the douceur de vivre that risked being lost forever. A naval officer who took part in the D-Day landings recalled a scene that expresses poignantly the meaning of the fruit: as the troops crossed the Channel, they passed the debris of a banana boat that had been torpedoed. The cargo was floating, far below the deck of their battleship, a glowing tropical yellow against the greenish grey dun of northern waters. None of the soldiers had seen the fruit since the beginning of the war, and they did everything they could to fish some out of the sea as they passed through this tantalising flotsam; but they had no lines, no nets, no harpoons, and no means to raise them. So they sailed past, helpless.

The new Socialist government, elected after victory, almost immediately organised a distribution of bananas to children. The precious fruit became the emblem of the nutritive bounty of Britain's dominions, now restored to peacetime governance, wise and benevolent. This was taking place at the same time as the active recruitment of man- and woman-power from the Caribbean; the first boats, crowded with West Indians solicited as workers in the services of the nation's reconstruction, started to arrive in 1948 and they continued to be recruited into the labour market throughout the 1950s.

Auberon Waugh remembered this time of post-war hope at the family table, when the banana ration was distributed: "the great day arrived when my mother came home with three bananas". But before the eyes of his three children, who had only heard of the deliciousness of the banana but had never had one, his father, Evelyn Waugh, took the fruit, peeled it and cut it, poured on cream and sugar, and "ate all three. It would be absurd to say that I never forgave him. But he was permanently marked down in my estimation from that moment, in ways which no amount of sexual transgression would have achieved ... From that moment, I never treated anything he had to say on faith or morals very seriously."

Attitudes have profoundly altered since then, when the banana symbolised Britain's return to normal authority over the seas and the Prime Minister Clement Attlee could be shown on newsreels offering a banana to a schoolgirl. Only think of a Private Eye cover with such a photograph; or, indeed, Bill Clinton attempting something similar. The banana was not innocent of double entendres, as we have seen, but the general public could be counted on not to laugh, as the fruit's desirability overrode, in that era of rationing, all its other significations. The passion for bananas that took over the former German Democratic Republic after 1989 simply focused the desire to consume, Western-style, this fruit, with its raft of meanings: sun, fun, sex, laughter, plenty, irresponsibility.

The banana becomes funny when it does not have scarcity value, when it can be used as an emblem of cheapness, as it was in a 1996 advertisement for off-peak telephoning. The labour that farms the fruit and transports it correspondingly falls in value too, literally (low wages, appalling conditions on the fruit companies' plantations, barely survival income for the independent growers in the Caribbean) and symbolically. In places where the banana is a staple crop, an essential means of livelihood, the inhabitants do not tell banana jokes and they do not slip up on banana peel.

Copyright Marina Warner

Edited extract from 'No Go the Bogeyman' by Marina Warner, published by Chatto & Windus on 29 October priced pounds 25.

THE PHRASE "going bananas", meaning going crazy, is recorded by the OED in 1935 but really gained widespread currency in the 1960s. Going bananas implies the zaniness of losing control, as when a clown's legs whirl and he teeters; it is a state precariously poised on the edge where pleasure yields to distress. The phrase refers to monkeys, as in the related slang of "going ape shit", and the fruit's comic character arises from its connections to the wild.

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