Tribal rituals disinhibited

Joe Bennett is an English-born travel writer and columnist who lives in New Zealand with dogs. His columns are syndicated in newspapers throughout New Zealand.
Joe Bennett is an English-born travel writer and columnist who lives in New Zealand with dogs. His columns are syndicated in newspapers throughout New Zealand.

I watched a documentary on prawns last week. Everything about a prawn's way of life seemed weird.

But what would a prawn think if it watched a doco about us? Or more specifically, what if a prawn poured a drink, lay back on the sofa of indolence, put its feet behind its head and tuned in to watch a rugby test? I reckon its eyes would pop out on stalks.

In nature, all weirdness has a cause. Each stalked eye, every feathered gill serves some evolutionary purpose, contributing to the species' survival. At first glance it's hard to make similar sense of rugby.

Last weekend 80,000 people went to Twickenham to watch England play the All Blacks. Every one of them could have watched in comfort on television but they preferred to spend money to stand outside in the cold. They had to see some value in simply being there.

To the prawn on the sofa it might seem that the crowd were getting what the bee gets from the hive or the wildebeest from the herd, a sense of kinship and identity. And I think the prawn might be right. We are tribal creatures.

I watched several tests at Twickenham in the 1970s. Being part of a crowd made me less self- conscious. Being less self- conscious made me happy. Back then my tribe was England. Now it's the All Blacks. The nature of your identity matters little. It's only the having of it that matters. (And there's a notion that could do the Middle East more good than any peace talks. But it won't.)

Most of the 80,000 watching on Saturday were English, male, adult and respectably educated. When their tribal heroes ran onto the pitch they cheered like children. The chubbier English forwards looked silly in their clinging shorts and shirts, but I wouldn't have said so to their faces. I've rarely seen an uglier bunch of bruisers.

Some of the All Blacks, meanwhile, looked like the treble section of a cathedral choir. I worried in particular for what might happen to Ben Smith. He was so very pale and skinny. And his hair cut was longing to put a cap on and go to school.

Because nature abounds in threatening displays, the prawn would have understood the haka. But it would have been puzzled by the English crowd singing a negro spiritual. Few of that crowd were negro, fewer still spiritual, and yet they sang with a joyous fervour. But again the point is not what you sing but that you sing. It's part of the unity, part of the disinhibition.

It was Dan Carter's 100th test. The name Carter is plodding plebeian but Dan is rugby royalty. And he comes from Southbridge on the Canterbury plains. The England team has more support staff than Southbridge has residents. Dan's journey from small town to bigtime is the sort of fairy story we love to see played out. It's the archetypal narrative of hope.

In the course of a hundred 80-minute snapshots we've watched Dan grow from child to father. He's lost his boyish prettiness but not his languid ease. That ease is what makes him a great player. Hemingway called it grace under pressure. We call it athletic genius. The prawn wouldn't call it anything, but it's beautiful to watch.

Within three minutes Dan was lining up a conversion. An electronic tickertape thing round the base of the stand that hadn't been there in the 1970s said, "Quiet please. Respect the kicker." It was an odd request. If you have to be asked to respect something, you don't respect it. You're only pretending to.

The tickertape wasn't sure whose voice it represented. At one stage it spoke for the England team. "The louder you shout," it said, "the harder we play." When England were losing it said, "Come on, England." When England had lost, "The England team thanks you for your support." It was all a bit sad and childish.

But it was a thunderous match. The great temple of Twickenham throbbed like a single organism, like a swarm of bees, an oohing- aahing mass of shared emotion. The sofa at my place shifted with every tackle as I and a million others enjoyed a bit of violence by proxy and the delight of victory in battle. Then when the whistle went everybody shook hands with nobody hurt.

That's what the prawn would find weirdest of all. Prawns don't play war. They can only do it for real.

The Southland Times