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Peacock’s Feathers on the Beach

January 18, 2012

I’m worried.  It’s important to the narrative of this post that you know where I am whilst writing it, but I don’t think you’re going to like what you’re going to hear.  It’s not like where you are, you see, with your rain and your cold, your icy mornings and your clouds.  There are more palm trees, for a start.  And more bars on a white sanded beech, several more coral reefs, blue skies and – wait, wait hang on don’t go yet, this is relevant I promise – lots of young men walking up and down the beach persistently offering me hats, ice cream and sunglasses (seemingly undeterred by the fact I am wearing a pair as he asks me) every fifteen minutes, hovering expectantly and hopefully above me giving long, lingering and forlorn stares many minutes after I have politely declined these generous offers.

I genuinely have no idea who buys this stuff, but they must do some kind of decent trade, wandering up and down the beach in their ‘Please Do Not Smoke on the Beach’ T-Shirts (which I think they’re paid to wear, perhaps not appreciating the irony as they puff casually on cigarettes), but territory is clearly valuable to them as this afternoon at lunch, we saw our own mini-turf war take place.  It was very exciting.

One of the boys clearly felt this patch of beach belonged to him, and wanted the other one off down the island somewhere (sorry, did I forget to mention it’s an island I’m on, a tropical island?).  My Philippine (it’s in the Philippines) is a little rusty, but this much I gathered from his angry gestures and pointing, as he closed down on his competitor – who I have to say, did not at this stage seem all that interested his noisy displays.

Angered by this, the home turf chap went for a clumsy push, followed by – and this did seem a bit odd – bending down to pull up his jeans, a bit like a farmer or one of those fashionable people you hear about, who has turn-ups.  I think, and I’m only guessing here, but I think this was a display ritual to advertise to his opponent he was preparing for combat.  On some level this must have had an effect, as the usurper gave a little ground, made some little shrugging movements and pulled a pair of his cheap, sunglass merchandise over his eyes (I think he was going for casual, but sadly came across as defensive), and sat down facing away from his aggressor – whose half-hearted displays of aggression were then broken up by some fellow teenaged merchants, and the whole thing melted away.  Not long after, but long enough to seem as though he were doing it of his own accord and not in duress, the defeated competitor sauntered off down the beach.

What’s that?  Were you expecting more?  A fight, maybe, or something a bit more dramatic?  I’m afraid life is not like that.  That’s why display rituals exist – to avoid physical combat.  Their sole purpose is to warn people you are going to be aggressive, so you don’t actually have to be.  That’s why the guy who shows you he has a knife is, statistically, very unlikely to use it – it’s a display ritual, a peacock’s feather if you will, and why young men full of testosterone angrily push chests with each other for hours on end, without actually coming to blows.  Neither of them really want to fight, it’s a complicated dance designed to figure out who is the more powerful without the need to risk your own health and wellbeing in the process.  It only escalates to violence with a catalyst: alcohol, mates, unpredictable events, whatever.  If someone really wants to attack you, they’ll do their best to conceal it, not show it.

Last night we caught one of those awful ‘when animals attack’ trashy wildlife shows about Baboons attacking people for food at Cape Horn, South Africa, where they’ve figured out tourists are easy pickings. They were using the same behaviour they would use in the wild on competitors, charging in whilst baring their huge canines, shrieking and making aggressive gestures.  The people, understandably, were terrified by these displays of aggression and gave ground, which only gave the baboons the correct signals to continue and increase the attack, which made the victim fall back again, terrified, drop the food and reward the baboonish behaviour.

I’m not saying there’s no difference between us and baboons, of course.  But when you strip away the fur, the trappings, what passes with people for sentient thought, and what’s left is the instinctual reactions of an ape.  We might think we’re better, wiser, worldlier with our cars, tellies, iPhones and fancy sunglasses, but when it comes to territory, display behaviour and ritual aggression, we’re just a bunch of naked apes at heart, every one of us whether a baboon, a young Philippino man selling stuff on a beach, a drunk guy in a pub shoving at the bar, or a late office worker impatiently shoving in front of a small-looking stranger on a bus.  Food for thought…

Wha-what’s that you say?  Yeah I guess you’re right, well spotted; the palm trees, white sands, coral reefs and blue skies mentioned in the first chapter weren’t all that relevant after all, were they?  Well spotted you, that was a thin contrivance created to enable me to gloat about where I am, paradise, compared to where you are, wherever that is, which is almost certainly not.  Don’t worry I’ll be back in overcast, damp, cold Mianyang soon enough and then it’ll be your chance to gloat.

One Comment
  1. Jane permalink

    Well written as ever Nat – a little bit of sunshine for us Brits (b******d!).

    Enjoy your hol 🙂

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