Sunday, 8 February 2015

People Watching, Alex and Alexis and Please Don’t Eat the Daffodils!

One of the things I love to do above all else is to people watch. I was 22 when I bought my copy of Manwatching: A Field Guide to Human Behaviour, a book written by Desmond Morris. Although you can still get old copies on Amazon (where else?) the re-released publication is now entitled People Watching! I am not a psychologist, but I am fascinated by human behaviour. My PhD drew upon social anthropology – the study of people, what they make, do, think, and how their relationships are organised.

There were a number of experiences last week that sparked the anthropologist in me. For example, I have recently been selected to serve as the Academic Member on the University Council. Last week saw me attending my first Council meeting. The Council table was laid out in a square and somewhat surprisingly, there were name plates already arranged around the table. Sitting there in the pre-meeting small talk moments I looked at the people already sitting down. Smart business wear was clearly the fashion prerequisite. Women and men were in suits, dark colours di rigueur. And then there were the ties.

Every man in the room was sporting a tie - except for me. I wear Thomas Sabo silver feathers (there are other fine jewellers) I don’t wear ties. Back when I was reading Desmond Morris, I was also watching a snooker genus weave his magic. Alex ’Hurricane’ Higgins. He revolutionised snooker, and was possibly responsible for bringing the game to millions and certainly he was the grandfather of the modern game. But he was at times a troubled soul.

He had a somewhat volatile personality, often getting into fights and arguments both at the snooker table and in his private life. He drank alcohol and smoked during his matches. For most of his life he smoked 60 cigarettes a day. His life style choice caught up with him. He had cancerous growths removed from his mouth in 1994 and 96, and unfortunately, in 1998, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. He earned and lost £4m in his life. Alex Higgins was found dead in his bed, in a sheltered housing project in Belfast in 2010. He weighed just six stone, having ‘lived’ on a liquid diet for a couple of years due to losing all his teeth after intensive radiotherapy. Cathal McNaughton’s photo of him taken just before he died is immensely haunting.  

Alex Higgins also didn't wear a tie. In a time when the governing body for snooker prescribed what the players should wear, Alex was a rebel and refused to conform. He was his own man and did his own thing, and did it well and in a way that entertained many, many people for a large number of years. His experience was slightly different to that of Alexis Tsipras, the recently elected Greek Prime Minster. He was on a European tour last week, trying to assuage the anxiety of other European heads of state over the anti-austerity stance of his Syriza party.

Alexis Tsipras, aged 40, is the youngest Prime Minister in Greece for 150 years, and hasn't worn a tie for years. He didn't wear one during his campaign, nor for his formal swearing in, or when he met with the various heads of state across Europe. Whilst fashion has always been a major influence in both organisational and world politics, it has never been more the case than with ties, one of the most visible pieces in a man’s wardrobe. The tie has been a colour-coded communications tool. Precisely what Alexis is communicating is down to political commentators, psychologists and anthropologists alike to analyse and de-construct for meaning. 

And talking about meanings, what possessed Tesco and Public Health England to take the decisions they took last week. Tesco staff in Plymouth were asking customers for proof of age when they were buying fruit. As everyone knows, fruit can ferment and turn into alcohol, which as we also know cannot be sold to those under the age of 18. Tesco’s were being uber cautious I guess. Just as cautious and intent on protecting us from ourselves, was Public Health England. They issued a poisoning warning, asking supermarkets not to place their daffodil bulbs in the fruit and vegetable section of the store as people were mistaking them for Chinese vegetables, cooking them and becoming seriously ill. Not wearing a tie to the Council meeting feels quite tame in comparison to shopping in my local supermarket.