Answers in a time capsule

12th August 2005 at 01:00
An anthropologist pre-empts his granddaughter's questions on life, love and everything. Gerald Haigh enjoys hearing it from the heart

Letters to Lily: on how the world works

By Alan Macfarlane Profile pound;14.99

My granddaughter Ruby, aged seven, was reminiscing about a party she'd been to a couple of years before. "I remember it vividly!" she said. Then, after a pause, realising that her self-conscious linguistic fluency had momentarily run her into uncharted waters: "What does 'vividly' mean, grandad?"

I mentally rolled up my sleeves, because the urge to explain is strong within us all, and we very much welcome children's innocent enquiries, free as they are from the "here he goes again" reaction of our adult relatives.

For most of us, those young children's questions - "Why do some men have no hair?", "What are those two dogs doing?" - are quite hard enough. But Cambridge anthropology professor Alan Macfarlane wants even sterner tests, and so he's set some questions for himself: "What happened to our sense of community?" for example, and "What is the garden of earthly delights?"

These questions and many others he raises and then answers, in 30 letters, lovingly written for the enlightenment 10 or so years hence of his step-granddaughter Lily (at the time of writing aged seven, like Ruby).

The device is well chosen. It allows the author, who is presumably usually strung up by the constraints of academic writing - meticulous references, formal style - to speak from the heart, following his thoughts where they lead. As he puts it: "I have deliberately written the letters quickly and without referring to lots of books. It seems best to speak as directly as I can from my experience."

The letters are divided into themes: "Love and friendship"; "Violence and fear"; "Belief and knowledge"; "Power and order"; "Self and others"; "Life and death"; "Body and mind". At one level there's a constant stream of stuff you should know but don't. In answer to "Where do you come from?" he gives us a fascinating account of the myriad influences that flowed into this seafaring, mercantile island nation, where the Empire is in the fabric of our language, food, architecture and flora.

"If we move down the west coast of Britain, wherever there is a great port, there sugar poured in from the West Indies and where it did so it sweetened the tooth of the British." So Glaswegians like biscuits, and further down the coast there's "the almost pure sugar lumps known as Kendal Mint Cake".

Then going deeper, we encounter the wisdom of an anthropologist who understands how humanity works. There's some flinch-free dealing with sex (at least flinch-free on the author's part; the reader is another matter).

Moving quickly on, there's wise thoughts on the endemic nature of violence.

So in answer to Lily's notional question, "Why do communities attack each other?" he writes: "It appears that whenever people are held together by a sense of 'we', through notions of religion or race, then these concepts can suddenly become a dividing line. 'We' are humans, 'they' are subhumans, no different from the animals which we torture and slaughter at our will."

The real delight of the book lay for me in Professor Macfarlane's double whammies: gee-whiz facts that also comment on the human condition. Take the Trobriand islanders of New Guinea, for example (where would anthropology be without those guys?) who, when they took up cricket, "changed the rules so that each side had dozens of players, dressed in war dress, and hurled objects at each other".

The easy style, witty and yet undeniably polemic, is engaging and will surely have the effect of gently introducing the teenage Lily to the brutal realities and staggering contradictions of life in the adult world.

"Meanwhile the greatest predators on Earth munch their way through the animal kingdom," is her granddad's comment on our eating habits, and he is strong on the dreadful way we treat the creatures we use for food.

He also points out that as states grow richer, they can afford more prisons. "It is less bother to lock people away than to try either to deal with the roots of crime or to rehabilitate. So the British prison population inexorably creeps upwards and the profits of the increasingly privatised prison service grow."

But is there optimism in the end? A walk into the sunshine of a better world to come? Well, not really. The trick in growing up, Professor Macfarlane tells us, is to come to terms with what we are.

"In the end we can only accept our contradictory nature. We can modestly seek to hurt our fellow humans and the other animal and plant species with which we share this small planet as little as possible."

There is lots of extra material at The author also has his own website:

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