Gutted. This is not a word I often use. As a boy growing up in the country it’s what I did to rabbits and pigeons and occasionally trout. As a young bookworm it’s what I read, in morbid fascination, about what was done to medieval traitors. But being neither a butcher nor a fishmonger I’ve never since found much call for evisceration in my daily vocabulary.
Last Sunday, though, as I watched Australia steal Scotland’s place in the Rugby World Cup semi-final with a penalty erroneously awarded in the closing minute of the game by a referee who, having blown the final whistle and knowing what he had done, ignored the customary civilities and took off like a polecat down the tunnel, it’s how I felt. It was as if I was there in the crowd at Twickenham. No. It was as if I’d been on the pitch, going the full 80 minutes alongside them. I haven’t felt like that since September last year, the morning after the Independence Referendum.
It surprises me to realise quite how tribal I am, but I also have to confess to rather liking it. It feels like a normal state of affairs, in contrast to my largely tribe-less upbringing. Being sent to boarding school at the age of nearly eight was a kind of exile, a detachment from the close tribe of immediate family. A year later we moved to a house a mile outside a village, where our only contact with the community came in the form of the daily’s gossip. At 13 I went on to an English boarding school where I was disinterested in the one thing that above all binds together a school tribe, team sport. And at 19 the home tribe disintegrated when my parents parted company. In my late twenties I began to work for myself and, apart from two short spells running small publishing ventures, I never experienced the professional tribalism of being an employee or having employees. In my social life, meanwhile, I tended to avoid cliques or tribes, especially all-male gatherings, like the plague.
Which is not to say that I‘m by nature solitary or anti-social. Quite the contrary. But it does say much about how hard it is to change the patterns of childhood; and it wasn’t until I was in my early fifties that I discovered I liked tribes after all. I ended up being prised open, unexpectedly and dramatically, during a week-long retreat in Devon which was billed as an overtone chanting workshop but proved to be rather more than that (a story I will one day tell). After that the tribes began to appear very quickly.
That year I joined the board of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. A year later we moved from the country into the village where we live now. Two years later, John and Stuart invited me to join them as the third Dark Angel and today we have a large tribe of former and current students. Four years after that my first grandchild came along. More recently, with The Stories We Tell, a new tribe has begun to materialise; indeed we’re still working with the group who came on our very first weekend, two-and-a-half years ago, and who have chosen, unprompted, to christen themselves The Tribe.
The thing I like most about all this is reflected in the title of this blog: kindness. Kindness in the sense of human connection, of being of the same kind, and perhaps most of all in knowing that our kindness means sharing the quality of vulnerability – which, for example, means feeling gutted when our tribe loses. Adam Phillips, the psychoanalyst from whom I first heard the original definition of kindness, says this in his short book On Kindness: ‘Bearing other people’s vulnerability – which means sharing in it imaginatively and practically without needing to get rid of it, to yank people out of it – entails being able to bear one’s own. Indeed it would be realistic to say that what we have in common is our vulnerability; it is the medium of contact between us which we most fundamentally recognise in each other.’
Gutted or intact, I find this deeply reassuring.
Enjoyed this very much, Jamie, thank you. Such strength in sharing vulnerability and kindness, in just being the wee beasties that we are.
Thanks, Jamie. It’s good to be reminded of the positive aspects of tribes and tribalism, because usually people equate tribes with primitive, savage brutality, or with bigotry and the worst kinds of exclusivism. You are right to link these positives to our shared vulnerability: it’s why it hurts us when our friends suffer pain or loss, because we know what it feels like, or what it might feel like, if we suffered the same. It’s also why we feel pity and grief for the displaced, for refugees, for strangers bombed or burned out of their homes. Because the biggest tribe of all is the human one.
I echo your feelings about tribalism. What surprises me is how tribal I feel about my adopted country. I came to live here 15 years ago and, during the Scotland vs Australia game, I screamed, jumped up and down and, in the end, even cried. I embarrassed my teenage children. But I was utterly taken in with the spirit of courage Scotland exhibited and wanted them to hear my support. I always thought tribe was about inheritance, an innate visceral thing, with an ugly side (it’s harder to identify with the English tribe when so much of that identity has been equated with the history of colonialism or now, an ugly call to xenophobia) but I think it’s about belonging and your word “kin” is at the root of kindness – our desire to be part of something which is about sharing, be it joy or, as last Sunday, sorrow….
We was robbed.
Interesting as usual. This made me wonder about difference between connecting, and tribalism. Yes we all want to feel connected, and part of groups with whom we identify. And those are indeed the positives to which you refer here. One also must reflect and remember the negatives as well I think, however. We need to remember the dark side. When the identity becomes so strong that it excludes or induces hate is always the downside of tribalism. Maybe just mincing words here. What I hear you talk about here is connection, not tribalism.
Nice piece Jamie. Interesting how the term tribes, made fashionable by marauding fellows in your neck of the woods has suddenly become a popular term again in nouveau marketing circles. Seth Godin wrote a book about it years ago and it appears to be on the radar again.
Rather like my Barbour jacket that feels rather faux in Allentown Mall compared to your climes where it is appropriately worn, the term tribes is so much more appropriate in Dunkeld than Dunsegmenting.
On the subject of Rugby, your game is on delay in Coopersburg as I could not afford the gouging 42 bucks to watch each of the quarter finals, but I sympathize entirely. Although I have never forgiven Scottish fans for wearing All Black shirts and a kilt at a previous World Cup Final, I was delighted that Scotland got so far in the World Cup. Maybe the fact that Scotland voted to remain part of the greater scheme of things has dulled my senses somewhat.
Let it be said that I am proud to be a member of two of your tribes. I assume the cudgels are in the post?
We’ve spent decades being indoctrinated in the evils of tribalism, in particular nationalist feelings. But it’s who we are, we humans. The totally wonderful Alice Roberts was talking about this very subject on This Week a few weeks back and it made me realise how far we’ve come in turning around the argument to where it’s ok to be tribal. Nothing recently has illustrated this quite like the Scottish referendum.
I don’t know when I started getting “tribal” – it kind of snuck up on me…
When I was younger I had little difficulty in being ecumenical, international. balancing my dual nationality with a Scottish identity; but now I find most of what America is and represents uncomfortable and jarring, seeing myself as far more European; I have similar problems with the concept of being British and feel intensely more Scots; and, now living in a Catholic country I find myself increasingly protestant.
Yet, this narowing in focus of self-identity and social identification is not exclusive but welcoming to others including those parts of my identity I can no longer claim. I find I am able to live entirely comfortably in Spain, accepting their culture and being accepted, while not being or becoming Spanish.
R B Cunninghame Graham (Jamie’s and my great granduncle, who on his memorial, was described as “Patriotic Scot and Citizen of the World”) claimed that one could not become an internationalist without first being a nationalist as without nationalism one had nothing to offer the rest of the world. Maybe it is a bit similar wth tribes…