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.