We were at dinner with some old friends last night. No, not that old actually, but we’ve known them for . . . OK, hundreds of years. It’s an extraordinary coincidence, but we met them overseas, as I say, many years ago, and then, when we returned to this country, after much globe-trotting, we discovered that they lived just down the road from us. Well, perhaps that isn’t such a coincidence – we both pronounce ‘bus’ as ‘bas’, rather than ‘boos’, and we both the sort who like a nice cool pinot on a patio and to listen to Radio 3 and despise people who walk around the High Street in the summer in their vests. And neither of us shops at Tescos. So maybe we both felt the gravitational pull of Surrey.
Anyway, the conversation, after dinner, as is often the case at parties, turned to the origin of the species. Well after we'd done the high cost of staff, the scourge of benefit cheats and the impact of Holly Willoughby's decollete appearance, obviously.
I don’t go along with all this ape stuff incidentally, do you? I mean I can accept that Man came from apes, but has anyone found a skeleton or a fossil of something that went before apes, linking them with amphibious reptiles or something? So where did the apes come from?
Anyway back to the sofa and the postprandial Drambuies. My friend had recently been to the movies and seen a film with some frightening content and had made an interesting. He wondered why such films were so enjoyable and indeed why the audience had enjoyed being scared. His conclusion was that human beings need adrenalin to survive. It’s a thought, isn’t it. I mean, think of the prevalence of horror films at the moment. All those zombies for example. By the way, who was it decided that zombies should eat human flesh? The original undead in Haitian culture was summoned back with voodoo for a specific purpose and the word ‘zombie’ came much later on in US literature as some sort of black slave. It was not though until The Night of the Living Dead in the 60s that undead creatures feasted on humans and I don’t think the word ‘zombie’ was used in that film either.
And then, getting back to adrenalin, there are these increasingly scary fairground rides. Whatever happened to the straightforward ghost train? Even our local zoo has something described as ‘the most fearsome ride since the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ or some such. So what induces people to get on it?! Well, the answer might well be vitalising adrenalin. Perhaps life has become too bland these days, with none of the coal mine disasters or plane crashes or measles epidemics or blitzkriegs (or is it blitzkriege?) that our parents used to suffer. Or maybe they only survived because of this regular stimulation of adrenalin flow? So perhaps we have to seek out these terrifying activities to keep our life-preserving chemical levels up.
I had similar thoughts today as I walked along the beach. No, that’s actually not such a dangerous pastime, but I have often wondered, when at the coast, about our love of the sea. You know how on a hike you emerge from a forest or breast a hill and see a panorama of fields and villages and so on. Well, you might stand there in awe for a moment of two, but you don’t sit and stare and say, ‘oh, look at that cottage down there’, or ‘wow, there are twenty-seven sheep in that field’, or indeed focus on any of the many details in that vista, do you. But come across a view out across the sea and frankly we could sit there for hours (and sometimes do) just staring at it. No thought of remarking on a speck of a yacht on the horizon or a wave that reminds you of your next door neighbour’s coiffure, you just sit and stare at it. And there’s actually nothing there – no village, or field of sheep, nor any familiar waves in actual fact. Nothing. So what’s that sea fever all about?
Well, I think it has a lot to do with our evolution. I think I may have mentioned this before. Clearly we still have a gene that makes us subconsciously hanker after submerging ourselves back into the ocean. When we stop and stare at the sea, the sight has triggered some primeval nostalgia that, beyond our comprehension, stirs in our sensory databanks and sparks in our psyche, harking back to the era when Earth was one great ocean and Man was still an amoeba or a plankton or just some chemical impulse in the sea.
But there’s something missing here, isn’t there. Why don’t we feel a connection to apes? Apart from a long-running obsession with chimpanzees and tea parties, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a human looking at a monkey and feeling anything stir inside them, except perhaps a thought that it reminds them of their neighbour, what with the wavy fringe and all. So, if they are indeed our closest relatives, shouldn’t the sight of one in the zoo stimulate some base instinct in us? Should we not feel instinctive horror at their being caged, or empathy with their miserable existence, or even fancy one of them a bit, like we all did with Ari in Planet of the Apes. Now you see, Ari fancied Mark Wahlberg (and I think we all expected him to fancy Ari), but there was no prehistoric genetic uncontrollable attachment involved, that was all to do with Hollywood instinctive script-writing. And in real life there isn’t any automatic reaction either.
In fact we feel far more attachment to dogs or cats. And I don't think anyone has ever posited that we're descended from them. Yet why the closeness then? And what has that to do with big dippers and the sea? And why are we here?
In Surrey I mean. What primal impulse led us to the summit of the Surrey Hills with nothing but pinot to provide the stimulation to survive? Oh, and Holly Willoughby's dress sense of course.