Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

Hippolytus scratched his generous belly, took a long pull at his drink, and informed me that his family had been living in the Chaco for 500 years. He is the head of a community of the hunter-gatherer Guarani Indians, the drink was a curious cold herbal tea called mate, and the Chaco is the remote and empty bit of Paraguay which makes it very remote and empty indeed - favoured by brightly coloured birds and oversized toads. But he reminded me irresistibly of one of those squires of the shires who tell you how long their families have been hunting in Herefordshire or gathering in Gloucestershire. Perhaps it was the way he scratched himself.

Or perhaps it was because I have, without noticing it, become the person the papers have decided I should be. A month or so ago a story appeared in the Sunday Express stating, with the kind of self-confident journalistic authority that will brook no contradiction, that I had been fired from the Today programme on grounds of poshness. This seemed a little unjust, since I spent that Sunday filming a BBC documentary with polygamous Malian families in a distinctly unposh suburb of Paris. It also turned out to be untrue. But the story took off, and despite the BBC denials it was repeated in so many newspapers that it came to be accepted as fact. My formative years as a journalist were spent in the sybaritic but professionally puritanical television newsrooms of the early 1980s; broadcasting while drunk and incapable was positively encouraged - indeed some very famous and clever people were paid large sums to do just that. But to allow the remotest hint of personality or prejudice to cloud the clear prism of journalistic objectivity was to commit a crime beyond forgiveness. We were taught to scrub our prose to purity. Now I have, without asking for it, suddenly acquired a view on the world and an official journalistic personality. And it is rather fun; I am coming to enjoy seeing everything through my new journalistic prism of poshness. So when Hippolytus described the traditional Indian festival to which he was inviting us, I could not help reflecting on the similarities with a hunt ball; the general idea, it seemed, was that everyone should put on silly clothes and behave extremely badly.

I had come to Paraguay to make a programme about the European Union aid budget, but the prospect of an indigenous Indian version of county raucousness was altogether more enticing. The Guarani keep at it for four days, fuelled by a drink called chicha: boil up a maize mash, simmer for several hours, then stir overnight and leave to ferment for a week in tropical temperatures. The result had the smoky quality of a very posh malt whisky indeed, and could easily have been poured from one of those bottles with an impossible concatenation of Celtic consonants on the label.

The Guarani have developed the most inspired device for making the party go with a swing. The men are required to hand over their bodies to their dead ancestors for the duration, the ancestors thereby being allowed to fulfil any especially cherished fantasies or ambitions denied to them when they were alive. They put on brightly coloured masks as a symbol of the fact that they have lost all responsibility for their actions, and hit the chicha pretty heavily to induce an appropriately receptive mood for whichever dead relative is dropping in. Unfortunately the same rights are not granted to women, although they too are encouraged to knock back the chicha. …

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