In this travelogue, Matthew Baylis, the novelist and TV critic and former Eastenders screenwriter, goes to Tanna, a Melanesian island, where, he believes, the locals worship Prince Philip. This sounds weird — to worship a man from far away, who knows little about them, about whose life they weave complex myths. But then again, some Melanesian people worship Christ, and yet others follow an American who might or might not have existed and who might or might not have been called John Frum. Baylis sets out to investigate.
Prince Philip, he says, has interested him since he was a boy. Growing up in Southport, near Liverpool, the 11-year-old Baylis was aware of Philip’s visit to Salford university in 1982 and one of his reviled gaffes. The Duke of Edinburgh said that ‘one of the downsides of eradicating disease and hunger was more disease and hunger’. Baylis saw the point that the Consort had been trying, possibly, to make. ‘I thought it made some sense. Drugs lower immune systems. Rising populations lead to epidemics and food shortages.’ The received opinion was that Philip was being crass. But the young Baylis warmed to him.
Three decades later, here he is on this rather muddy and windswept island. Having studied anthropology at Cambridge, he’s aware of the phenomenon of ‘cargo cults’, in which people on small islands in the south Pacific deified western explorers, buccaneers and sailors who arrived with boxes full of food and seemed able to kill people by pointing sticks at them. (I’m aware I’m simplifying things here.) Baylis gives us the history: Captain Cook, the Russian explorer Vasili Golovnin, the English missionaries and the Australian slavers. He’s an excellent storyteller and he writes beautifully.
Even better, I think, is the way he describes his day-to-day life on Tanna. He has a perfectly tuned wit, one part dry to one part gentle. Michael Palin has this combination too — it’s about seeing things that are foreign and at the same time understanding that, to these foreigners, you, too, seem foreign. Imagine it: an island in which people are poor, with bad weather, where they mostly wear T-shirts emblazoned with the names of western pop groups or replica football shirts but sometimes just a ‘namba’, which is a rolled leaf worn around the penis. Baylis is always aware that he’s an interloper, and that he might never quite understand what he’s seeing.
Tanna, then, is an unreadable cultural mix. Its inhabitants speak many languages, including Pidgin English — ‘like’ is ‘olsem’, meaning ‘all the same’; ‘what’ is ‘wanem’, meaning ‘what name’; condom is ‘rubba belong fuk-fuk’ Baylis drinks a local drug, concocted from a chewed-up and spat-out root called kava, which makes him feel spaced-out and weird but which he gets to like. A man takes him to his Philip shrine, which is both disappointing and wonderful — a box of newspaper clippings, including stories about Charles’s farm and Harry dressed as a Nazi. Baylis asks the man where he gets these items. ‘Friends all across the world send it. And Ken Dodd,’ he is told.
Of course, Baylis must face the possibility that the people of Tanna are having him on, as people often do when they meet anthropologists. Or perhaps a religion based on Prince Philip makes sense? He appears to be the tribal leader of an important western country, living in a vast palace in the middle of a great city. But he’s also strangely hard to pin down — part Russian, part Danish, not quite Greek, not quite the King. ‘Wherever, in anthropology, you find such ambiguity, you find notions of taboo and danger,’ writes Baylis. Because if he is ‘not man England’, ‘not man Franis’, ‘not man Ostralia’, ‘not man New Zeelan’ and ‘not man Amerika’, he must be from Tanna.
That’s one theory. There are plenty more. In this book Baylis makes us think about faraway places, world history and the nature of belief — and most entertainingly too.
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