Uses of Disagreeable People

What is a disagreeable person? Defining one is not as easy as it sounds. There are ways of being and behaving which I find disagreeable – arrogance, intrusiveness, dishonesty, negativity – but am I to be the sole arbiter of this? There may well be an aboriginal tribe somewhere that values Dishonesty, or whose idea of Intrusiveness is far removed from mine. So much depends on the culture. I actually ‘did’ a bit about this in an Open University linguistics course.

In one culture, for example, it would be perfectly acceptable, even expected, when travelling on a crowded bus to instruct another passenger to Shut That Window! In a different culture – let’s take English, since that’s the one I know best – this simple, clear form of words is likely to land you in trouble. Speak to a woman that way and you’ll probably be met with a glare, the turn of the shoulder, the uncooperative stare into space. Speak to a man in such rough and ready terms and you’ll likely be told to get lost – one way or another. Speak thus to a very large man with tattoos and a shaven head who happens to be in a particularly bad mood that morning and you could end up with a punch in the snoot. Safer and more effective to haver apologetically around the subject for a while.

Um.. terribly sorry to interrupt but… I wonder if you’d mind if… its blowing right down the back of my neck, you see… frightfully chilly for the time of year… would you mind?

You never actually ask the person to close the window: you just kind of guilt-trip and nudge them into it. (If you’re interested in people-watching there’s an excellent book called Watching the English by the anthropologist Kate Fox.)

But cultural differences apart, and to save time, let us assume that a disagreeable person is broadly the same in all societies. What, if any, might be the uses of such a person? Do they have any uses, or would the world be a far better place if some disagreeability-sweeping alien spaceship were to make a pass over the planet and hoover them all up?

I find Blabbers disagreeable. They tend to be women, but not exclusively. Ultra-sociable, they’re on gossiping terms with every single person in every single house within a radius of several streets. No matter what it is you tell them – how trivial or insignificant – everybody knows within half an hour. They do have their uses, however. If there is something you do have to tell everybody, but can’t be bothered to – I’ve just got a monstrous big dog and he’s likely to woof a lot, say – just mention it in passing to the Blabber. Better still, mention it in confidence. Saves all the bother of saying stuff you already know over and over again. Also, having reached other people as gossip, dull facts appear far more interesting.

And then there are those people who go on and on and on about something – bores, in other words. I’d class them as disagreeable, although I forgive them, having been boring enough on many occasions myself. In ‘olden times’, when I was still married to my Artist, I would sometimes go with him to the local pub. He would talk to his friends and I would always get pinned against the wall by a chap with a big nose. You know the way they lean in at you, one hand on the wallpaper next to your left ear? That nose has stuck in my memory because I used to end up focussing on it, and the variety of open pores and stray hairs it included, unable somehow to look at away. He also smoked cigars, so every utterance was accompanied by a Churchillian whiff or two. He wasn’t a bad chap – in fact, I think he was lonely and quite liked me – and unfortunately he worked in some distant department of the place where I worked – so I felt obliged to listen, or at least to look as if I was.

Every evening I was treated to the story of how he had discovered a motor bike in his back garden, and dug it up. I was trying to remember the name of the motorbike, which he repeated ad nauseam, but it’s gone. It might have been Cherokee… I have a vision of feathered head-dresses. To make matters worse it amused my husband to pull faces at me from behind the poor chap’s back: of course I couldn’t allow any sign of this to appear in my face. It was a battle of wills – which I always won, because on balance my husband annoyed me even more than the bore with the buried motor-bike.

Another of my husband’s friends – a joyous, witty but eccentric Air Traffic Controller – after a few beers would enjoy telling a long, long story involving an Irishman and a cat. At some hideous point in this story the (hopefully fictional) Irishman would seize the (hopefully fictional) cat and hurl it out of the window. The thing was with this friend, he was clever. He’d lull you into a false sense of security by never starting that story in the same place twice. It was a story without a beginning and without an end and this story would appear to concern a completely different set of characters in completely different circumstances. But no. After ten, twenty, thirty minutes and several more beers, in would stroll the (hopefully fictional) Irishman and out would fly the (hopefully fictional) cat.

There is one use for boring people – as a kind of shield. They make excellent fodder for other boring people. Introduce them at some length (that way each has plenty of ammunition to use against the other) and slip away. One or two might also come in useful in Parliament, now I think about it – for those occasions when MPs need to ‘talk a bill out of time’. I believe it’s known as filibustering. Like a secret weapon: just set them going – on buried iconic motor bikes, fictional (hopefully) flying cats or whatever, put your feet up on that famous green leather upholstery and take a little nap.

(Uses of Disagreeable People is number 11 on Tanner’s 1917 list of 250 Topics for Familiar Essays)

I have dwelt at some length on the worship of trees…

And dwell at some length he does, throughout the whole of Chapter IX (The Worship of Trees) and Chapter X (Relics of Tree-Worship in Modern Europe).

In England the best-known example of these leaf-clad mummers is the Jack-in-the-Green, a chimney-sweeper who walks encased in a pyramidal framework of wickerwork, which is covered with holly and ivy, and surmounted by a crown of flowers and ribbons. Thus arrayed he dances on May Day at the head of a troop of chimney-sweeps, who collect pence. In Fricktal a similar frame of basketwork is called the Whitsuntide Basket. As soon as the trees begin to bud, a spot is chosen in the wood, and here the village lads make the frame with all secrecy, lest others should forestall them.

This is the unmistakeable voice of Sir James George Frazer (1854 – 1941), regarded as one of the forefathers of modern anthropology and the author of The Golden Bough, a twelve-volume monster Study of Magic and Religion. Having, between the years 1890 and 1915, published his twelve huge volumes Sir George set about abridging them, to make his work available to a wider audience. The copy I have is a second-hand £1.99 Wordsworth Classic abridgement, but it still runs to 756 pages of teensy-tiny print. Love it! The paper is cheap and thin, and gloriously toasted at the edges. It smells like dust and vanilla. Love vanilla!

Some of his stories of mankind’s superstitious doings are almost too painful to read nowadays, let alone quote – like the burning of cats in bonfires on the first Sunday in Lent, in some cases hanging them over the fire from the end of a pole and roasting them alive. Without a qualm, I would have roasted the roasters alive. Others are more lyrical:

Halloween, the night which marks the transition from autumn to winter, seems to have been of old a time of year when the souls of the departed were supposed to revisit their old homes in order to warm themselves by the fire and to comfort themselves with the good cheer provided for them in the kitchen or the parlour by their affectionate kinsfolk. It was, perhaps, a natural thought that the approach of winter should drive the poor shivering hungry ghosts from the bare fields and the leafless woodlands to the shelter of the cottage with its familiar fireside. Did not the lowing kine then troop back from the summer pastures in the forests and on the hills to be fed and cared for in the stalls, while the bleak winds whistled among the swaying boughs and the snow-drifts deepened in the hollows? And could the good-man and the good-wife deny to the spirits of their dead the welcome which they gave to the cows?

It’s… it’s Biblical. Bleak winds whistling among swaying boughs and snow-drifts deepening in the hollows – the very essence of winter.

The Golden Bough is one of those books that, for the omnivorous reader, have a tendency to keep cropping up, along with Palgrave’s Golden Treasury (don’t have) and Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism (have). I was always meaning to get hold of it and see what it was all about, but somehow I never did. Then quite recently I was seized by the idea of writing fantasy in earnest, rather than just dabbling. Fantasy, I suspect, is my mind’s default setting. The Partners of the law firm for which I used to work classified me as Not really with-it, but unique, according to a female colleague. For an instant I was flattered, and then I hated her. (Always the reaction to being bitten by an arch-bitch.) But what to write fantasy about? I was not inclined to be inspired by elves, since it was they who had been stealing my mother away in instalments, and had latterly substituted one of their own, a grouchy elder elfling far past its prime. So I decided to do some ‘reading around’, and The Golden Bough is part of that.

One of the great merits of homeopathic magic is that it enables the cure to be performed on the person of the doctor instead of on that of the victim, who is thus relieved of all trouble and inconvenience, while he sees his medical man writhe in anguish before him. For example, the peasants of Perche, in France, labour under the impression that a prolonged fit of vomiting is brought about by the patient’s stomach becoming unhooked, as they call it, and so falling down. Accordingly, a practitioner is called in to restore the organ to its proper place. After hearing the symptoms he at once throws himself into the most horrible contortions, for the purpose of unhooking his own stomach…

I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of a book of British Myths and Legends, which I think may be the one that inspired Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) to write his 1977 album Songs from the Wood. Tiresomely, the spindly prog-rocker failed to quote the exact title of the book in his CD booklet, only saying that was given to him as a present one Christmas in East Anglia, Buckinghamshire or somewhere else rural and folksy, by Joe Lustig, his American ‘press and promo guy’. I wanted that same book – felt I just had to have it – and spent a long time on Amazon scrolling down lists of folklore and legend books, eliminating those published post 1977. Not that I’m a nerd…

I am hoping that these two books, together, will inspire me to write the best-selling fourteen-novel fantasy saga which will save my bacon, financially. You can never have too much inspiration when there is bacon to be saved.

…Hence, from the primitive point of view, it is perfectly possible that a savage should have one soul in his sex totem and another in his clan totem. However, as I have observed, sex totems have been found nowhere but in Australia; so that as a rule the savage who practises totemism need not have more than one soul out of his body at a time.


Frazer was a social anthropologist, and his genius was to do two things – to collect, obsessively, more or less everything ever written in the way of superstitions, rituals and legends, and then to notice and explain, lucidly, the connections between them. He also possesses a dry sense of humour. He actually got into trouble for placing the story of Jesus and the Resurrection on an equal footing with ‘legends and superstitions’ rather than making a special case for Christianity. He implied, for example that the idea of the Lamb of God might be a relic of a pagan tradition and pointed out that the dates of many Christian festivals coincided with those of prehistoric pagan rituals. This doesn’t seem particularly outlandish now but it shocked many of his readers to the core. As a result, in subsequent editions his work was watered down and censored.

Whenever Marseilles, one of the busiest and most brilliant of Greek colonies, was ravaged by a plague, a man of the poorer classes used to offer himself as a scapegoat. For a whole year he was maintained at the public expense, being fed on choice and pure food. At the expiry of the year he was dressed in sacred garments, decked with holy branches, and led through the whole city, while prayers were uttered that all the evils of the people might fall on his head. He was then cast out of the city and stoned to death by the people outside of the walls. The Athenians regularly maintained a number of degraded and useless beings at the public expense; and when any calamity, such as plague, drought or famine, befell the city, they sacrificed two of these outcasts as scapegoats. One of the victims was sacrificed for the men and the other for the women. The former wore round his neck a string of black, the latter a string of white figs.

The Golden Bough was to influence subsequent generations of writers, poets and thinkers including T S Eliot (The Waste Land), W B Yeats (Sailing to Byzantium), H P Lovecraft, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, D H Lawrence, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Sigmund Freud.