Four More Horsemen?

I scored a minor triumph the other day. I was giving one of my travel talks to a local Round Table, and during the preceding meal I let loose one of those deliberately contrary pronouncements with which I attempt to spice up the conversation (and, from time to time, the Parish Magazine). There was little audible reaction, but at the end of the evening a member from the opposite end of the table was fined 50p for Ďreferring to the Guest Speaker as an Old Gití. He appealed against the sentence on the grounds that he had never used the word old.

What I had said, however, had arisen out of the content of the meal. Having told the Secretary that I will eat anything that hasnít got pepper in it, I arrived to find that I had been booked to speak (about central France) at a Mexican Night. My being supplied with a completely separate menu from the members (half of whom, I may say, were secretly overcome by deep jealousy) caused some comment, whereupon I explained that there are four things, popular among modem young men such as themselves, of which I have never seen the attraction.

The items in question are (in no particular order) pepper, alcohol, adrenalin and sweat.

Of all these, I can understand the original use. Pepper, from Tudor to Victorian times, served to disguise the taste of imperfectly-preserved meat; and to this day in countries where the sun is strong but air-conditioning rare, promotes a cooling sweat (qv). Alcohol, added to contaminated drinking water, serves as a disinfectant (or is it an antiseptic?). It is also a valuable cleaning fluid. Adrenaline, pumped to the muscles in a physical emergency, renders flight or fight more effective and enables jungle creatures to outdistance the object of their fear. Sweat, as before mentioned, cools the fevered brow in the heat of the tropical sun.

But I was sitting at a gathering whose meat was refrigerated, whose water was clean, whom no danger threatened and whose atmosphere was conditioned. Nevertheless, pepper and alcohol took up virtually the whole menu, and the talk was of white-knuckle adventures and perspiration-inducing sports. And really, truly, honest, no fooling, I donít understand any of it. Why, in an urban society where such things are no longer needful, simulate the conditions of the primitive world?

Not, you understand, that I havenít tried all these things; I would not have you believe me to be speaking from a position of pure ignorance.

I sat, once, next to a Brigadier at a regimental curry dinner. I really thought he was going to erupt like a volcano, devastating the surrounding countryside. From time to time he would pause in his ingestion of chicken in magma, to take vast draughts from a glass of beer. I was then too young, too awestruck, to tell him what I would tell him now, which is that pepper in any form is soluble neither in water nor in alcohol, but only in fat, so that he should have been drinking milk instead. At the recent dinner, I did manage to explain this to the Round Tablers, who had had no idea why Mexicans thoughtfully provide a plain yoghurt dip with their tortillas. Those who secretly sympathised with me got through a lot of yoghurt during the rest of the evening. But why they had agreed in the first place to subject themselves to the ordeal, I cannot tell.

They drank quite a bit, too, though less than I had expected. Alcohol is, let me confess, a complete mystery to me. Brought up in a household which ignored alcohol rather than actively disapproved of it, I came late to the stuff and haven't worked it out yet. People say alcohol makes them feel good. On the other hand, I've heard them say they drive better after a glass or two, which is demonstrably untrue. On the rare occasions when I have drunk more than one glass of wine, it has made me, personally, feel dizzy, a little sick, and as if I were losing control of myself. It is my belief that after a third glass I would be under the entirely false impression that I was more in control than in fact was the case. Why I should want to be in such a state, I have never fathomed.


Nor do I see the point of dangerous pursuits, white-knuckle rides or horror films. The adrenalin produced by these activities induces a state of disturbance which interrupts the even tenour of my way. In an earthquake I should doubtless be glad of its assistance; otherwise, thank you very much, I prefer pleasant to unpleasant things, comedy to tragedy, safety to danger, Neighbours to Eastenders. I can think of no reasonable excuse for the opposite opinion.

As for sweat, it is an unattractive substance and ecologically unsound. Those who go in for it need, to remain as pleasant to be with as are we sedentary types, three times the bath-water, detergent and deodorant. They claim their sweaty activities keep them fit, but fit for what? Fit for more sweaty exercise, thatís all. In the ordinary useful activities of life, I can outlast them all, without breaking sweat from one weekís end to the next.

I think most of my puzzlement springs from the fact that pepper, alcohol, adrenalin and sweat are alike unproductive. Activities based round them neither involve creativity nor contribute to progress. They are therefore pointless things; not merely useless, in the way that Oscar Wilde said that all Art was essentially useless, but pointless, aimless, without object. I suppose itís my Puritan upbringing again; things which have lost their usefulness should he discarded.

Which, come to think of it, was probably the exact sentiment of the diner who called me an old git. Nice to know we agree about something.