If I may, I’d like to take a break from the usual today, and instead ask for a moment of your time to tell you about my dear friend Paul Valentine who recently passed away.
In the tapestry of one’s life, there are many threads, and some are dull and some are necessary, but there are also those that shine all the brighter for the mundanity of the rest. Paul was one of those bright threads in my life, and although his parting might leave a hole, his influence will always be intertwined with my past.
I first met Paul as a lecturer of anthropology at the University of East London, and if memory serves me correctly he started us on the introduction to theory. Little did I know what I was in for back then. I’d set out on a quest to understand humanity and just what the hell was wrong with us. To that end Paul would come to surpass dry academic theory, but it would take a little time before we became friends, and at first there were times that he totally bamboozled me with his attitude. I’d never met anyone quite like him.
I once turned up at his office to ask him a question, and he totally ignored what I was saying and proceeded to make a great show of exchanging a proper greeting. It was awkward, but as I thought about I realised that he was right. There was always a reason and a meaning behind his actions, and I think that he was at his most pointed with you when he felt you weren’t living up to your potential. This started out academically, and as one of my fellow anthropologists pointed out, “I could handle him being angry at me, but just not his disappointment.”
He could be a hard task master, but he was a great lecturer and although theory can be dry and boring, Paul had a way of bringing it to life by launching into explanations of “now you’re his brother, and imagine that she’s his sister and you want a wife.” Then there were the stories he would impart to us. One day we were sitting in class, going through a reading, when Paul puts the book down and says, “Listen, this is really important…..”
And he launched into a story of when he was doing field work in South America, amongst the Kuri Paca (sorry, that’s probably totally wrong but I can’t find the correct spelling anywhere), armed with a Samsonite briefcase to keep everything dry, clad only in a pair of speedos due to the humidity. He lived in one of the catholicised villages which carried on more traditional lives compared to the protestant villages.
So, every now and then, a priest would come down the river in a little boat and visit the village, and on this one occasion he was accompanied by two nuns.
According to Paul the Kuri Paca women walked like men, from the shoulders rather than the hips, but in observing the gait of the nuns soon caught onto the more alluring style of locomotion. The men of the village all approved.
Then the priest would launch into a lecture, telling the village that he came from this big world “out there” and that they should stop smoking (as it was bad for their health) and they should build more fish traps (so they had a surplus). Then he and the nuns got back in the boat and went back up the river.
As the priest sailed away the shaman of the village got up and said, “Everyone knows the world is small.” Heads were nodded and everyone went back to doing what they had been up to before the priest arrived. Paul explained: no one was going to quit smoking because the native tobacco they used was thought of as sacred medicine, and they wouldn’t build any more fish traps because they had no way to store excess produce, and with the rains on the way the fish traps usually got washed away, so it woud all be a waste of effort.
So they tolerated the priest, thinking him quaint. Sadly the FARQ guerillas didn’t like westerners and the priest was one day found floating in the river. A sad end for a man who had been regarded as mostly harmless. So Paul was forced to leave his fieldwork and his field work and the people he had befriended.
Such were the stories he had to tell, a treasure trove of life experiences. I never got tired of hearing about his adventures as over the course of two years Paul became more than just our lecturer, he became our friend when the core of the class organised an after-term holiday. We booked a Cornish B&B in the summer of the second year and invited our lecturers to join us.
Paul accepted and came along. Of that time I remember so clearly walking along the Lizard with him, an ice cream in his hand and a huge smile of total satisfaction on his face at just being out in the sun, strolling along. He looked like a school boy, but sometimes it was that love of life that could make him turn suddenly and stop you cold, and he’d tell you directly that you mustn’t waste your life being unhappy. He wanted you to strive to make the most of it, and he’d tell you straight to the face even if it hurt your feelings.
Over the years that followed I learned many things about life in general, and Paul taught me about humility and intellect and direction. He always had a deep fascination for people, about what was going on and had a keen mind for probing them. When he met a contortionist the first thing he asked her was “what’s the smallest thing you’ve ever got inside?” Turns out it was a washing machine.
I recall at the same solstice camp he asked me for pen and paper, then drew out an economic diagram highlighting the fallacies of austerity all the way back to when it first started. He would smile and say, does that make sense? I nodded. Totally. “Pity,” he said, “because the Chancellor doesn’t seem to understand it.”
Then one year at the solstice he was attacked by a Druid. A Druid! We were at Avebury and they were having some sort of internal political conflict about leadership, and one of them wanted to bust into the performance circle. Paul, dressed in a tiger suit/onesie, told him he couldn’t let him pass, and so the druid bonked him on the back of the head with his staff. Assaulted no less!
Camp was a focal point for my time with Paul, and I find it hard to believe that so much time has passed since Paul gave a talk there about cannibal practices because some of it found it’s way into the series I’m still writing now. Well, it was a topic Paul had been reluctant to discuss because of the stigma that went with it, but he was preparing for a presentation and so wanted to do a run through of it. We were a willing audience who came down to the fireplace to sit and listen to him. It was fascinating. The tribe would make whistles out of finger bones of their victims and play them, a proclamation that they were in possession of the deceased’s “rotten soul”. They believed that people have multiple souls, and the rotten soul was responsible for seeking revenge. Essentially it was a way of saying “you’ll never get me back.”
Yet, for all that he could be a serious and consummate scholar, Paul had this mischievous side to him, and a devilish way of saying the most outlandish things. It was almost as if he were conducting an experiment to see how someone would react, like telling the waitress at the cafe we were at about his startling encounter with the hand dryer which had been inconveniently triggered in the confines of the lavatory, his tone totally earnest and innocent. He was so cheeky and impish that there was no way to take offense. Somewhat taken aback, she apologised for the inconvenience, then started laughing along with us.
At other times he would catch you by popping out a question that had come to him, probing you with an existentialist question like “there’s got to be something more beyond the end of life, don’t you think?” and you would be in the middle of some mundane thought, suddenly caught totally off kilter as you tried to catch up.
As to the answer to that question, I’d like to think so. I’d like to think that it’s just a change of state, a change in being, and that part of us goes ever onwards, exploring.
And so where ever Paul is now, I can see him journeying through the stars, a huge smile of boyish delight on his face, rejoicing at the wonder of it all…..
Until we meet again, farewell. None of us will forget you.