Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The English Pirates

A ponderous beat-up - an old hack term for, basically, a phone-around - by the BBC elicits the views of psychologists about the salvage fest on Branscombe Beach following the break-up of the container ship Napoli. Amidst the platitudes, one psychologist, Ian Vine, says something interesting, 'In most situations we know what the moral code is, and the role that's expected of us. But in situations where there's not a clear role or several possible roles then we turn elsewhere for guidance on what we should do - we look to see what others are doing.' So, confronted by a beachful of goodies, the locals succumbed to a kind of cascade effect. One of them did a little light looting and the rest followed. Vine's interpretation also sounds like a version of the finding of the Milgram Experiment. Essentially, people's morals are formed by context. This is probably not wrong but it leaves out culture. There is a tradition of looting wrecks in the West Country, salvage is a form of local produce. I am sure this, as much as any universal human trait, explains the beach party. In fact, I would go further and say the English in general have a deep piratical streak that is usually buried beneath the English gentleman (or, more usually, cad) stereotype. Francis Drake, after all, was a pirate. Meanwhile, it transpires, the English are less happy about calling themselves British. The reason is, of course, that they are tired of playing the bad guys while the plucky Scots, Welsh and Irish always get to be the heroes. Pirates, cads or gentlemen, the English want their culture back. And, if it's lying around on the beach, they'll grab it.


  1. Now that looting (er, beachcombing, salvage etc.) are legal, perhaps we'll get wrecking next. And then who knows? Perhaps piracy too? Time to get that black flag out of the chest.

  2. Plundering wrecks has a long tradition on every coast inhospitable to ships. I've a friend who grew up in Newfoundland (descended from Scots who settled there) who said in lean years, his ancestors used to light fires (pretending to be lighthouse fires) just in the places likely to lead a ship onto rocks.

    I grew up on a coast myself and the tideline frequently offers gifts to those walking the shore, some valuable, some gruesome.

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