259 – The Tribe

The black light tribe, who listen to prog rock and ride velvet unicorns.

I am Campfire Burning, of the writer tribe, and of the board gaming tribe, and of the video gamer tribe, and–though I don’t like to admit it–of the geek tribe. I also belong to the guy-who-cooks tribe and the enjoys-eating-barbecue tribe, and the listens-to-dance-music-but-would-never-dream-of-going-to-a-nightclub tribe.

And of the shaves-only-when-he-can-be-bothered tribe.

And the remembers-Rentaghost-tribe.

I am also a fully-fledged member of the British tribe and, through marriage, an honorary member of the American tribe–and we spouses of Americans are a tribe unto itself.

Soon I will belong to the British-ex-patriot-now-living-in-America tribe, members of which recognise each other by the sharps gasps we emit when looking at the prices of Chocolate Hobnobs in the international aisles of supermarkets.

Similarly, all the other tribes to which I belong have their own calls that identify them, their own greetings. I am of both the tribe that can distinguish cilantro from coriander, and the tribe that distinguishes cilantro root from both of them. Members of these tribes can talk to each another for hours upon end without realising they’re tribal brethren, but should the conversation ever turn to the differences between Indian, Mexican and Thai cuisine: instant recognition! Oh, my brother, my sister. Truly this is a fortuitous day for us both, that we should find one another in a world filled with savage members of other tribes for whom cilantro not a concern.

Since the invention of the Internet, what were once interests and pockets of knowledge have evolved into tribal tattoos delineating us as part of this or that tribe. These tribes have always existed, but with online communication allowing people from all walks of life to talk on an even plain, our quirks and interests have come to define us. Now more than ever, it’s easy to find people who share our pastimes and beliefs, and bond with them accordingly. These connections are often fleeting–a knowing look, a nod of approval written in text–but they’re meaningful enough for the recipient to feel not so alone in the vast and frightening melange of every culture, interest and intellect that is our world. Pressed together on this rock, it’s nice to find people who aren’t complete strangers, who share our thoughts and feelings on certain matters.

It’s nice to belong to a tribe.

And it’s decidedly unpleasant being exposed to other tribes whose customs are alien–perhaps even frightening. Such exposure is, of course, a taste that can and should be acquired: we should all strive to be more tolerant of other tribes, lest we remain racists, misogynists, hateful beings intolerant of anything new, and different: hopeless misanthropes bound in cocoons of our own fear and mistrust.

And these people, too, belong to a tribe. Those of us who’re a little more antisocial than others feel great joy upon meeting someone else who hates other people as much as we do. Our language is built from rage and inventive swearwords, which we wave as if we were birds of paradise trying to attract mates when all we’re really trying to do is drive people away. Are we really so hateful, or are we misunderstood, miserable, lonely and–against our better judgement–doing our utmost to stay that way. If we drive any potential friend away we feel some grim satisfaction for the lonesome predicament in which we find ourselves: it’s better to push people away than have them leave of their own accord.

Upon discovery of these tribal tattoos–which many people are are still unaware exist–for a time we lapse into ponderous self-reflection, picking apart our being as if unravelling knitting, hoping to find something beneath the wool rather than the emptiness we fear is there. This usually happens in our teenaged years; throughout our childhood we suspected there was something strange about us, something that set us apart, but we never considered why we liked the things we did or why certain kids wouldn’t let us join their games. Still nascent human beings at the time, and as yet unformed, it’s not until we start questioning the whys and wherefores of the world that we see tribes as tribes, and not the meanies and bullies and–ick, girls!–we’d previously thought them to be. At primary school objects are divided by obvious characteristics–the red things belong to the red set, while the yellow things belong in the yellow set–but at secondary school boundaries become hazier, and people group together by factors that aren’t at first evident.

This fuzziness worsens as the education system’s tributary opens up into an wide ocean of interests: the real world. No longer bound to the thirty immature souls in your classroom you can befriend anyone–anyone at all–and attach yourself to their tribes. For most people a friend is a friend as much as a horse is a horse (of course)–but look closer and you’ll see tribal bonds strapping friendships together.

Tribes don’t take in only interests but also lifestyles, accents, hair colour, looks. I am of the tribe of the mid-Atlantic accent–which, rather frustratingly, some people confuse with the Irish brogue tribe. I recognise other Brits with wandering vowels, who’ve spent too much time in the United States, watching Friends or talking to Americans. I see fragments of myself–tattoos–in other people, in the way they speak or write. I’m part of a tribe of Stephen King fans who have similar written mannerisms, who like to address their readers personally and bid them follow them on grand adventures.

And I’m belong to the tribes of John Wyndham, M.R. James, Ray Bradbury and Jeff Noon. Reading Michael Marshall Smith novels makes me smile because I recognise so much of myself in his work; he belongs to at least some of the same tribes as me and communicates this through his work: our first person meanderings, our expressions of thoughts.

Our secret tribal code.

How many tribes might we still join, or are in the process of joining? How many memberships are still pending? Will we join the active grandparents tribe or the pipe and slippers brigade? Will we marry? Remain single? Have children? Have none?

Every possible turning leads to a new tribal gathering. Parents cluster with nothing to discuss other than little Damian’s first tooth, little Sandra’s skinned knee. A certain kind of women of a certain kind of age gathers for pow wows at the local bingo hall. Aged, unloved, sitting alone in a chair spinning the rest of your days into the breeze, you wait to die, member of a scattered tribe who never talks, but who’d recognise the woe in each other’s eyes if they ever were to meet.

There’s a tribe of men who have beards, and of men who hike, and of men who drink real ale and of men who do all three. There’s a tribe for bearded ladies (although it’s somewhat smaller) and one for people who read wordy articles on the Internet, who say:

“Hey, read this. It’s pretty good.”


“Read this. It’s shocking.”

or express disbelief when they discover someone of similar age and similar background, who’s a member of many of the same tribes as they are isn’t a member of this one particular tribe.

“Too many words. I prefer comic strips–I like funny cat pictures.”

And unless you can recruit this person–so much like you in so many ways–to your tribe, they’ll always be set apart: an enemy.

“Oh, don’t you know? He doesn’t read things online. He only looks at lolcats.”

That bastard.

But let’s not get into tribal warfare. These Venn diagrams dividing and binding us in endless Spirograph circles–these tribes–encompass our being as surely as our own DNA. For that matter, animals have tribes, though they’re tribes we’ve created for them to separate the little yappy dogs from the lumbering bloodhounds, the good natured puppies from the dogs that bite. Do they realise their tribal demarcations, or is one urine-stinking totem on the pavement the same tribal marker for all of dog-kind? Are we trying to paint them with our own tribal makeup–the same way we dress them in adorable little suits–while all the while, as far as they’re concerned they’re dogs, simply dogs, belonging to the dog tribe and nothing else?

For humans, there’s little separating tribal from genetic code.

You can see the tension between two members of opposing tribes–the gamer guy and the gal who likes shoes, perhaps–who’ve wed in expression of inter-tribal peace. They might have secret tattoos only visible when the lights go down and the clothes come off but, not seeing them, the rest of us wonder how a couple so mismatched could ever stay together.

Perhaps that’s the strongest tribe of them all: one has no code, no markings, no face paint, but is bound together in ways stranger than any of us can fathom . . . or perhaps without these bindings they’re not a tribe at all but simply unhappy strangers resting in the same bed, waiting to return to their own kind.

Who knows? I don’t, as I’m from the ask-questions tribe and not the tribe that gives answers.

And so, my final questions to you today: with all the factors that bind you to other people, all the friends you have and all the pastimes you enjoy, to which tribes do you belong, and–more importantly–of which do you wish you were not a member?

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