Thursday, July 21, 2011

John Gimlette

John Gimlette has won the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize and the Wanderlust Travel Writing Award, and he contributes regularly to The Times (London), The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, and Condé Nast Traveller.

His books include At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig, Theatre of Fish, Panther Soup, and Wild Coast: Travels on South America's Untamed Edge.

Recently I asked Gimlette what he was reading. His reply:
Unfortunately, I can’t always be reading exactly what I want. Although I spend much of my time travelling and researching my journeys, I also have to keep up the ‘day job’, and – for me – that means working as a barrister, or trial advocate.

So what am I reading right now? Well, if I am honest, it’s a gruesome little book about what all the different parts of our body are worth. It has a dull name, The Judicial Studies Board Guidelines, but, quite literally, it puts a price on all our bits and pieces, from ears and eyes to our private parts. Of course, it’s not a catalogue, and it’s not trying to say what a severed arm is worth. It merely indicates what a judge would award you. In this, English law recognises that you can’t buy back the foot that you left on the railway, or the testicles the doctors accidentally lopped off. But there is a tariff, a sort of ‘going rate’ for not only your appendages but also your wits. Even madness has a price.

It’s a fascinating reflection on how we perceive bodies. Start with an arm. Lose one below the elbow and you get up to £72,000. Lose both and you get up to £197,000 (odd really. Losing both arms is surely ten times worse than only one?). A leg on the other hand is worth £92,000 whereas if you’re pruned of both you’re in for double that at £195,000 (again, a bit odd considering a double amputation will put paid to your chances of walking). This compares to loss of an eye (£43,000), a mouthful of teeth (£7,500), or a hand (£72,000). I can’t help feeling that in parts of the Islamic world a lost hand might be worth more; it’s not just inconvenient but it marks you out as a thief.

The book is not elegantly written. There’s no gold lettering, or plaudits from hacks and fellow authors (‘Gobsmacked … a definitive guide to what you’re worth!’). The text starts with your head and works down to your toes. It’s a democratic read, and anyone can cope with it, although it’s replete with truisms from the orthopaedic world (‘A shorter stump may create difficulties in the use of a prosthesis ...’).

As a travel writer, I often wonder how the figures would vary in other parts of the planet. I can think of some countries where the mutilation of female genitalia (£111,000) wouldn’t even be regarded as an injury. The French, on the other hand, would attach a much higher value to their sense of taste (£16,400). And to some tribes, the loss of a thumb (£23,000) would be fatal, being the end of archery. The Iban of Sarawak might also be rather surprised at the amounts they’d get for the nails driven through their penises (perhaps £8,250) when, to them, the nail is simply jewellery.

So, what price your sanity? Being driven right over the edge, like the madwoman in Jane Eyre probably gets you £66,000. However, if you’re just a bit barking (like King Lear), you’ll probably receive only £40,000. Meanwhile, ‘shell shock’, like that suffered by everyone in All Quiet on the Western Front, is worth around £20,000, assuming that the quacks will be able to pull you round.

And the least valuable bit of you? Well, don’t bother the courts if it’s a little hand injury: £600 and be grateful.
Visit John Gimlette's website.

Writers Read: John Gimlette (April 2008).

--Marshal Zeringue