Click to enlarge

Email Newsletter
Enter your email address to register

"This magazine is flush with tight smart writing."
Washington Post

Francis Wheen


Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People
By Charlie Campbell (Duckworth Overlook 208pp £14.99)

Who could resist a book with such a subtitle? 'I can see why they've asked you to review it,' my other half said. She is a saintly figure who seldom if ever apportions blame, whereas my instinct when misfortune befalls me - lost socks, slipped discs, curdled mayonnaise - is to ask which blithering idiot was responsible, since it certainly wasn't me.

Back in the 1970s an editor advised me that there were only two angles worth pursuing on any story from economic crises to plane crashes: 'we name the guilty men', and 'arrow points to defective part'. But my habit was probably inculcated long before that. As Charlie Campbell says, most of us develop it very early in life. Anyone with children will know the universal refrain of squabbling siblings: 'He started it!'.

The word 'history' in the subtitle might suggest a systematic and scholarly progression through the centuries, but Campbell's delicious little book is something far more beguiling: a ruminative essay by a witty and perceptive author who has no fear of chronological leaps or whimsical digressions. 'In the beginning there was blame,' he writes. 'Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent and we've been hard at it ever since.' By the next paragraph we're already on to Marx (who blamed the capitalist system), Dawkins (religion), Freud (sex) and Dr Atkins, the diet guru (the potato). This in turn elicits a typical footnote: 'For a long time, the Catholic Church shared Dr Atkins's hostility to the potato, since it was not a foodstuff that is mentioned in the Bible.'

Within another half-dozen pages we encounter Freemasons and Illuminati, Norman Lamont and General Robert E Lee, Osama bin Laden and David Beckham - who, we now tend to forget, was burned in effigy by England supporters after the 1998 World Cup. (Musing on football fans' perennial need for a culprit, Campbell observes rather brilliantly that 'even the penalty shoot-out is structured to put the blame for defeat on one or two players'.) This swiftly leads us to Admiral Byng (who was shot 'pour encourager les autres' after losing Minorca in the Seven Years' War) and Sir Fred Goodwin, who had his house vandalised after the Great Crash of 2008.

Not all these people are scapegoats in the literal sense - blameless creatures saddled with all our transgressions who are then banished to the wilderness so we can regain a state of expiated innocence. Campbell's cast of characters includes whipping boys, sacrificial victims and indeed 'guilty men', whose guilt is nevertheless amplified so they become lone figures of blame. Jesus was the ultimate scapegoat, taking on the sins of all mankind, but the religion he founded has needed plenty more since then. The longest chapter in the book is about witch trials, and the familiarity of many of his examples does nothing to diminish their cumulative horror - or the black comedy of man's insatiable appetite for blame.

Take the North Berwick witch-hunt of 1590, led by King James VI of Scotland after he had nearly drowned while sailing back from Denmark with his bride. Under torture, a suspect implicated nearly forty others. 'They all confessed to having met the devil in North Berwick,' Campbell writes. 'After their meeting they set to sea in a sieve with a cat that the devil had given them. They threw this creature in the water and so caused the storm.' It reads like an Edward Lear poem, and must have stretched even the king's credulity, but they were all executed.

Like many tales in Campbell's enthralling book, indeed like human folly itself, this is both tragic and farcical. In Bāle in 1474 an old cockerel was put in the dock, accused of laying an egg: the bird was sentenced to death as a sorcerer and burned at the stake with its egg. Even inanimate objects weren't spared. In Russia, after the assassination of a prince in the town of Uglich in 1591, a bell was transported to Siberia for having sounded the signal of insurrection. The bell was not pardoned or restored to Uglich until 1892, after three centuries of exile.

In his conclusion, Campbell points to 'one glaring inconsistency' in the history of blame. If scapegoats truly possess such great powers, surely 'they should be conciliated, courted even. After all, they are able to do things that a ruler cannot. Perhaps we should even select our leaders from the ranks of the scapegoats.' Ah, but we do. At last year's general election the constant catchphrase was 'I agree with Nick'; now it's 'I blame Nick Clegg.'

Exclusive from the Literary Review print edition. Subscribe now!

Francis Wheen's most recent book, Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia, is published by Fourth Estate.