Monday, 22 December 2014

For External Use Only

I was looking through some digitised local newspapers dating from the early part of the last century, and was struck by the amount of every page taken up by advertisements, seemingly randomly mixed into the columns. To a modern eye, accustomed to more varied typography and clearer conventions alerting the reader to the different kinds of content on a page, it was very confusing.

In particular, I kept coming across advertisements for a medicinal product called Zam-Buk, cunningly disguised as news articles -- "Man replaces own head after unfortunate sawmill incident, using ZAM-BUK embrocation alone!" -- the sort of thing that, nowadays, is required to have the word ADVERTISEMENT (or, better, MADE-UP NONSENSE) printed prominently along the top.

I had never heard of this substance before, but a quick excursion onto the Web showed that a lot of people have.  In fact, it would seem that, for a certain subset of the population, it has long been an indispensible part of the British way of life.  Apparently people have been reattaching severed heads with Zam-Buk (or, more commonly, healing cuts and grazes and soothing sores) for 100 years or so.  Who knew?  I certainly didn't.  It's basically an all-purpose antiseptic ointment (or "embrocation", to use its own evocative term), a commercial version of the sort of pre-NHS hedge-witchery that might once have got your granny burned at the stake.  In fact, one of the original ingredients, sassafras, is now banned by the EU, which is sort of the contemporary equivalent of burning at the stake.  This brand of medicated goo is still in production, and can be bought in most chemists, but (psst!) if you want the hard stuff with the original formulation, you can still get it in South Africa.

It's the real thing!

This made me think: how brand-loyal families tend to be!  And also: how much these brands depend on that loyalty for their survival, passed on from generation to generation, like a religious denomination or a football team. When it came to magic embrocations, liniments, and the like, we were a Germolene family.  Others swore by Savlon, or by TCP, but I think you would rarely find more than one such over-the-counter salve in any single family medicine cabinet.  And cough remedies!  Veno's, Vicks, Zubes, Benylin, Collis Browne's, Hacks, Fishermen's Friends...  Endless choice, but once a path is chosen you tend to stick with it, and other paths become, in effect, invisible. In illness and affliction, there is comfort in familiarity.  Zam-Buk?  What the hell is that?

The same goes for foodstuffs: we ate Heinz beans, never Crosse & Blackwell, always drank Brooke Bond tea, and never Typhoo, Tetley, or any of the other half-dozen major brands regularly stocked.  Frozen foods?  Birds Eye, always, never Findus or ... whatever other brands there might have been. In fact, unfavoured brands or untried products might as well not have existed.  Most families are built on habit, and unexamined habits are only a short step away from blind prejudice.  Remarkably, my father had never tasted Marmite in his entire life until I developed a liking for it as a student (what is university for if not this sort of reckless experimentation?).  I brought a jar home; he found it truly disgusting.  And, as I have written before, I have yet to encounter one of the elusive, but presumably numerous, households that keep the likes of Fray Bentos in business, with their tinned pies and processed meats still stacked on shelves in every supermarket.

Of course, since the 1960s there has developed a significant counter-culture of supermarket "own brand" rationalists.  "It's the same thing!  You're just paying for the name!  It's all made by the same people, anyway!"  Oh, really?  What can you say about such people, with their insensitive, incurious palates, and reductive inverted snobbery?  As a child, I could tell proper Heinz beans from their own-brand travesty in a split second, even when my poor cost-conscious mother had secretly resorted to spooning them from a Sainsbury's can into an empty Heinz can in advance of heating them up.  Similar skirmishes were fought with my own children over various cola and soft drink substitutes.  I know... It is out of the spurious sophistication of such spoilt-brat choices -- between subtly different chemical brews of sugar, inverted syrup, stabilisers, flavour enhancers, E numbers, modified cornstarch, wotsinated glooperol, etc., etc. -- that our consumer culture is made.  We are the sultans of sweeteners, the gourmets of goo.

It all somehow reminds me of the thread in that strangely Homeric film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, where George Clooney's character, offered Fop brand pomade, repeatedly insists he is a Dapper Dan man (Dapper Dan being a fictional but entirely credible hair-care product).  This culminates in the surreal moment when the Mississippi floods, inundating the landscape, and saves the key characters from a lynching; dozens of tins of various brands of hair pomade swirl by in the floodwater, suddenly irrelevant, now the single remaining choice is death or survival.  Our heroes survive, clinging to an empty coffin.  I expect the Cohen Brothers were trying to tell us something.


Zouk Delors said...

Beware cheap imitations! Use only genuine Idiotic Hat (R) Hoard Rings in your magic rites! Available only from the manufacturer!

Kent Wiley said...

Zam-Buk? That's a good one, Mike. Wikipedia has it down as rugby emergency medical men in Australia and New Zealand. Somebody obviously needs to expand the entry.

Nearer to home, our version of this "embrocation" is Carmex, a balm for split, torn, or cut skin that I wouldn't hesitate whatsoever to use if forced to reattach someone's head.