by Michael Grey
Piping Today #59, 2012.
What makes us do what we do? Cross a street with the red man aglow, hold the door open for someone, jump the queue at an airport check-in? We might be in a rush, we might just love people — or hate people. We might be anarchists. Our actions big and small, our chosen path and way of being comes about, I’d say, as a result of a whack of complex reasons. The list of what motivates us to do what we do might be awfully long. There are two motivations, though, that may be worthy of a quick look.
I wouldn’t do that for love nor money is a well-known English language idiom. Its meaning is clear and the flip-side suggestion is that love and money are two huge motivating forces. People have killed (and do kill) for love — and for money. Both are powerful forces. An understatement.
Now, though, I can tell you that it was hot dogs — meaning the food and not hard working Border Collies — that got me thinking about what drives us to action, what triggers our impulses and what gets our arses moving.
To be precise, it was hot dogs and two people that sent me on this tangent: Joey “Jaws” Chestnut and Sonya “Black Widow” Thomas. Both Mr Chestnut and Ms Thomas walked away men’s and women’s hot dog-eating champions at this past July’s American Independence Day celebrations in New York. The Black Widow, in fact, scarfed down 45 hot dogs in 10 minutes to break the women’s world record. Amazing to me, not just in the amount of grub gobbled but that there is a world record kept anywhere for hot dog eating. Said our chow-chewing champion: “My technique is, I dunk two hot dogs in the water cup and then eat.” Lovely.
But why? It surely has nothing to do with nutrition or sating hunger. The joy of masticating? Unlikely. The reason, though, seems to be clear. In fact, there are 10,000 of them. Jaws and Black Widow each walked away with 10,000 American dollars — that’s almost £6500.
And not just that, this wasn’t a quirky one-off event. It seems there’s a whole circuit of food-eating competitions. Name the food and there’s a gold glutton medal contest somewhere: hamburgers, chips, chicken wings, pies and chicken tamales — whatever they are. And not just in the U.S. These contests are worldwide. There’s a career path for you: professional pie-eater.
Beyond the juicy food-eating prize money is there glory for prevailing? For winning? Who knows. Well, I guess Jaws can tell us but he’s between bites somewhere and unavailable for comment. I’d venture to say that it’s money and not love that makes a person want to eat 45 hot dogs — or 68 in Jaws’s case — in less time than it takes to play a twice-through march, strathspey and reel. At least, I hope it’s money.
And you know where this is going: has there ever been a first prize in solo piping or pipe bands, even, that came close to £6500? Not that I know of. The biggest solo piping prizes hover around the £500 mark. Around the games, the range seems to sit between £50 and £100 with the odd exception.
In Ontario, where I live, the money is terrible and hasn’t changed much in years (so I guess it has changed: it has gotten worse). Here, senior competitors pay $20 per event to enter (just under £13) and can win as little as $15 for third prize — no kidding. Expenses and entry fees rise and still contestant rosters thrive.
Why do we do it? I’d say it’s love that motivates; love for the music, love for everything about the instrument. But before we get on our high horse, we may want to have a glance at a few facts from the old days. I am not so sure solo pipers have always competed for the love of the music alone.
A quick look at a sampling of solo piping prize money from the past is interesting. It’s a tricky thing to compare old money with new and relate old money to current standards of living but, still, on the face of it, the exercise allows a little insight into the material difference a good day at the games could have on a household budget back in the day.
If you made your way to Luss games in 1908 you’d get 50 shillings for winning the piobaireachd. In today’s money that’s around £210. A win in the marches at the same games would see you on the train home with 30 shillings — about £110 in today’s money. In 1908, the average weekly wage of a labourer was 30 shillings. Imagine winning a week’s wages for busting out a rocking Bonnie Ann. I recall John Wilson (Edinburgh/Toronto) talking about the haul of cash he’d get at the games when on a tear. In fact, he spent the summer of 1936 just doing the games rounds. That was his job. Solo piping prize money paid his bills and gave him a living. A real professional solo piper.
Fast forward five decades or so to 1961 and North Uist games. On offer was 100 shillings for winning the piobaireachd, about £95 today, 80 shillings for the MSR and 60 for the jig. The average annual wage was under £800 and a pint of beer about two shillings. I’d say North Uist offered up pretty fair prize money but with the piobaireachd prize representing a couple of day’s wages, the relative value of the victory didn’t quite match good old Luss of 1908.
You know, this is not a detailed look at the history of solo piping prize money. Not even close. But I’d suggest there are hints to be gleaned of a century-long trend in increasingly diminished prize money for competing pipers.
Why do pipers compete? Today it’s for love. A hundred years ago motivations may have been of a baser kind: food, lodging, living … money.
Surely there’s room today to strike a balance, maybe tap into some of that hot dog dosh, get a piece of that professional pie-eating action. We can do it for the love — and the money. •