“What’s the Twelfth like in England?”
“We don’t have the Twelfth; it’s not a holiday in England. It would not mean anything to people in England”.
“Well, that must just be in your wee part of England, because I know they have the Twelfth over there. A friend of mine went over to Liverpool for a band parade”.
It was a pointless argument. The man firmly believed that Northern Ireland’s 12th July marches were widely replicated elsewhere and nothing was going to dissuade him from his Orange-tinted view of the world. To suggest that most English people had not a clue what the Orangemen believed, or, even worse, that many wished the unionists would transfer their loyalties elsewhere, would have invited complete disbelief. Only a republican would make such outrageous suggestions; England must be as the man thought it was.
In cynical moments, a historian friend used to say that geography was the problem. Lots of people lived in countryside of little hills and valleys and their horizon did not stretch further than nearby hills. “If we lived in ‘big sky’ country”, he would sigh, “maybe people would be different; maybe their horizons would stretch further”.
Hills were not the problem so much as isolation from the rest of the world. It was depressing at times to look across to the lights of Scotland and realize that the people who lived in those houses did not feel any need to build huge and ugly bonfires or march up and down streets beating drums and shouting obscenities at members of the other community.
The man who believed that English people held marches on 12th July did not have a monopoly on limited horizons, though. Seeing the world through a very narrow window is a widespread phenomenon. Turning on CNN in Burundi two weeks ago in the hope of world news, the schedules were filled with item after item on the death of Michael Jackson. A talent and complex character Jackson might have been; non-stop world news he was not. There were serious stories affecting the lives of hundreds of millions that were going unreported.
The narrow view of the world is infectious. BBC 1, once the purveyor of world news stories, has become a domestic magazine, where people cannot possibly concentrate for more than five seconds without graphics and pictures. RTE at the weekends has much to interest followers of Gaelic sports, and not much else. Serious news is now found on the BBC World Service and Al Jazeera, which reaches the places other networks cannot reach.
The wee man who was convinced that the English also took to the streets in collarettes and bowler hats would probably find the world has moved closer to his way of seeing things; the local, the personal, the individual, these are the things that now matter.
The historian friend would probably feel that we had not so much made our dwelling place in a deep valley, as fallen down a crevice where the view of the world was no more than a thin crack of light.