It wasn’t 1st April, the wintry Sedgemoor landscape testified to the fact that such spring days were still distant. Had it been April Fool’s Day, it would have been similar to a story the BBC once ran about the failure of the spaghetti harvest, a story that came complete with television pictures of spaghetti trees. Nor was the story part of the mischief that sometimes features on the Steve Wright in the Afternoon on BBC Radio 2, it was carried during the two o’clock news, not as part of the programme. A check on the BBC website verified the news item, “Naples pizza-twirling gets Unesco world heritage status.”
Why? What was it about pizza-making in Naples that merited the conferral of world-heritage status? The UNESCO has the following definition of such heritage:
Cultural heritage is the legacy of physical artefacts and intangible attributes of a group or society that are inherited from past generations, maintained in the present and bestowed for the benefit of future generations.
The pizza-making is considered an “intangible attribute”, inherited from the past, maintained now and being passed on to the future, but so are countless other activities in the world, and few of them are granted such exalted status.
Living in Ireland for more than thirty years, there was a keen awareness of the intangible attributes that surrounded death and funerals, the observances, the wakes, the funeral on the third day, the strongly communal nature of such events. Academic papers have been written on dying in Ireland, noting customs far more deeply implanted in people’s psyche than pizza-making, but no-one would have thought Irish funerals would merit world heritage status. In rural Ireland, funerals are only one custom that has been inherited and maintained, the holy wells and the pilgrimages associated with the local saints’ days are strong intangible attributes of particular communities; again, they would have been featured in numerous studies, but no-one would have presumed them to have world heritage status.
UNESCO would presumably argue that Irish religious customs are very local and particular, whereas Neapolitan pizza-making is a global phenomenon, which would suggest that the definition of intangible attributes that leads to the conferral of world-heritage status owes more to width than depth. The Irish customs attached to death and to holy places hold a very deep place within the hearts and minds of those participating, observing them without care for the feelings behind them can cause deep hurt for years to come; but the customs do not have width, in the case of some saints’ days, customs do not extend beyond the boundaries of a parish. Neapolitan pizza-making does not have the depth of death or holy places, but it has width, it is known throughout the world.
On the basis of world-heritage status deriving from width, a whole raft of new conferrals might take place – American diners, Saint Patrick’s Day parades, German Christmas markets, French restaurants, and numerous other activities that have spread around the world, presumably all have a significance similar to that of pizza-making.
Is heritage really valued if culture is defined in so broad a way?