Writing in his diary on 26th January 1941, George Orwell laments the lack of geographical knowledge among ordinary people. It was a lack that led to a misunderstanding of the unfolding events of the war.
Listening in the other day to somebody else’s telephone conversation, as one is always doing nowadays owing to the crossing of wires, I heard two women talking to the effect of “it won’t be long now” etc., etc. The next morning, going into Mrs J.’s shop, I happened to remark that the war would probably last 3 years. Mrs J. amazed and horrified. “Oh, you don’t think so! Oh, it couldn’t! Why, we’ve properly got them on the run now. We’ve got Bardia, and from there we can march on into Italy, and that’s the way into Germany, isn’t it?” Mrs J. is, I should say, an exceptionally sharp, level-headed woman. Nevertheless she is unaware that Africa is on the other side of the Mediterranean.
Orwell’s words recalled the story told by a friend in Northern Ireland of a telephone conversation between a friend of his who lived in British Columbia and a relative of that friend who was living in Belfast.
The man who lived in Belfast had been talking to a friend in the city who was travelling to Canada. The friend was someone who had not travelled much and who was very apprehensive about the journey.
With that willingness to always try to be helpful that is part of the Belfast character, the Belfast man said he had a friend in Canada and maybe the Canadian friend could meet the anxious man at the airport.
Anyway, with the best intentions the man in in Belfast phoned his relative in British Columbia. “I’ve a friend coming to Canada and he’s a bit worried about the journey, I was wondering if you could meet him”.
“Where’s he coming to?”asked the Vancouver relative.
“Halifax in Nova Scotia”.
“Ah, I don’t know if you realize, but you’d be closer to him in Belfast than I am out here.”
A lack of geographical awareness is common enough, there are people who treat Africa as though it were a single country, people who underestimate the vastness of North America, people who may be unaware of the names of the counties that bound the one in which they live. What becomes worrying is when a lack of geographical awareness is shared by those who occupy high office.
Plans for the UK after 31st January are unclear. What is clear is that some of the imagined possibilities concerning trade are entirely fantastical. When there is the world’s biggest trading bloc in close proximity, ideas about deals with small countries that lie thousands of miles distant is as unrealistic as the belief one can travel from Africa to Italy without crossing the sea.