Why Am I Here…?

In which The Author ponders a geographical question

Rabbi Pete Tobias of the Liberal Synagogue in Elstree was the guest speaker on Richard Allinson’s Radio 2 breakfast show one day last week. Like me, Rabbi Pete is a bit of a joker, and indeed the subject of his Thought For The Day was the need to take everything (including oneself) a bit less seriously. He told a story of when he was at rabbinical college, and the lecturer was explaining the difference between ontology and existentialism. He wrote the question Why am I here? on the board.
‘If I emphasise the “why”, it’s an ontological question,’ he continued. ‘And if I emphasise the “I”, it’s an existential question.’
At which point Pete piped up, ‘And if you emphasise the “here”, it’s a geographical question.’
Cue stony looks from lecturer and fellow students alike.
(Yes, folks, in keeping with my new broadcast documentary style, I’m going to embark on yet another bitter and patronising diatribe about the state of education in this country. If you like, you can skip over this and go on to the next funny bit.)
Back in the day we used to learn where countries were on the map. When I was in primary school my parents bought me the New Junior Encyclopedia. This was published in eighteen weekly volumes, priced at 59 new pence each. I’ve still got them all, and in fact I’m holding Volume 1 in my hand now. It was produced in 1973 by News Publishers Ltd, who on closer examination turn out to have been part of the now-defunct Macdonald & Co (Publishers) Ltd of London. Looking at the title page, the Consultant Advisory Board were respected names: Professor Asa Briggs, Maurice Burton, Sir Bernard Lovell, and Yehudi Menuhin, among others
Even though I’m not quite old enough to remember when half the world was coloured red, the final volume contained a detailed atlas and a potted history of the British Commonwealth. I got hooked on the atlas, even at eight years old, and I’ve loved maps ever since. My brother also took up this interest, and pursued it into his career as a cartographer.
I’ve always been fairly good on the People and Places category on various quiz machines in pubs over the years – probably as a result of this early fascination with maps. Now, of course, what we used to call ‘geography’ has adopted a politically correct environmentalist agenda, in which the names and locations of places are far less important than the effects of climate change and species extinction.
In ‘An Exciting New Documentary‘ I referred in passing to the way in which news stories are always accompanied by a graphic of a spinning globe, heading from the UK to wherever the earthquake or hurricane or forest fire has wreaked its havoc. I used to find this an annoying example of dumbing down in the media. Now I know why they do it.
[A digression: Several years ago, Dillons bookshop in Cardiff participated regularly in an exchange scheme with the twin city of Stuttgart. Someone doing their apprenticeship (which means something very different in Germany) in the publishing industry could come and spend two weeks working in our shop. Of course, none of us ever got to go to Stuttgart for a fortnight. I imagine someone at County Hall got that little junket sewn up fairly early on, in that fine Welsh Labour tradition of Jobs For The Boys.
Anyway, one particularly wet summer, Jasmin came to work with us. She was lovely, and Louise and I – who had at best a rudimentary knowledge of German – took her under our wing. In common with most people I’ve met from outside the UK, Jasmin thought that the United Kingdom was synonymous with England.
Throughout her time working with us, she would say things like ‘Books are very expensive in England.’
I’d catch her eye, wink, and say, ‘Yes – and in Wales.’
After a couple of days she caught on, and it became a bit of a running joke between us. When she went home, she sent me a postcard from Stuttgart, in which she said how much she’d enjoyed her time in England (and Wales).]
I’m studying the History and Development of the English Language at the moment, and about a month ago we were talking about the impact of English in South Africa. It was about the time that we were deciding which variety of World English to do our project on. I’d already decided to look at English in the Indian subcontinent – mainly because it’s a variety which I’ve been interested in for a good while. Also, Shanara can point me to a lot of useful practical material, like the effects of English-language cinema (negligible in the face of Bollywood domination, apparently).
Afterwards, a couple of the girls had to ask Gill A. for advice. They thought that the Republic of South Africa was synonymous with the whole of the continent south of the equator. I was familiar with this misunderstanding after a couple of years looking after the travel guides in work. I regularly had to move guides on Southern Africa out of the section on RSA, and vice versa. It took Gill quite a while to explain the difference; I left for the train at about the time where she was describing how all the little coloured pieces on the map of the continent represent individual nation-states. That would be fair enough in primary school, perhaps, or maybe in the lower tiers of secondary school, but with first-year university students it’s almost beyond belief.
Then again, if I was teaching a course like Gill’s, I’d pepper the slideshow with maps and illustrations. It would liven it up a bit for one thing, but it would also benefit people who can tell you everything about the plight of the Yanomani people in the face of encroaching deforestation, but haven’t got the first idea of where they actually live.
By an odd coincidence I watched the Wales vs Scotland game in the Students’ Union the following afternoon. A young black guy sat next to me and we said hello before settling down to watch the game. During the first injury stoppage we started chatting. I picked up his accent, and asked him if he was from South Africa. In fact, he was from Botswana – close, but no cigar. He told me that when he came to the UK to study, he didn’t realise that we had three national rugby teams and four national soccer teams. Like Jasmin, he’d fallen for the old UK = England myth peddled by the global media.
I amused him by telling him about the discussion after Gill’s lecture, when she had to explain that RSA wasn’t the whole of Southern Africa. It seemed that his perspective on our country was similar to their perspective on his.
Yesterday, in the seminar we sat down with maps and charts illustrating the relation of World Englishes to British Standard English. Two of the girls have decided to study Caribbean English for their project. They were quite upset when they couldn’t find it labelled on the map of World Englishes. I ended up pointed out the area in question – the map-maker had labelled it ‘West Indies’. I told them, half-jokingly, to start watching the cricket coverage.
Still, it’s not nearly as good as the customer in Waterstone’s who asked Keith (entirely seriously) whether the whole world was on a particular globe. At that point, I think we both wondered why we were here.
As the old joke has it – probably because we’re not all there!
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