Walls in the head

‘We are doing this project,’ she said, ‘because the kids who come to this school won’t get out of town, and we need to show them that the wider world does exist.’

This was a recent conversation with a school-teacher friend, working on a lovely project whereby people from all over the world are invited to send in postcards to the school from The Gingerbread Man. So far, so laudable. But when I came to think about her words, about not getting out of town. I reflected on my own travelling. I haven’t been on a plane since 2001, and my passport expired some time ago. I do occasionally go round the country to visit places, but as a family, we don’t routinely jump in the car every weekend to check off places to visit. I read extensively, follow the news, write, paint, and observe. I would in no way describe myself as being limited intellectually because I don’t currently have a passport.

Had I been a child in her class, that would probably make me register on some scale of deprivation, for in today’s globalised world, aren’t we all being a bit tunnel-visioned if we remain quite hyper-local? This despite the fact that being able to travel long distances is a relatively novel invention.

This conversation was compounded by a similar remark made by a colleague at work who was suggesting that his mother-in-law’s narrow-mindedness was the result of being limited geographically, both in terms of the town she lives and also not venturing much beyond her front door. I would also take issue with this statement. It may not be advisable to stay behind closed doors limiting your input to the Daily Mail and TV, as he was suggesting, but the modern notion that lack of geographical radius limits intellect just doesn’t hold water when you look back at some of the writers, inventors and thinkers, who were wedded to one area, but managed to produce works of great insight despite, or perhaps because of, their rootedness. Gilbert White writing about Selbourne or Bede writing a history of the English people from his home monastery at Jarrow, to give two examples. Being able to extrapolate the universal from the mundane, simple and local has been a key theme in literature, Jane Austen being another example. CS Lewis had a period of ill-health as a child and he and his brother invented a special place called Boxlands, which later became Narnia. His geographical confinement gave his mind wings.

What I think is a better way of looking at things is to use the term ‘a wall in the head’ that is used in Lynsey Hanley in her book on growing up on an estate.

It’s having a wall in the head that limits your horizons and narrows your vision. Being well travelled doesn’t allows guarantee an expansive imagination, neither I would argue, does having money. But if you grow up around limited aspiration and aren’t encouraged to have an enquiring and questioning mind, it’s those things that build walls in the head, not lack of travel.

“If you look the right way, you can see the whole world in a garden.” Frances Hodgson Burnett.

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