Saturday, April 26, 2008

Local Ignorance

It all began with one of those trivia challenges that come up at dinner parties. The question was: 'How many US States can you name?' So I set to scribbling desperately - I only had five minutes after all - and was very pleased with myself that I got 44 out of 50. The ones I missed? Idaho. Michigan. Minnesota. New Mexico. Rhode Island. Vermont. Not too shabby for a British guy, I thought. But it set me wondering ... how many English counties could the average American name? (I'm excluding Wales, Ireland, Scotland, the Channel Islands and Isle of Man here). I threw the question out to my party chums ... and was amazed that none of them could best 30. And they were all English. So how's that for a snapshot of local knowledge?

It's all too easy - and incredibly wrong - to accuse Americans of parochialism. For a start, you can't generalise about people like that. Secondly, it's hard for us on our wee island to imagine living in a country so vast. Hell, Texas alone is bigger than our entire nation - and that's just one of the 50. America is so mind-bogglingly big that it has different time zones. There are fields of ice and there are burning deserts. There are mountains and salt flats and swamps and gorges and great tidal rivers. There are beaches hundreds of miles long and great grass plains that seem to go on forever. America has it all. Therefore, you don't need to leave the country. It's all there; the world in microcosm. The only thing missing is history, and by that I mean Western history - there's plenty of native American stuff around. Modern America is a very young country so if you want to see Norman castles or neolithic stone circles or Tudor wooden-framed houses you need to pop over here to Europe. If we combine the fact that the country has everything you could possibly need and a big dollop of national pride (something that our shoddy St George's day celebrations could learn a thing or two about), it's no wonder that many Americans don't concern themselves with what's going on in the rest of the world.

By contrast, here in the UK, we seem to be obsessed with it. I can honestly say that I probably know more about what's happening in Iraq, Afghanistan, California, Zimbabwe and China at this moment than I do about what's happening in my nearest town. Maybe it's the fact that we are a small, isolated island nation that we're always looking outwards? Or maybe we've just become information junkies. All I do know is that I am ashamed to admit that my percentage score was higher for US states than it was English counties. So maybe I should do something about that.

I thought I knew England quite well. But now I come to think about it ... what do I really know about Leicestershire? Or Worcestershire? Next to nothing, to my shame. I know the West Country and the South-East pretty well because I've lived in them for nearly 47 years. But Staffordshire? Durham? Not a clue. I have a lot to learn. And it starts today.

Incidentally ... how many English counties can you name? Check the comments for the answers.


Stevyn Colgan said...

Here we go ...

5.Cornwall and Isles of Scilly
11.East Sussex
14.Greater London
15.Greater Manchester
16.Hampshire and the Isle of Wight
26.North Yorkshire
31.South Yorkshire
36.Tyne and Wear
38.West Midlands
39.West Yorkshire

How many did you get?

Pedant said...

Berkshire, East Riding of Yorkshire, and Rutland.
Isle of Wight is a county in its own right, and assuming these are "ceremonial" counties, Bristol and City of London are counties too.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Thanks 'Pedant' - I am always happy to be corrected. How I missed Royal Berkshire I sahll never know as I can virtually see it from my window. Wasn't Rutland done away with in the 1970s? I am keen to know more ...