Travellers’ Tales

Saturday, September 27, 1997

The way you see the world largely depends on the stories you’ve been told about it.

Places you’ve never seen exist in your head as reflections of the things you’ve learned from tv or films or books or magazines.

While we in Europe might be sitting down to episodes of ER and Seinfeld, we are watching them in a completely different way from our American cousins.

There are arguments that if we don’t see ourselves on TV, then we lose some sense of who we are, and it’s certainly odd that more Irish people watch British soaps than our own (admittedly dodgy) home-produced fare.  The current furore over the portrayal of the Irish in a British soap shows how much this matters.

This cultural schizophrenia affects the way we see our own country, but the major effect is in the way we see America – a culture to which we do not belong, and yet in which we feel so comfortable.

When I first went there, there was a curious feeling of homecoming. As I wandered around, I recognised the telephone booths, mailboxes and even the fridges from staying up on childhood Saturday nights to watch American shows like Starsky and Hutch.

My experience of the country, even having spent some time there, is conditioned by the stories I watched as child, and those I continue to watch.

However, while today many of these stories come from pop culture, this is just the latest incarnation of a much older story-telling urge.  Travellers’ tales, complete with weird and wonderful creatures, fantastical cities and their exotic inhabitants are as old as language.

My favourite uncle was a sailor, and his postcards from far-off places showed us that there was a world out there. During his stays with us on his way to or from his ship, he’d tell us of restaurants in Genoa, or driving trips across the desert in Saudi Arabia. He’d travelled to cities that were only names on the map for us, and his brown eyes twinkled as he recalled another scrape or adventure.

His stories brought the world alive for us – we’d picture him sunburnt in Sydney or shivering in Stockholm, drinking in a harbour bar in Tokyo, or buying a little keepsake for us in Cape Town.

Watching NYPD Blue might not seem to have much in common with this, but in fact it serves the same purpose: from it we learn both how different people are in different parts of the world, and also how fundamentally the same.

This access to other cultures (however it comes to us) does not dilute our own, but rather enriches it – for example, Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments and the music of U2 both show Irish people’s ability to take the influence of American music and make something uniquely Irish out it. Combining ideas and values is the only way to keep a culture alive.

So while the tv schedules might smack of cultural imperialism, and another McDonalds opens in Shanghai or Moscow, I’m still optimistic about the survival of a range of ways of looking at the world. The tv shows are like my uncle’s travellers’ tales: helping us to learn about ourselves through glimpsing a different life. 

——— In Memory of Ray Dinsmore, 1946 – 1997 ————

(First published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, 25th September 1997)