I’ve been filling in some gaps recently and it’s been immensely satisfying. That’s the upside—the downside is that in sharing those gaps, I shall have to confess to an embarrassing level of ignorance. It’s not that I don’t know anything. The problem is what I know about. Like most people I’ve accumulated a lot of random knowledge on my way through life. I can tell you how knickerbockers got their name, that the Dutch are the world’s tallest people, and that elephants reach puberty around the age of eleven. But thinking back to my school days, and despite gaining a respectable clutch of O-levels and A-levels, there were deserts in my learning. Maths, science and languages were quite well taught but I studied the Appalachian Mountains for what seemed like months and was never sure why, and history was particularly disappointing. It should have been my favourite subject but it was presented as a collection of unconnected events that made little coherent sense and left me feeling thoroughly confused.
I first became conscious of these shortcomings about fifteen years ago when my four children took up most of my time and energy. It was exhausting, rewarding, constraining and happy all at once—and there were times when it felt like my brain was turning into a doughnut. However, unknown to me it was quietly fighting for survival and I found myself thinking about all kinds of things that I didn’t understand. It started one day when I was pairing up newly-washed socks. A thought popped into my head and wouldn’t go away— ‘Why did the Romans leave Britain? One century they were there, and then the next they weren’t. What went wrong?’ The following day I found myself wondering what happened to the Whigs. Next it was Zorba the Greek…the causes of the Spanish Civil War…the difference between rectors, parsons and vicars. Surely it’s not just that rectors live in rectories, parsons live in parsonages, and vicars live in vicarages?…the Holy Roman Emperor…and Methodism. Once I started noticing all the things that I didn’t understand then they seemed to be everywhere, jumping out at me from the fog.
And so I decided to do something about it. If nothing else then it would stop my brain from turning into a doughnut. So I chose a special notebook with a hard, bright pink cover, and every day I’d engage with one of these questions, and find out about it. I knew I’d forget it all, so I jotted it down in the notebook. I did that for about six months, and learned such a lot of interesting things. Friends got used to me saying over coffee, ‘Do you know…’ and were indulgent. My children rolled their eyes and were less indulgent. But I loved it. It wasn’t about accumulating information for its own sake, but instead it was about feeling less excluded from life. Forget all the formal education I’d had—this was the start of my self-education.
Eventually the ‘Questions of the Day’ stopped. I can’t remember why, but ever since I’ve remembered that period with affection. Then a few weeks ago in the midst of the election campaigning I started to wonder why we talk about ‘right’ and ‘left’ in politics. So I checked it out and found that it dates back to the French Revolution when the king’s supporters stood on the right of the president and supporters of the revolution were to the left. Right and left denoted the different groups at that stage and it was only with debates about the Spanish Civil War that the terms were used in Britain to refer to political ideologies. That was a pleasing bit of defogging and then last weekend I was on a long train journey and remembered the great gaps in my understanding of American politics. That seemed a shame as it’s particularly fascinating at the moment, so as the train clattered along I spent some time reading up about it.
A few days later, I was chatting with a friend who knows much more about politics than I do and started telling him enthusiastically about my new-found knowledge. ‘Do you know…’ I said, ‘…I now understand the difference between governors and senators… and what Congress is…and the difference between the House of Representatives and the Senate…and that representatives have to stand for election every two years but senators get six years…’ It was at that point that he stopped sipping his coffee and gave me a very funny look—sort of interested but guarded. ‘Just remind me…’ he said. ‘What exactly is Congress?’ And that was when I had the thought—it’s not just me. We all have blind spots.