News Travels Fast

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I don’t usually start my monthly essay with a list. I’m not keen on lists. It was one of the things which irritated me about Gordon brown’s speeches. Lists.

However, I’ve been struck this Good Friday by how fast news travels around the world today. I’m wondering  whether or not we humans were designed or are equipped to deal with it …

  • North Korea prepares rocket attacks against USA
  • Queues outside banks in Nicosia
  • Russian spaceship launched in Kazakhstan
  • Mandela stays overnight in hospital
  • Bomb blast in North-West Pakistan
  • 2 boys beaten to death in China
  • My friend in Melbourne’s son may be moving back to London
  • Wave blamed for Amazon port accident

And that’s just since I woke up this morning!

I recently finished the final novel in James Clavell’s giant Hong Kong series. It charts the history of Britain, America and France’s affairs with Asia from the beginning of the 19th Century.  In 1850 a letter from England took two months to reach Hong Kong. News of family deaths and births; the progress of the plague; wars of independence or North v South was sketchy, sparse or, for the most part, non-existent.

In 1850, what preyed on the minds of local people were local issues. Even if you were not in a far flung place but simply in a small village in England, 50 miles from Birmingham, the following rule-of-thumb for news applied:

  • news and gossip from around the village – that day at the village pump
  • news from the local market town 30 miles away – once or at most twice a week
  • news from Birmingham – once a fortnight
  • news from London – once a month at most
  • news of matters in Europe – once every two months if at all
  • news from outside Europe – hardly ever or not at all

Right now as I write this, I’m supposed to be fretting about whether there will be a nuclear war, wondering if there is something sinister about Russia re-entering a space race (must text Sergey today), concerned about my friend Kate’s family in Cyprus and what will happen to their savings (must remember to ISM Kate later), worrying about the impact on South Africa should Nelson Mandela die (I should call Gopal in New York UNICEF to chat about this), wondering how I can support my friend in Australia if her son and grandson move back to London (I’ll send her an email after I finish this essay), thinking about whether my stepson and his wife in South America are affected by the Amazon port disaster (I’ll Skype them this afternoon), feeling sorry for the families of the two boys who died in China and for the families affected by the bombs in Pakistan and the people still buried under the building in Tanzania (I forgot to mention that one earlier).

Phew!

Something tells me that news from the village pump is about all I am designed to handle in one day. The rest seems like not just information overload but emotional overload. What does concern me is that, with the weight of the world being put on our shoulders 24/7 by news, twitter and the rest, we lose sight and perspective about what is along the corridor or down the street. When did you last see old Mrs Chandler from Flat 22? Is she OK? has anyone else noticed she hasn’t been in the local shops for a week?

I moved into a new flat ten days ago, had a hernia repair three days ago … and not a single neighbour has knocked on the door to say ‘hello, welcome, who are you and I’m your neighbour’. There’s no way they didn’t notice the removal guys, the dozens of boxes, guitars and so on in the corridor. There’s no way they haven’t noticed that the new guy uses a white cane to wander about. I think they just have so much stuff on their plate to worry about and think about and know about and fret about and are supposed to deal with or interact upon that my arrival is just another tiny piece of 15 minute local news which was quickly subsumed by the frog plague in Mexico or the man bitten by a shark off the coast of Sumatra.

Good Friday? Ah yes … By the time news of Jesus and his exploits and untimely death reached all corners of the world many centuries had elapsed and the news was fragmented, distorted and inaccurate – but we still talk about it. Nowadays a crucifixion in Bethlehem would go Global in 60 seconds … but it would be old news by tomorrow and forgotten by Monday.