Opinion

This great big world is not best served by these little men

25 March 2018 - 00:00 By MARIELLA FROSTRUP

I am fearful of politicians who don't display an interest in the outside world. I want them to be wanderers by heart, if not by action.
I grew up in Ireland in the 1970s, when a strange accent and Christian name that didn't pay direct homage to a saint made me stand out like a sore thumb. We had arrived from Norway to set up home outside Dublin and at six years old, it took some adapting to.
Thankfully the Irish are a welcoming bunch. They renamed me after the nation's favourite biscuit, the Marietta, marvelled at the exotic duvets my family favoured over blankets, made gagging noises when I pulled out rye-bread sandwiches while they tucked into soggy tomato or crisps stuffed between two slabs of processed white, and grimaced at the tettemelk my mum left to culture in the laundry cupboard.
Otherwise, assimilation wasn't too prolonged. I was white and spoke English, so the imaginative leap required to include me in the gang wasn't too great a challenge. In fact, the experience of being an outsider stayed with me for far longer than Ireland felt strange.
On a small island where the migratory movement was mainly outward, the world beyond our borders was of limited interest. My father, as foreign editor of the Irish Times, fought valiantly against our apathy, bringing home stories from afar that pushed us to the edges of our imaginations. The troubled North, only three hours' drive away by car, but by virtue of being British counting as "foreign", seemed far removed from our bucolic village life.The rest of the world's tragedies, given just a single page in a hefty newspaper, rendered the fall of Saigon, Idi Amin, the Watergate scandal, the socialist dreams of Julius Nyerere, the Cambodian genocide and even the nearby Greeks with their military junta another universe.
In the end it wasn't education but travel that brought my fellow humans into close-up.
It took just a week on a Greek island watching defeated men chain-smoke cheap cigarettes and drink Metaxa brandy to understand that past greatness is a crippling legacy for a proud people; two days in Chad hearing refugee horror stories to see how feminism had abandoned women beyond the view of developed nations; and a single cab journey in Argentina with a pint-size polo-playing driver, self-proclaimed Lothario and "gastronomer" (lover of stars and food apparently!) to understand that South American machismo wasn't just a comedy trope.
When Don McCullin, the iconic war photographer, expresses despair at how his decades of chronicling the world's worst atrocities have brought about little change, his fears seem misplaced.
We are and always will be flawed creatures that behave towards each other in terrible ways. Yet forced to look into the eyes of those we consider "foreigners", we recognise that they are as raw and vulnerable, as hopeful for love, as devoted to their children and as blinded by prejudice as ourselves.The refugees sinking in overcrowded boats in the Mediterranean, the families devastated by war in Syria, are not other, they are versions of us, in other places.
It may be a cliché to say travel broadens the mind, but in my case it's been my entire education. For that reason I'm fearful of politicians who don't display some interest in the outside world beyond inventing foreign policy as a day job.
Who wants their prime minister to plod the Swiss Alps every year? Spare me the family portrait on a Cornish beach or the man of the people in his caravan door. I want my leaders to climb Everest, travel by bus across the UK, retrace Lawrence's steps in Arabia, walk Hadrian's Wall, anything but cement their pedestrian image.
Politics by its nature is myopic and reductive, appealing to our worst instincts to exercise power.
Travelling is the opposite; it expands our horizons, increases our empathy and introduces us to brothers and sisters where once we saw strangers.
It's disappointing that politicians, charged with making momentous decisions about all of our futures, feel sanguine about admitting that they aren't at least wanderers by heart, if not in action.
To me the scariest thing about Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Little Rocket Man is not their ridiculous rhetoric but their lack of interest in the big wide world outside their minimal experience and advisers' reports. 
• Frostrup is a UK-base journalist, broadcaster and campaigner for women's rights. She is a trustee and co-founder of the Gender Rights and Equality Action Trust, which works in partnership with Femmes Africa Solidarité in Africa
- Daily Telegraph

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