I heard the other day of an elderly man who gets the cleaners in every so often. In the hour before they arrive, he exhausts himself trotting from room to room….yep, you guessed it. Cleaning. I mean, what would the cleaners think if the place was a mess?
This concern over what outsiders might think runs deep in our psyche. I remember the Stations: the time when the priest would celebrate Mass in someone’s house. For weeks before, the people would be tidying and fixing, sometimes adding a fresh coat of whitewash to the building. Godliness and cleanliness, the unspoken assumption said, marched hand-in-hand.
Now that the Italians are coming (in the Giro d’Italia, Viriginia – it’s a race men do on bicycles), there’s a frenzy of getting ready. The Environment Minister Mark H Durkan has written to all parties asking them to take down their election posters during the period of the race (the May elections are just after the race). The Alliance Party’s Anna Lo urges that “we take the ban one step further and get rid of Union and paramilitary flags as well as sectarian murals during the Giro d’Italia. We should present a positive image of Northern Ireland for viewers watching the race on television, not images of the past.”
And of course you’re familiar with the draping of fake store-front canvas sheets, supposedly fooling half-blind passers-by into thinking a town or village isn’t full of empty shops and broken-down buildings but happy prosperous businesses.
This is what-would-the-visitors-think gone mad. It’s not new – Gay Byrne used to give out about pavement chewing-gum spots on the grounds that tourists wouldn’t like it. Personally, I think the people who live here are more important than tourists. Yes, we should clean up the environment. Yes, we could do without flags on every lamp-post. But not because the visitors would be unimpressed; because we are unimpressed. What sort of thinking is it that wakens to squalor and stupidity only when visitors are coming through? If we set our standards at a decent level to begin with, we wouldn’t need to worry about cleaning the house before the visitors arrive.