Do you think people might have been afraid to look at the horror of that, in case it posed a threat to their sense of loyalty?
I think that would be one reading of it, but I think that what happened was so primitive in one way… it was a new kind of warfare that people had no experience of, and of course, the medical establishment went crazy during the First World War. Here were people who could make no predictions about when they were going to fight, what was going to happen in terms of artillery, and there were a whole lot of physical and psychological reasons why they developed a response to the thing. But I love the idea that a whole people – Ulster Protestants – put such emphasis on one event when there was this whole other side to it. And I'm very interested in the relationship between talk and experience, and talk and memory. Another part of the book is, 'What is personal identity?' – What you remember about your own past. And what I explore in the book is that the problem with personal, autobiographical memory is it's not just so fallible, so restrictive. There are some things we remember fantastically well; I talk in the book about the night I was thirteen, I learned of my father's death, I've got a completely vivid memory of that. That is called 'flashbulb memory', and flashbulb memory is, unfortunately, mediated by two of the most primitive bits of the brain: they're called the limbic system and the reticular information acting together. The brain stores that information, and these are meant to be events of such significance, that the brain is saying, 'Never forget this. This might be important to your survival.' I have absolutely vivid bits of autobiographical memory but they're not the bits I'd choose to remember. I want to be able to remember positive things about my father and positive things about my brother. Why do we remember some bits so vividly? I tie that in with when you talk about events, it changes what you remember. I talk about contemporary terrorists and the way they can talk about events and give the most extraordinary description of what they do: cold blooded sectarian killing becomes something quite different in their talk and ultimately in their memory, whereas, these guys who came back from the Somme never got a chance to talk about anything. Imagine what flashbulb memories these guys had, which were never encoded in language.
I'm interested in the link between language and identity, and how that shapes and defines people's reality. In terms of Northern Protestantism, what sort of factors have you picked up on there?
Well, some of what I pick up on in the book, although it's a personal exploration, I imagine would apply to almost anyone. I'm fascinated by the way people put things into words at the most trivial level. I have Protestants talking about being victims of attempted murder, and I'm fascinated by the way they give you a narrative, a long, complex description of what happened, which almost certainly doesn't bear too much connection to what actually happened, because what they're doing is, they're having to give all sorts of complex descriptions of what was happening in their heads at the time. What we do through language is we construct our very social nature. So I became fascinated by the way people constructed themselves as being particular kinds of victims through the descriptions they gave. I've done some academic work on this and I think it's an absolutely fascinating topic. We don't know enough about it, and incredibly, no one until recently had looked at why emotional disclosure, why talking about negative events, is, psychologically, so beneficial. Nobody had looked at what people were doing throu
gh the descriptions they offer. So part of my interest is almost the universal use of language to construct identity, not just restricted to Ulster Protestants but the way everyone does it, and, as I say, there's a hint of that in the book.