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Tuesday, 1 February 2011

A sense of direction

In the January 31 edition of Lloyd’s List, Michael Grey laments the decline of education standards – and particularly those relating to the teaching of geography - in the UK. He is quite right. Our generation grew up knowing the important things about geography. We knew what was north of Cape Hatteras, we knew that Greenland wasn’t really as big as it looked on the map, and we knew that Chile was the long thin one in South America. Set us down on a bald man’s head, and we could find our way anywhere.

That is not the case today. We live in a society in which contestants on TV quiz shows tell us that Peru is the capital of Chile, and that Mount Olympus is the highest mountain in Austria. And it is not only geography teaching which is in decline. Ask those same TV quiz contestants a question relating to anybody or anything which is more than twenty years old and they will declaim, “Oh, that was before my time”, as if this were some sort of justification for wilful ignorance. The present generation finds it quaint that we used to learn about things that happened hundreds of years before we were born, and then used that information to inform our understanding of contemporary issues. It was called history.

Geography needn’t be dull. There are few things more fascinating than a good atlas, even if a third of the countries of the world are no longer coloured in pink. Geography is about more than finding your way about the place, too. It is about intuition, and instinct. Henri Charriere, in his book Banco, recalls how he once stopped on a street in Caracas and asked a local how long it would take him to get to the address he was heading for. The man drew in his breath, reflected for a moment, and said, “Oh, about two cigarettes”.

The only comparable directions I can recall are those offered on numerous occasions by Michael Grey himself, across the desk we shared at Fairplay. Michael used mercatorial projection theory in reverse to make his calculations. Wherever I was trying to get to, be it Harrow or Montmartre, he would say, after only a moment’s consideration, “Right. That’s only half an hour from your house”.


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