Despite five long, fruitless years spent toiling in order to be ready for long-ago GCSE’s, my geographical knowledge is what is known in educational circles as ‘pants’, my entire world understanding barely scraping above non-existent. I do not, for instance, believe that I would be able to name any more than a handful of the countries on the African Continent – even if they didn’t keep changing their names annually – and as for where they are – top, bottom, left or right – I would probably stand a better chance of naming the players of the Patagonian baseball team*. As far as I am concerned, the whole world would be far easier to understand if all the countries within it were square and named alphabetically from left to right. The boundaries between sovereign states (those that can agree not to fight over them) appear to have been drawn by a myopic chimp after a night on the tiles. For instance, what kind of country is Chile when it plunges the length of half a continent, yet can be crossed in about three paces?
I know that all things change, but I’m sure that when I was at school there were only five continents and a similar number of oceans (although I’m pretty sure that if you asked my grandchildren, they would guess that there was only one of each: Pangaea and the wet bit). According to Google, there are now seven of each – although where they have managed to fit the new ones, I cannot imagine. I don’t recall any gaps that needed filling. I am not even certain when Australia became a continent instead of ‘the whopping big island on the bottom bit where nobody goes’. The political map of the world is a very different creature to when I was at school: the U.S.S.R has gone, as has Yugoslavia, and Africa appears to be in such flux that watching the map changes over the last fifty years is like peering down a kaleidoscope. Yet the world has not really changed. The high bits, the wet bits, the dry bits, the icy bits, they all remain more or less where they have always been. The hike from Austria to Switzerland would still be lined with singing nuns, even if Austria and Switzerland did not exist; the people of France would still be setting light to lorry tyres, even if they weren’t the people of France; the people of Britain would still be completely out of place, wherever they were.
To be honest, all that I can genuinely recall from half a decade of schoolboy research (turning up for lessons and not getting thrown out until at least half way through) is that occluded fronts require both red and blue pens; glacial valleys are ‘U’ shaped and river valleys ‘V’ shaped – although it really doesn’t matter unless you are at the bottom of one and it is raining, and the origin of the ox-bow lake is something that never comes up in a pub quiz. I understand precipitation, because I am British; I understand erosion (ditto) and I understand the difference between igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic – although not the difference between geography and geology it would appear.
I seldom know exactly where I am (both physically and metaphysically) and I that is probably just one reason (or possibly two) why my Sat-Nav has such fun with me. I am insanely trusting. If it tells me that I should go to Cleethorpes via the Khardung La, I see no reason to doubt it. It also knows that I struggle with ‘left’ and ‘right’ so it uses them all the time. Surely it can find some other way of guiding me around: ‘In three hundred yards, turn in the direction that will get you killed if you don’t stop for the traffic heading towards you’. It constantly urges me to ‘Follow the road to the left’ when the only alternative is a ploughed field. Besides, most of the time I don’t need directions. As soon as I get stuck behind an extra-wide load driving at five miles per hour, I know exactly where we’re both going. It is, at least, a somewhat more accurate indicator of where we are going than my wife, who, to be honest, is very good at telling me where I should have gone. I am only happy that when I am driving the car and my wife is navigating, I do not have to follow me. We once went to Cornwall, via Scotland, only realising that my wife was taking her directions from Charles Atlas’ autobiography when we got there.
I am, by and large, a good man to have on the quiz team. My head is crammed full of what, in academic circles, is known as ‘junk’, but which almost certainly satisfies the average pub quizmaster’s criteria for ‘knowledge’, however as soon as anything even vaguely geographical is mentioned, a void is all that exists between my lugs. I can’t do flags, because I can’t remember which country is which, and I can’t do capitals because it would be ridiculous of me to know that the capital of Sierra Leone is Freetown, when I would put it on the wrong continent on a map. I know what a Col is, but only because it is my name. If I had been called Nigel, who knows what I would have called the gap between two mountain peaks. Jeremy, probably. Anyway, it shouldn’t bother you. If ever I suggest joining your quiz team, just send the directions in the post – you may never see me again.
*Since I have just read that Patagonia is a region occupying the southernmost parts of both Chile and Argentina and not, as I thought, a part of the former Soviet Union, that is even more doubtful than I believed.