There’s always a time and a place

The Daily Telegraph, UK
Feb 17 2008

There’s always a time and a place

Sandi Toksvig
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 17/02/2008

What’s big, white, furry and always points north? A polar bearing.
It’s the only geography joke I know. I liked geography at school. It
was sort of colouring-in with a purpose. Ever-flirting with the
notion of emigrating to somewhere remote, the other night I decided
to order some maps. With the breathlessness of the modern world, I
placed my internet request at bedtime and the following morning the
postman brought my order to the door before I or the dog were ready
to greet the day. Here, I thought, was a tribute to the wide, open
spaces of the American south in action. Don’t panic – I haven’t lost
the plot completely. The fact is that the concept of ordering what
you want by post might never have come up if American geography had
been different.

Today marks the birthday of Aaron Montgomery Ward. Had he been alive
today, he would have been 164 and the price of stamps might well have
been a shock. He would, however, also have been a hero, for he is the
man who invented mail order. Back in the 1860s, Aaron worked for a
dry-goods company, selling all manner of things to rural communities
in remote southern states. He got tired of hiring the only horse in
one-horse towns, taking endless steam trains across miles of
tumbleweed and hearing people moaning when he got there because he
didn’t have quite what they wanted. So in 1872 he came up with the
idea of selling things from a catalogue that would arrive by the hand
of the US version of Postman Pat. Aaron stayed home, the goods were
delivered and the rest, frankly, marks the foundation of Amazon and
eBay.

Now here is a question: would you say the story of Mr Ward is one of
geography or of history? If I may be so bold, I posit that it is
both; that the one would not have happened without the other. If I
wanted to explain the origins of my map delivery to my son, I
wouldn’t just show him the Montgomery Ward catalogue, I’d probably
get him to colour in the dull bits of ?Tennessee as well. Geography
is where history happens. I don’t think it’s just a chance thing that
you find early civilisations all slumming it together in major river
valleys. Why didn’t the Germans manage to set up camp in Britain
during that unpleasantness in the 1940s? It’ll be something to do
with that thing about Britain being an island.

I mention all this because of a curious problem I’m facing. My
beloved boy is currently choosing his GCSE subjects. I didn’t think
this would be difficult. He has no interest in dance or bagpiping and
steering him away from a certificate in leisure and tourism has been
surprisingly easy. He has, however, been told he must choose between
geography and history. Up until now I have thought of these two
subjects as the twinset of the basic world-knowledge wardrobe. Add to
these a simple string of pearls-of-wisdom and you’d be intellectually
dressed for any occasion. It has never occurred to me to separate
these studies, for surely they are as joined at the hip as Prince
Andrew and his golf clubs.

Take the great Apache leader, Geronimo, who died today in 1909. His
entire history was about land. Had he lived on a continent with a
regular coastline like Africa, it might have been many more years
before his people were invaded from the sea. America, however, is
awash with natural harbours practically begging pilgrims to pop in
for a visit. Not that everyone in the United States is as certain
about the importance of geography in life. The late president, Ronald
Reagan, was famously given his world briefings by videotape as he had
little idea about anywhere on the globe. In 1982 he visited the lands
south of the American border and was asked for his views. ‘Well, I
learnt a lot,’ he replied. ‘I went down to Latin America to find out
from them and [learn] their views. You’d be surprised?… They’re all
individual countries.’

Herodotus, the Venerable Bede and even that laugh-a-minute Greek,
Homer, couldn’t jot down a speck of history without first explaining
the lay of the land. And it isn’t just history. ?The splendidly named
Mesrop Mashtots, who died today in 440, invented the Armenian
alphabet. Check Armenia on a map and you see a place ripe for
unwelcome visitors. Mashtots invented an alphabet that allowed the
Armenians to write down their own language and ideas. The upshot was
a feeling of national pride and a deepening of the desire to tell
others to push off. Literature, geography and history intertwined.

I don’t know what to tell my lad. Perhaps he should do neither. Maybe
I was hasty about the leisure-and-tourism option. He’ll end up like
the late Arthur Marshall, who once received a report from his
geography master that read, ‘This boy does well to find his way
home.’

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