I share with Christopher Somerville, whose book Never Eat Shredded Wheat is published today, a recent interest in geography, a subject which we were both alienated from at school as a result of disastrous teaching. I am not sure that our reasons for revaluing the subject are the same, but I entirely sympathise with Somerville's intention to reacquaint us affectionately with our native land that seems both quaint and anachronistic in these days of Google Earth.
The book adopts a breezy, arm-waving tone which is probably inevitable when an author attempts to summarise a whole country's natural endowments in less than 200 pages, more than 20 pages of which are taken up with a pub quiz to make sure you were paying attention. This leads to some irritating generalisation and a few howlers, but I'm with the author in spirit.
My own interest in geography, and here I sense some further commonality with Mr Somerville, is twofold. First, I share his amazement at our ignorance of these native shores. As he explains:
'Geography helps me notice and appreciate what's around me, while I'm on the way to where I'm going. It puts a polish and a sparkle on thing. . . The British are lucky enough to live in just about the most diverse, compact, beautiful and endlessly fascinating set of islands in the world. To have the privilege of travelling them - which we endlessly do, for work and play - is to move through the world's best art gallery, nature reserve, library, concert hall and theatre - all for free.' (p. 3)
Rather more priggishly, I might suggest that, if we work a bit harder at embedding ourselves in our landscapes we might put a bit more effort into protecting them.
And then there is his idiosyncratic categorisation of England in 10 regions he seems to have chosen almost on a whim. I enjoyed this chapter, because it demonstrated a gleeful disregard for textbook geography or the statistical regions used by policy-makers. Combined with the chapter on the land's great rivers, it might provide a good starting-point for creating the bioregional map of the UK which could help us to plan a resilient and sustainable future. (See Australia's exercise along similar lines here).
The publisher's A4 sheet informs me that the author is based in Bristol, and he apparently hails from Dinder near Shepton Mallet, which may help to explain why, if he were facing in only one direction, the South-West appears especially neglected. None of its rivers are included in the chapter on 'watery bits', nor Plymouth amongst the country's great cities. Or perhaps his affection for the West Country has encouraged him to keep his own neck of the woods just a little bit private? Encouraging your countrymen to holiday at home is one thing, but seeing your own beautiful landscape overrun by the outcasts from the home counties might be too much to bear.