When I was about twelve years old I knew how to have a good time. When not watching documentaries about Martin Luther King, or ITV’s The World at War, I might be found in front of an old wireless, turning the long wave dial, listening to Van Morrison, in his song In the Days Before Rock ’n’ Roll, namechecking the radio stations – Luxembourg, Athlone, Budapest, Helvetica… From the distance of 1970s Leeds these seemed incredibly glamorous places, with incredibly glamorous sounds coming from them. And so to the maps!
Budapest? Ah, Hungary – yes, I’d seen that mentioned in stuff about the war, and something to do with 1956. Helvetia? Oh, Switzerland and, er, Sound of Music, the Second World War, neutral – and look, it’s surrounded by lots of other countries. Who knew?
I would thumb through atlases, noting the great rivers, the borders, the cities, but nothing caught my attention like the standard Mercator colour map of the world. There it all was, and every time I looked at it – there I wanted to go.
Fast-forward a few decades and I’m lying down on the back seat of beat-up Merc in Baghdad, crossing the Tigris River. Up front are two Western ex-special forces types wearing sunglasses, head scarves and beards. Between them are two assault rifles. This was the only way to ‘safely’ venture into the heart of a particular part of the Iraqi capital at the height of the insurgency in order to interview a senior Shia religious leader.
I’d crossed the Tigris, and the Euphrates, many times, like many a wandering Brit before me, but on this occasion the romance of the moment passed me by. There have been many ‘romantic’ moments, though: the Sahara, the Mississippi, the Bosporus, Siberia, Afghanistan, Sudan, India, Egypt, Libya, Syria.…
I was so lucky; after becoming a news reporter people paid me to go to these places, and then tell stories about what happened there. They paid me!
Before each trip I would study the history and the politics of the place, but also the geography. I quickly learned how important geography is to events, and always felt it was underreported in the news. A lesson came early on in the Bosnian war in the 1990s. In a valley houses were burning. ‘Why burn villages?’ I asked a ‘commander’. The answer was brutally logical: ‘If we burn the village, everyone runs away, they tell the next village and they run away – we then control the valley, and the valley leads to the town, and the town leads to the motorway we need.’ That was the day I learned to use sparingly the phrase ‘mindless violence’.
Upon retiring, partially mentally hurt, from the wars, I wanted to put some of this experience into a book, but not of the ‘me and my flak jacket’ genre.
The result is Prisoners of Geography.
The book contains the odd anecdote, but it’s mainly a look at current affairs through the prism of geography. Russia has flat land to its west and so will always seek to dominate that flat land, even if it is called Poland. The Americans will always seek to dominate Cuba as it guards the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico in which sits their crucial port: New Orleans. And, if the Iranians (who are mostly Shia), have allies in Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut, they will intervene in the Syrian war to keep that land corridor to the Mediterranean connected. Of course, it’s not all about geography; but, often, the missing piece in the current affairs jigsaw is made up of terrain.
I do still look at the Mercator map, but now I happily recall Hemingway’s words in In Another Country: ‘In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more.’
Adapted from a blog at WATERSTONES to whom many thanks for making ‘Prisoners of Geography’ their book of the month.