Geography, as a subject worth knowing anything about, tends to rank somewhere south of media studies and sociology in most people's estimation. The only thing it's good for is teaching geography. To be honest, it was probably a mistake even putting the word in the title of this piece. Who wants to read about geography?
I guess in 1990, when I entered higher education, there wasn't really any such thing as environmental studies. My interest in all things environmental was really more to do with just not understanding people rather than any wish to save the planet. People are weird but, you know, a tree is just a tree. So geography it was. Also it was the only subject I fancied doing at the university I chose to study at. The place I chose for my degree was little more than a bike shed occupied by a lecturer who had obviously spent 40 years descending the ranks of academia and was just one redundancy away from part-time teaching at a Further Education college. But at least it was near my girlfriend. Or it was until she dumped me 3 months after I moved there. To give you an insight into the sort of place it was, in our first geography lecture some boys, incredibly posh but not at home with the rigours of intellectual thought, because they would not have been at this place if they were, began throwing paper darts at the woman teaching feminist geography every time she turned her back to write something on the blackboard (the college could not afford an overhead transparency projector). When that got boring they started to set fire to the paper darts and then throw them at her.
At the end of it all I wrote a dissertation about geography and people. No trees. I wrote about how it was that I, a layabout and bum, who knew only layabouts and bums, and whose family had barely kept themselves out of prison let alone got an education, had ended up going to university. The explanation was geographical. Through friends I met some posh people who did not live anywhere near me, got to be friends with them, and saw that anyone could go to university. So I went back to school, got A levels, went to university, got a degree, graduated as the top student in my year an won an award for my dissertation detailing how geography shapes aspiration. That process filled me with such confidence and ambition that after university finished I went back to being a bum.
But, several uneventful years later I found myself working in academia, married to a beautiful and successful woman, living in a nice house at the top of the hill with my two teenage sons. I learnt from responses to my geography dissertation that I could string an argument together, and I made a sort of a living out of that. The town where I live in my house on the top of the hill is a small town, and near our house is an area of housing not unlike that which I grew up in, a world of ignorance, despair and failure. Perhaps my geography background should have rung alarm bells. Should have, but did not. So the people from this estate became the people my eldest starting hanging around with. In an exact reverse of my life, he moved away from the culture of deferred gratification and into the world of do it now and don't worry about the consequences. I would like to think the story has something of the grandeur of a Hardy novel, the ill-informed effort of the small man to escape his fate. But this is all far too squalid.
So, what has happened? How has this reversal of the geographical arc ended up destroying my life? I know one should be honest in one's writing. What else is worth doing, in the short time we have? But I can't bring myself to do it. Let me just tell you, my 16 year old son, following his return to the swamp from which I crawled, has shared with us news that threatens to rip our family apart and ensures he has no future worth speaking of. And all of a sudden, the world I created has disappeared, and I am back in the world I thought I had left behind 30 years ago. Perhaps, just like Harold in Steptoe and Son, all efforts to remake ourselves, abandon our pasts, are a sad joke. There simply is no escape.
Talking of jokes, do you know how to make God laugh? Tell him your plans.