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Geographical Research
by [?]

The other day I met a man who didn’t know where Tripoli was. Tripoli happened to come into the conversation, and he was evidently at a loss. “Let’s see,” he said. “Tripoli is just down by the–er–you know. What’s the name of that place?” “That’s right,” I answered, “just opposite Thingumabob. I could show you in a minute on the map. It’s near–what do they call it?” At this moment the train stopped, and I got out and went straight home to look at my atlas.

Of course I really knew exactly where Tripoli was. About thirty years ago, when I learnt geography, one of the questions they were always asking me was, “What are the exports of Spain, and where is Tripoli?” But much may happen in twenty years; coast erosion and tidal waves and things like that. I looked at the map in order to assure myself that Tripoli had remained pretty firm. As far as I could make it out it had moved. Certainly it must have looked different thirty years ago, for I took some little time to locate it. But no doubt one’s point of view changes with the decades. To a boy Tripoli might seem a long way from Italy–even in Asia Minor; but when he grew up his standards of measurement would be altered. Tripoli would appear in its proper place due south of Sicily.

I always enjoy these periodic excursions to my atlas. People talk a good deal of nonsense about the importance of teaching geography at school instead of useless subjects like Latin and Greek, but so long as you have an atlas near you, of what use is geography? Why waste time learning where Tripoli and Fiume are, when you can turn to a map of Africa and spot them in a moment? In a leading article in The Times (no less–our premier English newspaper) it was stated during a general election that Darlington was in Yorkshire. You may say that The Times leader writers ought to have been taught geography; I say that unfortunately they have been taught geography. They learnt, or thought they learnt, that Darlington was a Yorkshire town. If they had been left in a state of decent ignorance, they would have looked for Darlington in the map and found that it was in Durham. (One moment–Map 29–Yes, Durham; that’s right.) As it is, there are at this moment some hundreds of retired colonels who go about believing implicitly that Darlington is in Yorkshire because The Times has said it. How much more important than a knowledge of geography is the possession of an atlas.

My own atlas is a particularly fine specimen. It contains all sorts of surprising maps which never come into ordinary geography. I think my favourite is a picture of the Pacific Ocean, coloured in varying shades of blue according to the depths of the sea. The deep ultramarine terrifies me. I tremble for a ship which is passing over it, and only breathe again when it reaches the very palest blue. There is one little patch–the Nero Deep in the Ladrone Basin–which is actually 31,614 feet deep. I suppose if you sailed over it you would find it no bluer than the rest of the sea, and if you fell into it you would feel no more alarmed than if it were 31,613 feet deep; but still you cannot see it in the atlas without a moment’s awe.

Then my atlas has a map of “The British Empire showing the great commercial highways”; another of “The North Polar regions showing the progress of explorations”; maps of the trade routes, of gulf streams, and beautiful things of that kind. It tells you how far it is from Southampton to Fremantle, so that if you are interested in the M.C.C. Australian team you can follow them day by day across the sea. Why, with all your geographical knowledge you couldn’t even tell me the distance between Yokohama and Honolulu, but I can give the answer in a moment–3,379 miles. Also I know exactly what a section of the world along lat. 45 deg. N. looks like–and there are very few of our most learned men who can say as much.

But my atlas goes even farther than this, though I for one do not follow it. It gives diagrams of exports and imports; it tells you where things are manufactured or where grown; it gives pictures of sheep–an immense sheep representing New Zealand and a mere insect representing Russia, and alas! no sheep at all for Canada and Germany and China. Then there are large cigars for America and small mild cigars for France and Germany; pictures in colour of such unfamiliar objects as spindles and raw silk and miners and Mongolians and iron ore; statistics of traffic receipts and diamonds. I say that I don’t follow my atlas here, because information of this sort does not seem to belong properly to an atlas. This is not my idea of geography at all. When I open my atlas I open it to look at maps–to find out where Tripoli is–not to acquire information about flax and things; yet I cannot forego the boast that if I wanted I could even speak at length about flax.

And lastly there is the index. Running my eye down it, I can tell you in less than a minute where such different places as Jorobado, Kabba, Hidegkut, Paloo, and Pago Pago are to be found. Could you, even after your first-class honours in the Geography Tripos, be as certain as I am? Of Hidegkut, perhaps, or Jorobado, but not of Pago Pago.

On the other hand, you might possibly have known where Tripoli was.