Simon Doubleday July 18, 2016

How to escape from jail

On a whim, during a recent visit to Foyles in London, I picked up an enticing volume—Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography (Elliot and Thompson, 2015). The week before, a narrow majority had determined that Britain should leave the EU – imprisoning itself (some felt) within its maritime walls; the people whom Marshall problematically describes here as an “island race” (p. 105) had chosen to adopt a particularly disruptive form of insularity. This was one of those moments when geography bore down like a nightmare or, for others, like a dream. “Ten Maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics”, reads Marshall’s alluring subtitle; although it soon transpires that these are simply maps of continents, and key strategic regions—ten maps that, indeed, you had better take a good look at, before trying to get a handle on global politics.

Constrained, in a manner of speaking, by the discipline of medieval Iberian studies, and curious about those global factors that variously threaten to bring about conflict between NATO and Russia, or a massive flare-up in the Korean peninsula, I decided to make a run for it. Despite an alarming reference to the “various tribes of the Iberian peninsula” who had “come together over a thousands of years to create Spain and Portugal” (91), I purchased a copy. I was sure the Castilian ‘tribe’ and the Leonese ‘tribe’ would be forgiving, though the Catalan tribe might prove more sensitive about their questionable achievement.

By the end of the train journey down to the south coast, I had realized that Marshall’s book—breezy and ambitious in scope—is itself incarcerated by an extreme form of geographical determinism. “Spain has always struggled because of its geography” (94), he avers in a sentence that appears to overlook the possibilities of a prime Mediterranean location that was the arena for the extraordinary economic, cultural, and intellectual growth under the Cordoban caliphate and its successor regimes, and an Atlantic location that a number of sixteenth-century sailors were able to exploit to some advantage. Mountains and rivers are generally perceived as the irrevocable determinants of nation-states; similarly, current economic crises are presented as the natural expression of inhabiting an unfavorable spot on the earth.

Marshall has a notable habit of erasing the varieties of historical experience; perhaps a wise choice, because a sense of history might provide the keys for escaping the prison of his geographical paradigm. Implicitly projecting the economic recession of the last ten years across the whole span of human existence, Marshall envisions the South of Europe as (more or less necessarily) a disaster zone: “the south has fewer coastal plains suitable for agriculture, and has suffered more from drought and natural disasters than the north”, he writes (93). Of the opportunities afforded by the Mediterranean, the great sea that shaped the rise of ancient civilization and which, from the eleventh and twelfth century onwards, made possible an economic revitalization of Europe, we read nothing. Of the extraordinary wealth of Renaissance Italy, and its rich cultural exchanges with the Ottoman Turks, not a word. The work of Jerry Brotton, who has written voluminously on cartography and the transcultural nature of the Renaissance, would perhaps have been worth reading.

One effect of geographical determinism is to bypass not just individual human agency, but more specifically, political responsibility. Greece provides Marshall with a conspicuous example. The voluntary, ideologically-shaped, and highly controversial spending habits of recent Greek governments are eschewed in favor of a particular emphasis on the effects of living among 1,400 islands (“6,000 if you include various rocks sticking out of the Aegean,” 95). “It takes a decent navy to patrol this territory,” Marshall claims; hence the evident necessity of high military spending. Of course, few things are more valuable in a book than the ability to spark discussion and debate. But Marshall’s approach reminds us that, in a moment when a sense of geography is being widely invoked in support of dangerous political ends—in the construction of Fortress Britain or Fortress Europe—we should retain a keen sense of the full range of human possibilities.