Children know all about doing porridge. As I served my time through those long years from man's first step on the summit of Everest to Alexei Leonov's first step in space, one publication offered tantalising promises of a world out there waiting for me.
I would have gone stir crazy if it hadn't been for the dear old National Geographic. And, no, it wasn't because of the photographs of bare-breasted women that the NG has been publishing since 1896. In fact, I don't ever remember seeing such photographs - they were probably in the issues that somehow never made it onto the shelves of the school library. What the well-thumbed NGs offered me - and countless other children - was something far more exhilarating.
Those magazines were a foretaste of a world we'd one day enjoy, a trailer for the technicolor, wide-screen epic that we resolved to make of our grown-up lives. I don't suppose any of us imagined that we'd end up in nine-to-five jobs, or in semis or in sensible superannuation schemes. There wouldn't be time for such frivolity in a world which, as every issue of the NG confirmed, was nothing less than one vast adventure playground. I still find it impossible to read the magazines' contents pages without feeling an overwhelming urge to hunt for passport and backpack. I want to Ski to the Pole, take the Road to Kathmandu, be Ice-bound in Antarctica, chat with Bushmen of the Kalahari - stories that I have picked almost at random from issues dating from January 1980 to December 1996.
I have every one of those magazines, and can locate any of the articles or any of the stunning photographs in seconds. They are neatly packed on to five CD-Roms which sell for the ridiculously low price of Pounds 29.99. The CD-Roms also carry the complete index of all 7,500 articles that have been published since Alexander Graham Bell and the other founders of the National Geographic Society launched the magazine.
Browse through this stupendous list at your peril. You will want to spend Pounds 199.99 - cheap at the price - for the Complete National Geographic, on 30 CD-Roms. Once you've survived a glitzy titles sequence, you'll be relieved to discover that the package is free of multimedia gimmickry. No sounds, no video clips - only the pages of the magazines - pictures, words and advertisements faithfully digitised.
Using on-screen buttons, you can flick through the pages, or print out pictures or articles. Although the search engine doesn't allow you to search for individual words within the text, it's a delight to use as each of the articles has been tagged with key words. So, for example, type in "Nile", and you will be given 21 references covering everything from crocodiles in the Serengeti to the engineering project that saved the ancient Egyptian temples at Abu Simbel. Highlight any one of these references and you are offered a list of related articles. Among those for Abu Simbel, for instance, is one on Egyptian art. Click on this and you retrieve seven relevant articles one of which describes how archaeologists make use of computers. This is linked to 31 other articles which feature IT, including an unlikely one on "Beowulf in Cyberspace", which is linked to poetry , which is linked to . . . You've got the idea.
Although the reading matter is only accessible to brighter kids in GCSE classes or older, the photography is awesome whatever age you are. Teachers must resist the temptation to use this package as a teaching aid. Instead, install it on the computer in the library, and allow the inmates to enjoy the luxury of planning their own technicolor epics.
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