What are they on about?

5th October 2001 at 01:00
David Newnham is cut short by the geographically-challenged

Don't talk to me about New Zealand, it makes me tense. I'm not sure why, but I think it has to do with meat packing. Or is that Argentina? Yes, that's right. Argentina packs beef and New Zealand freezes lamb. It's coming back to me now.

Geography, you see, is not my strong point. In Trivial Pursuit, I avoid the blue questions. Somehow, I spent my entire school career at the junction between syllabuses, and I guess geography disappeared down the crack.

From the age of eight, I was raised on a diet so rich in Rs that G never got a look in. This resulted in a spectacular 11-plus pass, and an assured place at a rather academic secondary. But having sailed from crammer to grammar, I again found myself in a geography-free zone. The assumption, clearly, was that I had already done the basics. So for two years, music, algebra and ancient history now squeezed the world out of my timetable.

And then Mr Barber started teaching us about New Zealand. He started each lesson with: "So, where were we?" And when one day the answer was no longer "New Zealand" but "Argentina", I simply didn't notice. At the end of that year, geography became optional and I was advised to let the subject drop.

Now the Government reckons more 12-year-olds might like to skip it. History too - and foreign languages. Who needs these things when they cut hair for a living?

My hairdresser probably agrees. Like me, she learned little geography at school. Unlike me, she hasn't felt inspired to teach herself. When she told me about a recent Spanish holiday, I asked her what part of Spain she had visited. "I don't know," she laughed. "Loads of people have asked me that."

And is she poorer for her ignorance? If you doubt it, then listen to this. On the afternoon of September 11, I had to tear myself from the television and get a haircut. To my amazement, my hairdresser didn't have the radio on. Had she heard what was happening in New York? "The World Trade Center has been demolished by two hi-jacked planes," I told her.

"Oh," she said, unperturbed by the news. "Now remind me. Do you normally have your hair touching the collar?"

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