Here we are. Gathered together in the very lecture theatre where Henry Morton Stanley once told an enraptured world of his momentous meeting with Dr. Livingstone. Charles Darwin was a member and gave talks in this same hall. Sir Richard Burton lectured here and John Hanning Speke … spoke. Shackleton and Hillary displayed their intimate frostbite scars to a spellbound RGS audience. Explorers, adventurers and navigators have been coming here for the best part of 180 years to tell of their discoveries. If only at school, geography teachers, surely the most scoffed and pilloried class of pedagogue there is, if only they had concentrated less on rift valleys, trig points and the major exports of Indonesia and more on the fact that Geography could promise a classy royal society with the sexiest lecture theatre in the land – if only they had done that, then maybe cheap stand-up comedians and lazy cultural commentators would be less routinely scornful of geography teachers as a class and geography itself as a discipline, which is one I rather unfashionably enjoyed when I was young. Don’t ask me why. Actually, now that I think of it, one reason for me to be fond of the subject was the circumstance that in my prep school geography room there were piles and piles of shiny yellow National Geographic Magazines available for skimming through. These, with their glossy advertisements for Chesterfield cigarettes, Cadillac sedans and Dimple whisky, gave me my first view outside television of what America might be like. But there was another reason religiously to scan the magazines…
National Geographic, before it became a ‘brand’ best known for an imbecilic and embarrassing suite of digital TV channels, was – thanks to its anthropological coverage in a pre-internet, pre-channel 4, pre-top shelf age – the only place where a curious boy could look at full colour pictures of naked people. For that alone it deserves the thanks of generations. One did get the false impression that many peoples of the world had protuberances shaped exactly like a gourd, but never mind.
National Geographic made films too, and at my school these would be run through an old Bell and Howell projector by the geography masters to keep us quiet and to give them time to beetle off and pursue their amorous liaisons with matron or the whisky bottle, depending on which teacher it was. ‘Fry, you’re in charge,’ they would never say on their way out. But what strange films they left us to watch. I seem to recall that the subjects were usually logging in Oregon, the life cycle of the beaver or the excitements to be found in the National Parks of Montana and Wyoming. Very blue skies, lots of spruce, larch and pine and plenty of plaid shirtings. The unreliable speed of that hot and dusty old Bell and Howell rendered the soundtrack and its music flat then sharp then flat again in rolling waves of discord, but it was the commentators that gave me raptures with their magisterially rich and rolling American rhetoric. What a peculiar way with language they had, employing poetical tricks that had been out of date a hundred years earlier. My favourite was the ‘be-’ game. If a word usually began with the prefix ‘be-‘ it was taken off . Thus ‘beneath’ became ‘neath’ and so on. But the ‘be’ of ‘beneath’ wasn’t simply thrown away. No no. It was recycled by adding it to words it had no business being anywhere near. Which would result in preposterous declamatory orotundities of this nature: “Neath the bedappled verdure of the mighty sequoia, sinks the bewestering sun,” and so forth. And what is the proper name for this rhetorical trope, also much deployed? It would start with the usual ‘be-‘ nonsense: “Neath becoppered skies bewends …” but then this “the silver ribbon of time that is the Colorado River.” The weird and senseless maze of metonym and metaphor that was National Geographic Speak in all its besplendour was a great influence on me, for where others had rock and roll music, I had language.
This is all a way of saying how pleased I am to be delivering this talk, this first ever Speccie Leccie, here in the temple, the palace, the very headquarters of geography. But it’s no good skirting the issue. This is not only an honour, it is also a great surprise. Not only to me, I would venture to suggest, but to the preponderance of Spectator readers around the land too. In fact not so much a surprise, more a deeply unpleasant shock. Acquit me of false modesty when I state that I take it as certain that when Mr. D’Ancona, the Spectator’s sappy young editor, announced to his readers (and I dare say to his staff) that he had chosen me to deliver the inaugural lecture there were many horrified screeches of startled disbelief and agonized howls of apoplectic protest. Surely persons such as I are exactly what the Spectator holds itself foursquare against? Am I not just about the Platonic form, paradigm and pattern card of everything the magazine was put on this earth to dispraise, damn and destroy? I am a crew member of that ship of fools, the sneering liberal elite, a cheerleader of the chattering classes, a loathsome Labour luvvie, a champagne socialist a – goddammit – a celebrity, a twittering celebrity dripping with the sickening syrup of popular culture, political correctness and nauseating kneejerk liberalism that is the leading symptom if not the primary cause of our national decay. It is as if all nature conspired to make a living suppurating mass, a walking purulent bolus compounded of all the poison and pus that oozes and weeps from the sores of today’s Britain and gave it legs, life and a name. Stephen Fry. Lo. Gaze upon him. Know your enemy. And it is he, he of all people, who has been chosen to give the inaugural Spectator Lecture. Eheu fugaces: o tempora o mores. Ichabod. The glory is departed.