Cautiously, I surrender grip on my biro pen. It falls indistinctively
to the ground and with a forecastable crash, I reassure myself
that we are still subject to the realities of gravity. Soon, the Sun
emerges from under the blanket of the horizon and over the course of
the morning, I watch as shadows migrate around garage gutters and
tree trunks. It seems that the Earth is still revolving.
And yet with each hourly chime from my university clock tower this
morning, life - at least what passes for life in our political system - seemed
to become progressively chaotic. By midday, the political architecture of the
UK seemed so thoroughly riddled that I had to seek solemnity. The
anguish, oozing from every virtual orifice of social media, was slightly
suffocating me. In other words, I needed to go for a walk.
My amble was by no means eventful, nor did I plan where I wanted to go. The
exercise was purely to restore a sense of positivity. After all, no less than
24 hours previously, I received some wonderful news about my degree
but any shared elation between myself and other finalists had been somewhat
diluted with the events of the morning. Soon, I was immersed in the England I
knew and loved. The bird were chirping; the squirrels were chomping; the bees
buzzed from bud to bud. It seemed so neutral in a country that appeared quite
polarized. And yet, it wasn't long before my mind catapulted back to the news
of the UK's exit. Indeed, the tensions surrounding Cameron's departure and
Corbyn's future. The news of a second Scottish referendum. The escalating
trajectory of the world markets. In Iceland, the 'Gateway to Hell' volcano had
displayed signs of imminent eruption. Here, in the United Kingdom, a political
eruption had seemed to unleash dark clouds of fear and uncertainty. Would
the ash ever settle?
I leaned, in reflection, over a small pond bridge with eyes that
drifted over lilypads. My thoughts turned not to the result of the
referendum, but more towards the words of anger and sadness and
particularly the burning desire to escape and live someplace
else. But what of the pull factors, which entice us to stay in this
green and pleasant land and attract millions to visit annually? What of
our historic architecture; our sublime moorland; our vibrant
cityscapes? The rich and blessed landscape seemed forgotten.
With a grace only witnessed in the floral world, a leaf descended upon the
pond. I gazed at its majestic flight and then the sequence of ripples
projected in every direction. And then I remembered the word that I had heard
so many times, by so many people. Seismic. Time and time again, I had listened,
watched and read statements from people describing the political situation as
I have good news. Just as the ripples on the pond became less and less
prominent, so the ripples caused by last night's exit vote will eventually
diminish. Eventually if one teases away some of the letters from 'Calamity',
the word 'Calm' is revealed and it is this state of controlled
tranquility which must remain our objective in the coming weeks and months. A
few months ago, at a PhD interview, I was asked what the key
buzz-word of the 21st century is. I hesitated as surely such a
question would have plural answers, but we settled on 'resilient'. Resilience,
I would argue though, is not a recent concept but an ethic engrained
in our very soul as a living species.
We're relentlessly resilient. We always bounce back. We rise, like a
phoenix from those ashes, from the destruction left by natural disaster or
the devastion imposed by terrorist attack. Communities repel the despair
inflicted upon them and become stronger. As Tennyson so elegantly expressed:
"One equal temper of heroic hearts, / Made weak by time and fate, but
strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield".
I had the great honour of being asked to speak at a TEDx event, here at the
Royal Holloway University, a couple of years ago. I opened with a line from
Heraclitus: "There is nothing permanent except change". It is true to
state that the world seems in constant flux, and in reality, it really is.
Continental plates are constantly shifting, seismic events are a daily
occurrence both at the heart of our lithosphere, but more profoundly, deep at
the heart of our society. Last night, the UK experienced political rupture and
many after-shocks, too. As with any major earthquake, these seismic waves can
and will be felt right across the world. But similarly, the UK will be
resilient and re-build itself, stronger in will, and not to yield. I know this
because it's happened before.
The UK's membership of the EU lasted approximately 0.0002% of
our species' existence on planet Earth. In other words, we as a
species survived 99.999795% of our entire history without it. May I
state, right here, that this is by no means a suggestion that I feel the
EU is unnecessary nor am I suggesting that the UK is better off
without it. This post is deliberately neutral.
But despite the anger, the rage, and the wound which seems
to have been deepened in the body of UK politics, I am confident that
we, as humans, but more profoundly, as a living species on this
planet, will survive.
My short walk today taught me two important things. Firstly, like ripples on
a pond, we have always been knocked down; we have always been made weak by time
and fate. The UK, I have no doubt, will face many more seismic
episodes but our resolve as a species is to learn from these
experiences, just as any other animal or plant evolves throughout time to
combat against the toils of life. Secondly, my walk reminded me of how lucky I
am to be part of the UK today. The truth, although slightly
morbid, is that I really don't know how long I have left to
enjoy walks like this. How many days do we have left to enjoy the
fruits of this green and pleasant land? How many weeks? How many years?
Just finally, consider what we're all doing, right now. Together,
each and every one of us, we are shuttling around a giant ball of gas at
over 30km per second in a mind-blowingly giant void. We're living,
talking, experiencing something that, as far as we humanly
know, is not replicated on any other planet in our solar
system. If you are reading this, you are extremely lucky to behold
the gift of life and all it may bestow. Let us use it wisely. Let
us pick ourselves up and brush ourselves down. If you are in the UK
tonight, perhaps go for a walk. It works wonders on the soul.
If you're anything like me, soon after scraping clean your dinner plate, you bounce up and excavate the dessert cupboard for a tasty treat. (For me, custard is often involved). And if that wasn't enough to satisfy my calorie counter, about a couple of hours later, I'm heading to the biscuit barrel for a sweet accompaniment to a nice cup of tea. By the time I wake up the next morning, I could eat Kellogg's out of house and home. Quite simply, and elegantly expressed by today's generation, I'm "a bit of a foodie".
This incessant hunger only proliferated this week when I finally completed a three year university bachelors degree in Physical Geography, and am now ravenous for more. I've been treated, here at Royal Holloway, to a banquet of knowledge; a feast of intellectually stimulating 'nuggets' of information about the world. In addition, I've had the pleasure to dine with some of the kindest, thoughtful people who all have brought their own contributions to the table these past three years. It is no surprise that Plato once wrote: "knowledge is the food of the soul".
The way our education evolves throughout our lives is, to some degree, very similar to the way our own taste-buds develop. We start, right from birth, being spoon-fed dollops of mushed up food. Likewise, the world's a complex place for a newborn baby; rather than select which bits to digest, we absorb anything and everything at that age. Our minds are open to a mélange of sights, smells and sounds. And suddenly before our parents' eyes, we're no longer babies but toddlers, off the baby food but subjected to a diet of basic, staple ingredients: cherry tomatoes, cheese cubes, vegetable sticks, etc. We're also fed a basic diet of knowledge, too, learning the alphabet, numbers up to a hundred and how to tell the time. I have fond memories of all three with my own family and I'm sure you do, too.
And then we grow up more. Suddenly we're off to primary school and fed, progressively, some basic truths of the world: what a forward roll is (it's evidently, alas, not a sausage roll), the world's major religions, how to master the art of drawn-up handwriting. In my experience, all of this came from one classroom, but notably the day was divided equally into 'lessons' and 'sessions', punctuated by periods of running around outside. Back home, our dinners start to mature too. There's more than one ingredient now; all on one plate, but similarly segmented up in an arrangement that fulfills the idea of a 'divided plate'.
Time ensues; we are now pupils at secondary school with an increasing amount of choice on our hands. I distinctly remember when I was in Year 9, having to choose three subjects to study for GCSE; a liberating experience but equally not an easy decision to make. One subject (Geography), of course, was a certain but the others required a little deliberation. In the end, I think we decide what we learn about by acknowledging what we like and perhaps what we dislike. I never really fell in love with 'Dance' or 'Textiles' so I was not likely to be the first to sign up for two more years of them. On the other hand, I was partial to Music and had been brought up in a distinctive air of eclecticism, so I gave it a go. To return to my seat at the dinner table, by now we know what we like (couscous was a firm favourite) and what we less like (Brussel sprouts). I sense Mum dutifully respected these preferences to prevent another teenage tantrum. We were all teenagers once!
But something else has profoundly changed at mealtimes. We start to accept (and relish) the notion of mixing foods up and using one to compliment the other. Gravy on our meat, bolognaise with our pasta, and our sandwich fillings, in particular, undergo a revolutionary shift. No longer does solitary cheese tantalize the taste-buds; the cheese is now cream-cheese and it's joined rather agreeably with Scottish smoked salmon and a light dusting of dill for good measure. At college, our three or four chosen A Level topics are similarly complimentary. I found Biology an excellent compliment to Geography; likewise, with English Literature and Film Studies. The topics of study may differ but the way we understand them- indeed, the methods we employ to explore them- are best considered holistically. In much the same way that learning how to crack an egg is fundamental for both an omelette and a Victoria sponge, learning how to correctly employ statistics is equally as important for Geography as it is in Biology.
However, college is only a starter dish in comparison to what is yet to come. We're 18 and about to 'tuck in' to three years of university. For many, this really does mark the start of semi-independence (I say 'semi' because our parents are, of course, still there for life's more difficult recipes). But essentially, a university student really is the Head Chef of their own kitchen and how the final dish turns out is the product of hard work, commitment and tough decision making. Degrees are not ready-meals; they are not processed and packaged by someone in a factory far away. On the contrary, they are made from scratch and from my own perspective, it's a much tastier experience this way! In some ways, our parallel tales of food and education seem to drift apart here. After all, in contrast to my comments on an authentic, hand-made degree, students often settle for take-away 'TV dinners'. (The words 'Dominoes Pizza' creep to mind...). However, aside from the odd one or two treats here and there, living amongst students is often the arena to share not only recipes from one's homeland, but a place to chew over the ideas about the subject one is reading.
Last year, I found (to my delight) that I now fully appreciate the virtues of the Brussel Sprout and await, with eagerness, the opportunity to savour a sprout or two during a spell of roast dinners in the winter months. Likewise, throughout my degree, I have re-kindled a passion for Math and although I would not confess to be excellent, it's definitely added a certain spice to my degree. Oh, the list of these spicy attributes is somewhat endless, though. I have loved so much from the past three years, from the field-trips and lectures, to the seminars and, of course, the dissertation. The quality of my degree can only be described by stating that if the university was a restaurant, it would be Michelin starred. The imagination and creativity delivered in some of the lectures I've attended is akin to being served vintage wine from a goblet.
Indeed, just as the best restaurants and wine are, the cost of education is pricey. Education has become institutionalized and the £9000 tuition fees are possibly set to rise. I have left University, however, with no bitter after-taste (despite finalizing the term with a ruthless exam season). At the end of the day, the quality has been superb. As I suggested before, it isn't fast-food; the ingredients that subtlety make up the best universities are sourced from only the finest markets. Royal Holloway prides itself, and rightly so, on its world-class academics and if you're going to settle for saffron instead of pepper, you have to expect to part with a few more coins.
(Excuse me whilst I go and raid my biscuit supply. Yes I know I've just eaten, but I'm still peckish!)
Ah, when it comes to my curiosity, no degree will truly satisfy my hunger for more knowledge, just as no spell at university will really quench my thirst for information. This is fine, though; as the philosopher John Dewey once asserted, "education is not preparation for life, education is life itself". There are many, I know, already planning their 'next bake' with postgraduate applications being completed thick and fast. In October, I will be starting a three year PhD at Lancaster University and joining a national NERC-funded cohort that will form the next generation of soil scientists. (More about this, later, here on Geography with Dan). Far from being a dessert, I anticipate this will be just the beginning of a life's effort to understand the 'brown gold' beneath our feet. It is soil, after all, that forms the basic substrate in which most of our food develops. In a sense, whilst my undergraduate degree has been wholesome food for thought, my attention now turns to think for the sake of food. (Well, for highly productive agricultural soils that yield quality crops, at least).
Has my degree been a success? Well, Paul Hollywood - or whoever is presently marking one of my exam essays - will be the judge of that but the proof is in the eating and having thoroughly consumed degree life for the past three years, I would say it's been a resounding success. Nutritious, aromatic and very (very) moreish!
From the 1st February, Geography with Dan takes a 'Behind-the-Scenes' look at Dan's dissertation project, from its evolution all the way to its submission. With photographs, videos and Dan's personal anecdotes.
Kicking off 2016, I had the fantastic privilege to be featured on the Channel 4 show RudeTube presented by Alex Zane. If you haven't watched it before, it's a show that picks out some of the videos going viral across YouTube.